Esquire has long been fascinated by men in power—and by the frailties and anxieties that lie just beneath their polished facades. Beginning in the late eighties, contributing editor Elizabeth Kaye wrote long, intimate portraits of such men, including dance legend Rudolf Nureyev, newsman Peter Jennings, movie star Sylvester Stallone, and embattled politician Ted Kennedy.
Her profiles are remarkable for their clear, unfussy prose and the kind of detail that can be earned only by spending a lot of time with a subject. They are exemplars of Esquire’s literary nonfiction—and make no mistake, although Kaye had written for The Village Voice, New West, and Rolling Stone, her goal all along was to write for Esquire. She had a knack for putting famous men at ease and getting them to share a side of themselves rarely seen by the public.
Kaye joined us recently to discuss the difference between seduction and manipulation, the ethics of immersion journalism, and why she’s harder on women than she is on men.
Esquire Classic: You were writing for Rolling Stone in the mid-eighties, doing killer celebrity profiles. How did you get to Esquire?
Elizabeth Kaye: [Esquire editors] David Hirshey and Adam Moss called me up and had me over there. I wanted to be an Esquire writer. You know, Lee Eisenberg [then editor in chief] was a tough guy. I realized the only way to deal with him was to be tougher than he was, which was not easy. You had to develop a toughness around him; otherwise he would crush you. And there were no women contributing editors at Esquire at the time.
EC: Given that you’re so well known for writing about powerful men for Esquire, it’s amusing that your first piece was on “Slaves of New York” author Tama Janowitz.
EK: Lee offered me two pieces: Morgan Freeman or Tama Janowitz. Freeman wasn’t a movie star then, but I’d seen him in the off-Broadway production of “Driving Miss Daisy” and he was wonderful. I knew if I wrote a piece about somebody I admired, it would have a softness that wouldn’t work for Lee, so I did Tama Janowitz and I was rough on her.
EC: In general, are you more critical when writing about women?
EK: I just read a phrase that I really think is great about what one should avoid when writing about women, and that’s the “nifty-gal syndrome.” I never wanted to write a nifty-gal piece for Esquire, though I did them earlier in my career when I wrote for women’s magazines. I wrote about Linda Ronstadt, who I admired, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who I adored. But women didn’t read Esquire. Men read Esquire. Plus, men just interested me more.
EC: Is that true in your personal life, too?
EK: I didn’t know my father as well as I wanted to. He left when I was eleven, and he was not the world’s greatest father, but I adored and idolized him. I never got to figure him out, so I’m trying to figure out these other men instead.
EC: Do you have a hard time in relationships with women?
EK: No, no, my closest relationships are with women. I have retained the same women friends for decades. But as far as writing, men were just a harder nut to crack. It was a great chase—that’s how I saw it. It was a game. And there’s always a sexual component when a woman is writing about a man. It’s always there. Doesn’t mean you’re sleeping with the person.
EC: How did writing about men affect your prose style?
EK: I didn’t want anybody to read my writing and tell if I was a man or a woman. When I was young, I would sit down to write every day and read a few pages of David Halberstam. He had a very male energy. There was something very propulsive about his writing that I really liked. You read a few pages of Halberstam and you pick up his rhythms, you sort of internalize them. Then I’d sit at my desk and write for the day. When Lee was the editor, I wrote in short sentences because that was one way to keep it muscular. I really tried to write more like a guy when I was at Esquire. Lee was determinedly unsentimental. I just couldn’t let anything like sentiment creep into the stories.
EC: Do you like writing in a “masculine” way?
EK: I like it but it limits you, because there are certain points you can’t get across when you’re being terse. But I enjoyed it as an exercise and it worked. I also think you have to suit your style to your subject, and a woman writing about Sylvester Stallone for a men’s magazine needed that staccato kind of rhythm. I find Sylvester very interesting, smart, and in some ways heartbreaking. I was watching the Oscars preshow and [the interviewer asked Stallone] if he was enjoying himself, and he said something to the effect of “I don’t want it to end.” He said it softly and he really meant it. You’re really giving away something of yourself when you say something like that.
EC: Stallone seems so restless in your portrait, always busy despite all his riches. The next profile you did was on Peter Jennings—who also was incredibly restless.
EK: I spent six months with Peter Jennings, if you can believe that. He didn’t want to do it at first. I said, “Please let me just come in and talk to you about it.” And I did and told him, “This piece is going to be so thorough, you’re never going to have to do another piece again.” We always wanted to do what we called “the definitive piece.” You just want to pick all of the potatoes so that whoever comes in next, there’s just dirt left. It sounds horrible but it’s true.
EC: That’s an unbelievable amount of time you spent with him.
EK: Most of my stories were very long in the reporting. My favorite part of the Jennings piece is when he was called in because a plane had crashed. He ran to the newsroom and arrived out of breath and somebody says to him, “Did you run all the way here?” And Peter looked sort of proud and said, “They don’t pay me to walk.” To have been there for that moment—you don’t get that unless you’ve gained somebody’s trust and they let you be there so long that they basically become themselves and don’t remember that you’re there.
EC: When you hear a revealing quote like that, are you aware of it in the moment?
EK: Oh, yeah. I’d briefly worked in television news years earlier, and what I learned from editing tape and writing stuff for the anchorman was: Listen for the out cue [an industry term for the last words spoken before a broadcast ends]. In every single conversation, listen for the out cue. If it’s good, you’ll know when you hear it. And you don’t have to write it down, because if it’s that good you’ll remember it.
EC: Did you use a tape recorder?
EK: Yes. It’s funny, I hate listening to myself on tape. It’s always torturous, because I know damn well what I’m doing when I’m talking to them. What we do is a seduction—but the other word for seduction is manipulation.
EC: Of course, the subject is trying to manipulate you, too.
