Honoring His Father : In Writing ‘Unto the Sons,’ Gay Talese Finds Keys to Understanding His Heritage


At 60, Gay Talese has finally decided to understand--but not forgive--his immigrant father. Like so many stories of fathers and sons, this one is about guilt and a grudge.

Growing up during World War II, young Gay learned what it meant to live a double life. Outsiders viewed his dad, Joseph, as a hard-working tailor and a patriot. But in the privacy of his Ocean City, N.J., home, the old man grieved over relatives fighting for Italy against American troops.

One morning, he snapped. Enraged by the latest U.S. bombing raid over Naples, Joseph Talese stormed into Gay’s bedroom and smashed his son’s prized collection of model American warplanes. The boy rushed out of the house in tears and disbelief, screaming that he hated his father.


“I don’t know if I ever forgave him for that,” Talese says, relaxing in the study of his Manhattan townhouse. “But I understand . I understand it now because of history. Developing a sense of history, of where you came from, can explain so many things.”

It can also take up 10 years of your life. In his new book, “Unto the Sons,” the author of bestsellers such as “Honor Thy Father” and “The Kingdom and the Power” digs into his Italian ancestry to answer a nagging question: How did his father, a 16-year-old tailor’s apprentice from Calabria, come to ply his trade in a New Jersey resort town?

Talese’s exhaustive look at the roots of Italian-American immigration reaches back into antiquity and European history before focusing on the drama of his father’s 1920 arrival at Ellis Island in New York, the port of entry for millions of would-be Americans. After 10 years of patient digging, he has filled 633 pages with military history, sociology and ruminations on the meaning of leaving one’s native land.

It’s a hugely relevant theme, 500 years after Columbus, and Talese suggests that the stories of Italian-Americans mirror other cultures as well. Most Americans are from somewhere else, he says, and even the most long-buried loyalties can erupt when a nerve is struck. Talese points out, for example, that U.S. Jews with little connection to Israel were enraged when Iraqi rockets rained on Tel Aviv during the Gulf War.

But he also explores a darker side to the immigrant saga. Although American culture deifies many who came here to start a new life, the author suggests that these pioneering men and women were also deserters who left families and traditions behind, often rationalizing their decisions.

“These people went AWOL; they jumped ship,” he says. “Every immigrant says, ‘I’m leaving home so I can earn money in the United States, and I’m going to send back money and relieve my family from poverty.’ But that’s not true. In places like (Italy) they didn’t starve. They were farmers. They still lived on a barter system like they had for hundreds of years.”


Such observations won’t win Talese many friends in immigrant communities. It’s not the first time his work has triggered controversy.

In “Honor Thy Father,” he raised eyebrows by virtually living with a Mafia don and his son to provide an inside glimpse of organized crime. In “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” the former New York Times reporter investigated the sex industry, going so far as to operate a massage parlor. Risking the scorn of critics--and the survival of his marriage to respected literary editor Nan Talese--he wrote openly about his sexual fantasies and his affairs with various women.

Throughout his career, Talese has chased stories that more conventional writers forgo. To complete “Unto the Sons,” he spent years in Italy compiling the biographies of obscure family members. He rummaged through diaries, dusted off archival records and interviewed hundreds to find the truth that, he says, “has most deeply affected my life.”

Driven by his own demons and the belief that Mafia stereotypes still cloud Italian-Americans, Talese has endeavored to retell a familiar story--this time free from melodrama and Hollywood endings. As in previous works, he focuses on ordinary people and how they affected history.

What better place to start than his father?

“Joseph Talese was a remote and troubled man,” says Talese, settling into a chair. “And he definitely had this sense of dual allegiance. But he was also a hero, and a very influential man in my life. . . . He’s the single most important relationship of my life, and I’m in touch with him constantly.”

Sometimes the communication is rocky. Talese admits that his father, now 88, is troubled by parts of the book that deal with him. Although he proudly refers to his son’s latest work as “The Tenth Symphony,” he has also taken exception to passages about the wartime years. Asked if his father likes “Unto the Sons,” Talese shrugs and says the answer changes from day to day.

Critics have been equally unpredictable. Some have praised the scope of Talese’s book; others have called it a hodgepodge of ponderous history. The barbs hurt, but Talese knows where to turn for relief. Last week, he was angered by what he perceived as a personal attack in the New York Times’ lukewarm review of his book. Immediately, he picked up the telephone and called his father.

