By JULIA LAWLOR
GAY TALESE never learned to swim and only occasionally ventures onto the beach. The wind makes it impossible for him to read the newspaper and, he said, during a recent visit to his second home in Ocean City, N.J., “I’m not going to sit on the sand swatting flies.”
Yet for the last 40 years, Mr. Talese, a writer, and his wife, Nan, a Manhattan book editor, have spent weekends and summers there, in the town where he was born, tucked into a rambling red-shingled Victorian they own that sits just one block from the ocean.
Unlike the Hamptons or Litchfield, Conn., where many of the couple’s Manhattan friends seek refuge, Ocean City has long been a getaway for middle-class Philadelphians.
The Taleses like it because it’s the antithesis of the Manhattan literary whirl. So, don’t ask for a whole-wheat roll at the hoagie shop, or a chic mixed drink when you’re dining out. Ocean City has been dry since its beginnings as a Methodist retreat in 1879. Night life? Choose between the kiddie rides on the boardwalk or star-gazing on the beach.
“It’s a great contrast to New York,” said Mr. Talese, who is 75, as he conducted a tour around town, pointing out the building on Asbury Avenue where his mother owned a dress shop, his father ran a tailoring business and the family lived in an upstairs apartment.
Large parts of many of his books, including “The Kingdom and the Power”; “Thy Neighbor’s Wife”; “Unto the Sons,” a family reminiscence that’s largely set in Ocean City; and his latest, “A Writer’s Life,” were written in the third-floor office of his Ocean City Victorian.
“Nobody bothers me here,” he said. “I much prefer it in winter. It’s empty, and you can see the sky. It’s light, and cheerful.”
Built in 1902, the house sits on a tree-lined street in one of the resort town’s most desirable neighborhoods, the Gardens. As in most houses of its kind at the shore, the first floor is raised above street level to take advantage of sea breezes, with a wraparound porch, white wicker furniture and a green-and-white-striped awning. Although the original view from the front porch favored dunes stretching all the way to the Atlantic, by the time the Taleses arrived there were already houses across the street. Five years ago, those were torn down and replaced by town houses, which still did nothing to revive the old sea view.
If you squint, though, you can still see a bit of ocean from a wide window seat in the second-floor master bedroom. Mrs. Talese, who is publisher of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday books (her writers include Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan), likes to read there in the afternoons after her morning swim and some weeding in the garden. “It’s marvelous with the sun on your skin,” she said.
The house has seven bedrooms, four on the second floor and three on the third, one of which is Mr. Talese’s office. The three bathrooms on the second and third floors contain original claw-foot tubs, each painted to coordinate with the wall color.
Their purchase of the house came about almost by accident. The couple rented it for the summer in 1967 when their older daughter, Pamela, was a toddler, and their younger daughter, Catherine, was a newborn. They were planning to rent it again the next summer when they discovered that another family was considering buying it to live in year-round.
“I said to Gay, ‘Buy it,’ ” Mrs. Talese recalled. They were renting an apartment in an Upper East Side brownstone, a building they would buy many years later, and had little money to spare. But it didn’t deter her. “It was on the spur of the moment,” she said. “He’s cautious. He wants to be unfettered. But I like real estate.”
It turned out to be a wise investment. The house cost $32,000, including the adjoining lot. Mr. Talese said he recently had offers of $1 million to $1.4 million.
Although the two considered buying a place in the Hamptons or Connecticut in the 1970s to be able to spend more time with friends, they decided it would be too much like their social life in New York.
“It’s a place to be away,” Mrs. Talese said. “When we come down, we just stay at home.”
One of the first major changes they made was to winterize the house so Mr. Talese could write there year-round. A deck was added on the back, and bookshelves were added to in the dining and living rooms. And a pantry wall in the kitchen was demolished to open up the space.
Mr. Talese’s third-floor office is set up so that he rarely has to leave. There is a bed that he sleeps in when he’s in Ocean City alone; an ancient IBM Selectric with a grimy plastic cover; and a five-year-old Power Macintosh, which is not connected to the Internet. (Mr. Talese does not engage in e-mail and prefers to hand-deliver his manuscripts to his editors). To reduce the glare from a skylight, Mr. Talese has put together a plastic foam canopy that swoops over his U-shaped desk like a sail on a blustery day. Mrs. Talese calls it “the suspension bridge.”
His summer routine is to write in the morning, play tennis in the afternoon, then maybe watch a game on the 36-inch Sony Trinitron with DirecTV service that he has set up in his office. His tastes run from the Yankees to Japanese skiing.
At the other end of the hall is a room that doubles as a home gym (Mr. Talese lifts weights, and Mrs. Talese uses a videotape for Pilates) and a guest room for visiting writers. The novelist William Kennedy and Mr. Talese’s cousin, Nick Pileggi, are among those who have stayed and worked there for extended periods.
The house is strictly a kick-off-your-shoes-and-stay-awhile place, even though Mr. Talese continues his habit of dressing formally — even in the heat of summer.
“There’s nothing spiffy about this place,” Mr. Talese said one 90-degree day earlier this summer, looking natty in a long-sleeve, pink linen shirt with contrasting white collar, cufflinks, tan pants, a yellow-and-green neck scarf, white belt and brown shoes. Outdoors, he covered his silver hair with a straw fedora and, by early evening when the sun had lost its edge, slipped on a beige jacket with a yellow silk handkerchief tucked in the pocket.
Memories are what seem to count most in the Taleses’ Ocean City home. In the living room, the surface of an old baby grand piano with yellowing keys that once belonged to Mr. Talese’s parents is crowded with family photos and pictures of him with his writing peers — John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller. In one baby photo, the Taleses’ daughter Catherine, now a photo editor in New York, sits on the lap of the legendary Random House editor Bennett Cerf.
Journalist pals, like the late David Halberstam, have always been frequent guests. Pamela Talese remembers her father and his writing cronies lined up on the front porch in their chairs in the mornings, each with his own copy of The New York Times.
Growing up, the Talese children remember old-fashioned summers of swimming, biking and baseball games in the yard. But they also had chores. Each morning they would buy their father a glazed doughnut, leave it outside his office door, then return at 11 a.m. with a plate of poached eggs. After reserving a tennis court for her father in the afternoon, Pamela would bring him a hoagie sandwich and half a beer at 3 p.m. while he watched a ballgame on TV. “Then he would go back and write,” she said.
Although the Talese children have long been on their own, they say they still love visiting the Ocean City house. Once there, they fall into the old routine — padding around in bare feet and taking daily dips in the ocean with their mother, who’s an avid swimmer. On a rare day, they might even catch a glimpse of their father on the beach in a long-sleeve shirt, straw hat, neck scarf and swim trunks, struggling with a newspaper and swatting flies.