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Talking to Gay Talese About Roger Sterling, Mad Men, and the Sexual Revolution

Judging from Sunday’s Mad Men season premiere, we are now solidly in the middle of the sexual revolution — Megan and Joan are in miniskirts, Pete is cavorting around Los Angeles, and Roger Sterling appears to be living in a no-rules communal apartment as the daddy-benefactor to a young hippie couple. In order to make sense of Roger Sterling’s crowded bedroom, we spoke to the man who literally wrote the book on the subject of the swinging '60s and the sexual awakening. When reporter Gay Talese published Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a chronicle of the ‘60s free-love culture that swept America in 1981, it was an immediate best-seller. It was also scandalous — Talese, a married man (who is still with his wife Nan after over 50 years of marriage), put himself and his own sexual experimentation in the book.

I met Talese at the Upper East Side townhouse he has lived in for decades — his writing “bunker” is below the house, full of boxes and boxes of notes on human sexuality — and he answered the door wearing his trademark three-piece tweed suit with a crisp pocket square. He spoke about Mad Men, the rise of sex in neon lights, and the reason that blow jobs will never be as exciting now as they were in 1969. 

Do you watch Mad Men?
Oh, yes, I watch it. It comes out of the world I knew very well. Mad Men is straight out of the period when I first came to New York. I came in 1956 and worked at the New York Times, and the period when I was on staff, that paper — except for the product itself — could’ve been an advertising agency. The drinking during the day was the same, and so was the cavorting, this rampant sexual life of the great paper of record. It was hardly a grey lady. When I see Mad Men, the martinis and all that hedonism; it’s something I recognize completely. Especially the sexual scenes: At the Times, we had a managing editor having an affair with one of the junior reporters; no executive had a record of monogamy for any length of time. It was lust everywhere! They used to say, drink is the bane of the Tribune, but sex is the curse of the Times.

So Roger Sterling’s swinging sexual awakening had its roots in the decade before?
Oh, most definitely. The Sexual Freedom League and the sexual revolution of the later 1960s and '70s was known by title as being historically pertinent, but in private, the dolce vita life was happening well before that in almost every major operation in journalism, advertising, finance, hell, even in the clergy. Sex was so big. It was all we thought about. And yet there was so much repressed, too. That was a time of great hypocrisy, great dichotomies. These straitlaced law-and-order types would, [at night], be swapping mates.

Did you know people like Roger, who went from more of a buttoned-up businessman existence into experimentation with drugs and group sex?
Of course. Men like him were most of the men I knew.

Let’s talk about Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which deals with the sexual experimentation of the '60s and '70s. Was there an instigating event that made you realize there was a book to be written about that time?
What prompted it was how blatantly obvious sex had become. We are talking about mercenary sexuality, the commercialization of sex — a very Mad Men concept, by the way. When I saw the first sign of sex in neon lights, and I mean actual neon lights, it was on Lexington Avenue, not too far from where we are speaking now. It was 1971, and my wife and I were walking home and we saw a sign that said “Live Nude Models,” and I said to her, “that can’t be!” and suggested that we go up and have a look. She told me to go on my own, and so I went, three stories up in this apartment building. A man told me that it was a massage parlor that had been open four months, and told me that I could also have a nude woman to pose for me if I wanted to take photographs.

This was shocking. This was around the time of Hair and Oh Calcutta, which was a nude revue, but there was never such a thing as a public massage parlor before. The next morning I went back, and they gave me a choice of four beautiful women and told me it would be $30 for a massage. I picked this blonde woman with a deep southern accent, and I tried to talk to her about attending the University of Alabama. She couldn’t care less. She said, “Look, are you here for a massage, or do you want to have a conversation?” She said, “All I do is locals,” and of course I had no idea what that was. She told me it was a hand job, and I asked if it was extra, and she said no. So I said, go ahead! That was my first local, and I thought, Wow, this is crazy, I hear the buses of Lexington Avenue, not far from Bloomingdale’s where I bought a sofa a week before, and there I was, getting a hand job from this lovely young woman. That’s when I knew New York was really changing and becoming more open, and I wanted to write about it.

And was it mostly the Roger Sterlings of the world who frequented these places?
Yes, it was mostly guys like me who were trying out this new sexual candor and openness — we felt older than the free love kids, you see. But there were other ways to experiment as well. Wife-swapping, key parties, bed hoppers, communes, sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat; that was all happening around that time. It was bacchanalia. People were often living a double life, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

I wonder if younger people watching Mad Men today could ever find orgies or adultery shocking.
I tell you this: Today, sex and the culture surrounding it doesn’t have the pop that it did in the '60s. Back then, it was novel and wonderfully adventuresome. Today, I hear that a blow job is considered standard when people are getting together on college campuses, and back then, it was so intimate, so taboo! The women I worked with at the massage parlors wouldn’t give them, or if they did, it was very expensive. Intercourse meant nothing to these businessmen, but oh, a blow job, that was wonderful and tremendously, marvelously rare. Now it’s common and, dare I say, boring. There’s a lack of sizzle. We were all feeling things for the first time then.

It seems like a theme of this season, at least going by the first episode, might be that men like Don, who thrived in an atmosphere in which they could have affairs but still maintain the veneer of a pristine home life, will have trouble adapting to the new, swinging times. The center isn’t holding.
Yes, and I knew so many men who had that kind of Draper arrangement in the 1960s. Men weren’t taking sex so seriously then that it broke up their marriages; it was just dalliances and part of life in the city. In my generation, you got married for the sexual freedom, because you couldn’t have premarital contact. Marriage was freedom for these men, because they could have affairs. Like John Updike, who is the subject of a new biography — he had a wife but had multiple affairs, and this was the norm, this was what life was like. Then women started to wake up to their own sexuality, and the youthquake came, and it all changed.

Do you hope people will go back and read Thy Neighbor’s Wife while they watch this season of Mad Men? Will it inform their viewing?
I hope they will, and that they can learn what it was really like back then. But moreover, I would love to see some young person write their own version — what is it like in the sexual trenches today? Someone should embed themselves as a high-end escort! Would you ever consider doing that? Now, that’s a book I would read.

Photo: Alex Gotfryd/Corbis; Harper Perennial