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A Nonfiction Marriage

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In the Hamptons, 1987.  

You’d think that, having weathered the storm of public scandal once, Nan might be reluctant to relive it, but she says she has no apprehension about the book’s rerelease. “I think it is a brilliant book,” she says. After he wrote the final chapter to address the controversy and his wife’s unhappiness—a section in which Talese switches to the third person—he asked her to read it. “I think he knew it would draw fire. And he said, ‘Do you think I should do it?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ Because it seemed to me that I, his wife, was the rounding-out of the book … I mean, he got me to go to that [nudist] colony! He never lets you alone! Finally I said, ‘I now know why people talk to you. It’s easier to say yes because it gets you to go away.’ ”

In a way, the book he’s working on now is the perfect companion to Thy Neighbor’s Wife, sort of its opposite: Thine Own Wife. Talese says that the marriage book began to germinate when he was finishing Thy Neighbor’s Wife, but that he wasn’t ready to tackle it until a few years ago. When he first discussed the idea with his agent, Lynn Nesbit, she immediately called Nan: Do you know what he’s doing? Nan deadpanned, “I don’t think he knows anything about marriage, so it’s probably okay.”

“Her definition of marriage up against mine—they’re not what would be in the dictionary,” retorts Gay. “I’m not going to say I know everything, because I know there’s a lot about her that I don’t know. The private lives of people are an endless mystery.” Which is of course what’s so tantalizing about the notion of this book. Ever since Talese opened the door to their personal lives in the early seventies, he invited in all manner of speculation about the nature of their relationship. For years I have heard people describe their marriage as “open”—a term that implies that Nan, too, enjoys extramarital affairs. Nan has said in the past that she has not, though Gay, through coy hints in the press, would perhaps like us to believe otherwise. (“Nan has all these wonderful writers who are men. All those long publishing lunches. You never know where she is. This is not a woman living in a nunnery,” Gay said in an item in the Daily News last year.) Either way, their relationship fascinates people as much as it troubles them. Is Gay a philandering bastard or a pioneering anthropologist? Is Nan a doormat or a devoted wife with an unusually high tolerance for her eccentric husband’s sex research?

When I ask Gay if he is at all worried about dragging Nan and their relationship and even their sex life back into the spotlight, he says he’s not. “I think she’s a different woman than she was in 1980,” he says. “I don’t expect trouble with her this time, but I could be wrong.”

For what it’s worth, Nan has no intention of meddling. “You know, I just trust Gay,” she says. “When we married I made a little vow to myself that I would never interfere with his writing—whatever he wanted to write—and so far, I’ve been okay with that.”

Nan and Gay were introduced through a friend in 1957 and “courted for two and a half years,” as Nan puts it. Her mother, a woman who had social ambitions for her daughter, was never crazy about Gay, but she insisted they get engaged if they were going to see each other exclusively. Nan faked their engagement by getting a formal announcement portrait taken, which “bought me another six months,” she says. But then the pressure was on to hurry the committed bachelor to the altar. When Gay went to Rome to write a piece for The New York Times Magazine and cabled her to join him, Nan saw her opportunity. First, she went to see her parents in Rye. “Gay has asked me to come to Rome to get married.” (She looks at me mischievously: “A lie! He hadn’t!”) Then she called Gay’s parents and asked them to send his birth certificate to the New York Times bureau in Rome and bought a one-way ticket on Alitalia.

When she arrived and told Gay what she’d done, he buried his head in his arm. “He said, ‘Aaaaaah! I’m too young to get married!’ He thought it was the worst idea in the world.” Gay can still work up a fresh outrage about what he calls the “Showdown in Rome,” but it’s coupled with a dose of admiration for Nan’s temerity. “She’s very courageous in a way,” he says. “She was this little post-deb, white-glove, Manhattanville, Sacred Heart girl, but she’s got her priorities in order.” And she played her cards well. “What were my choices?” asks Gay. “Not get married and it would end? I didn’t want to end it. So the choice was made right there. She made the choice.”


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