Gay and Nan Talese have had storied careers and a storied marriage. The two legendary figures of the New York literary world celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary a few years ago, and through that half century, have coexisted in a partnership, both domestic and creative, that reads a bit like fiction. For our the inaugural print publication of NeueJournal, we gained some insight into what makes the Taleses tick, both as individuals, and as a couple.
GAY TALESE: It’s typical. This morning I said, “We’ll go away Thursday.” Nan’s been looking forward to getting out of New York; it’s been cold, and she doesn’t like New York so much . . .
NAN TALESE: Too noisy. I love the country, and Gay loves the city.
GT: . . . but this afternoon I said, “I just can’t deliver this thing to The New Yorker. I’m working on it and I thought I’d be finished this weekend and I’m not, so I have to work through the weekend.” She understood, “Okay, so we won’t go.”
I think that our marriage, which was more or less impulsive, was characteristic of the way the rest of our life has gone. I was in Rome during the summer of 1959 writing a piece for The New York Times Magazine when Fellini was making La Dolce Vita. The movie had sprawled itself out from the studio on the fringes of the city and was a living episode of the daily traffic of Rome, and the nighttime atmosphere as well. I called Nan up—she was at Random House then—and asked, “Do you want to come over? This is fabulous.” She decided that this was going to be a marital trip and bought a one-way ticket—
NT: That’s because I didn’t have enough money then for a two-way ticket.
GT:—and she called my parents [to tell them] we’re going to get married. That shows you that at times one person is more decisive than the other.
NT: You never wanted to get married.
GT: Well, that was before the edict was delivered. I knew [she] was the person, if I didn’t marry, at least I should marry, if not now, then at sometime—but then that sometime became eliminated by her determination. So that was it. Both of us had a Catholic education, but we did not get married in a church [much to her parents’ chagrin]: We got married in the atmosphere of La Dolce Vita.
We’ve had a very episodic life. There were instances good and bad, glamorous and dreary, that we’ve tolerated and accepted as part of the truism that marriage is a long marathon, not a sprint.
NT: I remember when [our daughter] Catherine was about to get married and she asked, “Mummy, what’s it like to be married?” and I said, “Well it’s like being on the front of a roller coaster: You go up and down, up and down, and that’s marriage.”
GT: The reason that we were initially attracted to one another intellectually was that we both were fond of the same books. About a year before we got married, we lived together and had a library that was partly hers and partly mine. One of the deterrents to breaking up was that we’d have to return the books, which would have been too inconvenient, so we stayed together for fifty-seven years. The books have become more numerous—there are now 4,000–5,000 books all through the house.
NT: We care very much about books [and appreciate the same things. . .although we’re opposites in other ways]. We [also] have a very strong work ethic, and I think we’re pretty considerate of each other.
GT: Nan has made her living all of our married life editing and acquiring books from American and some international writers, as well more than five decades of being an acquiring editor and a pencil editor line editor. And along the way I have written books, magazine pieces, and sometimes newspapers articles. She goes to the office on Broadway and 56th Street, and I go to a subterranean apartment below the house that I call a bunker. Our routine from 1959 to 2015 hasn’t changed all that much.
On March 7, 2015 I [had] a front-page article in The New York Times that opens by describing a landscaper in Selma, Alabama, digging holes alongside the street and inserting pansies and certain kinds of shrubs. I didn’t know what kind of shrubs. . .
NT: Gay can’t tell one flower from the other] so I told him what they were: pansies, azalea bushes, and small evergreen trees. They all would have sounded the same if he had done it. I [also] read aloud everything Gay’s writing before it goes to the publisher.
GT: I like her reading aloud, because when you hear your work coming back at you with a different voice, there’s a different perception. You get clarity about it. So anything I don’t like I can more readily change when I hear it in Nan’s voice.
NT: And actually what I’ve learned from Gay, which has been very helpful to my authors, is that I know what it’s like for an author to be alone all day and to be writing on a blank piece of paper.
This conversation has been edited.
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson