Here, suddenly, his tone shifts and there is an edge of bitterness. As much as he feels guilty for embarrassing Nan, he is also jealous of the freedoms afforded in her world. “The writers she published, they did what they wanted. People like Philip Roth, and Pat Conroy—he writes about his drunken father in The Great Santini—Margaret Atwood, all the people she published had the freedom to be writers. And I didn’t feel any less motivated as a nonfiction writer. I wanted to really pursue material at a depth that fiction writers can by not naming names.”
Worse, he felt that some of these writers had turned against him. He was up for president of PEN back when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, but withdrew because of the backlash. “I lost the respect of a lot of writers,” he says. “That hurt me a lot. I didn’t want to be a pariah. I felt that I was in disgrace among the people I thought I should feel comfortable with no matter what the hell I did with my professional life.”
He remembers discussing his problems with Nora Ephron one night when she had come to the townhouse for dinner. “This is the shittiest year I’ve ever had in my life,” he told her. “What are you going to do next?” she asked.
He didn’t quite know. He had thought he would write a book about Lee Iacocca and the car industry—“My idea was to get away from sex,” he says—but when his best friend, David Halberstam, announced he was embarking on a similar project, they had a falling out that lasted thirteen years. On top of that, he felt like a bit of a fool in Nan’s literary world. “I wasn’t sure that my marriage was supporting me. Nan was doing very well. I wasn’t doing very well. She was going about her life pretty easily and I felt, I’m losing my best friend.”
And so he left town. “I didn’t have any sense of what my personal life was, all I knew is that I had to have a professional life to bail me out.” He went to Italy to begin work on Unto the Sons, interviewing relatives of his father in a tiny hillside village in Calabria. He hired an interpreter, Kristin Jarratt, a 25-year-old blonde from St. Louis who was living in Rome. Their working relationship quickly turned into an affair. “I needed a friend,” says Talese. It lasted for most of the time Talese was working on the book, and Jarratt actually lived in the Taleses’ Ocean City house for a while when he was interviewing his relatives in America. “She helped me become very comfortable with who I am,” says Talese. “I wasn’t feeling comfortable with who I was at all in 1982, not after the whole Thy Neighbor’s Wife situation.” Jarratt eventually married and then divorced an Italian film director, and she and Gay remain friends.
Were you in love with her?
Did Nan know about it?
“Nan never asked too many questions, and I didn’t volunteer too much information. But there wasn’t any sneaking around. There were no secrets. And I never thought, I want to leave Nan. I was very unhappy. But what made me unhappy wasn’t Nan’s fault. I don’t know whose fault it was. My career just fell apart, and I fell apart a little bit.”
One evening, Talese and I are sitting in the living room when suddenly his daughter Pamela appears. Like her sister and her parents, she is intense, very attractive, a bit eccentric, and sharp as a tack.
“Want a little vodka?” asks Gay.
“I’ll sit down for a second, but I’m not going to have any vodka because then I won’t be useful for the rest of the day.”
“Do you want me to fix you a drink?” he persists.
“No, thank you,” she says, comically firm.
Pamela’s sister, Catherine, had always seemed to embrace the “crazy cricket rules,” as she puts it, of her parents’ relationship. “Life with them has been incredibly lucky and interesting and glamorous and it’s always felt like, this is unique,” she tells me. With her father, she says, “you could be putting mail in the mailbox, but you knew there was going to be an adventure.” And she sees her mother as his perfect complement: “She always said to me when I began dating, ‘Hold with an open hand.’ That’s not a life lesson, that’s a Zen lesson.”
But I wondered whether Pamela’s take was the same. After all, she was older, and more aware, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out. Before I can even think of asking so personal a question, Gay shifts in his seat, and his voice changes. “We were talking about Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” he says to his daughter, “and he asked me, Did we ever have a discussion about how you were affected by it?”