At 83, Nan Talese might just be the new image of having it all. She's
dressed in a black sweater, cozy black pants, and black ballet slippers,
girlishly ensconced on her tufted leather couch with a manuscript she's
considering for publication by her imprint at Doubleday. She's looking
rather adoringly at her husband, Gay Talese—best-selling author,
iconic charmer—who's emerged from the top floor of their town house,
in a three-piece bespoke suit as per usual, and is already commanding
the room. The subject is the original residents of the house, on East
61st Street, a cast of characters that brings to mind a Billy Wilder
movie. They included model Hope Bryce (with her blind dog), who was
having an affair with director Otto Preminger. "I'd see Mr. Preminger
sneaking in and out," says Gay, at 85 still razor-sharp. There was an
airline stewardess who "went on a flight, leaving her goddamn toaster
on . . . and it burned the goddamn fourth floor enough that they
kicked her out." And don't forget Lucile Lawrence, the ex-wife of
world-renowned harpist Carlos Salzedo, "the most famous teacher of the
harp in the history of America . . . . Beautiful girls playing the harp
would wind up in bed with him sooner or later. He was a notorious guy.
The Donald Trump of harps."
Nan has a small correction to make, but when she tries to interject,
Gay's not having it. "Either you're telling the story or I'm telling
the story," he barks. "But if you keep doing this, I'm going to talk
to her alone. You've had your chance . . . . You can correct it later.
Write a letter of correction." Nan responds with an eye roll.
At first glance, it may look like another marriage between an
egomaniacal genius and his docile enabler. Indeed, Gay's the famous
writer—one of the pioneers of New Journalism with his rich, novelistic
articles for Esquire about Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and others, and
the author of 15 books of nonfiction. He's one of New York's great
scene-makers—in all senses of the term. A social peacock, he's been
out "every goddamn night" of the week for the last five decades (this
week includes writer Erica Jong, MSNBC's Chris Hayes, former New York
City police commissioner Bill Bratton, and a Mexican thief, as Gay puts
it, who visits from time to time). He's the one who, in the service of
his work, freely enjoyed the pleasures of other women while researching
Thy Neighbor's Wife, an immersive look into sexual liberation in
And yet, all this time, Nan was quietly doing something
extraordinary—becoming one of the first female editors of literary
fiction, and rising through the ranks at four major publishing houses
before getting her own, eponymous imprint at Doubleday. After nearly 60
years in the business, she's now one of a small handful of living
publishing pioneers, with a list of authors that includes Ian McEwan,
Margaret Atwood, the late Pat Conroy, and Thomas Keneally, Barry
Unsworth, Louis Begley, Peter Ackroyd, Antonia Fraser, and Thomas
Cahill. But, like many remarkable women of that generation, Nan has no
interest in being celebrated, and can't even see her accomplishments. A
Vanity Fair profile? Well, it seems like a lot of fussing. In an initial
e-mail, she pooh-poohed the idea that she'd done anything noteworthy.
"Doesn't breaking the glass ceiling mean becoming president or CEO? I
simply have my own imprint and I have been lucky to have authors follow
me when I went to another publishing company. Best wishes, Nan." But
her daughters, Pamela and Catherine, twisted her arm. They were tired of
her attributing her success to Gay. "She's always giving him credit for
things," says Pamela, an intense and darkly wry 52-year-old painter,
who has had years of therapy trying to figure out her family. "But
maybe she knows best. It's her career; it's her life; he's her
Nan with Gay on their wedding day, 1959.
Indeed, Nan is a bit of a mystery—wherein may lie her power. At first
glance, she's an enchanting paragon of grace, with a bearing designed to
make others comfortable. Consider Ian McEwan's rapturous recollection of
first setting eyes on her in the mid-70s, a description that still feels
apt. "Oh, she was beautiful, with this wonderful, fluting, bird-like
voice that has never changed. It often starts improbably high and ends
improbably low, a sort of charming kind of ripple and peal of a voice.
And very merry eyes. [She] shimmered in front of me."
But beneath the white gloves, as some admirers have said, are brass
knuckles. "What would they call Margaret Thatcher, the 'Iron Lady'?"
says writer Nick Pileggi, Gay's cousin and a longtime friend of both.
