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A Nonfiction Marriage

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Nan and Gay eloping in Rome, 1959.  

Interviewing Talese is, among other things, an exercise in acquiescence. He seems to have a whole schedule mapped out for our conversations, every one of which begins with a stiff drink. As we finish our first cocktail, Talese suggests that the townhouse ought to be a character in the story and takes me on a tour, starting in “the bunker”—a plush cave under the streets of Manhattan where Talese writes.

There is no phone, no e-mail, no view, no sound. Along the walls there are shelves filled with brown file boxes that Talese has covered in collage. On one of the boxes labeled THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE, he has taped a black-and-white photograph of the pinup Diane Webber lying on her stomach naked, legs spread just shy of beaver shot. Talese pulls one of the boxes down and begins to flip through the folders, all of them color-coded and fastidiously labeled. “This is the outline for the whole book on one page,” he says, handing me a piece of cardboard shirt-packaging. It’s a drawing, really, a bit like the rough sketch of a cartoon that a wordy artist like R. Crumb might conjure. Talese spends years reducing his research until at long last it all fits on a single piece of shirt board. And then he draws it. And then he starts writing.

On the other side of the room there are five boxes labeled MARRIAGE, one corresponding to every decade he and Nan have been together. Each of these boxes will eventually become a section of the book, which he plans to begin in 1980, the year Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out. The eighties box is open, and there are pictures spilling out. Talese has been going through every letter Nan ever wrote to him. “If it’s a letter of complaint, of which there are numerous letters of complaint, I write my own version of the incident,” he says. “I try to explain it, as if I’m trying to establish for a historian what this was all about.” There are also black spiral notebooks filled with transcripts of Nan being interviewed by reporters, whom Talese hired because he “wanted to read it like an outsider.” He picks up a photograph of his wife looking directly into the camera with big green eyes. “There’s Nan,” he says with a dark chuckle. “Smiling through the apocalypse.”

We head to the third floor so that Talese can show me his original apartment and suddenly there is Nan in the flesh. “Helleeeeew,” she says, in a voice that is part forties movie star, part English aristocrat, even though she is neither of those things. About ten years ago I became friendly with Catherine Talese and once had dinner at the family beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. I have been quoting Nan quoting Hemingway ever since: “There’s nothing like a cracking cold Sancerre.”

This part of the house is clearly Nan’s domain, with piles of manuscripts and galleys on every surface and two Australian terriers barking away, thrilled for some action. It seems far removed from Gay’s realm, just a floor above, where he keeps the artifacts of his storied career (including a life-size cardboard cutout of himself) along with his countless bespoke suits and dozens of hand-cobbled shoes.

“Was my first apartment 60 bucks a month?” Gay asks his wife.

“Fifty-twhooooo,” says Nan, as if she were playing a flute. A quizzical look crosses her face. “What are you two up to?” As it slowly dawns on me that Gay has not told her that he has agreed to participate in an article about their marriage, I can feel the tension begin to rise.

“Jonathan is going to call you,” says Gay.

“About what?” asks Nan.

“He’ll explain when he comes to see you alone.”

She turns to me and, laughing nervously, says, “You’re writing what?” About Gay, I say, but you too. “Oh!” she says, alarmed. There is an awkward quiet. Suddenly, Gay pipes up, a stern edge to his voice, giving an order. “So, he’ll see you alone, Nan.” Then to me: “Do you have her number?” Nan gives me the digits and then Gay says, “Good! This will be fun!”

A few days later, I’m sitting in Nan A. Talese’s corner office in the Random House building at 56th and Broadway, looking out at her spectacular view of the Hudson. “Isn’t it divine?” she says. At 75, Nan is elegant in slacks and kitten heels. After years of working her way up the ladder to editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin, she was given her own imprint at Random House in 1990. That was when she put the A (her maiden name is Ahearn) into her name, as if to say with a single letter: I am not just Gay’s wife. She is beloved by her authors—Pat Conroy, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan—who follow her wherever she goes.


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