Closing a Chapter

Gay Talese didn’t want to leave his Ocean City home, but his wife gave him little choice. Now the famed writer bids a sad farewell to the Shore.

Talese and wife Nan take a sentimental stroll down their block before leaving Ocean City for Roxbury, Connecticut, where their neighbors include Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Nan Talese makes her way down the stairs of the century-old Ocean City home she has shared for 44 years with her husband, the writer Gay Talese. She eases past packing boxes stacked behind the sofa where the power couple has entertained journalist David Halberstam, singer Judy Collins, Pulitzer-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, writer and director Nora Ephron and other famous figures. Padding silently across the worn red-painted hardwood floor in a pair of white leather Keds, she waves and smiles in recognition at her visitors. A noted book editor and publisher, married to an even more famous author, Nan is gracious, even though it is late afternoon on the last full day the couple will inhabit their beach home on East Atlantic Boulevard.

The three-story faded red house with white trim and green and white awnings is where the Taleses, primarily residents of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, summered with two now-grown daughters. It is the home where Gay, an Ocean City native, hid away through the decades in a top-floor office—padlocked when not in use—to write large portions of his well-known books. The home is where Nan edited the works of authors devoted to her, such as Pat Conroy, building her publishing career one sentence at a time.

“The house is a metaphor for them,” says Dutch journalist Menno de Galan, a sometime-Ocean City resident who has stopped by to bid them farewell. “It is a riddle—tragic and funny and interesting and strange. This house meant much more for him than her.”

After a long delay caused by Gay’s ambivalence about leaving, there is finally an agreement to sell the home for $1.6 million. (They paid $32,000 for the place in 1967.) Deal in hand, the couple are moving the contents to another home, which Nan owns in Roxbury, Connecticut. Their neighbor in tony Roxbury is Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. In Ocean City, the neighbors are wealthy, but hardly household names.

Nan opens the storm door with her right hand and brushes back the hair that frames her face. Like the house, the crew-neck sweater she wears is classic and slightly formal, an apt description of Nan herself. Like the house, she and the sweater appear careworn, Nan tired, the sweater’s sleeves threadbare in spots.

She is welcoming, though there is still much work to complete. The liquor supply is packed. Two cars shipped. Framed photographs rest on their sides. Notes written by hand, offering directions to movers, are affixed everywhere. Cutting boards and one knife are packed—Gay’s favorite kitchen tools. Other utensils will be left behind. Likewise, books remain everywhere, too heavy and numerous to move. After more late-day packing, the Taleses plan to meet the homebuyers for dinner across the bay in Somers Point, where Gay can order a martini to go with his oysters—impossible in dry Ocean City. He chose the buyers over other, higher bidders because they have promised to renovate the home, not tear it down to build bigger on the double lot.

“Gay is upstairs,” Nan says in a voice that sounds a bit like an English schoolgirl, even though she is a 75-year-old native of Rye, New York. “In his office.”

She pauses, rolls her eyes.

“He’s deciding.”

She elongates the word, indicating that, for her 79-year-old husband, decisions about leaving the town where he was born, the town that shaped him as both a writer and person, do not come easily.

“Deciding,” she says, “what to bring—and what to leave behind.”

Leaving anything behind is torture for Gay Talese. Deciding to sell the house—a departure provoked by the death of his mother in Ocean City and his wife’s secret purchase four years ago of the home in Connecticut—proved a serious test of their more-than-50-year marriage.

To understand what leaving the security of Ocean City means to Talese, you must first understand his personal dichotomies.

He is a man of equal parts habit and impulsive eccentricity.

He adheres strictly to the same schedule when he is writing: in his office by 9 am; poached eggs and toasted Italian bread, always accompanied by a Thermos of coffee, at mid-morning; a break for a sandwich and tennis around 2 pm or maybe a televised afternoon baseball game; cocktails late in the day; dinner more frequently out than in; socializing most evenings when in New York. Donuts have been a weakness, but his trim suits tailored decades ago still fit. Despite adherence to routine, he has occasional flights of fancy—like when he took off for China with little preparation for a story that never quite came together.

