Gay Talese on Marriage

Question: Why did you write a book about your marriage? 

Gay Talese: Well, sometimes we are writing about what we think are the one story we haven’t told that we think we should. When I finished my last book, which was A Writer’s Life, I had written about something of what we’re talking about, about how a writer works and sometimes doesn’t work. And before that book, I wrote, as I mentioned, Unto the Sons, which is about where I come from, describing my mother’s store and all that we’ve discussed. And after these two books were published by Knopf, I have another book I owe them, well then what is my other story? Well, my story that I have not written about and must also tell you I am committed to nonfiction. I don’t want to write a novel. That to me- I’m not saying it’s easy, but I have always believed that you can tell stories using real names, real situations and make them stories, readable stories, dramatic maybe without being exaggerated, scenic without using invention. I thought what’s my one story? Well, my one story it seemed to me is a 50-year history of a single relationship that takes place in one building which is the building that I have lived in with my wife since we got married in 1959 or before that, ’58. We got married in ’59, but we lived there in ’58. So it’s 50 years as I speak to you now. And during that 50-year period, always in New York City where the house is, we’ve had a history of two people, children being born, problems, as any relationship over a long period has many problems, reconciliations, different people entering and exiting in your lives, friendships, acquaintanceships, business partnerships, in my wife’s case, always a writer- I mean she’s always been an editor and I’ve always been a writer. And it’s a story of living in a big city in a single house. I kept records. You know, you can- I haven’t said this on your show, but you would imagine I’m a person that keeps records ‘cause I’m a chronicler. And I also didn’t say this, but I save letters and I date them and I file them. And from 19- well, since I met my wife, Nan, which was initially in 1957, I’ve always kept files of every letter, every note, every hardware bill from buying a hammer in 1950-- I probably saved the receipt-- and travel slips and all that material which at least puts dates and triggers your mind if you look at stuff. I’ve saved and I’m having it- I’ve gone over it again, so this 50 years, I have a record of every month of the 50 years. And now I’m finding storylines. What you do in the kind of work I do is first you gather material, you collect material. The next thing you have to do is organize it. And a lot of people collect material, but when it comes to what do you do with it, I mean it’s a whole warehouse of material. All this stuff is in storage. Then you have to get it out and do a kind of choreography. You have to kind of do a montage. You have to create something out of it. I mean there are great sculptors who can get all the spare parts of lawn mowers and leftover parts from a truck and make it into a great sculpture. Well, as a writer, you can do the same, or we hope you can do the same, I hope I can do the same, but that was the idea of getting from this mass material and all these personalities that are interacting with a married couple. And the married couple from the time they were young and a time they were not so young and a time they thought this marriage was all over and the history of the town and the nation going on during this 50-year period I thought would be a story, like a novel, like a generational novel, but not a novel because it’s a story about two real people. Sometimes you read letters between, you know, TS Elliot and somebody or HG Wells and his girlfriend, but these are always years after the person died and usually by a biographer who didn’t even know them. What about a chronicler who was one of the partners? And my wife, I’m having her being interviewed by a third partner and then she’ll be able to take her- now there is a tape recorder at work. Somebody comes in and talks to her and then she’ll get her third person, but I’m writing in first person as I have in the last book A Writer’s Life. So this book is for Knopf and this is what I’m doing.

Question: What makes a good marriage? 

Gay Talese: Well, what makes a marriage last and what kills a marriage. The key word, it isn’t love, it isn’t sex, it isn’t romance, it’s respect. You either have it or you don’t. I mean if you don’t have respect for your partner, your spouse, nothing will save it. And that’s essential. That’s the most essential word is respect. Now I guess different people have a different interpretation of what that means. I can only tell you what it means to me and without it, nothing else would mean anything to me. So, you know, there are times when young people thinking of getting married or getting married, they think of it in terms of bliss or romance or being happy. Oh, they have to be happy. You don’t have to be happy. You don’t have to be happy. You have to have respect. But don’t expect happiness to be an ongoing, you know, god, if they don’t reach the happiness equation, a high level of happiness, then they get out and they cut their losses, goodbye, they move in. They say, “Oh, I’m moving on,” that awful term, moving on. I don’t think you should do that and don’t have to as long as you respect the person. Now in our relationship of this half century, it has had changes. Your life changes, your age changes you to a degree, your expectations are something different when you’re in your 70s as I am in and my wife is in than we were in our 20s just starting out. The history of experience that you’ve had together, the building together, what you’ve built, I don’t mean in a practical sense of owning a house or the children you’ve produced, though that’s important, but I mean all the stuff that happened to the two of you and the roles you played during these maybe they were crises or maybe they were perceived as crises and they really weren’t in the long view back of things, but all the things that were part of your existence together which you may interpret differently, but whatever it is that the interpretation might represent is still a shared experience. And with all these shared experiences and the maintenance of respect through the thick and thin I think is the strong center or fiber that can keep entwined this thing called a lasting relationship. Parenthetically, I’ve always had a wife who worked, I think that’s really important, had a career. It wasn’t that she’s stuck in some, you know, shopping mall with a job she hated. She’s always been interested in reading from the time she was a schoolgirl so she chose something that was connected to what she liked which was reading and became, you know, an editor, first a junior editor and then a senior editor and now she has her own imprint and she has fine, fine writers from the novelists, you know, and Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood or a historian like Antonia Fraser or Pat Conroy, a great storytelling novelist. She has a variety of people that she edits and has always had close relationships with her authors and with her colleagues in the profession of book publishing. She’s had her own life. It hasn’t been my life. It hasn’t been, “Oh, she is the wife of Gay Talese.” Uh uh. And sometimes I think I am the wife of- the husband of Nan Talese. But I’ve had my life too. And as a researching writer, as you’ve heard already in great length, I go on the road and I meet new people and I have my own sense, my own world that I share with my wife and she shares, but we are not so intertwined that we can’t breathe. There’s not claustrophobia. So many relationships, they close in on one another. Now some of this has to do maybe with circumstances. It might be economic, you know? If you’re unable to get any space and you’re crowded and then the arrival of children and the necessity of babysitters, you become old before your time or you become less free. One thing about our relationship that’s been a real advantage is we’ve always had since we’ve always worked, both of us have worked, our combined income have allowed for live-in help when we had daughters. Oh, that was so important. Our first daughter was born in ’64 and we were then married three years. Our second daughter was born in ’67. We lived then in the same place we own now, although it’s been altered because of the circumstances of our daughters leaving home and getting married, but they live in the New York area, both of them. But we’ve always had- Nan and I have always had space.  That’s really important. And we’ve always had someone living in there taking care of the children when the children were unable to take care of themselves before they were school age. And that meant that my wife and I could still go out if we wanted to, not that we always did, but we had the option. There was always somebody and we could always go out. And my wife has always had her sense of self in addition to being a mother or being a wife, being an editor, being many other things. So I think, you know, that’s pretty important. Now it’s not available to everyone and other people make their adjustments in ways that sometimes- you know that there’s Meryl Streep and her husband or the superstars, they have spouses and they do get along to a degree. Some of them don’t, but some people who work in a hardware store don’t get along either.




A chronicler of the lives of others now chronicles his own.

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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