To help celebrate Floyd Patterson’s birthday, let’s turn for a moment to Esquire Hall of Famer Gay Talese, who called Patterson a “writer’s dream.”
Esquire Classic: You wrote more than thirty stories on Floyd Patterson for The New York Times, both as a sportswriter and as a general assignment reporter, all before doing your profile for Esquire, “The Loser.”
Gay Talese: Normally I would have thought that I’d wrote myself out on Patterson, but that wasn’t true. I really kept up my relationship with Patterson throughout his fighting life. I thought I owned him, as I’ve said before. I thought he was my literary property. Sure, other people wrote about him, and some did very well. Pete Hamill and a lot of guys knew him well, but I knew him as well as any.
EC: It seems you really made the most of the time and space that a magazine profile offers—luxuries a writer doesn’t have at a daily newspaper.
GT: With the Esquire assignment I just went deeper than I’d been before with him. This was the first time I had real length with him—I did do a piece for The New York Times before, but that’s not important. The important thing is that the Esquire piece, “The Loser,” was really the quintessential piece on Patterson because I knew him so well and he was so comfortable with me. I just felt he was a writer’s dream.
EC: His level of candor is surprising, but it’s so compelling.
GT: One of the interesting things about the piece is the long quote from Floyd when he talks about being knocked out. Now, I’ve never used a tape recorder and you might wonder how I got all those words down without a tape recorder. How could you do it? Well, what I didn’t tell the reader is that I interviewed that guy over a four-day period. We sat at a coffee table in the so-called living room of his quarters at his training camp in upstate New York. Very young reporters think you need to take notes on a tape recorder, but you can’t. You might get something on a tape recorder but that’s not what I wanted. Essentially, I don’t want what comes out of their mouth the first time any more than I want the editor to read what I write the first time. I might rewrite a sentence twenty times, or a lede fifty times. The reader doesn’t know that, but I know that. My prose might read as if it had been easily written but it isn’t anything at all like that.
EC: How did you and Patterson arrive at such an in-depth quote?
GT: I said, “Floyd, what’s it like being knocked out?” Then he started talking and I said, “Wait a minute, you can do better than this. Tell me again.” And we’d go deeper, deeper, deeper. The quotations that [are in the story] are not what I first got—they are what I got after I badgered the guy, or in this case with Patterson, who was so open to me, so willing to be patient as I went again and again over the same material….
EC: How much time did you and Patterson spend on that one passage?
GT: That quote took a long time. Everything was out of his mouth but it wasn’t out of his mouth at the same time. So that’s where I legitimize what I’m doing. It’s his words. I didn’t ghost it, but it was not gotten at one sitting. I do that a lot.
I’m not only reading it back to him, I’m writing it in front of him. I believe that sometimes when you have confidence and comfort with a subject, they become partners of your prose. I sat on a couch across from Floyd, my shirt boards laid out in front of me on a coffee table. I’m using a ballpoint pen, which writes better on cardboard, going through card after card, let’s do it again, let’s do it again.
EC: The approach engaged Patterson instead of turning him off.
GT: Yes. His mind is on what he’s saying. I’m there prodding him, he’s there reflecting more deeply, considering how he may say it better. Time goes by, and the quote takes on a life of its own.
EC: Just backtracking a moment: What was it about Patterson that caught your attention when you were with the Times? Was it just that he was a dynamic young fighter, or was there something else?
GT: What was dynamic about him was that he was reflective and in a quiet way very articulate. What was so unusual about Patterson was his honesty. No bravado—he never had a tremendous ego. He impressed me so much because he was so vulnerable, knocked down so many times, but always got up. That guy was so different. He was so open—admitting to fear, things that a lot of fighters wouldn’t admit to because if they did their persona would be shattered.
EC: Why wasn’t Patterson shattered? After all, he was so sensitive he’d wear a disguise after he lost.
GT: That almost counters what I’m saying, but what I think is part of it is that he felt a sense of responsibility. Losing disappointed so many people that he felt he didn’t want to be compounding the humiliation. He took full responsibility but he wanted to do it in his own most private way, which was to disguise himself and become a whole different person—at least to masquerade as somebody else. I don’t know if any other fighter ever did that.
EC: Was the first Patterson-Liston fight really that big of a media event?
GT: Oh, it was a huge media event. I was there and escorted James Baldwin around; he didn’t drive. I took him to meet Patterson. I’d known Baldwin for a few years and when I saw him in Chicago I was surprised, because I never thought of Baldwin writing about prizefighting. He wrote his piece for Nugget.
EC: Which was a skin magazine, right?
GT: It was a Playboy pretender.
EC: Do you remember any tension between Baldwin and Norman Mailer in Chicago, something Mailer refers to in his piece “Ten Thousand Words a Minute”?
GT: No, the only guy that Mailer feuded with during that time was me. I later befriended him, of course. Mailer and William F. Buckley—both Esquire writers, as you know—debated each other in Chicago a few days before the fight. I covered it for the Times and said the debate was a draw. After that appeared in the Times, I was at the cocktail area in the hotel where the sportswriters hung out. Mailer came over with a drink in hand and said it wasn’t a draw. I said, “Well, all right, so it wasn’t a draw. What do you want me to do?” He said, “I want you to get a correction.” I said, “C’mon, Norman.” And he’s coming at me with his glass and I’m thinking, ‘this prick is going to throw his glass at me. He’s going to spill scotch on my nice gabardine suit.’ I said, “Norman, don’t you throw that drink at me.” And he smiled, “I’m not going to throw my drink at you.” And he laughed and walked off.
Read Gay Talese’s profile of Floyd Patterson, The Loser, on Esquire Classic.