Culture & Conversation Media

Meet the Poet Who Inadvertently Took Down Gay Talese, and the Journalist Talese Insulted

Amy Littlefield

Gay Talese's comments at a recent journalism conference echoed decades of exclusion. That was what the men on stage didn't hear, but we did.

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the New York Times published an article, titled “Gay Talese Goes Through the Twitter Wringer,” that referenced our reporting about Gay Talese’s comments to New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. In that article, Talese referred to Hannah-Jones as “duplicitous.” On Thursday, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet released a statement, saying the Times‘ article “was flawed and Nikole was treated unfairly.” Baquet praised Hannah-Jones as “one of the most accomplished and prominent journalists of her generation.” He also wrote: “this incident is larger than the exchange between her and Gay Talese. Too often, we are clumsy in handling issues of race and gender and this story was another unfortunate example. We have made strides in our coverage and culture, but the best solution is to continue building a more diverse, inclusive newsroom.”

Verandah Porche didn’t grasp the full significance of what she had done until later.

At the time, sitting in an auditorium at Boston University (BU) at the Power of Narrative conference, she simply felt curious about something the keynote speaker, writer Gay Talese, seemed to have left out. Talese, 84, is a giant in the world of narrative journalism, best known for his 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” On Saturday, dressed in one of his immaculate suits, Talese regaled the roughly 550 attendees with tales of his childhood and reporting tips, including one that became a Twitter punchline because of what came next: “Journalism is avoiding, if you can avoid it, any kind of technology.”

Then Talese took questions from the audience. Porche’s question was first.

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“In addition to Nora Ephron, who are the women who write who have inspired you most?” she asked.

Later, I felt sure the questioner was someone deeply familiar with Talese’s history of sexism—familiar, for example, with the 1964 cab ride during which he leaned over Gloria Steinem to say to Saul Bellow, “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Perhaps the questioner knew enough to predict that after his keynote, Talese would insult a prominent Black woman journalist by asking her if she was headed to get her nails done. But I was wrong.

“I was just authentically curious, and being a woman of my generation, I’m very sensitive to exclusion and erasure and complacency,” Porche, who is 70, told me later by phone. “I was listening for his relationship with women, unconsciously, that’s just what I do, and so I heard him talk about the great Nora Ephron … and also obviously there was his mother, and then there was nobody.”

Porche was already an outsider at the conference attended by hundreds of journalists. An accomplished poet and educator, Porche lives in rural Vermont, on a former commune called Total Loss Farm. For her workshop at the conference, she created her first-ever PowerPoint presentation. And as she raised her hand that day, her experience of sexism over the decades was, perhaps unconsciously, with her.

In the mid-1970s, Porche flew out to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa to address a class led by poet Sandra McPherson. After the talk, McPherson confronted Porche, saying she believed Porche’s poems were actually written by men. The accusation turned out to be based on a misunderstanding; McPherson had heard a group of men scheming about releasing a book of poems under a fake woman’s persona, and mistakenly connected that to Porche. Still, the encounter was a game changer for Porche, who at the time was reeling from her father’s recent death.

“I sort of went home to Vermont and decided, there’s got to be a better way to be a poet,” Porche told me. “I developed this outsider career that was very local.”

On Saturday, Porche’s question—if not her name—entered the national spotlight, not because of what she said, but because of how Talese responded.

“I’d say Mary McCarthy was one,” Talese began. His voice tapered off, and then he paused.

“Of my generation…” A 12-second pause. “None. I’ll tell you why.” Then Talese dug the hole out of which he’d spend days trying to climb. At first, he clearly confined his answer to the past, saying when he was young, women tended not to do the kind of journalism that interested him. But then he did something my former journalism professor would have slashed in red pen: He shifted tenses.

“I think women, educated women, writerly women don’t want to—or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of offbeat characters,” he said. “I didn’t know any women journalists that I loved.”

From the balcony, Sandy Tolan, an author and professor of narrative journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, shouted “Joan Didion?”

“I’m glad you reminded me,” Talese responded. “But she doesn’t deal with antisocial people. She’s an educated, beautiful writer.”

Two men were on stage with Talese: Tom Fiedler, the moderator and BU’s dean of the College of Communication, and Mitchell Zuckoff, a BU journalism professor. Neither challenged Talese.

Sitting in the audience, I felt erased. “What is he saying?” I remember exclaiming.

