For Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz profiles 83-year-old iconic editor Nan Talese, who rose through the ranks of one publishing house after another before being given her own eponymous imprint at Doubleday in 1990. Aside from being one of the most powerful women in publishing, Talese is also known as one-half of one of the most interesting and curious marriages in recent history. One of the underpinnings of her union with famously non-monogamous New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese is a pledge she made to him early on that she wouldn’t ever impinge on his “freedom”—an agreement that allowed him to have many affairs, some supposedly in the name of “research” for his book about the loosening of sexual mores in the free love era. The profile comes just as Gay plans to write a book about their marriage.
In 1981, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, something discomfiting was starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to shift. Gay’s book was critically panned, not for the substance, which reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its author. “What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked off, all that,” says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of the writers group PEN, he’d been on the verge of becoming its next president. But in light of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the women of PEN revolted, and he resigned. Nan’s career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In 1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the old-line publishing company based in Boston; she’d commute there while still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least partially tied to his downfall. “She started getting a lot of publicity about Thy Neighbor’s Wife . . . . What about this guy’s wife? This guy’s wife is Nan Talese. She’s this terrific, revered editor, and she’s married to this disgusting guy.”
But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay’s champion, the power shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She defended him publicly, as she does today. “I think most of the press told more about the reporters than it did about Gay,” she says. And so, for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic entanglements on the road. “I don’t want to degrade people by representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won’t,” says Gay.