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An Evening in the Nude With Gay Talese

"Ever since Honor Thy Father, he had been looking for a subject bigger than organized crime. There could be only one: sex..."

From the July 9, 1973 issue of New York Magazine.

Gay Talese and his party crowded into an old Ford and headed across town. The car bounced and rattled like the one in which Gay had first discovered sex long ago in high school. But this car was different in one crucial respect. His back seat was missing. No matter. Gay had long since outgrown back-seat grappling as well as many other small-town sexual practices. He now knew fancier places to undress in. We were on our way to one of them.

Love in this car would have been torture—just riding in back was bad enough. Three of us squatted side by side on the car floor, like the monkeys who were blind, deaf, and dumb to evil. I felt a high-school-dance nervousness. I wondered how I would look. I was not at all sure that I would know the right steps. When we reached The Fifth Season at 315 West 57th Street, we all staggered out of the car. As we walked toward the nudist health spa, my knees, which had been cramped during the ride, felt weak.

We squeezed into an elevator and rode it down to the basement, where we filed down a long Freudian corridor. There were six of us in all: Gay was there with a girl named Janet whom he had met at George Plimpton's Paris Review party four days earlier. I was with Sally Keil, who has been my girlfriend for the past two years. Gay had also invited a massage parlor manager named Stephan Weisenberger and a masseuse named Amy. At the end of the hall, Gay used his membership key to open a door behind which lay a brave nude world.

We all marched into a coed locker room. Amy, whose profession was taking off her clothes, was the first one to get undressed. Talese was almost as fast. The son of a tailor, Gay loves clothes, but he also loves to take them off. He slipped out of his cut-in tweed jacket, his turtleneck, his tweed trousers, and his jockey shorts. His 41-year-old body was in good shape. The rest of us watched Gay and Amy closely, as if to learn how to disrobe; then we haltingly followed their example.

We all wrapped towels around our waists and Gay led the way to the swimming pool. Amy shed her towel almost immediately and—wearing only a cigarette—walked up to a huddle of toweled men and asked them for a light. They looked as startled as Humphrey Bogart did in To Have and Have Not when Lauren Bacall appeared in the doorway of his hotel room with a similar request. Bogie had called Bacall "Slim." None of the men staring at Amy's chest called her "Slim."

After glasses of wine, we all dropped our towels and dived into the heated pool. We played a beach-ball game while overhead a giant mirror ball rotated, reflecting light in every direction, reminding me of my high school's senior prom. When we got out of the pool, we did not put our towels back on.

Gay led the way into the weight room showing it off proudly to his visitors. I picked up a barbell and found that my knees still felt weak. Amy, not interested in weights, picked up a long phallic cue and joined a game of eightball. Stephan showed Janet, the girl who had come with Gay, how to stand on her head. She toppled over several times but eventually managed to stand erect, her breasts seemingly confused by the reversal of gravity's demands.

Gay surveyed his upside-down "date" and decided to teach her something more useful than a headstand. When she had removed her clothes, he had discovered that she was getting fat. Gay put her down on a mat and started her doing sit-ups. Hard work had made him famous and hard work could make her thin. Gay Talese still believes in that much of the American Dream. He could shed his clothes and many old practices but he is no more likely to shed his habit of work and self-improvement than the nuns who had once taught him were likely to shed their habits.

Gay, who is genuinely generous, always wants to help people, wants them to better themselves, wants them to succeed. If he is not playing girls' gym teacher, then he is coaching less polished writers on their craft. His advice to other journalists is similar to the advice he gave Janet: strain for leanness.


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