"She's bubbly and sweet and charming, but you don't get to be able to
put her name on books, major books, without being able to really get
what she wanted. She's very competitive. She's not a backstabber or
anything like that . . . . I've never heard her in my whole life ever
boast or name-drop. But she knows what she wants, and she will fight to
get it." Gay goes even further, warning one to not be fooled by her
agreeableness. "She does what she fucking pleases," he insists over
dinner at Le Veau d'Or, one of his six regular restaurants. "She just
does it quietly, nicely. It's really amazing! I've watched this with
awe. How do you get away with this stuff?"
"I have a fear of losing my freedom," Gay says. "But Nan guaranteed
that I wouldn't have to . . . . That's one pledge that lasted."
The most intense mystery has surrounded the Talese marriage—and why
it's lasted so long. She's as decorous as he is licentious, as easygoing
as he is bossy, as content to stay home with a glass of wine and
Masterpiece on PBS as he is voraciously social. And then there are his
romantic adventures, which have been something of an open secret for
some time. "She's had a lot of hoops to jump through," says Margaret
Atwood. "One of the big mysteries of Nan and some of those years was:
How does she manage to remain so cheerful?" Her daughters have a
perspective from nearly 50 years of observation—that she was forever
twisting herself in pretzels to accommodate him, and subjugating her own
desires to his. As Pamela puts it, "There was one pedestal in the
household, and my father was on it." But in Nan's narrative, she's the
one who got her way. Sure, there's been pain and frustration, but she
got to marry the most glamorous, interesting man she'd ever met—she's
never been bored for a day. And Gay still believes she has called the
Good Girls Do
Whatever the truth is, this wasn't the life her parents imagined for
her, growing up in the well-to-do suburb of Rye, New York, in the 1930s
and 40s. Her father, Thomas Ahearn, 18 years older than her mother, was
a banker, who served in F.D.R.'s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and
liked to drink. Her mother, Suzanne—"Mummy," as Nan still refers to
her—was from an old family in Houston, Texas. The Ahearns went to
church every Sunday but never spoke about religion. The children ate
separately from the parents, who dressed for dinner and ate alone. "We
would paddle down in our bathrobes and slippers and say good night to
them," says Nan, the third of four siblings. The older two turned out
to be rebels—her brother got kicked out of school for throwing rotten
tomatoes at the prefect; her sister eloped at age 18. Nan, already a big
reader, was the good girl, getting high marks at Convent of the Sacred
Heart, and an eager debutante. At Manhattanville College of the Sacred
Heart, where she majored in philosophy and literature, she did what
other good Rye girls did: joined the Ivy League dating circuit, a world
of football weekends and illicit gin-and-tonics, in hopes of meeting a
nice future banker or lawyer.
In 1957, fate intervened when a college friend said there was someone
she should meet, a young man who had served as a tank officer at Fort
Knox. Gay's background couldn't have been more different from those of
the boys in her world. The son of an Italian immigrant in Ocean City,
New Jersey—his father was a tailor, and his mother ran a dress
shop—Gay got rotten grades in school and ended up at the University of
Alabama. Though his pedigree wasn't up to snuff, he had something else:
an edgy, obsessive curiosity about the world, which he was honing as a
reporter for The New York Times, where he was writing about sports.
Pileggi, then living with Gay on MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village,
says of the couple's attraction, "She was just about everything he was
looking for: clearly really smart, really beautiful, and she had it all.
While it's hard to talk about Gay's earthiness, he's a very practical,
straight guy. He has a sense of the street. He had, more importantly,
from her point of view, an artistic temperament." Their first date was
lunch at Toots Shor, a saloon frequented by sports people. "She was not
impressed," recalls Gay. But they'd soon find their connection in
books. The next date was at P. J. Clarke's restaurant. Nan recalls, "We
talked and talked and talked"—about Graham Greene, John O'Hara, Irwin
Shaw, John Cheever—"and finally they said, 'You really have to
Gay brought out her inner wild child. Still living with her parents, she
called him one night to inform him that she was coming to spend the
night with him—like it or not. "She came down to MacDougal Street.
