The Art of Hanging Out: On the Golden Age of the Celebrity Profile

“You want to see me driving up and down the Sunset Strip in my car picking up girls, right? Well, you don’t think I’d be stupid enough to let you see that side of me, do you?”
–Warren Beatty, Esquire 1967

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For more than a hundred years, we’ve made celebrity worship a national pastime without ever calling it as much. With their beauty, ability, and fame, celebrities charm us, and we yearn to know if that charm extends to their daily lives. We want to know everything about them.

In the third decade of the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine a major star divulging their private lives to… a writer. If a celebrity wants to document their life, they’ll produce a documentary or docuseries or fictional movie or podcast. They won’t leave it to a magazine, because why would they?

But during the 1960s and ’70s, the balance of power tilted in the other direction. Magazines, even low budget start-ups, had the freedom to publish nuanced, intimate, and occasionally revealing stories. Writers weren’t invincible but they had freedom to write what they wanted, and a magazine could publish a critical piece without fear of damaging relationships with actors and agents and PR teams. It was a time of provocation where the results could be damning or exposing.

Notable magazine articles on celebrities existed before, of course; The New Yorker started doing their “Profiles” in the 1920s and occasionally wrote about a celebrity like silent movie star Rudolf Valentino. However, during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, from the 1920s through the 40s—which coincided with a golden age of magazines—movie stars were protected, which meant magazine articles weren’t especially in-depth or candid. “In the old days the Hollywood press had real power,” Joan Crawford said in a 1973 interview, “yet they could be so—well, discreet is a nice word… I mean, they had to know something about what went on between me and Clark [Gable], and me and a few other men, but they kept quiet… There was such a thing as a gentleman of the press.”

Lillian Ross’s 1950 New Yorker magazine portrait of Ernest Hemingway, and then her masterful examination of film director John Huston in Picture, detailing the making of Huston’s 1951 film, The Red Badge of Courage, set the tone for smart, sharp, observational reporting. Truman Capote’s 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando, “The Duke in His Domain,” was the smartest and sharpest of all. Warned against being left alone with Capote, Brando ignored the advice and suffered the consequence: The piece had the inevitable, casual cruelty of a cat torturing a mouse. “Most actors are such children,” Capote later told his friend, the novelist John Knowles. “Brando could have sued me over that interview and collected.”

One of the early celebrity profilers, Helen Lawrenson became famous in 1936 when she wrote “Latins Are Lousy Lovers.” Published in Esquire under an anonymous byline, the essay—meant to be a comic debunking of Latin machismo—instead created a scandal. Cuban officials confiscated copies of the issue of Esquire and jailed eight newsdealers. Much to Lawrenson’s horror, the phrase “Latins are lousy lovers” became part of the American lexicon—most people were familiar with the line without knowing where it came from.

Successful fiction writers such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote dove into journalism with zeal and facility.

In 1958, she recalled, “I don’t suppose that I have gone to a party in thirty years without having someone come up to me, sooner or later, in the course of the festivities, and announce with a bright gleam in his eye, ‘Say, I understand you’re the girl who wrote that piece!’ There is never any doubt what piece he means because the next thing is, inevitably, ‘Tell me, how did you ever come to do it?’ If the man is a Latin, he is eager to leap into the arena and avenge his national honor. If he is a non-Latin, he regards me skittishly and is afraid to spend much time with me, lest he wake up some fine morning to find that he, too, has been immortalized in print.”

By the 1950s, primarily in the pages of Esquire, Lawrenson became known as a go-to profiler of celebrities, from Marlene Dietrich to Errol Flynn, writing not so much with innovation but bookworm smarts, sexual frankness, keen observation, and self-deprecating appeal. Elsewhere, at Time magazine, Brad Darrach delivered stylish, often confidential portraits of A-list stars—Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor among them. Darrach succeeded the great James Agee as Time’s movie critic, and also wrote about books for years, while finding his groove writing profiles in the style of Time stories, all of them masterpieces of compression.

Thomas B. Morgan, a young magazine editor, quit a cushy job at Look magazine in 1957 to write fiction and spent the next couple of years working on a pair of novels that went unpublished. Hoping to make some money, he turned to magazines as a freelancer. His first assignment, on the entertainer Sammy Davis Jr, came from Clay Felker, a rising young editor at Esquire later known as one of journalism’s power brokers during his run at New York magazine. Morgan assimilated what he’d learned as a novelist. His profile of Davis Jr., he later recalled, “came out virtually as a short story, using dialogue, atmosphere, and character development… I plan more novels, but I no longer tell myself that journalism is a preliminary before the main event.”

Meanwhile, successful fiction writers such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote dove into journalism with zeal and facility. Capote went so far as to straight-facedly invent a new category—the nonfiction novel—with his true crime saga, In Cold Blood. “He improves on the poverty of God’s own imagination,” as Wyatt Cooper artfully phrased it.

While it’s tempting to picture the 1960s as a golden age of magazine journalism—think of all those incredible Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire covers—the reality was less rosy. Sure, a few legacy brands, Esquire, Harper’s, and Cosmopolitan, enjoyed revitalizations, but by the early 70s, many long-standing titles—Collier’s, Life, The Saturday Evening Post—pillars of magazine’s golden age, folded. Still, even if the industry was forever in flux, and TV continued its ascent as the dominant form of media, magazines were at the center of cultural conversation. Scrappy start-ups like Ramparts, Rolling Stone, and New York found their audience; and at publications from Harper’s to The Village Voice to Playboy, a new, less rigid brand of writing, best known as “New Journalism,” flourished.

No matter the label, the best journalism is rooted in great reporting. Gay Talese called it “the art of hanging out.”

The term “New Journalism” is most associated with Tom Wolfe—who came to regret it, as did many of the people labeled “New Journalists.” At its worst, most cartoonish, New Journalism came to connote style over substance, and taking great liberties with the facts. But fabrication did not define the movement, which was all right there in Gay Talese’s 1962 Esquire profile of retired heavyweight champion Joe Louis. It’s this piece that Wolfe credited as a model, using the elements of a novelist’s toolbox that Morgan discussed.

Crucially, magazines offered more space and more freedom to writers than newspapers could—at times, a single article would take up an entire magazine issue. And, as was the case with Mailer, columnist Jimmy Breslin, or journalist Hunter S. Thompson—the authors themselves became a character in their own stories. Others, like Talese, Joan Didion, or O’Connell Driscoll, took a more third-person, voyeuristic approach, with the writer receding into the background, the “eye” of a documentarian’s camera.

There was nothing “new” about any of this. But hey, in the 60s, hype carried the day. In fact, New Journalism proved the exception not the rule; I don’t think anyone would mistake Lawrenson or Helen Dudar or Anne Taylor Fleming for a “New Journalist.” No matter the label, the best journalism is rooted in great reporting. Talese called it “the art of hanging out.”

“I’m one of those who believe that reporting is an art form,” he once said, “or should be pursued as an art form. You can do anything with it.” Even write a story about a subject that won’t grant you an audience, which is what happened when Talese tried, unsuccessfully, to interview Frank Sinatra in late 1965; the result, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a brilliant depiction of the atmosphere and people around Sinatra, is one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever written. Its perceived failure—not getting Sinatra to talk—turned out to be a blessing. The piece is also a reminder of the limitations of a writer’s clout, particularly when it came to access, which even in the 60s did not come easily.

“Gay Talese came out here and got hot under the collar because it took him three weeks to see Frank Sinatra,” Guy McElwaine, Beatty’s press agent told Rex Reed. “Hell, Mia Farrow [Sinatra’s then wife] doesn’t even see Sinatra until the lights go out.”

Other reporters had better luck, like Doon Arbus, a young reporter from New York who was able to convince James Brown and his entourage to let her to go along on a music tour of the South, at a time when a young white woman traveling with a group of Black people could be scandalous. Sara Davidson got plenty of cooperation from Jacqueline Susann when the author was at the height of her success as a publishing phenomenon.

Then there’s “Jerry Lewis, Birthday Boy,” a massive 1974 Playboy profile by Driscoll. The complete opposite of Talese’s Sinatra tale, Lewis allowed the 21-year-old USC student to hang out with him up close in Los Angeles, Miami, and Germany. Lewis had previously had a circumspect, almost cagey attitude toward the American press. How did he let his guard down enough to let this kid reporter see so much? When Driscoll handed the story in, his editor at Playboy said, “I hope you have notes because we’re going to get sued.” But a lawsuit never came. The piece both made Driscoll’s career and marked him as someone who saw too much and thus couldn’t be trusted. Never again would he enjoy that kind of access.

What binds these stories is that they all touch on the nature of fame and the inner workings of the fame machine.

A few pieces in the new anthology I’ve edited, What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?: Classic Celebrity Journalism (1960s and 1970s), created a stir when first published, like Barbara Goldstein’s 1967 New York article on Viva, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars. “A lot of horrible things have happened to me,” Viva later said, “but I would consider that the worst.” Robert Ward’s juicy 1977 Sport profile of Reggie Jackson reignited a tabloid storm for Jackson with the New York Yankees for which the baseball player never forgave Ward. Darrach’s Penthouse profile left Robert Mitchum’s family mortified. A year later, in a 1973 Rolling Stone article, Mitchum’s twenty-year-old daughter conceded that Darrach’s piece was a “fairly accurate story”—though hardly a fair one. “The thing is,” she said, “it was all so private.”

