At Gay Talese’s Book Party, a Look at a Literary Golden Age

From a Washington Post story by Ashley Fetters Maloy headlined “At Gay Talese’s book party, a glimpse of New York’s literary golden age”:

Somehow, every story about meeting Gay Talese — the famed reporter, New Journalism pioneer and fixture of uptown Manhattan — sounds too good to be true.

Tony Danza, the Brooklyn-born actor best known for “Who’s the Boss?” and “Taxi,” joked that he got invited to the annual Talese family Christmas party once, “and now he can’t get rid of me.” In truth, Danza can’t actually remember how he and Talese met, and neither can Talese. Both men explained their acquaintance simply by waving a hand toward their shared Italian heritage.

Graydon Carter, the former Vanity Fair editor in chief who now co-edits the newsletter Air Mail, said that, 30 years ago, “Gay was the only famous person in the telephone book.”

Strange-but-true stories about Talese, now 91, wafted cheerily around the ivy-covered back patio of the West Village’s Waverly Inn restaurant. Some 150 guests gathered for a party thrown by Carter (who also owns the restaurant) and Air Mail to celebrate the release of Talese’s “Bartleby & Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener.” The author greeted guests in his signature fedora with a navy Italian suit and a red-striped shirt, yellow tie and crimson pocket square. (The same colorful ensemble in which he’s pictured on the back of the new book.)

As his wife, 89-year-old Nan Talese — the legendary book editor he married in 1959 — sat nearby, the evening became both a testament to Talese’s esteemed place in New York society and, as one guest put it, “a good old-fashioned book party.”

The book, a collection of memories from his reporting career, takes its title from the Herman Melville story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in which a dutiful and taciturn 19th-century document copier stages an unexplained one-man revolt that deeply perturbs his employer. It’s a nod to Talese’s own idiosyncratic philosophies; he describes, for example, his aversion to celebrity profiles and his predilection for instead spotlighting those whose contributions might otherwise be lost to history.

Part impressionistic autobiography, part generous instruction manual for reporters on how to do the job with pluck and fortitude, “Bartleby” offers behind-the-scenes glimpses at the work environments that made Talese a household name, such as the 1950s New York Times office and the 1960s Los Angeles of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” (An Esquire assignment that Talese only accepted, he reveals, in exchange for also getting to profile several New York Times staffers.)

It also accounts for some of the controversies and regrets of Talese’s career — including, briefly, a disagreement when The Washington Post found ethical and factual problems with his 2016 book, “The Voyeur’s Motel.” “Talese’s conversational style — openhanded, easygoing, characterized by fact-rich yet perfectly balanced sentences — invites the reader to sit back and relax,” The Post’s book columnist Michael Dirda wrote recently of “Bartleby.”

Of course, while Talese’s journalistic interests might be with the anonymous masses, his personal Rolodex boasts bigger names. Other guests at the party included the author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, a first cousin of Talese’s; Lynn Nesbit, the powerhouse book agent who still represents Talese; actor Joel Grey; actress Sandra Bernhard; musician and author Judy Collins (who befriended the Taleses when Nan became her book editor at Houghton Mifflin); New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd; and Louis Nelson, Collins’s husband and the industrial designer best known for creating the Mural Wall for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington.

The abstract artist Frank Stella was also on hand; as Talese explained, the two became fast friends some 60 years ago playing tennis. Until Talese saw Stella’s studio on Spring Street for the first time, “I thought he was a house painter,” Talese said with a laugh. “He would come from his job and have paint all over his pants, in the middle of the afternoon!”

In an interview ahead of the party, Talese deadpanned that he had written “Bartleby” in an effort to offset some of his exorbitant dining expenses. “As a people observer, I’ve always found restaurants to be a form of escape entertainment,” he said. “And I’m a good tipper.” (His daughters, painter Pamela and photographer Catherine, laugh later in the evening in resigned confirmation; Pamela remembers that a boyfriend of hers would call his palm-greasing, regular-table-securing trick the “Magic Twenty.”) Talese can be spotted frequently at spots such as Donohue’s Steak House and the French bistro Sel et Poivre. Sometimes, though, he stays within just a few blocks of his home on East 61st so he can bring Nan — who he affectionately acknowledges is “not Ginger Rogers anymore” — along in a wheelchair.

The pair still live in the home they bought after the success of Talese’s 1969 book, “The Kingdom and the Power,” along with their Australian terrier (Nan’s favorite breed). The dog’s name is Gilot, like the French painter and onetime Picasso flame Françoise Gaime Gilot. Or, maybe it isn’t: “I might be wrong. One of the dogs was Gilot,” Talese said. “I forget. They’re all tobacco-colored, look-alike dogs. We’ve had about 20.”

As the patio filled to overflowing and attendees began to find themselves squished into corners and bumping into one another in foot-traffic jams, some could be overheard remarking that book parties, once a vital part of the literary social scene, simply don’t happen that often anymore. Back when publishing houses were flush with cash, Talese remembered, one of his book parties involved hundreds of guests at the Pierre hotel in Midtown. “We lucky authors, we almost took it for granted,” he said.

Carter, however, remains committed to the tradition’s survival. “We never gave it up,” he said. At Vanity Fair, and now similarly at Air Mail, “it’s part of our DNA.”

Catherine Talese, who grew up around Manhattan book parties thanks to her publishing-royalty parents, is similarly bullish. “We need more mixers where people are talking about books in person. Online is dead,” she says. “Get rid of your Instagram account. Come out and meet people in person.”

Ashley Fetters Maloy is a feature reporter at The Washington Post, where she covers fashion and New York City.

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