My agent in New York sold my biography of Jacqueline Onassis, Reading Jackie, to one of the most famous women in publishing. She’d edited important writers of her generation, including Margaret Atwood, Robert Penn Warren, Antonia Fraser, and Ian McEwan. She was married to the writer Gay Talese. It was as significant a coup to have Nan Talese as my editor as it was to have an advance big enough to allow me to leave full-time teaching.
I remember the first time I met Nan. One of her assistants brought me from the reception area back to her office. Nan was on the phone. I sat on a sofa in the hall outside her office door to wait for her. I could overhear her bright voice speaking to an agent on the phone. I guessed the agent was asking why Nan wasn’t interested in a book project she’d sent her. “Not my cup of tea!” said Nan with a girlish giggle, though she must’ve been in her seventies. Then she came out in the hall to introduce herself to me. She was wearing a string of pearls that came down to her waist, like a 1920s flapper. She was friendly. She was bubbly and surprisingly honest. She was also formal. She spoke in the Anglo-American accent that you often hear spoken in Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s. She was definitely my cup of tea.
She took me out to lunch. We went to a famous restaurant that specialized in smoked salmon and caviar. I knew it because I’d once seen their smoked salmon mentioned as an essential ingredient in a recipe in a cookbook. How will I ever get that, I thought to myself as I stood in my grad student kitchen in Baltimore. How will I ever get there? It seemed impossible. Yet, there I was at lunch with Nan Talese. I wasn’t even paying the bill. Dear dreamer, sometimes in life what happens to you is even better than what you allow yourself to dream.
In advance of the lunch I’d read a piece about her and her husband in New York magazine. It was all about her high, fluting voice. It was about their drinking martinis at Elaine’s, the well-known celebrity hangout on the Upper East Side. It was about her husband’s famous adulteries, which he’d written about in Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
At lunch she told me stories of how she’d started out in publishing. She remembered being a junior editor, one of the lone women doing the job, at the old Random House. They were in a mansion off Madison, which is now part of a hotel. Her office was in the basement. She’d dared as a young editor to write a marginal comment on a manuscript of Robert Penn Warren’s. She’d asked whether one of his characters needed more introduction. She cringed when Warren wrote back “I think you’ll find that character was introduced as early as p. 15.” He later admitted that he maybe he should go back and strengthen the original introduction.
She spoke of her marriage. She spoke of lying in bed with her husband early in the morning when they were both young, not wanting to wake him, because she wanted him fresh for his writing day, even though she had a job of her own and needed to go to the office. She also said that he was now writing a memoir. He was going to discuss their marriage. She didn’t want it discussed in public. She wondered whether she ought to sue him. She said this dispassionately, without bitterness or anger. She loved him. She had no intention of divorcing him or ceasing to live with him. So much candor in a person I’d just met charmed me and won me over to her side.
She also said of one famous author’s advance, “we gave him pennies. The book made thousands.” There was again the girlish giggle. I wondered why she was telling me this. Was it to make me feel I was in good hands? Was I supposed to think she had my financial well-being as her author always in mind, or was I supposed to admire her eagle-eyed making of money for the publisher at her author’s expense?
Although I’d been published by a major commercial publisher before, the sums involved with Disraeli and the Ponsonby biographies were not that much. This introduction to the cash nexus of commercial publishing via Nan was eye-opening. It had never occurred to me that a good editor might be out to underpay a writer whose book she admired and wanted to publish.
She was trying to reduce the risk the publisher was taking on a writer’s book. Nevertheless, the relationship between writer and editor is usually more personal and less commercial than that. Or so I thought and expected. I concealed my surprise from Nan. We remained on good terms during our time together, even when a writer proposed to write a rival book on the same topic as mine and raced us to publication. She backed me in moving forward with our book as quickly as possible, and we beat him. I’m pretty sure Reading Jackie was the better book too, as Nan read every chapter and made suggestions at every stage.
She wasn’t just an editor who commissioned a book and then left it to others when the manuscript was delivered. She actually edited. I still have a draft with her notes in blue ink down the left-hand margin.
There were other things I had to conceal from her. Or, rather, she and many other people at Doubleday already knew them and concealed them from me.
