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.
The piece, in short, was a little odd and a little emotionally disconnected, which was characteristic of almost all of his work, though Talese was never quite as distant as in this one. Nonetheless, it was a Gay Talese piece, and so it was expanded into a book by the same name and published in July of 2016. Substantial portions were simply passages from Foos’s journal. The book was optioned by Hollywood, with Sam Mendes attached as director, for a reported “near $1 million.”
Then, shortly before the book appeared, The Washington Post published an article by Paul Farhi that called Foos’s veracity into question. The reporter pointed out that Foos hadn’t owned the hotel for part of the time recorded in his journals. Talese, confronted with this information, did nothing less than freak out. “I’m not going to promote this book,” he told Farhi. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”
Even before the disaster, Talese’s reputation had eclipsed his actual writing. His byline in recent years has become almost always as valuable to editors than anything that appeared below it. As one of the last surviving practitioners of what came to be known in the 1960s as the “New Journalism,” Talese is often sought after as an object of nostalgia. That era in journalism, according to its own mythology, witnessed a great flowering of magazine writing, and Talese was the center of it. But many of Talese’s New Journalism contemporaries are now gone. Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson have been dead for at least a decade. Others, like Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe, have largely stopped writing, their last few books implicit valedictory addresses. An era is ending, and now Talese is one of the last practitioners left standing.
Talese’s output has slowed over the years, but he never really disappeared. He appears mostly in The New Yorker—an ironic perch, because in the 1960s and ’70s, the magazine would never have been interested in a writer like Talese. He had too much presence in his own prose; his reporting had a kind of performative elegance that was only matched by his in-person presentation. All his life, Talese has worn bespoke suits, a habit he’s often attributed to being a tailor’s son. No interview with Talese has failed to mention his self-consciously dapper look. At least once, he’s appeared on the cover of a magazine himself.
Talese’s origin story, his history as a tailor’s and a dressmaker’s son, is something that he’s written about a lot. It’s evident that from the time he was very young, he understood himself to be a bit of a weirdo, fundamentally an outsider, not rich, not advantaged. Born and raised in New Jersey, he had an archetypal working-class upbringing; in high school, the tailored suits he liked to wear certainly made him a square peg, and he claims to have had little natural self-confidence. For some, this might have been reason enough to avoid a profession that requires meeting new people; but journalism was Talese’s way out of that early awkwardness, though he says even today that he’s unsure about his talents as a writer. “All I have is intense curiosity. I have a great deal of interest in other people and, just as importantly, I have the patience to be around them,” he told Katie Roiphe in The Paris Review a few years back.
As though to underscore its importance, this sartorially focused upbringing is the subject of the first piece in High Notes, an anthology of Talese’s greatest hits published by Bloomsbury in January. High Notes then goes on to provide something like a closet full of Talese’s nicest suits—or, at least, the ones someone seems to think are the nicest. There’s the obligatory inclusion of Talese’s signature piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” beloved by journalists because it showed them how to profile a celebrity without access. Talese was denied a proper interview with Sinatra, but he managed to do what journalists call a “write-around” by patiently spending weeks interviewing everyone in the singer’s entourage. In place of access, Talese offered melodrama: Sinatra “was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage.”
I confess that “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is not my favorite of Talese’s pieces. I much prefer “The Silent Season of a Hero,” his profile of Joe DiMaggio (not included in High Notes), in which Talese did have the opportunity to speak to his subject, and we get some insight into what might have led a practical, even-tempered baseball great to lash himself to the tempest of Marilyn Monroe. In the piece, DiMaggio strides through his post-baseball life with resigned dignity. His years on the diamond are over, Marilyn is dead, and he’s just another man waiting for the end. Perhaps some of the pathos in the piece comes from the creeping sense, not on exhibit in the Sinatra one, that it really was about Talese rather than DiMaggio.
“Still he is always an impressive figure at banquets such as this—an immortal sport writers called him, and that is how they have written about him and others like him, rarely suggesting that such heroes might ever be prone to the ills of mortal men, carousing, drinking, scheming,” Talese writes at one point; “to suggest this would destroy the myth, would disillusion small boys, would infuriate rich men who own ball clubs and to whom baseball is a business dedicated to profit and in pursuit of which they trade mediocre players’ flesh as casually as boys trade players’ pictures on bubble-gum cards.” It seems to escape Talese’s notice, in this nominally critical passage, that for the most part, the tone of his piece is indistinguishable from that of those sportswriters. He is, on some level, writing for those rich men and small boys, too.
I first read Talese at New York University’s journalism school, where he was regarded as something like the Joe DiMaggio of journalism. Back then, he was described as masterful and radical, without any kind of qualification. Male writers expressed excitement about the project that he’d told New York magazine he was working on: a book about his marriage to the publisher and editor Nan Talese. The union had evidently been somewhat troubled. Talese had already written one book about the sexual habits of Americans—the aforementioned Thy Neighbor’s Wife—and the research for it put a strain on his marriage, and now he had decided to do another one, this time more specifically focused on his own life.