There’s plenty of writerly “voice” in these pieces—witness the tour de force that is Brock Brower’s lede to his profile of writer and critic Mary McCarthy, devoted to her smile (one of the characteristics of this era of journalism is an emphasis on physical descriptions, the kind of details considered offensive today). And you’ll also see plenty of humor, such as Mark Jacobson’s visit with movie star Pam Grier, which ends hilariously, albeit painfully for the author; or the lighthearted, almost meta-hijinks of Sally Quinn’s lunch interview with Rudolf Nureyev. Quinn writes with sly humor about Nureyev’s appeal as a sex object; he beams with pride as he successfully evades her questions. And then there’s Albert Goldman’s coffee shop comedy riffing with Philip Roth on the occasion of the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, the book that made Roth both a celebrity and a wealthy man.

What binds these stories is that they all touch on the nature of fame and the inner workings of the fame machine. It’s not a grouping of pieces about celebrities whose fame transcends time, it’s a collection of stories about what it meant to be a celebrity in the 1960s and 70s. I left out standards like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Talese and “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” by Tom Wolfe, the “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Stairway to Heaven” of celebrity profiles—because, like Capote’s Brando piece, they are heavily anthologized and easy to find. Instead, the aim here is for you to enjoy some names that you may not be familiar with. Or those you might know but not in this idiom—such as the inimitable Nora Ephron, who, decades before she became a famous filmmaker, was a kick-ass magazine writer. Rex Reed later joked that the celebrity interview was the lowest form of journalism, but the truth is, he was terrific at it, and his profiles from that era sparkle.

Bear in mind the reporting standards of the era. Many of these reporters took notes, but not in front of their subjects, scribbling them on cocktail napkins in the bathroom instead.

The bylines you’ll find in the anthology are a gratifying mix of seasoned veterans such as Helen Dudar and Jacqueline Trescott, and short timers like Anne Taylor Fleming and John Eskow. Lawrenson was in her seventies when she wrote about Beatty, and Darrach in his late fifties when he profiled Mitchum. A delightful surprise is the poise and restraint shown by the younger writers: Sara Davidson was twenty-seven when she wrote about Jacqueline Susann; Driscoll twenty-one when he got to Jerry Lewis, and Doon Arbus just twenty when she profiled James Brown. Each of their stories have a measured, even tone you don’t immediately associate with a young writer.

Bear in mind the reporting standards of the era. Many of these reporters took notes, but not in front of their subjects, scribbling them on cocktail napkins in the bathroom instead. “What’s a matter, baby, you got a bladder problem?” Gardner said to Reed after one of his many trips to the John. Tape recorders proved cumbersome and distracting and were not yet industry standard. Lillian Ross and Talese didn’t use them at all.

When Anne Taylor Fleming showed up at La Côte Basque for her first interview with Truman Capote, she placed her shoddy-looking tape recorder on the table. “Put that away,” said Capote. “If you’re going to be a good reporter all you have to do is listen.” Taylor knew it was part of a game, a challenge. “He was putting me on notice,” she remembers, “so, I learned to listen with all the fiber I had.”

Just as Capote had put his finger on Brando twenty years before, Fleming’s portrait of Capote, which ran in two-parts, in consecutive issues of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, presented the writer as a victim of his own lust for fame. By the 70s, Capote had squandered his immense talent, reduced to a caricature of himself, gossiping on TV talk shows. He underestimated Fleming, and while her piece lacks the acidic glee of “The Duke in His Domain,” it stings all the same. Like Jerry Lewis, Capote was a star of yesteryear trying to make a dramatic comeback only to face his own dramatic failings.

Lauren Bacall, on the other hand, had a more grounded perspective. Captured with brisk, effortless precision by Helen Dudar—who, as a longtime reporter, struck many as a real-life version of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday—Bacall hadn’t acted much in the 70s but was on the verge of publishing a memoir when Dudar interviewed her. The book, which Bacall wrote without a ghostwriter (though in collaboration with legendary book editor, Robert Gottlieb), not only became a bestseller but is regarded as one of the finest Hollywood autobiographies ever written.

In their conversation, brief, courteous, and professional, Bacall is levelheaded about her life and celebrity. “I’m not desperate about it at all,” said Bacall, a star at nineteen, whose fame would never burn as bright as it had when she’d been married to Humphrey Bogart, who died in 1957. “I just don’t want to waste my time,” Bacall continued. “I don’t want to give myself away. I don’t want to go to cocktail parties anymore.”

Bacall knew the steep price of fame, but, as the saying goes, the show must go on. “There were, after all, today and tomorrow to be faced,” writes Dudar. “Besides, she knows very well it’s not supposed to be easy.”


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From What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?, edited by Alex Belth and available now.

Alex Belth

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