When Gay Talese’s editors at the New York Times sent him to Bay Ridge to cover a protest in 1960, he had no idea he’d wind up writing the book on the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, the legendary journalist told a rapt audience during an appearance at the New York Transit Museum on Nov. 13.
“It was a one-day story,” said Talese, author of “The Bridge,” which has been reissued for the span’s 50th anniversary. “But I lived in a city of bridges and I was now going to have the opportunity to see a bridge built. I thought, ‘I want to come back here.’ ”
So Talese filed his first story about the protests against the bridge, which required the city to raze 800 homes and businesses in Bay Ridge. Then he began going back in his free time, making the trek to blue-collar Bay Ridge, nestled 10 miles as the crow flies from Talese’s desk at the Grey Lady’s Midtown headquarters. Talese knew that the big names — city planner Robert Moses and engineer Othmar Ammann — would go down in history, but he wanted to memorialize the men who made the vision reality, he said.
“We see this city as a miracle, but it was built by the hands of people,” he said. “The glory of [journalists’] work is doing justice to the people we write about. As the son of immigrants, I identified with the people of Bay Ridge and the ironworkers. We know virtually nothing about the men who built the Brooklyn Bridge, and by putting these names and stories down, I would do something that wasn’t done for the Brooklyn Bridge.”
And so the boisterous, heavy-drinking ironworkers became Talese’s true subject, because he recognized they were creating a work of art, he said.
“These ironworkers and bridge builders work every day, and more importantly, they take pride in their work,” he said. “My father was a tailor and he would stitch by hand. When I was watching the bridge-builders — especially the cable runners — I was thinking of thread. They had the touch of a tailor.”
For four years, Talese followed these artisans, hearing their stories, meeting their families, and memorializing their names for posterity.
Of course, it wasn’t always a serious affair.
“I did a lot of happy drinking with those guys,” he said.