He is a well-off man who is both free-spending and frugal.

He has driven the same two vintage British sports cars for decades. Their maintenance costs likely exceed their worth. He is fastidious about his clothes and has spent a fortune on handmade shoes. Eldest daughter Pamela Talese says he would wear “an eight-piece suit if they invented it.” He sometimes changes clothes three times a day. He spends generously on others, too. At the same time, he compulsively saves and reuses ordinary items, fashioning postcards—he has only recently begun e-mailing—from leftover shirt cardboards. He cribs hotel stationery for use at home. He expected his daughters to take summer jobs at age 16; before that, they did chores to facilitate his writing schedule. The family was “very trained to make the world right for him,” says youngest daughter Catherine Talese.

Born on an island, he does not swim, boat or fish. He infrequently goes to the beach, though the ocean is visible from his home.

Talese famously feuded with best friend David Halberstam for 13 years over an auto-industry book idea Talese felt his fellow New York Times alumnus had appropriated. Eventually they reconciled; Halberstam’s accidental death four years ago left him bereft.

Curious and often outwardly sociable, yet ultimately distant and aloof, he approaches people as a journalistic outsider, always looking for a story despite having left behind daily journalism in 1965.

In many ways, Talese today is more celebrity than writer. He’s become the literary equivalent of the aging athletes he profiled in the twilight of their public life, such as Joe DiMaggio. A literary lion in winter—“I’m 79 years old, for Chrissakes!” is his frequent punctuation to conversations—his last big book came out in 1992. “For all these years, his reputation has been built on books he’s written years ago,” de Galan observes.

Beginning nearly five decades ago, Talese pioneered a groundbreaking narrative approach to reporting and writing nonfiction. His brilliant article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” appeared in Esquire in 1966. Many consider the 15,156-word piece the best magazine story ever written. Talese’s technique—closely observed detail built on narrative scenes borrowed from fiction—has influenced writers since. Turning full-time to books, he used the same approach to produce The Kingdom and the Power, Fame and Obscurity and Honor thy Father, well-regarded works published in a span of just three years beginning in 1969.

A decade passed before the publication of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a book he researched by managing massage parlors and sampling the sexual frontiers of the 1970s. The 1981 book made him rich and famous but also clouded his reputation, professionally and personally. The Halberstam feud followed. Talese abandoned plans to write about cars. Completing his next book, Unto the Sons, took 11 years. An announced follow-up never materialized. The 1993 rejection of a story by then-New Yorker magazine editor Tina Brown crushed him, just as finally getting a different story published in the New Yorker last year under editor David Remnick renewed him. “It showed proof he’s still alive,” says de Galan.

Recent books have been collections, reissues and a curious 2006 memoir about his repeated failed attempts to find a subject worthy of becoming a Gay Talese book. Though uncomfortable with computers, Talese contributes occasional fashion pieces for the Internet, even appearing in a video blog entry. Pamela thinks it is her father’s way of connecting to a new readership, remaining relevant. He is also at work on a substantial book about his wife and their marriage.

The subject startles some. The New York literary community is abuzz. Nan is taking it in stride so far. “I married a writer, and I trust his writing. But he knows nothing about marriage. I’ll be surprised when I read it,” she says, the same practiced answer she provides every interviewer.

Even de Galan is in the dark about Talese’s project, despite having discussed it with him. He seems “open and gregarious,” according to de Galan, but Talese is actually “closed about his sex life and his romantic life. You don’t really know what is going on in his personal life.” But the research and writing “have opened him up more. He’s talked more about the house here and about his marriage. That’s why I’m so curious about the project. I’m interested in the subject and want it to succeed.”