Her parents thought she was with somebody else," recalls Gay. "I'm
like, 'God, she's going to get caught. What's wrong with her?' "
Gay was it—the man she wanted to marry, and yet there were looming
obstacles. The first was her parents, who considered him an
unpredictable rascal. Nan recalls, "Mummy said, 'Nan, you don't know
what it's like to live with a writer.' [I thought,] How would she
know?" The more serious obstacle was Gay himself, who was burning with
ambition to be more than a sportswriter and had no interest in being
tied down, period. "I had a lot to do. I had ideas I wanted to follow
up on. And I didn't want anyone in my way," says Gay. "I didn't want
to see her mother play tennis somewhere . . . . They'd go on yachts. I
didn't have time for that. But Nan was not going to let that stop her.
She really wanted me."
In the summer of 1959, Nan willed her marriage into existence. Gay
invited her to visit him while he was in Rome, writing a story for The
New York Times Magazine about the Via Veneto, where Fellini was shooting
La Dolce Vita. Nan, the sly go-getter, saw her chance. She bought a
ticket on Alitalia, told her parents that Gay had asked her to marry
him—a bald-faced lie—and collected Gay's baptismal certificate from
his parents. She arrived in Rome and informed Gay that his bachelor days
were ending, and that they would be married at the Trinità dei Monti.
Turned out, the chapel was no longer performing weddings, so they
married in a civil ceremony, with writer Irwin Shaw, who happened to be
in Rome, as the best man, and some of the cast of La Dolce Vita at the
after-party, including Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni.
"You know, I only think of things a step at a time," recalls Nan of
the episode, all la-di-da, a breezy deflector. "I don't look at things
in the future. And I thought, We'll see what happens! But it was a
beautiful wedding—you saw the pictures."
As for Gay, he says he was strong-armed. "It wasn't my choice. She
decided she's going to marry this guy. She could have married the
secretary of state," he says. Still, he didn't want to lose her, and to
turn her down would be to bring disgrace to her. And so he agreed, but
made her make a promise—that he would always be "free," a loaded
term that neither parsed. "I really have a fear of losing my freedom.
But she guaranteed that I wouldn't have to. And it turns out that's the
one pledge she made that lasted almost 60 years." The newlyweds had her
parents over for dinner once, and then Gay never saw them again, until
Suzanne Ahearn developed Alzheimer's decades later, forgetting what it
was she had objected to about him. Nan rolls her eyes at his refusal to
make nice with them. "If someone doesn't approve [of him] 100
percent, he wants nothing to do with them."
With his allergy to domesticity, Gay was eager that Nan should work. In
fact, she had a job at the start of their relationship—as an assistant
in the accessories department of Vogue—but it was of limited interest
to her. Gay saw that she loved reading, and in 1959 he suggested that
she try to get a job at Random House. She aced the test they gave
her—to spot all the errors on a page of text—and landed a job as a
proofreader. Little did she know she was stepping into one of America's
premier publishing houses, in its heyday. Located within the Villard
mansion, on Madison Avenue and 51st Street, Random House was an
unusually intimate place, with a staff directory the size of a postcard,
which Nan keeps framed in her current office. The famously charismatic
Bennett Cerf, who founded the firm with Donald Klopfer, set a tone of
joviality. Every Friday the editorial staff gathered for a drinks party.
As editor Jason Epstein wrote in Book Business, writers would show up
unannounced—W. H. Auden in a torn overcoat and carpet slippers; John
O'Hara in a three-piece suit, his Rolls-Royce parked outside; Ralph
Ellison, smoking a cigar, talking Thelonious Monk; Andy Warhol, speaking
in hushed, obsequious tones.
But, for all its intimacy, Random House, like the publishing world at
large, was still a boys' club. The editors, all male, became the giants
of the business—Epstein, Albert Erskine, Robert Loomis, Joseph Fox.
The women were secretaries, edited the cookbooks, mysteries, and
children's books, or were copy editors. Nan's gaggle was a whip-smart
group that included Berenice Hoffman, who went on to have her own
literary agency, and Alice Stewart, who would marry Calvin Trillin.
Maxine Groffsky, who was the "first reader" of the manuscripts that
came in (and later an editor of The Paris Review), recalls, "I'd never
met anyone like Nan. I thought she came straight from the convent."
"Nan begins by praising the novel," says Thomas Keneally. "She then
turns into the nuns that taught her . . . . You are now terrified."
