When I first called Nan to schedule an interview, the small talk was brief and mostly about Gay. “He’s an eccentric,” she said, as if somehow that might nullify the agreement he made on her behalf. “Can we sort of be off-the-record? I just don’t want to be present on your page,” she said. Not at all? I asked. “My role is to be behind the curtains,” she said. But he’s writing a book about your marriage, I said. “Well then,” she concluded, “I have to obey my husband.”
Stuff of legend: One evening in 1972, when Nan and Gay were walking home from dinner at P.J. Clarke’s, Gay spied a neon sign above a building on Lexington Avenue near 59th Street that read LIVE NUDE MODELS. Gay said to Nan, “Let’s go check that out.” Nan said to Gay, “No, no, no. You go yourself. I’ll see you at home.” And right there, the seed for years of future discontent was planted: intrepid, rascally New Journalist from blue-collar Jersey tries to drag lovely post-deb wife from Rye, New York, into a dirty shame hole in their otherwise chic neighborhood. Several “massages” later, he had decided on the subject of his next book.
Before long, Talese was managing a massage parlor, the Middle Earth, at 51st and Third, just a block from the old Random House building where Nan worked. He got to know the masseuses, young women in their twenties, as they sat around between their appointments giving hand jobs to middle-aged men. The goal was to lie in wait until he found the perfect subjects: a man who could be a stand-in for himself, what Talese likes to call his “literary hostage,” and a girl half his age, someone who embodied the new un-hung-up morality, the free-love ideal that had so captured his imagination.
Word got out about Talese’s new day job, and one night in 1973, a writer from New York Magazine named Aaron Latham called to ask if he could hang around the massage parlor and write a story about how Talese does his research. Talese did him one better, taking the writer and his girlfriend to the Fifth Season, a nudist health spa, on West 57th Street. The resulting piece, “An Evening in the Nude With Gay Talese,” describes Talese running around the city with a bunch of louche swingers and living it up at sex clubs. The final scene has him heading off to an orgy at someone’s apartment.
“It was presented in a way that really trivialized what I was trying to do,” says Talese. “It didn’t take it with any seriousness; it was a mocking piece. It really put me down as a silly person. It was very diminishing.” You can still hear the self-laceration all these years later. “And Nan was very upset by that piece … It seemed that I was having one jolly good time and calling it research, as if it were an excuse to just go out there and get massaged by some great golden-fingered girl of the month.”
To be fair, it seemed that Gay had already been trying Nan’s patience with his research. He had even brought home a couple of potential subjects for dinner: a young woman who was a masseuse at the Middle Earth and one of her customers, a doctor, whom she was now dating. At dinner’s end, the doctor made a pass at Nan, and the night came to an abrupt close. Nan told Gay: “It’s your book, it’s your style of research. From now on, leave me out of it.”
A few weeks later, while Latham was still shadowing him, Talese found a note from Nan at the townhouse. “I opened it really quickly while Latham was taking his coat off,” he says. “Nan wrote, ‘I’m leaving.’ I put it in my pocket, and we went to Elaine’s.” Nan did leave him, but only for a few days. She returned without explanation or argument.
In Nan’s office, I ask about this whole dreadful episode, and her responses are remarkably measured. In some ways she sounds more like an editor talking about a writer than a wife talking about a husband. “I told Gay, ‘Don’t do it. You are not going to have your book out for a long time,’ ” she says of the Latham article. “I just felt that you don’t talk about a book until it’s written. I remember when the book came out, Gore Vidal said, ‘God, this must be volume three, we’ve been reading about this book for so long.’ ”
I press a little further: There are a lot of people who still believe that Gay humiliated you, I tell her. “No!” she says. “I think it was Eliot Fremont-Smith who wrote something with the headline ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’ There was just an assumption that I was suffering terribly and my husband had done this awful thing. But the fact is, he called me every single night from wherever he was. We never were apart for more than six weeks. And we used to meet for these romantic weekends in Chicago, which was sort of halfway [between New York and the nudist colony in L.A.], and stay at the Drake. And no matter how bizarre it all was, I never felt deserted or unloved by him.”