By way of explaining how he felt about his wife-to-be, he tells me about his first love, a girl he met in college in Alabama. “She was my Zelda Fitzgerald,” he says wistfully. Gay was devastated when she dumped him. “When I met Nan, I thought, this is a person that I’m not going to be dumped by. And that mattered to me. In a practical sense, I wanted to succeed, and I wanted to have someone who cared about me personally, and Nan did. And I cared about her as well. I just felt I could grow with her. I’m not sure I could have grown with little Miss Zelda Fitzgerald.”
Nan did her best to ease Gay’s passage from bachelorhood to family life. “I thought that it was my responsibility to take care of everything that involved marriage,” she says. “He paid the Con Ed and the rent bill and anything he would have had to pay anyway. I would pay for the groceries, the nanny, and everything to do with the children. I never wanted to be a burden on him. I knew he always wanted to be free.”
But there is another story from their marriage, one of a more recent vintage, that suggests Mrs. Talese is not exactly a pushover. Nan, who does not love the Jersey shore, where the family has a beach house, recently bought a country home in Roxbury, Connecticut. “I’m terribly happy there,” she says. “It took me months to get up the courage to tell Gay I bought it.”
He didn’t know?
“No!” she says, and then explains that Gay had, in fact, vetoed the purchase. But a few months later, when he was out of town, she bought the house anyway, with her husband none the wiser. Finally, one Sunday morning, when they were eating breakfast and reading the paper, she screwed up the courage to tell him. “Oh, I have some news for you,” said Nan. Then, very casually, as if she were talking about a sweater she’d picked up, she said, “I bought that house in Connecticut.” Gay’s eyes grew wild with rage. He stood up and yelled, “Divorce!” and then took the paper and retreated to his room on the top floor. A couple of hours later, he reappeared. “Well, the sports cars will fit in the garage, won’t they?” he asked. Nan said simply, “Yes,” and they never brought it up again.
“You had a different kind of male edge to you,” Pamela Talese says to her father. “And the Nanster was doing her Betty White number, denying that there was any problem.”
Talese is sitting under the naked lady with the rainbow vagina, talking about how his marriage almost fell apart. Perhaps because we are on our second strong cocktail, he seems particularly introspective today, even a bit despairing, as he reassesses some of the choices he’s made. “I can only blame myself,” he says. “It was a case of me being … so uncareful. And Nan was unhappy. She might have told you she was not unhappy and it didn’t bother her—I don’t know what the hell she told you—but I’m telling you, from my point of view, that was the beginning of a lot of problems in this marriage. That book. Or the research of that book.”
I tell him that Nan did, in fact, have a different version, one that included her saying she trusts him. “Nan is very supportive. She won’t turn against me and say, ‘You can’t do that.’ On this marriage book—Jesus—she said, ‘What do you know about marriage?’ But she’s not saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ She’s cooperating. But she has a little distance, like she did with the massage parlor.”
Does he have regrets about Thy Neighbor’s Wife?
“Am I sorry I wrote it? No, I thought it was one of my best books.” He is now sort of slumped down into the couch, speaking softly. “I’ll tell you what I did have regrets about. You know, you become very sad when you think—my daughters—I felt I couldn’t protect them from the bad image that I had as a result of what I was doing. It’s something that bothered me more than anything else in the seventies. Kids talk, and what do they talk about? This wretched father, that’s what they talk about.”
I wonder if he ever simply apologized to his family for his carelessness and excesses, but he makes it clear that this is not something one can simply apologize for. “Sometimes, within the marriage, you are vulnerable during arguments to have this one thing—my illustrious and decadent period of researching Thy Neighbor’s Wife—come up again and again. It can be twenty years later: ‘Oh, well, I had to put up with you when you were running massage parlors and running around with no clothes on in front of Aaron Latham in your stupid article in New York!’ But again, I don’t really care. And Pamela and Catherine don’t seem to care. And now Nan doesn’t care. But in those days, I’m telling you, it was a miserable time.”