Rising in the ranks seemed inconceivable for a woman, which was just
fine for Nan, who was thrilled just to be Gay's wife and to spend her
days reading. And so it was much to her surprise when Erskine told Nan
that his plate was full, and asked if she might edit a new novel, Flood,
by Robert Penn Warren, who'd been impressed by her copyediting on his
previous book. "I remember thinking, How am I going to ask the author
of [the book-length poem] Brother to Dragons if he really means that
word?" But she steeled herself, at one point gingerly pointing out that
a character who had suddenly appeared had not been clearly introduced.
According to Nan, "Warren replied, 'Oh, I talked about him in Chapter
Two.' I thought I had failed. But he said, 'No, no, no. If you don't
remember him, then I need to strengthen his introduction at the
beginning.' It really taught me to ask questions."
Nan at center with Jason Epstein, and, from left, notables George Plimpton, Bill Becker, Robert Silvers, Terry Southern, and John Hollander, 1962.
Not every male author was as immediately receptive to a young woman
questioning his brilliance. A. E. Hotchner had finished the first draft
of his biography of Ernest Hemingway—which he called Mr. Papa—when
he came into Cerf's office at Random House. Cerf informed him that he
was putting a good editor on it, and called in Nan, who looked to
Hotchner as if she'd stepped off the campus of Bryn Mawr. As she led him
out of the room, he naturally assumed that she would be taking him
upstairs to her boss's office. Instead, he recalls, "we proceeded to go
downstairs three flights. And she opened a door to a small room that
obviously they had taken the mops and other utensils out of . . . . I
suddenly realized that I'd been downgraded to the most junior of all
The affronts were only beginning. After a few pleasantries about the
book, she laid out her concerns. First off, his title, Mr. Papa, was a
bit inscrutable. How would people know the book was about Ernest
Hemingway? How about Papa Hemingway, she suggested—isn't that more to
the point? Second, the thing was fairly unwieldy. Could it be cut by 50
pages? Most important, where was he in the work? He was calling this a
memoir, after all. "I felt that was outrageous," says Hotchner. "I
was on the verge of parading upstairs, the three flights, and telling
Bennett that maybe Simon & Schuster would be a better fit."
Alas, he couldn't shake the feeling that the young lady was right about
everything, and executed every note. Putting himself in the book
elevated it to a universal story of transference: the son to a
formidable father figure ultimately watches his physical and mental
decline and becomes his caretaker. Under Nan's guidance, Hotchner went
further and revealed the truth about Hemingway's death—that it was a
suicide and not a rifle accident, as the world had believed. When
Hemingway's widow, Mary, read it, she was furious and sought an
injunction against its publication. Mary made an overture—she would
agree to let it be published if they took out the last three chapters,
which detailed his decline and suicide. But Nan, according to Hotchner,
said, "I'm not going to take out one word. This is the way it is." The
case ended up in court. "Nan just stood there the whole time with her
battle garments on and fought them off." The book would be excerpted in
Life, a major coup, and became a huge best-seller.
Her success put the other editors on edge. Nan recalls, "Joe Fox said,
'Well, I suppose you'll be uppity now.' I said, 'Did you hear what you
just said?' " With no political point to make, no precedent or road
map for a woman, Nan simply assumed the duties of editor. She brought in
groovy poet Rod McKuen, who'd been selling books out of his car in
California; he ended up accounting for 24 percent of Random House's
revenue for a few years. She found A. Alvarez's daring The Savage God,
an unlikely best-seller about suicide and art. The concept of maternity
leave didn't exist then. So in 1963, when she got pregnant for the first
time, she didn't tell anyone until it became obvious—not because she
feared for her job, but because it was none of anyone's business. She'd
been working on copyright certificates up until labor and continued to
do so from her hospital bed. Following Pamela's birth, Nan immediately
returned to work.
Nan and Gay had their second daughter, Catherine, in 1967, and together
the young couple made a life that was bustling with people, endlessly
varied—and, according to their daughters, geared largely toward Gay,
whose fame was on the rise. Nan raised her girls with the kind of rules
she had been brought up on—no candy, no television (except for
Masterpiece and other shows with English accents)—and with an intense
dash of playfulness from the hours of six P.M. to eight P.M. "At
bedtime, she'd kiss us good night and we'd say our farewells, and then
we'd ask her to do this little jig she would do," recalls Catherine, a
photographer, who's as wry as her older sister. "She would jump up and
click her heels . . . . So it always felt that she was this marvelous
playful spirit." But the moment their father walked in, she recalls,
the room was "on hold. Suddenly, they're enlocked, and you're in
suspended animation until he leaves." As Pamela puts it, "In my mind,
there was an urgency to [my mother's] joy," because Gay exacted so
There was Gay's writing. Each night after playing with the girls, Nan
would read what he'd written that day and give him her thoughts. There
was his preferred weekend milieu, a house in Ocean City, which Nan
didn't especially love, but which they bought because it reminded Gay of
his childhood. There were his routine needs—the doughnut and coffee at
8 A.M., the two poached eggs at 11 A.M. that Nan or one of the girls
walked up to his office, on the top floor, if they were home. And there
were the many unforeseen needs that could pop up at any moment.
