Thursday, August 09, 2012

Two brilliant magazine profiles from the archives

I've just read two genuinely great magazine profiles. One is Gay Talese's story about Frank Sinatra which appeared in Esquire in 1965. The other is Janet Flanner's three-part piece about Adolf Hitler which The New Yorker published in 1936.

Both men disappeared into myth in the years that followed. The profiles probably mark the last point at which it was possible to see them as human beings. Frank wasn't yet the man devoted to acting out his own legend. Hitler was clearly a bad lot but in 1936 he was far from the incarnation of the brand evil.

Both profilers get a lot of mileage out of the things we are always interested in: what they eat, how they organise their wardrobes, their taste in cars, the nervousness of the immediate entourage, the difference they make to a place when they arrive. The profiler hangs around so that we don't have to, recording the details we would be too flustered to notice.

We learn that Hitler didn't take a salary and walks in "a hurried dogtrot" and that Sinatra is followed around by an inconspicuous grey-haired lady holding a tiny satchel containing his sixty hair-pieces.

Neither of them contain an actual interview with the subject. It wouldn't add any illumination if they did.

Interestingly, they both appeared under the kind of unpretentious headlines that wouldn't be considered big enough for a profile of even a run of the mill celebrity today. The Esquire piece is called "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold". The New Yorker piece is called "F├╝hrer".


  1. In the same way that a biography is always a more rewarding read than a bio, so it is that, often, no real gain is made by sticking a microphone under the subjects's nose; selective memory syndrome plays havoc with a documented timeline