The son of an Italian immigrant in Ocean City, New Jersey—his father was a tailor, and his mother ran a dress shop—Gay got rotten grades in school and ended up at the University of Alabama. Still living with her parents, she called him one night to inform him that she was coming to spend the night with him—like it or not. Her parents thought she was with somebody else,” recalls Gay. The first was her parents, who considered him an unpredictable rascal. “I didn’t want to see her mother play tennis somewhere . She aced the test they gave her—to spot all the errors on a page of text—and landed a job as a proofreader.Though his pedigree wasn’t up to snuff, he had something else: an edgy, obsessive curiosity about the world, which he was honing as a reporter for , where he was writing about sports. Nan recalls, “Mummy said, ‘Nan, you don’t know what it’s like to live with a writer.’ [I thought,] How would know? Little did she know she was stepping into one of America’s premier publishing houses, in its heyday.She’s looking rather adoringly at her husband, Gay Talese—best-selling author, iconic charmer—who’s emerged from the top floor of their town house, in a three-piece bespoke suit as per usual, and is already commanding the room. Beautiful girls playing the harp would wind up in bed with him sooner or later. The Donald Trump of harps.”Nan has a small correction to make, but when she tries to interject, Gay’s not having it. Indeed, Gay’s the famous writer—one of the pioneers of New Journalism with his rich, novelistic articles for about Frank Sinatra, Joe Di Maggio, and others, and the author of 15 books of nonfiction.The subject is the original residents of the house, on East 61st Street, a cast of characters that brings to mind a Billy Wilder movie. “Either you’re telling the story or I’m telling the story,” he barks. He’s one of New York’s great scene-makers—in all senses of the term.Consider Ian Mc Ewan’s rapturous recollection of first setting eyes on her in the mid-70s, a description that still feels apt. ”The most intense mystery has surrounded the Talese marriage—and why it’s lasted so long.“Oh, she was beautiful, with this wonderful, fluting, bird-like voice that has never changed. I’ve never heard her in my whole life ever boast or name-drop. She’s as decorous as he is licentious, as easygoing as he is bossy, as content to stay home with a glass of wine and on PBS as he is voraciously social.And yet, all this time, Nan was quietly doing something extraordinary—becoming one of the first female editors of literary fiction, and rising through the ranks at four major publishing houses before getting her own, eponymous imprint at Doubleday.After nearly 60 years in the business, she’s now one of a small handful of living publishing pioneers, with a list of authors that includes Ian Mc Ewan, Margaret Atwood, the late Pat Conroy, and Thomas Keneally, Barry Unsworth, Louis Begley, Peter Ackroyd, Antonia Fraser, and Thomas Cahill. In an initial e-mail, she pooh-poohed the idea that she’d done anything noteworthy.
The older two turned out to be rebels—her brother got kicked out of school for throwing rotten tomatoes at the prefect; her sister eloped at age 18. She really wanted me.” about the Via Veneto, where Fellini was shooting La Dolce Vita. She bought a ticket on Alitalia, told her parents that Gay had asked her to marry him—a bald-faced lie—and collected Gay’s baptismal certificate from his parents. She could have married the secretary of state,” he says.
It often starts improbably high and ends improbably low, a sort of charming kind of ripple and peal of a voice. [She] shimmered in front of me.”But beneath the white gloves, as some admirers have said, are brass knuckles. But she knows what she wants, and she will fight to get it.” Gay goes even further, warning one to not be fooled by her agreeableness. And then there are his romantic adventures, which have been something of an open secret for some time.