On Gay Talese & Limited Budgets

July 29, 2011

Gay Talese

When we visited Gay Talese, Adam, Ben and I admired his home. It’s a beautiful multi-story townhouse in Manhattan. Mr. Talese told us how he and his wife bought the place. When he returned from military service in 1956, he and his wife invested his meager salary in one floor of what was then a run-down building in a lousy neighborhood. Ten or so years later, they bought a second floor, which they rented to friends. The friends eventually left, and by this time, Talese and his wife moved into more of the building. In the 70s, one of Talese’s books was optioned for a film – he used the money to buy another floor. Eventually, over the course of more than 30 years, they owned the whole place.

Gay Talese is 79 years old, and he still works full-time. When we visited him, he was exhausted from a two-week trip to Russia, following a temperamental opera diva for a profile in The New Yorker. Indeed, Talese has never stopped working – through innumerable highs and lows in a now more than fifty year career. In addition to his primary work as a newspaper and magazine writer, he’s written eleven books. It is no exaggeration to say that his work has changed the face of journalism.

Yesterday, my colleague Derek Guy posted a quote from Mr. Talese, describing how he acquired the wardrobe we saw in episode seven of Put This On.

You can dress well on a limited budget. It is a matter of how you appropriate your money. I don’t spend much on anything that doesn’t matter to me. Lots of people will think nothing of spending $3,000 for a new set of golf clubs, or $10,000 for a sloop, or $60,000 for a swimming pool that they’ll use four times a summer. I think nothing of spending $5,000 for a suit, or $2,000 for a pair of hand-made shoes.

The response to the that quote has been strong. A reader named Ian Taylor emailed and wrote, “You’re obviously entitled to post whatever you want, but please, for morality’s sake, don’t commend spending $5k on a suit in the name of a ‘limited budget.’ You just look stupid, or worse like a douche.”

The blogger behind “A Fistful of Style” wrote (under the heading “FUCK THIS NOISE” with the tag “GIANT BAG OF DICKS”): “I would like to make this very clear to anyone sitting in the back row.  FUCK THIS ASSHOLE.” and “The ‘lots of people’ throwing around thousands of dollars on frivolities that Mr. Talese is talking about are, and again let me be very clear, FUCKING RICH ASSHOLES WHO HAVE A WILDLY SKEWED RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY.”

Not all of the responses were profane or ad hominem.

On our Facebook page, Peterr Andreason wrote “I make a decent (for my age) middle class income, and I have no problem dropping big money on certain pieces over the course of a year. All of my friends have the same reaction, as say Oliver above. My response is that I don’t go to Las Vegas or Cuba or Mexico twice a year and blow $2000 on the tables. It’s all about allocation and opportunity costs.”

Wesley Wong wrote, “Although it might not seem when first time reading it, it does apply to most people I think. I’m a student who isn’t that wealthy. But from cutting the (for me) unnecessary stuff (an iPhone, a car, gambling, smoking, alcohol etc.) and investing it in quality pieces that last, I think I have built quite a respectable wardrobe over time.”

The blogger behind All You Need is Love wrote, “I rather spend heaps of mula on something I absolutely love than tiny amount on something I don’t really love. Its an investment; something my daughters and granddaughters will be proud of have.”

In the same article, linked by Derek, Mr. Talese explains why he believes in fine clothes.

Buy the best you can even if you can’t afford it. I learned early, being the son of a remarkably prideful tailor, that one cannot put a price on quality. You buy quality and don’t worry about the price tag pinned to the garment. There really is not that much difference in price from the very best to the middle-ranged commodity. If you buy the best, it will last longer, and it will also look good longer – it will hold up, the shape of the garment will not lose its shape and how it hangs on your body.

I told that story about Mr. Talese buying his home over the course of 30 years for a reason. I think it is illustrative of the kind of man he is. His life is a well-considered one. He is a builder, not a buyer. He is not a man who buys $3000 golf clubs or $100,000 cars or million-dollar Modiglianis for that matter. His home is beautiful, but also well-worn. It is his.

Mr. Talese’s majestic wardrobe (I was there – it is majestic) is the product of care, passion and time. When he says that he “thinks nothing” of paying $5000 to Cristiani (a firm which was run by members of his extended family, by the way) for a suit, he is not saying that $5000 has no value to him. Instead, he’s saying that the passion and care that goes into something that is truly fine makes owning it, for him, unquestionably worth the money. This means choosing not to spend on many other things, but that is his choice. It also requires a wage that can support a discretionary purchase at $5000. This is something Mr. Talese has worked a lifetime to achieve.

Look: neither Derek nor I is a rich man. Derek is a graduate student in the social sciences. I’m a public radio host. Derek gets all of the ad revenue from this site, which is much less than his work is worth. Derek comes from an immigrant family. My divorced parents went to graduate school in their 40s so that they could become a community college professor and the founder of an NGO. I didn’t make $30,000 in a year until I was 28.

At Put This On, we have dedicated enormous resources to the idea of elegance for the man who doesn’t have it all. I’ve written extensively about buying second-hand clothes, buying at outlet malls, buying on sale. I’ve also written about buying less, and buying in a considered manner. Let it not be unsaid that we have suffered financially because of this focus. Advertisers do not queue up to advertise on the blog about buying stuff at the thrift store.

I really believe in and care about this subject, just as Mr. Talese does. I care about the beauty of clothes. I care about their meaning. I care about the craft of making them. These values are not only for the rich, and I don’t like the suggestion that they are.

If I read a blog about art, I do not necessarily expect that I can own every Picasso that’s covered. If I read about cars, I know that I will never own a Ferrari. I still think Picassos are moving and Ferraris remarkable.

We got some of this criticism when we presented our pilot episode. “Who spends $300 on jeans?” people wrote, angrily. Often with some profanities mixed in. We chose to feature Rising Sun not because we were demanding people spend more on denim, but because we believed it was a beautiful effort, coming from a soulful, considered man. There is more to learn from an artist or craftsperson than there is from an assemblyline, whether or not that person’s product is your financial priority.

It’s easy to be defensive about money. “Well, I’m not some f*cking rich guy.” I think that has as much to do with the speaker as with the rich guy. Certainly, in a consumption-driven society, it can be a great burden not to have the resources to consume ad infinitum. What Mr. Talese was arguing, I think, is that rather than adjusting your price point down, perhaps you should consider consuming less, but consuming something special. Prioritizing something that pays a person who is creating a product that approaches art, rather than approaching widget.

Until fifty years ago or so, tailors made people’s clothes. Working men had one suit, maybe two. It was made for them by a craftsperson. It was expensive, particularly relative to their wage, and they wore it for decades. Today, people spend thousands a year at H&M and Old Navy. So whose values are messed up?

I don’t believe that as part of a moral life, dressing well is an act of immorality. I just don’t buy that.