Conversations happened on the stairwells, or in other catch-as-catch-can
moments. Catherine recalls, "I'd call home, and he'd be like, 'Hi,
Catherine, just one minute—Nan, are we going to the Schlesingers'
[Arthur and Alexandra] tonight? I just want to know because it's
black-tie, and are you going to be ready on time, because I have a car
coming?' And she'd be like, 'Yes, dear,' and he'd go, 'All right.
Good-bye, Catherine.' He hangs up."
In between her duties as wife, mother, and editor, Nan was also the
foreman of the town-house renovation and an amateur mechanic. When Gay's
vintage Triumphs would break down, as they constantly did, Nan was often
the person he consulted first—once while she was in the middle of a
work lunch at publishing lunch spot Michael's.
And then there was the socializing, starting with the dinners at
Elaine's, the Upper East Side literary hangout frequented by writers and
artists, such as Woody Allen, magazine editor Clay Felker, Joe Heller,
and Hotchner, who'd become a close friend of Gay's. Their town house
became the fizzy center for Manhattan's literary giants—Norman Mailer,
William Styron, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam, George
Plimpton, Pileggi and Nora Ephron—and the city's cognoscenti in
general. The daughters recall falling asleep to sounds of chatter,
clinking glasses, the smell of cigar and cigarette smoke, and of Nan's
perfume, when she came upstairs to check on them. Socializing wasn't
second nature to Nan, but this was part of the deal. "She would talk
about breaking out in hives because of the social anxiety," says
Pamela. Later, when Pamela became an insecure teenager, mortified to go
to a fancy party, "my mother would say, 'Well, just pretend you're
invisible!' I would say, 'No, I want to be visible and adored.' The
indication there is that she'd much rather be invisible."
And yet, there was something intoxicating about it all to Nan—even in
its discomfort, or perhaps because of its discomfort. One can imagine
the odd thrill young Nan had in 1957, when Gay, writing for The New York
Times, told her about chasing alley cats for a column he was writing
about the lives of New York cats. Nan was drawn to stories, after all,
and here was one of the country's pre-eminent storytellers—a master in
the art of "hanging out," as Gay puts it—bringing his subjects into
their living room on a regular basis: the prizefighters he wrote about
in his magazine articles; the New York Times writers and editors he was
meeting for his book on them, The Kingdom and the Power; members of the
Mafia, for his book about the Bonanno crime family, Honor Thy Father.
One night, in a pinch, mafioso Bill Bonanno even babysat for the girls,
his two bodyguards in tow. "They were never safer in their life," says
Gay. What stay-at-home mother, wife of a banker in Rye, was having this
kind of fun?
Thy Husband's Life
But there were limits to how far Nan was willing to become enmeshed in
Gay's world. One night in 1972, while they were walking down Lexington
Avenue, Gay spotted a sign that said, LIVE NUDE MODELS. He turned to Nan
and said, "Let's go see what's going on." Nan declined. She recalls,
"I put out my hand and he gave me the keys. And I saw that it was a
very significant moment. And I said, 'Just buzz when you want to come
home.' " Thus began the research for Thy Neighbor's Wife, a project
he'd been noodling on—about the changing morals around sex in America.
Believing this to be the most important cultural shift in the country,
Gay took immersion journalism to a new level. He became the manager of a
Manhattan massage parlor, Middle Earth, just a block from Nan's Random
House office, and freely enjoyed himself with his female subjects. For
six months, he participated in Sandstone, a swingers' retreat in Malibu.
He was unnervingly public about his adventures from the start. In 1973,
eight years before the book would come out, he agreed to let Aaron
Latham, a New York-magazine writer, shadow him in sex clubs and orgies.