EK: I had this amazing experience, it taught me early on, when I was interviewing Vanessa Williams. She’s sitting in an empty apartment pouring her heart out to me. I had the tape recorder going and I remember thinking, God, this girl is twenty-two years old, she has no idea what she’s saying, she’s just looking at me as an ear [to talk to]. This is all going to go in the piece, this is terrible. I was really feeling bad. And her phone rang, and she said to the person, “I can’t talk to you right now. Rolling Stone is here.” In other words, she never forgot for a minute who I was. So they are manipulating you, too; it’s not all one-way. And you have to remember that.
EC: If you know you’ll be spending a lot of time with a subject, how does that impact the way you interview them?
EK: It needs to sound more like a conversation than an interview. I completely subsume myself in somebody. If you know everything that’s been written about them before, then you don’t get excited when they tell you the same thing they’ve told four other writers. You try to take the train one step farther. I read everything I can about a person because it forces them past their prepared lines. You want to know what they think, not what they say—it’s so different. I want to write from inside the person’s head, if I can get in there.
EC: After Jennings, you did a “lion in winter” profile of Rudolf Nureyev. How did that come about?
EK: I had been in love with Nureyev since I was sixteen. He was Mick Jagger before Mick Jagger; he was it. I’d always wanted to write about him, and he’d never been available to do something like this. But I met Rudolf and we had a connection of sorts, and he allowed me to be everywhere with him for a very long time. I spent a year with him.
EC: Did your impression of him change when you got to know him?
EK: He was more than I thought. He broke my heart because I felt so bad for him—he was dying and I knew he was dying. He had AIDS. It wasn’t out anywhere; it was a secret. And I didn’t write about it at the time.
EC: What did he say after the piece was published?
EK: He was furious at first. He didn’t read it but he heard that I made him seem sad. They’re always furious at first. I once did a piece on Stallone for California magazine and he called me up and said, “I’m suing you.” I said, “Sylvester, go back tomorrow morning and read the piece again and you won’t want to sue me. You’re just shocked at all the things you told me but you’re not going to want to sue me.” And he called me up the next day and said, “I don’t want to sue you.” I always say that to a subject when I’m parting with them: Read it once, take a breath, and read it again. Because the first time you read it you’ll be surprised at how much you told me, and the second time you’ll be okay with it.
…That’s one thing: I never take notes when somebody is drinking…. I mean, if someone is drunk and they tell me something they wouldn’t otherwise—if they said something that was so great that I wanted to use it—then I’d run it by them when they were sober. Even with Tama. She came over to my apartment one day unexpectedly. She comes in, and she’s all upset about some guy, and I said, “Tama, I’m writing about you. I’m turning on my tape recorder now and I think you should change the subject. Anything you say is something I will use.” And she kept going, so I used it.
EC: In the Kennedy story you write that there are three kinds of lives: public, private, and secret.
EK: That’s right. And I don’t write about the secret life. That’s nobody’s business. I end up knowing a lot about people that I’m not supposed to know. But as an Esquire writer, spending so much time with a subject, you find that people confide in you, that the process can become as much a conversation as a confessional. But those things are invariably off the record and I don’t ever break faith with that.
People get nervous about it…. Jeremy Irons told me things he didn’t want printed. I assured him I wouldn’t, but he was still wary. When he read the piece he called me and said, “You did everything you promised.” It was still a revealing piece, but not in an unfair way, which is what it would have been had I printed things clearly said in confidence. If you want someone to really open up to you, you have to allow them that latitude on the occasions when they fear they went too far.
EC: You don’t seem to be shy about pissing off a subject. You don’t seem daunted by it.
EK: It’s like being with a horse—if the horse smells fear, you get bucked. You just have to act like you don’t give a damn. And I was very good at that.
EC: But in fact you did give a damn.
EK: Oh, of course I did. You just could never give a whiff of anything but total confidence. The truth is I did have the last word. I mean, what were they going to do?
EC: Do you keep in touch with people you’ve profiled?
EK: There’s an old saying on Broadway, “He loved her but the show closed.” Everybody moves on. But it is weird, because you do develop this bond—at least I always did—about the people you write about. Because you’re with them for so long. They become part of this faux life that you’re sharing together.
EC: Do you share a lot about yourself when you’re interviewing someone?
EK: No, I never talk about my private life. They don’t want to hear that. But it helps if you can talk to Rudolf about different productions of Swan Lake, or to Kenneth Branagh about the National Theatre. It helps. You want to be in a situation—especially if you’re on location on a movie—where they want to have dinner with you. They’re not going to talk about themselves 100 percent of the time—just 95 percent of the time—so you have to fill that other 5 percent with other things. They want to feel that you are like them. I bought a whole new wardrobe when I went to do Peter. I wore clothes I’d never worn in my entire life—skirts and heels and little jackets—because I wanted Peter to look at me, especially from the outset, and say, “Yes, this is somebody I can relate to.” I’m sure people get good stories without all that, but I just felt that it was important to do it that way.
If you’re on location with somebody, it’s a totally different thing. Everybody is away from their lives. Nobody has to walk the dog. It’s a completely different environment and it’s new to you both and it becomes neutral territory because it’s really nobody’s territory.
EC: That makes sense, especially since you don’t really appear as a character in your profiles.
EK: I was never a character in my story. I would never write, “He told me.” “He came over to my house.” I hate those kinds of stories. My dream review is “Elizabeth Kaye writes nonfiction the way people make documentary films.” That was my dream review. I’m just the camera.
Elizabeth Kaye is the author of Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss, and Surviving the Titanic, a number one bestseller on The New York Times E-Book and Amazon Kindle Singles lists.
For all of Elizabeth Kaye’s Esquire stories, go to Esquire Classic (subscription required).