Poor Gay Talese. For a moment, it seemed as though the renowned author and journalist had another hit book on his hands: “The Voyeur’s Motel” generated a provocative New Yorker excerpt and an enviable film deal with director Steven Spielberg. But now disturbing questions about the racy story of a lifelong Peeping Tom keep surfacing, including: Should this book have ever been published?
The trouble began back in April when Talese published a 13,000 word article in The New Yorker, also called “The Voyeur’s Motel.” It was a mesmerizing tale about one Gerald Foos, a Colorado motel owner who contacted Talese in 1980. At the time, Talese was working on his book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” about American sexual mores in the 1970s.
You want sexual mores, Foos seemed to be saying, I got sexual mores. You need to visit me. Foos had cut holes in several of the rooms of his modestly appointed Manor House Motel outside of Denver and watched his clients doing what people do when they think they are alone at night: smoke — this was the 1970s — watch TV, and have sex.
Just a few weeks after receiving Foos’s initial letter, Talese visited the motel and even shared a surveillance session with Foos, which was comically interrupted when the dapper Talese’s necktie dropped through the observation vent. For years, Talese functioned as a silent partner, interviewing “The Voyeur’’ (as Foos refers to himself) and reading his journals and diaries only after signing a confidentiality agreement — nothing could appear in print. Foos rightfully feared public opprobrium and possible legal repercussions.
In the mid-1980s, while reading Foos’s detailed journal, Talese encountered Foos’s claim that he had witnessed a murder. Talese’s follow-up reporting revealed that the police had no record of this incident — a red flag, perhaps?
In 2013 Foos released Talese from his signed confidentiality agreement and said he was ready to go public with his story. The ensuing New Yorker article, a digest of the just-released book, provoked a storm of outrage. Talese seemed to be abetting Foos’s ugly fetishism, and more shockingly, had remained silent when confronted with the “evidence” of the supposed motel murder.
The guardians of journalistic purity tut-tutted; Talese and The New Yorker pushed back. Concerning the “murder,” New Yorker editor David Remnick told The Washington Post, “The New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’s account of it to the reader.”
Oops. Now Talese, The New Yorker, and his publisher, Grove Press, have a lot more explaining to do. The Post reported on July 1 that Foos didn’t own the Manor House from 1980 to 1988, years during which Talese reported on some of Foos’s activities there. By checking property records, the Post also rebutted Talese’s story that Foos’s son Mark had once lived in the same apartment as James Holmes, the man who killed 12 people at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012.
“The source of my book, Gerald Foos, is certifiably unreliable,” Talese told the Post. “He’s a dishonorable man, totally dishonorable. . . . I should not have believed a word he said.” The Post headline read: “Author Gay Talese disavows his latest book amid credibility questions’’ — a characterization later disputed by Grove, which says it will move ahead with the book and that Talese, who admits to having been “upset and probably said some things I didn’t, and don’t mean’’ to a reporter, will help promote said work.
What happened, one wonders, to the legendary New Yorker fact checkers, famed for combing through their journalism with proctological efficiency? What will happen, one wonders, to Spielberg’s movie plan, a project to which the famous director Sam (“American Beauty”) Mendes has already been “attached”?
And what about the book? How is the now-discredited book different from the now-discredited New Yorker article?
For one thing, the book has more sex. Like a Playboy bunny’s pneumatically enhanced breasts, the book is tumescent with titillating filler. There is a separate chapter dedicated to the Polaroid camera, which is really just a pretext to include a few pages about a young woman masturbating.
“I think of myself as a ‘pioneering sex researcher,’ ” Foos says, and Talese dignifies this assertion by quoting Foos’s claim that his motel is “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state, and then begin determining . . . exactly what goes on behind closed bedroom doors.” But this ain’t the Kama Sutra, OK? There are about seven variations of what transpires at the Manor House, and, take my word for it, you have seen them all.
Here is the takeaway: Lesbians are the best lovers. The rest is silence. But it’s not silence, that’s the problem. Talese quotes Foos’s thoughts about needed innovations in toilet design. (Too many of Foos’s male customers urinate in the sink.) We learn about Foos’s views on pets in motels. (Like the men, he suspects them of relieving themselves in the wrong place.)
Disingenuously, Talese treats us to Foos’s drab social and political commentary, again as a pretext to shoehorn in more sex scenes. “Throughout his time as resident voyeur at the Manor House Motel, Gerald Foos frequently had occasion to reflect on the Vietnam War,” Talese writes. Cut to a scene of a pilot having sex with a female companion. (While a fellow pilot eavesdrops from the next room . . . Oh my!)
The problem is that Foos isn’t Michael Herr; he’s not Daniel Bell; for heaven’s sakes, he’s not even Gay Talese! Here is some by-the-numbers filler “commentary” from Foos’s journal: “Between the 1970s and 1980s, our country went to war with one another . . . Across two generations, they argued and fought over everything from women’s role in the job market to . . .’’ — and here my marginal notation is MAKE IT STOP.
But of course it doesn’t stop. Foos rationalizes his illegal activity by saying that “the biggest Peeping Tom of all is the US Government which keeps an eye on our daily lives.” He calls the man (“this creep”) who spied on TV sportscaster Erin Andrews “beneath contempt,” leaving us with his trite conclusion on decades of observing human behavior: “Basically you can’t trust people.”
Basically you can’t trust the 84-year-old Gay Talese to get his facts straight, which is a sad end to a remarkable career. It is also sad that this silly, over-inflated book manages to have even less “content” than the magazine excerpt, which is barely one-fifth its length. Grove/Atlantic, which owns Grove Press, now says it may append an explanatory note to subsequent editions. It should read: “Do Not Bother Buying (or Reading) This Book.” A sad epitaph for a once-great writer.
THE VOYEUR’S MOTEL
By Gay Talese
Grove Atlantic, 233 pp., illustrated, $25
Alex Beam’s book “The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful Friendship” will be published in December.