I discovered a rivalry at Doubleday between Nan and Jackie. Nan had already been at work for years. She’d acquired a distinguished reputation as an editor long before Jackie became an editor for the first time in the mid-1970s. Jackie was famous for having been first lady, for surviving the assassination, and outliving a marriage to Aristotle Onassis that no one understood. They didn’t know each other well before they first worked together at Doubleday, though they came from similar worlds of debutante Catholics, who were raised on the East Coast, and who both married prominent men.
Jackie slowly built up a list of unusual books as an editor, some of them unusually successful. Bill Moyers’s book based on his interviews with Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth was one. The English translations of novels by the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, were others. Jackie was not exactly Nan’s equal as an editor, but she demonstrated that she was more than a celebrity hire who was only good for her PR value to the company.
Nan made the error with Jackie of comparing their experiences as targets of celebrity gossip. This was one area of Jackie’s life that she never allowed anyone to talk about in her presence. From what I gathered, this was an area even Nancy Tuckerman didn’t dare approach. Nan remarked once to Jackie that since the New York gossip columns had been going after her and her marriage to Gay Talese, she now knew exactly what Jackie’s life was like. After that there was a coolness between the two women.
They spoke little, but they both kept tabs on what the other one was doing. Once when Nan was bringing out a big coffee table book on women’s hats, the higher-ups at Doubleday allowed her the luxury of incorporating a costly red grosgrain ribbon in the book’s cover design. When Jackie discovered this, she hissed to the designer “How’d she get to do that?” I made a point of omitting some of the details of Jackie’s dislike and distrust of Nan I’d learned about in writing the book, but I suspect Nan knew that was there. When it came time to design the cover for my book, Nan made a point of incorporating a red ribbon as a design element in the cover for Reading Jackie.
As I worked on the book, Nancy Tuckerman’s continuing desire to hear any gossip about Nan suggested to me that both she and Jackie had once upon a time felt a real envy of Nan. That envy was still alive in the time I encountered them.
The publication of Reading Jackie put me in a wider world than I’d ever been in before. It wasn’t just reviews in major newspapers all over the country. It was also television and radio. It meant appearing all over the internet in the columns of book bloggers. It meant requests for interviews from Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic. It meant publication of a translated edition in China. It’s now, ten years after the original publication date, being translated into Spanish. Not all of this attention was adulation, though most of it was friendly enough.
Celia McGee from The New York Times successfully persuaded me and the author of the rival Jackie book to trade barbs. She got a dishy quote from him. “Jackie wouldn’t have hired this other writer take out her laundry.” Nan telephoned and asked me not to reply to him. “Let’s keep everything on a high plane,” she said. At the time, I felt humiliated and stung, but in retrospect his bitchy remark seems genuinely funny to me.
As the book reviews came in, some good and some bad, I tended to dwell on the bad ones. Nan had a young, smart assistant, an editor in her own right, Ronit Wagman. Ronit said lightly to me “Ignore them. There will be more good ones to come.” Bless her. She gave me the courage to read the bad ones, but also to forget them. I got started on a new book instead.
Reading Jackie allowed me to write about a stylish woman who was also a substantial woman, a woman who was a great deal more than the big, black sunglasses, the mask she hid behind. Few of her books had her name on them. She wanted to give the author prominence and fade into the background as the editor. Her books were nevertheless declarations about her. This is a book with a story, a message, and images that move me. I find it beautiful. It inspires my awe. What Jackie taught me about myself is that doing is declaring. She faced skeptics who believed she was just a celebrity exercising her privilege. She went into an office when she might have stayed on a beach. She forced herself to learn a new profession in a public setting where she might, and sometimes did fail.
So too was Nan more than the string of pearls that came down to her waist. She struggled as an editor to cope with the rival author and the rival publisher who were breathing down our necks. She struggled with her husband who was writing a book she didn’t like. She didn’t fail to point it out when one of my chapters (on Jackie’s books about photography) was needed rewriting. She kept going strong long past the usual retirement age. There was a lightness of touch about her voice, her spirit, and her manner that was a shield against anything bad happening to her.
All this was encouragement to me. Do as these women did. Ignore your bad reviews and glory in the good ones. Find work to do that you love. Be brazen about what you find beautiful. Experiment with a world you don’t know, where you’re vulnerable, where you need to be taught. They did it. So can you. Jackie showed me this. Nan did too.