Top of the first Tuesday night in Gay Talese's New York living room. The Tube is casting its phosphorescent glow. Omar Moreno is on third, Tim Foli on second, Talese in a chair, studying the action, his right hand resting on the side of his face.
He is rooting for the Pirates, if this tense sense of detached obsession can be called rooting. He listens. He watches. He doesn't flinch when Doug DeCinces grabs Dave Parker's hot shot to third and throws him out at first, stealing two runs from Pittsburgh. He merely mumbles: "You've got to hit Palmer early if you're going to win."
His feet are up on the coffee table, the old gray pants riding up to the calf, showing plenty of the white socks under the brown slippers. For the evening he is Middle America glued to the almighty common denominator of culture, looking not at all like the sort of man who last week sold the movie rights to his sixth book for a record-shattering $2.5 million.
If his tales form a latter-day Decameron, the saga of his new book seems starkly at odds with his painstaking method of gathering detail.
It would be uncharacteristic for him to sign praises to hot millions.
A curious literary world has waited an excessively long time for the publication of "Thy Neighbor's Wife," a 600-page narrative of real characters with real names whose relationships suggest that middle-class American morality is indeed in upheaveal. There are four central figures: an insurance executive and his mistress, and an aerospace engineer who left his job and started the sex club Sandstone with his wife. Along the way their destinies become intertwined with Hugh Hefner and countless other peripheral characters in search of sexual freedom. The book even flashes back to a mid-19th-century religious group that literally heeded the biblical advice "love thy neighbor."
For eight years gossip columnists have titillated the public with reports of Talese's own sexual exploits in the course of his research. In 1975 Esquire printed the book's opening chapter about two of the peripheral characters: pinup girl Diane Webber and a Chicago man who fantasized about her, and the way their sense of morality changed as they became more involved in their own sexuality.
Four years later, Talese's public has finally been fed another morsel. This time it's a chapter about Hugh Hefner's journey into sexual fantasy, published in the November issue of Esquire. There flanked by two of Hefner's bunnies whispering seductively into his ear, is Gay Talese starting out the world, looking like a man who has seen it all.
He's not at all embarrassed by the cover, he says.
"Who should they put on it?" he asks. "A picture of Ryan O'Neal? Why not me or Tom Wolfe? I don't mind selling my writing. I believe in it. Fifteen years ago I was getting $500 from Esquire for a piece. Now they pay me $25,000. I think that's good for all writers. It's something to strive for. The better your writing gets, the more you should be paid. Look, I spent eight years of my life on this."
Back in 1971, Talese was walking home with his wife when he spied a red neon sign that proclaimed: LIVE NUDE MODELS.
"I couldn't believe," he says, "that it was so out in the open."
He was a reporter, an infinitely curious guy who had once walked up to Mafioso Joe Bonanno in a courtroom corridor. He convinced Bonanno that it was okay to talk to reporters and get things out in the open. That contact developed into a book, "Honor Thy Father."
Talese thought it would be fascinating to get people to bring sex out into the open. That one evening of seemingly tawdry titillation made him realize how radically middle-class morality had changed since he was a boy growing up in Ocean City, N.J., during WWII.
He was onto a big story, although at the time it was an unformed idea -- a little monad floating around in the grit of New York City. He wanted to tackle it the way a reporter would.
"It would have been so easy to write a novel," he says.
But he knew it wasn't a newspaper story.
"Newspapers," he says, "have a very defined sense of news. You can write about politics, crime, disaster, even relationships, but you certainly can't write about love and sexual craving."
That began an odyssey for Gay Talese, camping out at nudist colonies and attending orgies and living at Hefner's Playboy Mansion and even running a massage parlor on block from the office where his wife, Nan, worked as a book editor.
"It was a very odd feeling," he says. "I could stare out my window and almost see into Nan's office. "We discussed swinging and she said no. We went to a nudist colony once, and we had fun, but she really felt that as someone related to one she had no role being there. This was really my work. I was finding things out about myself. I never, felt bad about it. I just became more and more convinced that the family has changed in America since WWII.