Nan was beside herself and told him, "Are you crazy? You're looking
like a fool here!" But Gay didn't care. It was too much for Nan to
bear. One night, she left a note on the living-room side table saying
she was leaving. Gay was with Latham when he made the disconcerting
discovery, and privately panicked as they went on with their scheduled
interview. But Nan was back a few days later, with no explanation given.
According to Nan's best friend, Susan Madigan, Nan never spoke about
what she was going through during those years. Little has changed. With
the exception of the New York-magazine moment, Nan insists that it was
fine. "He was very considerate of me," she says. "And we used to meet
in Chicago every six weeks. And that was very romantic." But the
daughters, who didn't understand their parents' relationship—and knew
nothing of the pledge—felt the tension.
Gay's absences during the eight-year period of researching and writing
Thy Neighbor's Wife might have enabled Nan to have fleeting adventures
of her own. Instead, she spent the time making more lasting, significant
relationships—with great writers, at the moment when books were
becoming big business. By 1974, Nan had been hired away from Random
House by Dick Snyder, of Simon & Schuster, at the suggestion of Alice
Mayhew—another important woman editor in the business at the time, by
virtue of her smash All the President's Men. (Mayhew's distinguished
career would focus on history, biography, and politics.) Unlike Random
House in the 60s, Simon & Schuster was cutthroat and competitive, which
rubbed up against Nan's civility. "Sometimes they'd say, 'Oh, that
piece of trash.' It was pretty ruthless. People were rather harsh to
Determined to squeeze the most out of his employees, Snyder tried to get
Nan to work during August—but she wouldn't have it. She recalls her
response, which she considers so "smart-alecky" she almost doesn't
want to repeat it. "I said, 'You know, Dick? I don't want your job. I
just want to do what I'm doing.' That was the end of any problems with
my going away for the summer!"
And Nan wouldn't let the hunt for the best-seller stop her from looking
for great literature. There was some luck involved in nabbing her first
future star writer, Margaret Atwood, as Atwood's previous novel had been
published at the imprint. But when the editor of that novel left, Nan's
notes on her next book, Lady Oracle, gave Atwood confidence in hitching
herself to Nan. Ian McEwan was a more arduous courtship. Jack Leggett,
one of Nan's writers, who was running the Iowa writers' workshop, had
told her about an extraordinary young English writer who was teaching
there and had just finished a draft of his first novel. Nan read
McEwan's first collection of stories, which had been largely ignored,
and saw he was something special. She called him, asking if she might
read the novel. McEwan resisted.
"For reasons I can't quite connect with now emotionally, I said,
'No,' " recalls McEwan today. "What was I doing? What was I saying? I
felt possessive about it. I didn't want it out of my sight. I was being
very precious." Nan persisted, saying, "Suppose I came out to Iowa and
stayed with Jack and suppose your novel happened to be sitting on the
bedside table at his house. Would you have any objection to that?"
McEwan agreed. He went on a road trip to New Orleans with a girlfriend,
while Nan went to Iowa to read his novel, then untitled, about four
orphaned children who encase their mother's dead body in cement to avoid
going to foster care. Upon McEwan's return, Leggett invited him to
dinner, and he met Nan. "Nan was just the most excited person an author
could wish his editor to be," he says. "To imagine I said no to this
person! A near folly." Nan soon found the title: The Cement Garden.
It wasn't all gushing and glowing. She was determined to make her
writers' work the best it could be, even when it called for criticism
that could be crushing. Thomas Keneally, the author of Schindler's List,
which Nan had to fight Snyder to publish, says of his years with her,
"I say this with considerable affection. Nan begins by praising the
novel. And there follows then a letter that is full of its radical,
irremediable, irredeemable flaws. I say 'irredeemable' advisedly because
Nan then turns into the nuns that taught her. And then she becomes
Sister Mary Nan, who is the only one who can save this document . . . .
Having been praised to the skies, you are now terrified to the depths."
Even McEwan, who'd never received anything but praise from people, would
get an uncomfortable wake-up call from Nan. In the early 80s, at a
moment of personal turmoil, he sent her the first 50 pages of The Child
in Time, about a couple losing their child. She wrote and phoned to say
that she didn't like them, that the tone of irony and comedy didn't fit
the subject matter. "Everything she said, you know it's true even as
it's being said," says McEwan. "That was very depressing. But out of
that, I thought, she's right . . . . And it set me off on a completely
different direction . . . . The Child in Time was broader, more
political, more historic, more evocative of a certain time, a certain
place. A lot of that grew out of that letter from Nan."
