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A Nonfiction Marriage

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Nan and Gay on their wedding day. Rome, 1959.  

“It didn’t even enter your mind at the time,” says Pamela, matter-of-factly. “At about 8 or 9 or 10 years old, you began to tell me—with some pride, I now realize—that this book was going to get a tremendous amount of attention. And that we had to be prepared for it, but I actually don’t think that you yourself were prepared for the kind of reaction the book would get.”

“The book came out …”

“When I was 16,” she says. “That I remember distinctly.”

“Am I correct in that many of your fellow students would talk about me because their parents were so appalled by this decadent father of yours?”

“Of course. But Chapin [where she went to school] was so discreet. I was told later that in one English class somebody wrote a poem about you. But the teacher said, ‘It’s not to leave this room.’ And I could feel everyone being tremendously careful with me. The teachers kept coming up to me and asking me if I was … all right.”

A big smile spreads across Gay’s face. “Is that right?” Then he continues with his questioning. “Did you ever remember talking to me about it?”

“No, because you weren’t really available for that kind of conversation at that time. And I don’t know that I would have been able to articulate it even if you were. You weren’t the gentle nice person you are now. You had a different kind of male edge to you. And the Nanster was doing her Betty White number, trying to make everything okay and denying that there was any problem. In fact, both of you were doing that.”

Pamela starts to talk to me about her sister’s photography, and Gay, no longer the center of attention, gets bored and interrupts her. “I’m still impressed with the fact that I don’t have any knowledge of this: Did your mother ever take you aside during the post–Thy Neighbor’s Wife period and try to justify me to you? Did she say, Daddy’s a reporter or writer? Did she ever try to explain it to you?”

Pamela’s voice sharpens into a tone that parents use to negotiate with teenagers. “How honest do you want me to be?”

“I don’t care,” he says, a bit louder. “At this point, I don’t care.”

“From my point of view, where you two were at that time, you were not capable of addressing the kind of impact that that book not only had on me but the impact it had on both of you. I think that book shook you both down more than you probably recognize.”

“Then why are we still married after 50 years?”

“Because you’re stubborn.”

He looks at me. “What did she say?”

You’re stubborn, I say.

“Nan is sort of aloof, she’s very intellectual,” says Pamela. “She’s very in her head most of the time, and you were pulling that whole Telly Savalas seventies man, sex-without-strings number for most of my life, which didn’t do me any favors, by the way. I think you two are weirdly connected, and there’s really nothing you can do about it, because what you two have gone through together would have destroyed most marriages. And I think, also, in the seventies there wasn’t recognition of the way interpersonal relationships worked. Mommy would never have the language. She would never use a word like ‘co-dependence.’ The language just wasn’t there for her to recognize what was going on. I don’t know what would have happened—and I’ve thought about this—if you and Mommy had gone to therapy after the book. Would you have had a better understanding of each other or would you have gotten divorced? But the kind of strain you each put yourselves under … I mean, that book was a tremendous challenge because not only were you doing things that were unorthodox socially and otherwise, but you had the expectation that people would get it—in the press and in the larger world.”

Gay looks chastened. He sits there for a second, taking it in, and then says, “Did you read the book?” Yes, she says, in college. “Did you put a brown wrapper over the damn cover?” No, she says, she read it in her dorm room. He asks her what she thought of it. “I thought it was a wonderful book. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No. Never. All these years I’ve been wondering.”

Heeeelleew. Nan breezes into the townhouse just after 7 p.m. Still holding her bags, still wearing her trench coat, she and Gay engage in a hilarious mix of high-end literary talk, couple shorthand, and gentle argument. She mentions that Terrence Rafferty raved about one of her books, The Glister, by John Burnside, in The New York Times Book Review that comes out on Sunday.


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