"My own two daughters are so much more free than I was at their age. They see Vogue. Some women complain about magazines like Hustler, but those magazines are really very clinical. They should be talking about Helmut Newton's pictures in Vogue. When I was growing up, Vogue would have been considered pornography. And now there are 700,000 hardback copies of "The Joy of Sex' sitting on the coffee table of America."
Not on Talase's howeve. His feet are still up there, and now the pirates are ahead by four, and he's much more relaxed.
I was sitting on this same couch two weeks ago," he says, "watching the Shavers-Holmes fight right here on ABC. And I'm saying to myself: violence. People are watching violence on ABC. Suppose you had a scene on ABC from 'Oh Calcutta.' Two nude dancers circling each other. The lights of their switchboard would have been going, because people think that sex is something completely private. I was thinking about something Gershon Legman wrote: Murder is a crime; describing it is not. Sex is not a crime; describing it is. I hope this book will help change that. It's really the story of the redefinition of morality and the middle class. The only way a country can change is through the middle class.
"This book reports fantasy. It reports intimacy. Getting releases from people to use their real names is what took me eight years. I had to develop relationships with these people. I had to convince them that they were typical of their time. And what the book may be able to do is convince other people that what they're doing in private isn't bad, isn't abnormal. The problem that homosexuals have they tend to make for themselves by hiding it, acting as if what they're doing isn't normal.
"There's a scene in the book that is real, but it's beyond anything I ever read in fiction. A man sees for the first time another couple making love. He's amazed that he can witness something like this publicly and still be able to marvel at how beautiful it is. And then he realizes that it's his wife. They'd gone to a lodge in California on Big Bear Lake. I'm not going to tell you more about it, except that everyone who's read it says it makes them rethink their concepts of love and sex and jealousy.
"This book says, 'This is true; this is right.' It's going to affirm. The only thing unusual about this book is that people have never had it reported before. The real challenge for me was to say it in a way that wouldn't embarrass the reader. For instance, I never use vulgar phrases unless they're in quotes that are absolutely essential. There are ways to describe intimacy and eroticism that aren't shocking. When Aaron Latham wrote a piece about me in New York magazine, he said that I wanted to screw my mother. What I said was that I was turned on by my mother. I found her very attractive.That's very different. I was upset by that piece. My parents were upset. I didn't really care what he said about me. I cared about the way he said it and wrote it. And one of my tasks here was convincing my characters that I would write in a compassionate way.
"I still can't believe that United Artists paid 2 1/2 million bucks for this. I can understand the appeal of a book that uses real names, but I can't see why that's necessary for a movie. But the characters did sign releases allowing their names to be used in the film. I suppose that's why they were willing to pay so much. These people do come across as characters, and the book is dominated by scenes. It's something like 'Honor Thy Father.' That was a narrative story about a family that happened to be in the Mafia. It certainly wasn't a view of the Justice Department's sense of legality.
"I'll be interested to see how people react to me after this book comes out. In 1972 I was doing a tour to promote 'Honor Thy Father.' I was on Mery Griffin and Johnny Carson, and I'd go into massage parlors in the afternoon and people would say, 'I've seen you somewhere. Ah, I guess it was at another massage parlor.' They had to deny. They couldn't let themselves believe that a public figure would be in there."
The game ends just as the conversation turns back to baseball. He says he's toyed with the idea of doing his next book on the Yankees, even writing two pieces on the team for his ex-employer, The New York Times.
"Not big enough," he says. "At 47 it's gotta be really big. Can I put this much energy into more research?Am I still good enough fr nonfiction? If not, I have to write a novel, and frankly, that's much easier than nonfiction."
ABC Eyewitness News comes on the screen. The lead story is about the reappearance of Michele Sindona, the indicted Italian financier who played a key role in the biggest bank failure in U.S. history and disappeared in August. The report says that Sindona is resting at Doctor's Hospital with a gun wound in his left leg.
And Gay Talese chuckles with vindication, the news suddenly bringing to mind "Honor Thy Father."
"I can't believe it," he says, speculating gleefully. "He pulled a Joe Bonanno. He shot himself and reappeared."