Gay Talese is an American journalist and a nonfiction writer. He wrote for The New York Times in the 1960s after working for its copy and obituary sections. In the 1950s, he was one of the first writers to add minute details, use literary flairs, and begin articles in medias res. These techniques became the foundation of the revolutionary “New Journalism.”
He has written many non-fiction books, beginning with 1964’s The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His 2006 autobiography A Writer’s Life focuses on his trials and failures as a writer, such as having a profile piece rejected by The New Yorker, which ironically reviewed the book positively and said it had a “distinctly moving” quality.
Gay Talese was recently named the winner of a George Polk Award for career achievement. The awards, presented by Long Island University, are considered among the top prizes in U.S. journalism. Born in 1932, Talese graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in journalism.
Question: What does it take to stay married for 50 years?
Gay Talese: I had no desire ever to marry. I feared marriage to tell you the truth. Ironically, the marriage that I knew best was my parents’ marriage which was a very healthy, wonderful marriage, sixty years, and I also but I thought the marriage – my parents being partners in the business, having a store I told you were very close day and night. It was almost claustrophobically close, and they had only two children. I was the first born. There was a daughter born four years after me, so the four of us were in this very tight family and these very tight quarters, but my parents were so compatible; almost to the expense of their children where they were – and I felt that the marriage that had was just too close and suffocatingly so. There’s no freedom there. They were under the gun. I mean my mother and father were rarely out of sight of one another, and my father never would make trips without my mother. They’re together all the time. This togetherness was obsessive at least I felt so, so I thought I never want to be so linked to another person. I wouldn’t have a sense of adventure, exploration, or the option I’m doing things on my own without necessarily announcing in advance what I wanted to do. My ambition as a young boy was to travel freely not to have an itinerary, not to be committed – that was one of the major things, to a person or to a situation, not to be dependent. I wanted freedom. Journalism afforded that. I mean of all the occupations, if I were a doctor I wouldn’t be free out of the, you know the confinement of the career of being a physician or anything. I wanted to be free. I wanted to write about other people to escape. A lot of escape is in my mentality with a desire to escape into other people’s stories. It’s all a matter of getting outside yourself.
Question: Is love important to a marriage?
Gay Talese: Love is not important. You know what’s really important that’s more important than love, respect. What keeps a marriage together is not love. What keeps a relationship together whether it’s marriage or relationship outside of marriage, a committed relationship; it’s respect. No one can define love. Sometimes people associate sex with love. You know boy I’m in love. You can be in love in a way that you can maybe convince yourself is a definition that subscribes that is particular to you, but it’s very vague. What is not very vague is respect. If you don’t have respect for a person especially a spouse, there’s no way that relationship can survive. You lose respect for a person it’s all over. They could be the sexiest person, the most beautiful person, the greatest sexual mate. They could perform you know all the acts of physical love in ways unmatched in the universe, but if there’s a limited respect or not great amounts of respect, it’s over.
Question: What about sex?
Gay Talese: No. Sex is not important to a good marriage. No. You want to know more ask me a better question, but it’s true; sex is not important. Sex is very temporarily important in the beginning because the quest for companionship and compatibility is certainly fostered by active and fulfilling sexual experience – absolutely true. Sex is in the beginning of the mating game very important. Sex is the lure – the allure of a woman who can through sexual appeal attract a man who’s attracted to her because she’s sexy because in bed she’s very, very fulfilling. But that’s okay for a while. That’s not gonna carry you through years. The only thing that’s gonna carry you through years is being compatible with a person, having a lot in common, shared values, and I keep repeating respect for one another; that is it. Without respect the game is over.
The importance of mutual independence
Gay Talese: I think what kept the marriage together during times of stress and there was certainly many times of stress as in any relationship and certainly in our kind of marriage there was because I was traveling a lot. In my research I would go all over the place sometimes to other countries – well beyond my Frank Sinatra experience. There were times when I’d go live in Italy for two or three years when I started writing long books. After my magazine career ended, I was writing books exclusively, and some of them would take five or six years to research. Four or five books that I wrote from the 1960s to the 2006 were books of seven or eight years of being on the road while staying married, but the reason it wasn’t so stressful for my wife Nan with whom I’ve been married now fifty years in 2009. We were married in 1959, and fifty years is this year. One of the reasons that it wasn’t so stressful is she always had a full-time career. She could no less than me fulfill herself in her work. Her work became as she became older and more skilled recognized. There are books now called Nan Talese books/Doubleday, and she’s got her own career. Her writers are among the best - there’s Margaret Atwood, there Ian McEwen, there’s Antonio Fraser, there’s Pat Conroy, there’s Barry Unsworth; there’s all kinds of distinguished literary writers that are published under her imprint, and so it isn’t like she’s ever lived through me. She was never just Gay Talese’s wife, never. I mean she wouldn’t mind – I don’t mean to suggest that she’s very publicity hungry or that she needs reassurance by having her name on the product, but she happens to have her name on the product, her books, so she’s had her independence. And it was so different from my mother and father who were people in the store and day and night within reach of one another and scrutiny of one another. I had a lot of freedom from the beginning and through the 50 years, and I think that’s kept this marriage together.
Recorded on September 22, 2009