With other writers, like the late Pat Conroy, her stamina for
streamlining byzantine plotlines into a clear narrative was epic. His
1,500-page manuscript for The Prince of Tides was something of a hot
mess when he first handed it over to Nan. She graphed the story onto six
pages of taped-together legal paper, mapping out the book's dozens of
characters, sorting time lines with forward arrows, backward arrows, and
double backward arrows. He told her, "No one has ever read my books
this carefully." Conroy's line on Nan became "I hand her the
manuscript, and she finds the book in it."
In 1981, when Thy Neighbor's Wife came out, something discomfiting was
starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to
shift. Gay's book was critically panned, not for the substance, which
reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its
author. "What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting
my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked
off, all that," says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of
the writers group PEN, he'd been on the verge of becoming its next
president. But in light of Thy Neighbor's Wife, the women of PEN
revolted, and he resigned. Nan's career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In
1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the
old-line publishing company based in Boston; she'd commute there while
still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least
partially tied to his downfall. "She started getting a lot of publicity
about Thy Neighbor's Wife . . . . What about this guy's wife? This
guy's wife is Nan Talese. She's this terrific, revered editor, and she's
married to this disgusting guy."
But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay's champion, the power
shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his
fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She
defended him publicly, as she does today. "I think most of the press
told more about the reporters than it did about Gay," she says. And so,
for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with
the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was
looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long
periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the
Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic
entanglements on the road. "I don't want to degrade people by
representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won't,"
says Gay. Pamela suspects his absences were, in part, tests of Nan's
will, with Nan coming out victorious. " 'You think I'm going to divorce
you? No I'm not. We're in for life, honey. You're not going to shake me
that easily' . . . She has more tenacity than he is aware," says
Pamela. Whatever the motivation, while Gay indulged in his psychic,
frustrating quest for freedom and literary redemption, Nan continued
finding new books that captured the Zeitgeist—Joyce Johnson's Minor
Characters, Judith Rossner's August, Susanna Moore's My Old Sweetheart.
Upstanding and hardworking Nan was helping others win at his game, and
it began to rankle him, say his daughters.
"Her infidelity was taking other authors' books into bed with her,"
says Pamela. "And then to read them in bed. And he would get very
agitated about certain of her authors and become very competitive."
Indeed, it's hard not to detect a tinge of irritation when Gay speaks
about her devotion to her writers. "In our marital bed for more than a
half a century there's never a night in bed where there are not
manuscript pages all over the sheets," he says. "If you roll your foot
around, there are manuscript pages under your feet. And all over the
floor." The daytime provides little respite. "I hate it because the
goddamn phone rings all day long. I'm trying to work, the phone
rings—it's not for me. It's always for her. Tom Cahill is on there,
and she talks to him for an hour on the phone about something he's
Marriage of Likes
But by 1986 an internal shift began to take place within Nan—away from
Gay. Deep into writing Unto the Sons, Gay planned to work in Sicily for
four months and wanted Nan there with him. Nan told Houghton Mifflin
director Austin Olney that she needed to go for Gay, and that she'd
manage to get her work done with the help of DHL. At their rented villa
in Taormina, Nan dutifully spent her days working two time zones on the
phone, editing her manuscripts, bringing Gay his 11 o'clock poached
eggs, to the tower where he worked, and seeming happy enough. But one
day, toward the end of their stay, she snapped. Nan handed him the eggs
and told him, "This is the last time I'm cooking eggs." She exploded
at him, telling him that this had been the worst four months of her
entire life. "I thought we had a nice time!" recalls Gay, who was
stunned. "'This is the worst four months?' . . . Jesus!"
It was a measure of her misery that, when she returned home, her right
arm was frozen—every night she'd slept on the very edge of the bed,
the resentment building in those muscles. Looking back at the Sicily
stint, Nan says, "I didn't feel real because suddenly there was no
place to which I belonged." She was no longer content to be just Gay's
wife. She had become a woman in the world, and she liked it.
