December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

Gay Talese is a reporter’s reporter who can write about anything—from New York City (A Serendipiter’s Journey) to the Mafia (Honor Thy Father)—without loosening his tie. The big payoff ($3.8 million), however, came only after Talese took it all off professionally for his long-awaited study of sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. That’s the amount in the cash register even before the book is finished, much less published. United Artists bid $2.5 million for screen rights, the most money Hollywood has ever paid for a book, fiction or nonfiction. Thy Neighbor’s Wife called for more than voyeuristic reporting. Talese, 47, lived at a free-love center, ran two massage parlors and went to bed with at least one source—a method of research that understandably worried his wife, Nan, 45. a book editor. In the end, says Talese, “The elation was in writing a wonderful paragraph, not the fact that I got a lot of money for it.”

When Marabel and Charlie Morgan were newlyweds, she ruefully recalls, the first thing her husband did whenever they visited his mother was “go peek in the bubbling pots on the stove—there never were any pots cooking on my stove.” That, however, was before Marabel’s historic transformation, documented in her 1973 best-seller, The Total Woman. Marabel’s metamorphosis began after a rip-snorting fight with Charlie brought on by, among other things, that unappetizing stove top. Alone upstairs, Marabel “cried and cried”—and then resolved to change. She bought pink baby-doll pajamas and white booties and soon was seducing Charlie under the dining room table. Now, in The Total Woman Cookbook, Marabel provides aphrodisiac menus (“You Tiger, You,” “Caring and Craving,” “Sizzle and Spice”) and the recipe for a “Boudoir Cheesecake.” As a result of her culinary courting, Marabel, 42, hasn’t had to waylay Charlie, 39, under the table in years. “I’ve found softer places,” she says.

Jean Auel, 43, is a former keypunch operator and credit union manager who learned fiction writing from a how-to manual, read everything she could find on prehistoric man, typed out an 800-page manuscript and sent it to a New York agent she knew slightly. Eight weeks later Crown Publishing gave the Portland, Oreg. mother of five a $130,000 advance. It is surely the Cinderella story of the year. The novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, is about the male and female Neanderthals who lived in what is now Europe 35,000 years ago. All that research material hasn’t gone back to the library yet because Clan is only the first of six prospective novels about early man. Auel writes from midnight to 6 a.m., getting to bed an hour before her husband, Ray, an electronics executive, wakes up. “Oh, dear,” she laughs. “I wonder how that’s going to sound.”

“Nobody will like me after the book comes out,” says Susan Strasberg. “But that’s okay; I’m not running for office.” The 41-year-old actress is referring to her deft, kiss-and-tell autobiography, Bittersweet. In it she recounts more than Richard Burton, Warren Beatty and a legion of other lovers will like. “I was also,” she says, “working out my relationship with my mother,” who was drama coach Lee Strasberg’s first wife. There is a poignant section about Susan’s own daughter, born with a defective heart that was finally repaired surgically. “The process was cathartic,” Strasberg admits. “I felt so badly about some of the things I had done. I found that if you can write it, it has no power to threaten you anymore.”

Don’t look up. Come a bit closer. No, don’t glance around, they’ll know we’re on to them. LeCarré is plotting again. That’s right—Smiley. Actually called Smiley’s People, bold as brass. He’s really tagged Karla this time. Rather tidies it up after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy, don’t you see. Now, ah, the bad news: John LeCarré feels there’s nothing for it but to “take a fictional change of direction.” He says, “I’m quite glad to be leaving Smiley, to see the end of that trilogy. Whether Smiley will insist on coming back I do not know.” The news isn’t all gloom, though. LeCarré isn’t coming in from the cold himself. Far from it, judging by one recent junket: Middle East, war in Lebanon, Palestinian and Israeli fronts. In fact, LeCarré sounds downright operative: “I’m 48, so how many good years do I have? Maybe 17—time for a half-dozen more books. I have every intention of writing good books when I’m in my 70s and 80s. Age is depressing, but a spur.” Quite right, old fellow.

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