Pamela, a painter, thinks her father’s planned book “is an opportunity to answer a lot of what was said about him and his marriage after Thy Neighbor’s Wife. The thing about that book is there was so much publicity when it came out, and the publicity was about the marriage and his methods of research.”

Not all of Talese’s research is as unconventional as that book required. For years, he has meticulously cataloged the events in his life, saved letters and collected countless mementos which he has organized into a personal chronology.

Catherine, a photographer, believes the move to Connecticut will help her father write the new book, forcing him to take into account Nan’s “territory”—both physical and mental. “I would love to see him write this. The change can be great for him. He’ll see inside her world and perspective, with her strength and strategies.”

Talese packs, agonizing over what to leave behind. You can hear it: the distinct punctuation of hand-cobbled shoes clicking on hardwood, the ripping of packing tape, the long, long pauses. Then Talese comes down a flight of stairs to greet de Galan.

Talese is dressed down today, at least by his standards: a striped shirt worn with a gold tie beneath a brown suede vest, gray pants, elegant shoes. A bit of fraying shows on one shirt sleeve, the vest shows years of use, but then these are his work clothes. Talese carries a brown sport coat with a gold pocket square protruding. He has a hat in one hand. He dons the coat and hat and heads outside to his sun-drenched steps.

Talese talks for more than an hour, mostly discussing his wife’s purchase of the Connecticut home, his leaving Ocean City, and the manuscript he is working on. The talk is entertaining but not particularly illuminating. “There’s a surreal atmosphere, a theatrical aspect” to any interview with Talese, says de Galan, who has interviewed the writer for several stories.

“I didn’t want to sell this house,” says Talese. “This is the house where my girls grew up. This house is filled with my recollections as a young father and writer. This is where my book-writing career began. I always thought of this as a place I could write,” with fewer distractions than New York.

He knew his wife had wanted a country home for “years and years,” and he’d even looked at the Roxbury home with her, though he forbade its purchase. Nan, whom Catherine calls “the velvet hammer,” responded by buying it on her own. She waited about a month to tell Gay one Sunday morning.

“Divorce!” he’d shouted in a one-word response. Feeling “furious and betrayed,” he retreated to his quarters in their Manhattan townhouse. Eventually he asked Nan if there was room to garage the sports cars, making some peace with her purchase. But it took another three years for him to decide to sell the Ocean City house.

Gay has made a mental list of reasons for the sale: distance from Manhattan, the traffic and the toll commuting takes on his wife, who still works in New York; the “crowded—over-crowded island” in summer; lack of parking; the tax bills; a “slew of bills every month”; maintenance demands of an old house; and most decisively, the 2006 death of his mother, for whom his youngest daughter is named, weakening his local ties. He still has a sister in Ocean City, but they are not close.

When talk shifts to his latest project and the shock it has caused in some circles, Talese responds obliquely, “I don’t think it is so surprising.” Rather than discuss the subject of the book, he talks of how he has chronicled his life on a calendar and reveals he is retyping voluminous correspondence he has kept for years to better absorb the letters’ meanings.

Talese finishes the interview by handing inscribed books to his visitors—a few less items to pack.

The following week, Nan reports that the drive to Connecticut took five hours, but otherwise the move went well. Except for one thing—beer and martini glasses in the freezer were overlooked. Gay had them overnighted to Roxbury.

Now her husband is installed in a second-floor skylit office above a barn. “I plugged the computer in for him and it worked! There’s work in action. The cars are here, and beer and martini glasses have arrived,” says Nan.

Geri Thiel, the couple’s housekeeper, who arranged to ship the glasses, is hopeful.

“He never wanted to leave Ocean City,” she says. “But all the final chapters for him are in New York and Connecticut. This is the next to final chapter in his life, and now he must go with his wife. He has to close his book eventually.”

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lynn Bogue Hunt: A Sporting Life (Derrydale Press, 2003). He first met Nan and Gay Talese in 1986.

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