At 83, Nan Talese might just be the new image of having it all. She’s dressed in a black sweater, cozy black pants, and black ballet slippers, girlishly ensconced on her tufted leather couch with a manuscript she’s considering for publication by her imprint at Doubleday. 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. 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. They included model Hope Bryce (with her blind dog), who was having an affair with director Otto Preminger. “I’d see Mr. Preminger sneaking in and out,” says Gay, at 85 still razor-sharp. There was an airline stewardess who “went on a flight, leaving her goddamn toaster on . . . and it burned the goddamn fourth floor enough that they kicked her out.” And don’t forget Lucile Lawrence, the ex-wife of world-renowned harpist Carlos Salzedo, “the most famous teacher of the harp in the history of America . . . . Beautiful girls playing the harp would wind up in bed with him sooner or later. He was a notorious guy. The Donald Trump of harps.”
Nan has a small correction to make, but when she tries to interject, Gay’s not having it. “Either you’re telling the story or I’m telling the story,” he barks. “But if you keep doing this, I’m going to talk to her alone. You’ve had your chance . . . . You can correct it later. Write a letter of correction.” Nan responds with an eye roll.
At first glance, it may look like another marriage between an egomaniacal genius and his docile enabler. Indeed, Gay’s the famous writer—one of the pioneers of New Journalism with his rich, novelistic articles for Esquire about Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and others, and the author of 15 books of nonfiction. He’s one of New York’s great scene-makers—in all senses of the term. A social peacock, he’s been out “every goddamn night” of the week for the last five decades (this week includes writer Erica Jong, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, and a Mexican thief, as Gay puts it, who visits from time to time). He’s the one who, in the service of his work, freely enjoyed the pleasures of other women while researching Thy Neighbor’s Wife, an immersive look into sexual liberation in America.
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 McEwan, Margaret Atwood, the late Pat Conroy, and Thomas Keneally, Barry Unsworth, Louis Begley, Peter Ackroyd, Antonia Fraser, and Thomas Cahill. But, like many remarkable women of that generation, Nan has no interest in being celebrated, and can’t even see her accomplishments. A Vanity Fair profile? Well, it seems like a lot of fussing. In an initial e-mail, she pooh-poohed the idea that she’d done anything noteworthy. “Doesn’t breaking the glass ceiling mean becoming president or CEO? I simply have my own imprint and I have been lucky to have authors follow me when I went to another publishing company. Best wishes, Nan.” But her daughters, Pamela and Catherine, twisted her arm. They were tired of her attributing her success to Gay. “She’s always giving him credit for things,” says Pamela, an intense and darkly wry 52-year-old painter, who has had years of therapy trying to figure out her family. “But maybe she knows best. It’s her career; it’s her life; he’s her husband.”
Read more at Vanity Fair.