I wondered for a moment if I was the only one who noticed. But, of course, I wasn’t. It quickly became clear we were in the midst of a viral moment. On Twitter, women registered their disapproval. Some walked out. We’d been encouraged to tweet ahead of the keynote. So we did. As my friend and I turned to each other in shock, an older man whipped around and shushed us.

That evening, the Boston Globe hosted a cocktail party at a nearby hotel. By then, stories about Talese’s remarks had appeared in media outlets, including the New York Daily News, the Washington Post and Jezebel, all of which referenced the Twitter firestorm. But absent from that firestorm was the woman who started it all. At about 8:30 that night, Porche, aided by a BU student, finally posted a tweet identifying herself as the woman who asked the question.

Talese has since written to the Boston Globe (a sponsor for the conference) that he misunderstood Porche’s question, taking it to apply to women journalists who may have inspired him as a young man. He noted a number of “contemporary women” whom he admires but left out at the time: Susan Orlean, Larissa MacFarquhar, Lillian Ross, and Katie Roiphe.

Fiedler, the moderator, acknowledged to the Globe that he “may have been able to defuse the situation,” if he had “anticipated that [Talese’s] remark would create the stir that it did.”

It’s a twisted version of “Sorry, not sorry.”

But no clarification would have stopped what happened next. Immediately after his keynote, Talese walked over to attend a private luncheon for speakers. He met Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has won widespread acclaim for her coverage of racial segregation in schools and housing. Hannah-Jones delivered Friday’s keynote address, launching the conference. But when she was introduced to him as a New York Times Magazine staff writer, Talese was more curious about how she got her job.

“He asked again if I was actually a staff writer. And I said yes,” Hannah-Jones told me by phone on Monday. He asked her how she got hired for that job. “I said they called and offered me a job,” she recalled. “He asked me who hired me, why was I hired?”

Hannah-Jones said she was the only Black person in the room.

“I felt defensive,” Hannah-Jones recalled. “I feel like I’ve been explaining why I’m in a room where apparently people think I’m not supposed to be most of my life, so I know when someone is asking me that question.”

The conversation moved on to other topics. But at the end of the luncheon, Talese asked Hannah-Jones something else.

“I was talking with another woman journalist,” Hannah-Jones recalled. “We were trying to figure out what session we were going to go to next, and that’s when he asked me if I was going to get my nails done.”

Now, Hannah-Jones, like Talese, is an immaculate dresser, and that extends to her turquoise, baby blue, and glitter nails. But when Talese asked if she, an investigative reporter at one of the nation’s leading publications, planned to skip out on the journalism conference at which they were both keynote speakers to head to the salon, Hannah-Jones did not even know what to say.

“Part of it was, I mean, I just come from a family where respect for your elders is very ingrained, but part of it is feeling like, honestly, as a Black woman, that it would be very hard for me to say something without coming off looking like all the stereotypes that women and Black women get,” Hannah-Jones told me on Monday. “It was a hard moment for me to realize that even at this point in my career I could still be silenced.”

The conference, like many journalism gatherings, was overwhelmingly white, another reminder of how far the field of journalism has to go to address racism and sexism, not only in our coverage, but within our own ranks. For women like Porche and Hannah-Jones, Talese’s remarks cut in part because they felt familiar. Talese echoed decades of exclusion. That was what the men on stage didn’t hear, but we did.

As the conference concluded on Sunday, I approached Mitchell Zuckoff, the second man who had been on stage with Talese, to tell him I thought he had shirked a basic, journalistic responsibility: Ask a follow-up question. Zuckoff committed to asking one next time, telling me, “In the future, if I’m moderating a speaker or a panel, and something is said from the stage or the audience that I believe to be open to offense or misinterpretation, I will take a moment to seek clarity from the speaker.”

But Zuckoff has publicly defended Talese, saying he believes he was talking about his experiences as a young man.

I called Zuckoff on Monday and asked him about a particular moment in Hannah-Jones’ keynote from Friday that sticks with me. In response to a question from a white audience member, Hannah-Jones reminded us that race and segregation are not Black issues. Segregation exists because of white people. I asked Zuckoff if he thought he had failed in his responsibility, as a man, to confront Talese’s sexism.

“He answered it in a way that I understood completely at the time not as a sexist statement,” Zuckoff said. “If I had perceived it the way you did, perhaps I would have said something different. But I didn’t, and I don’t.”

For me, this conference has become one of those defining moments. It was a moment when an elderly man said something outrageous, and the men who had a platform to intervene failed to do so. It was also a moment when I banded together with other women, over pizza and in the hallways and classrooms between sessions. In slightly different words we told each other: I felt it too; I see you; I admire you; you belong.

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