Gay Talese's 1966 Esquire feature, 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold', is one of the greatest studies of celebrity ever. With insight and innovation in mind, Crowd DNA managing director Andy Crysell explains that it also demonstrates the power of observation over interview...
‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ ranks as a defining piece in so-called new journalism; a painstakingly detailed, powerful and fascinating under-the-skin read. It was, however, a state of affairs forced on Talese through Sinatra – recoiling at soon being 50; experiencing a number of career pressures; indeed suffering from a cold – refusing to talk to him. Celeb gawking aside, it serves equally as a prime example of the benefits of observation over interview (or, in ‘…Has A Cold”s case, in observation alongside only questioning those on the periphery of the scene, rather than the target ‘audience’).
Ethnographic-style reporting, next to visual documentation, brings a richness and a discursiveness to stories that regimented interviews don’t always allow for. Vitally, the broader cultural context becomes clearer and, often, less anticipated and potentially more advantageous ground gets to be covered – something that it can be a struggle to achieve when there’s a lengthy set of highly granular questions to crunch through in a discussion guide.
We’re not prescribing project method designs that are devoid of interviews in all work (sometimes highly granular questions really do need answering through very direct interviewing) – rather to highlight that, when well considered, there can be rigour and process in observation, too. And returning more particularly to the example of ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’, while skilled ethnographers practice observation as a matter of course, exploring the journalist skill-set as well opens the doors to bringing better reporting techniques and a storytelling mentality to ethnography.
It’s this blending of social science and journalism – ethnography with a more potent sense of interpretation – that’s particularly pertinent to how we work at Crowd DNA. Better thinking, being agile, ensuring impact – we like to think that we cover off all three of our guiding principles via this type of primary method.
Gay Talese’s story for Esquire begins as per below. Click the link thereafter to read the full piece
Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.