“Here you have a 60-year-old writer, a man of some connections in the literary world,” he says sheepishly. “And isn’t it interesting? I’m supposed to be beyond middle-age, and I’m still complaining to my old man.”

Talese, a slim, elegantly dressed man with gray hair, laughs and continues: “My father said, ‘Don’t listen to those nitwits.’ And you know, when teachers were almost flunking me out of parochial school years ago, that’s the same Joe Talese who said, ‘Don’t listen to those nitwits.’ ”

Some things never change, he chuckles, and the same might be said for 500 years of Italian history. In searching for links between his Southern Italian roots and Italian-Americans today, Talese suggests that a “village mentality” explains all. Although immigrants from Sicily and other regions may travel thousands of miles from their homes, they retain a strong sense of place and ethnic pride.

In Talese’s family, the village was Maida, a remote mountain enclave near the southern tip of Italy. For centuries, invaders, civil wars and volcanic eruptions decimated the region. Most residents were poor farmers who never traveled far and, in some cases, never even saw neighboring villages. Life was filled with hard work, limited horizons and religious superstitions.

That changed in the late 19th Century, when word spread about a place called America. If villagers could book passage to the United States, they might find jobs and start a new life. At the very least, they could save money, return home and live out their days more comfortably.

The lure proved irresistible. Talese’s grandfather, Gaetano, sailed to America and disembarked at Ellis Island in 1889, finding work as a mason in Pennsylvania. Yet even though he earned good money, the immigrant made his way back to Maida seven times, eventually dying there. His son, Joseph, made the same voyage to the United States in 1920 and found work as a tailor. Unlike his father, he never returned. But he, too, held fast to the traditions of his homeland.

It took a toll on his son. When Gay wanted to play baseball, his father showed no interest. When the boy saw his idol, Joe DiMaggio, eating spaghetti in a restaurant, his father noted disdainfully that the Yankee slugger used a spoon with his fork. While other kids dressed casually, Gay wore formal attire made by his father and mother, Catherine, who ran a dress shop.

At first glance, the gulf between Gaetano the stonemason and Gay the Manhattan bon vivant seems extreme. But the author insists there are strong links between him and his grandfather, whose Americanized name he bears.

For years, Talese has owned a second home in Ocean City, where he grew up. He calls on neighbors there to repair plumbing leaks or fix his car. There’s an old joke, he says, that one must even buy stamps from friends, never from strangers. He dines with longtime paisans by the Jersey shore and enjoys it more than the Hamptons digs favored by other writers. Although Talese is a fixture at literary hangouts like Elaine’s, he’s a private man and offers few details about his two grown daughters. Asked about his wife, he’s polite but distant.

Like many first-generation Italian-Americans, Talese carries the inner village with him at all times. If skeptics need more proof, he adds, they should look no farther than New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose ancestors also hail from southern Italy.

“He (Cuomo) chooses to remain close to his area of familiarity, which in this case happens to be Albany,” says Talese. “He doesn’t stay away from home very much, and his closest adviser is his son, talking about family connections. His wife is Sicilian. This man, I suggest no less than me, has a village mentality.”

Today, Talese marvels at these patterns. But for much of his life he tried to escape his Italian roots. Growing up in New Jersey was tough, he says, because his was the only Italian family in a white, Protestant community: “I was olive-skinned in a freckle-faced town,” he writes in new book, “and I felt unrelated even to my parents, especially my father, who was indeed a foreigner.”

It took years of therapy and a sense that he was avoiding the biggest story of all--himself--that led Talese to embark on his most recent project. The self-examination will continue into his next book, the author promises, because “Unto the Sons” halts suddenly in 1944. In subsequent years, he says, his father’s wrenching assimilation into America caused new torment for the family and finally forced the son to leave home.

The young Talese, untested as a writer and still wrestling with his identity, enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1949. A far cry from the dunes of Ocean City, it proved to offer a turning point in his life. At long last, he, too, had become an immigrant--thanks to his father’s support.

There’s an old Southern Italian saying: “Never educate your children beyond yourself.” But Joseph Talese, for all his stubborn, conservative ways, insisted that his son get a college education and venture out into the world.

“He (Joseph) made a better life for himself and me,” says Talese. “And were it not for him making that decision, to come to America, I would still be working on a farm, riding a mule up a hill in Southern Italy.”

After 60 years, he adds, it’s time to give the old man his due:

“The reason I’m not back there in Italy is because this determined guy named Joseph got out in 1920. He made the break. He knew how to say goodby.”