This project never sounded that different to me from the ordinary run of memoirs. But that didn’t seem to temper anyone else’s enthusiasm or to wonder about how Nan Talese might feel about the book. Here was a great writer proposing to tackle a thorny subject, went the theory. And Talese is a very good writer. His sentences are elegant and every line has a lot of observation packed into it. But Talese has also always been missing something. He is not a thinker, really. Nor is he willing to really engage in the thorny moral ambiguities of not only his subjects but his own writing. Talese, instead, is a recorder, an observer, and while that is an elegant thing to be when a subject isn’t morally complex—when it’s a sports player or a celebrity singer—that’s okay, but when it comes to topics that do carry with them a host of questions that require more than observation, he can get lost.
In one of my favorite passages of his work taken from a small book he published in 1961 called New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey, Talese describes the lives of New York’s stray cats. (This one doesn’t make it into High Notes either.) In it, he writes: “They move quickly through the shadows of buildings; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors and other nocturnal wanderers see them—but never for very long.” Moving through the shadows, finding common ground with other nocturnal wanderers: This is also Talese’s habit, though perhaps he wasn’t so aware of it when he wrote that line. He is a feline creature, watchful and elegant. But despite—or perhaps because of—his lithe prose and sharp observations, he has always lacked the capacity to interrogate the deeper questions provoked by a story.
That’s fine; it’s not who Talese is. And in the matter of magazine profile writing, it often isn’t necessary to have some larger intellectual or political insight about your subject, or even about the field you’re working in. But when a subject proves to be a liar or a cheat or just otherwise someone a little more psychologically and morally complex than the powers of observation can capture, that’s when someone like Talese gets into trouble.
After the Washington Post article, Talese quickly corrected himself. He gave a publicist-smoothed statement to The New York Times. “I was surprised and upset about this business of the later ownership of the motel, in the ’80s,” he wrote. “That occurred after the bulk of the events covered in my book, but I was upset and probably said some things I didn’t, and don’t, mean.” The book went ahead as scheduled, tarnished, and appeared in July 2016.
That should have been the end of the saga, but it was not. In November, Sam Mendes told Deadline Hollywood that the film version of The Voyeur’s Motel was dead. It wasn’t the scandal over whether the story was true that bothered him; he’d already hired a screenwriter who had completed a first draft. But then Mendes discovered that a documentary had been made about Talese and Foos. Once he and the screenwriter watched it, Mendes recounted, “She and I…looked at each other at the end and said, ‘we can’t make our film.’” Not only was the material somewhat duplicative; according to Mendes, the documentarians were part of the story, but they’re never described in either Talese’s article or the book. Evidently, the documentarians’ role was so large that Mendes couldn’t see doing the film anymore: “The book we bought, is absolutely not the definitive version of the story it was claimed to be. In order to tell the true story, with any authenticity, it would need to involve the documentary team.” Mendes abandoned the project.
Talese, for his part, told Deadline Hollywood that he blamed a competing producer who, upon being denied the option on his New Yorker story, had decided to fund the documentary. He also said he believed that the documentary wasn’t about the motel at all, but rather about “me as a researching journalist,” and so it was fine to omit any mention of it in the story. It was just a small film being made by a friend, he clarified. All of these betrayals have set up the documentary in an interesting way: It now stands as the last intervention in this small disaster of truth, trust, and journalism that has capped off Talese’s illustrious career.
In the end, though, it’s all of a piece with Talese’s approach: He often seems to miss something that’s just under the surface. In the case of The Voyeur’s Motel, what Talese missed had real consequences. He missed that the man in front of him was an even more unreliable narrator than he’d guessed, simply because he didn’t ask for proof of his claims beyond that strange, grandiose journal. He missed that the documentarians covering him, solicitous and generous though they might have seemed, were not actually on his side, there simply to celebrate him. And he also missed that even if everything Foos told him had been verifiable to the letter, he was stepping into a larger ethical conundrum than the ordinary journalistic dilemma. Foos was doing something that was, if not wholly illegal, then definitely unethical. He’d invaded his guests’ privacy without their consent—and Talese had nothing to say about it.
Talese has always been happy to claim the mantle of New Journalism; he has insisted that what he and his contemporaries did was something new and bold and exciting. Their work was measurably better than all prior writers of nonfiction, went the claim: They were deeper reporters than others, and they used the literary techniques and fine prose of fiction to help capture the ways that all reporting is, in part, subjective.
That they were preceded in this by American journalists reaching back to Nellie Bly, who innovated many of their techniques long before them, most of the New Journalists never seemed to acknowledge. Their eagerness, above all else, was to claim their novelty, and in retrospect, it seems that this may have been the most radical thing they did: to elevate the writer’s style and personality above the subject matter, to insist on one’s originality and boldness, and to subsume one’s curiosity and sense of moral uncertainty into the idiosyncrasies of a persona. They largely succeeded in this ambition; and today, they are venerated by other journalists for having finally managed to become famous merely as bylines. But look, oh look, where it has got them.