Still, her professional empowerment would continue to happen a few steps
ahead of her internal independence. In 1988 she was wooed away to
Doubleday, and in 1990 she was given her own imprint. Her writers were
intent on following, even those, like Conroy, who were under contract
with Houghton Mifflin. He told Houghton that if they didn't let him go
he'd never write again. Atwood says, "My story about Nan is that she's
whipping the troika through the snow, followed by the wolves, with me
clinging onto the back as she troikas from one publisher to another."
At her Nan A. Talese imprint, she found new literary hopes, such as Mark
Richard (Fishboy) and Jennifer Egan, who'd just written her debut novel,
The Invisible Circus, and she attracted established high-profile
authors, such as historian Lady Antonia Fraser (Marie Antoinette) and
the wildly prolific Peter Ackroyd (London, Shakespeare, Hitchcock). Her
tenure has not been without its bumps. Her major best-seller James
Frey's A Million Little Pieces ended in scandal when it was revealed
that he had fictionalized portions of it. When Oprah Winfrey eviscerated
him on air for his dishonesty, Nan stood up to her with grace.
Remembering Nan's support when he was alone in the wilderness, and how
she took his hand in the limo as they left Oprah's studio, still brings
Frey close to tears. And he still laughs affectionately at a buck-up
phone call he got from her. " 'James, I've just spoken to Philip Roth,
and he went through many of the same things you are going through right
now with the controversies surrounding his book. And that's why you need
to remember the career he's had since and the career you'll have after.
And Philip said just to stay strong and keep writing.' . . . I've
just spoken to Philip Roth! Who else could do that, and who would do
that?" says Frey.
Even now, after 58 years in the business, Nan's energy hasn't flagged.
She speaks passionately about current projects—the recent World War I
novel No Man's Land, by Simon Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien's grandson; the
upcoming publication of Owen Sheers' anti-war verse play, Pink Mist,
which was a critical hit at the Bristol Old Vic; and The Cloister, James
Carroll's modern take on the love story of Abelard and Heloise.
Nan's drive toward personal independence would come out in pent-up
bursts. It took its most dramatic form about 10 years ago, when Nan
bought a house in Roxbury, Connecticut, behind Gay's back. She'd had it
with Gay's beloved Ocean City, a town where, she'd complained, "a
person wouldn't know a book if it hit them over the head," says Pamela.
After 50 years, Nan wanted to do it her way—she wanted green lawns,
refined neighbors, a place that reminded her of her childhood. After a
few summers of renting, she found the perfect house, saw that she could
cobble enough money together to pay for it, and went ahead. At breakfast
one Sunday morning, she casually brought it up. "You know that house in
Connecticut I liked? I bought it." Gay was furious. "I want a fucking
divorce!" Gay announced. "God knows I wouldn't do something like this
without telling you."
'They're always talking about getting divorced," says Pamela. "And it
may happen. Who knows? But one of the things that I said: 'You're just
too lazy to get a divorce.' " Whatever is keeping them together, Gay
is intent on figuring it all out. For the past decade or so, he's been
at work on a book about their marriage, using anecdotes, Nan's letters,
and various mementos he's kept over the years in obsessively constructed
files. "The only reason I've stayed married for so long, there's never
been one hour in almost 58 years I didn't respect her," says Gay.
"It's not sex, love. Fuck it. 'Respect' is the only word that
matters . . . . No matter who I was with—beautiful, intelligent,
successful women, I never felt I wanted to leave Nan for those people. I
never felt anybody could match Nan on a full-time basis, meaning
nighttime, daytime, bed life, breakfast. That's the trick. The breakfast
is a big deal." He's terrified of her dying first. "I don't know how I
would get along without her being close."
Pamela, too, is still working out her parents' issues and their effect
on her. She sees Gay's marriage book as an exercise in self-exoneration,
and the anger from her childhood still feels raw. "They can say now in
their 80s that they were clear. And I suspect that he was clear. She
made a deal with herself that she would do whatever it took, that she
wanted to be married to him and she would agree to his terms." And
though Pamela disapproves of those terms, "that's the deal she made
The only one who seems to have gotten over it is perhaps Nan. After all,
she got the man she always wanted, the daughters, the dream house, and a
career for the ages, so what's a book by Gay Talese really going to
matter at this point? She smiles sweetly and gives her line on the book:
"He doesn't know anything about marriage, so I'm not concerned."
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