It’s not been a fun week for Gay Talese, which is probably the first time those words have ever been written. After the male journalist couldn’t summon the name of even one female writer that he was inspired by at a conference at Boston University, he was forced to say he misunderstood the question in a note to the Boston Globe. “I was not commenting on contemporary women who practiced journalism,” he wrote, and then called to mind Katie Roiphe, the late Nora Ephron, and Larissa MacFarquhar, among others, as women whose work he admires.
But the backstory to the original gaffe has now been expanded upon with insights from women who were actually in attendance at the Boston University Power of Narrative conference, and there is an even more unfortunate anectode about what happened offstage. Rewire has the story of what happened when Gay Talese met The New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones after the keynote:
“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 told Rewire that she was the only black person in the room at the private luncheon. “I felt defensive,” she said. “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.” But then Talese somehow made things worse.
The NYT Mag staff writer said she was speaking to another female journalist about what panel to attend next, when Talese came up and “asked me if I was going to get my nails done.” She told Rewire that she did not 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 explained. “It was a hard moment for me to realize that even at this point in my career I could still be silenced.”