2016 was a bad year for most people, but it was especially so for Gay Talese. Now 85, he is at an age when most of his time should be spent collecting the thin portfolio of lifetime-achievement awards available to journalists. Instead, Talese continues to work, which has gotten him into some trouble. Last April, a long reported piece of his appeared in The New Yorker called “The Voyeur’s Motel.” It was clearly intended as a jewel in his already bejeweled crown. It turned out to be something of cubic zirconia.
“The Voyeur’s Motel” told the story of Gerald Foos, a motel proprietor in Aurora, Colorado, who fancied himself a sexual anthropologist. To conduct his studies, Foos had built a carpeted walkway beneath the motel’s peaked roof that allowed him to spy on his guests through what looked like air vents in the ceiling. Over 15 years, he explained to Talese in an introductory letter he wrote in 1980, he had amassed a lot of anecdotal data about the sexual habits of Americans. He knew that Talese was writing a book on that subject—which became his 1981 blockbuster Thy Neighbor’s Wife—and wanted to offer his assistance. “I have been wanting to tell this story,” Foos wrote, “but I am not talented enough and I have fears of being discovered.” He offered Talese everything he had, on the condition that he remain anonymous.
When Talese received the letter, he was wary at first, in part because he didn’t typically grant anonymity to his sources. Nonetheless, he got on a plane to Colorado and climbed up to the walkway to have a look for himself. Talese spied on people through the vent too, though he doesn’t seem to have seen much that he found worth reporting. Instead, he used the bulk of his eventual article to quote from, and elaborate on, the journals that Foos kept of his observations.
Mostly Foos recorded sex acts that ran the gamut from the pedestrian to the mildly bizarre. But at least once, he claimed to have witnessed a murder—a murder that he said he’d helped precipitate. After noticing two guests handling drugs, Foos sneaked into their room while they were out and flushed their stash down the toilet. The male guest assumed that his girlfriend had stolen the drugs, Foos reported, and strangled her to death. This incident came to haunt him. “The voyeur,” Foos wrote, referring to himself in the third person, “had finally come to grips with his own morality and would have to forever suffer in silence, but he would never condemn his conduct or behavior in this situation.”
In his New Yorker article, Talese has remarkably little to say about this incident or questions about the moral ambiguities surrounding Foos’s actions and his voyeurism. By way of analysis, he offers only the following: “I reflected that his ‘research’ methods and motives bore some similarity to my own in ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife.’” Talese wrote that he’d always considered journalists to be voyeurs of a kind (in The Kingdom and the Power, his 1969 book on The New York Times, he made a similar observation). But that was all he seemed to think he needed to offer about the moral implications of voyeurism.