In Gay Talese’s forthcoming book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” about a Colorado motel owner who spied on his guests for years without their knowledge, Talese warns readers that his central character can be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator.”
But Talese might have underestimated just how unreliable Gerald Foos, the owner, really is.
The book, which Grove Atlantic is to publish July 12, follows the strange story of Foos, who used a hidden observation platform at his motel in Aurora, Colo., to spy on his customers for decades and kept detailed notes on their behavior. The book was excerpted in The New Yorker in April, and film rights were optioned by Steven Spielberg.
Now Talese has acknowledged that Foos might have failed to share some key facts. An article published by The Washington Post on June 30 revealed that Foos sold the motel in 1980 and did not repurchase it until 1988.
Informed of that by The Post, Talese, 84, told the publication he regretted trusting Foos and did not plan to promote the book because “its credibility is down the toilet.” But by the next day he said he stood by the book.
“I was surprised and upset about this business of the later ownership of the motel, in the ’80s,” Talese said in a statement provided by his publisher. “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. Let me be clear: I am not disavowing the book, and neither is my publisher. If, down the line, there are details to correct in later editions, we’ll do that.”
While a majority of the narrative takes place before 1980, one scene of voyeurism occurs in the period when Foos was not the owner, casting doubt on some of his recollections.
Morgan Entrekin, chief executive and publisher of Grove Atlantic, said the company would move forward with the publication and the promotion of the book and might add a new author’s note.
“Gay is going to do all his planned promotion and publicity, and we’ll make any necessary corrections, as any publisher does,” Entrekin said. “Gay is an impassioned person and he takes what he does very seriously, and he’s frustrated dealing with this guy who isn’t completely reliable.”
Much of the narrative is based on journals Foos kept, recording his observations of the motel guests’ behavior, including sexual encounters and crimes. Other sources confirmed that Foos spied on his guests, using a secret platform he built in the ceiling, with vents that provided views of the rooms. He claims to have spied from the late 1960s to the 1990s.
Talese was apparently unaware of the 1980 sale of the motel until a Washington Post reporter asked him about it last week. But he had his own doubts about Foos’ memories and noted that the motel owner’s recollection of facts could be inconsistent.
“I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt.
Among the inconsistencies: Foos dated his first journal entries about the motel guests to 1966 but didn’t own the motel until 1969.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said in an email message that the portrait of the motel owner in the magazine was not in dispute.
“The central fact of the piece, that Gerald Foos was, in the late ’60s and ’70s, a voyeur, spying on the guests in his motel, is not in doubt in the article,” Remnick wrote. “The fact that he could sometimes prove an unreliable and inaccurate narrator is also something that Gay Talese makes clear to the reader, repeatedly, and is part of the way Foos is characterized throughout the article.”
Talese first heard from Foos in 1980, after the motel owner learned of Talese’s book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” about the sexual revolution in the 1970s. He told Talese he bought the motel to satisfy his voyeuristic impulses and invited the writer to visit. Foos did not want to be identified by name at the time, so Talese wrote nothing then.
In spring 2013, Foos contacted Talese and said he wanted to go public with his story and share the years of observations he had recorded. (It is unclear whether Foos retained access to the attic after he sold the motel in 1980.)
After Talese’s book excerpt was published in The New Yorker in April, he was criticized for not revealing Foos’ unethical and illegal behavior sooner and for being complicit in his voyeurism. “Was Talese ever concerned about what other dangerous and possibly illegal things Foos had done?” Isaac Chotiner wrote in Slate. “He appears uninterested in even wrestling with the question.”
In one particularly disturbing scene, Talese joins Foos in the attic and spies on a couple having oral sex. “Despite an insistent voice in my head telling me to look away, I continued to observe, bending my head farther down for a closer view,” Talese wrote in the article.
The same week the article was published, Talese was engulfed in another controversy over remarks he made at a writing conference at Boston University. When asked to name female writers who had inspired him, Talese mentioned Mary McCarthy but then said he couldn’t think of any from his own generation.
The comment was met with outrage on social media, where Talese was condemned as sexist and out of touch. Many took to Twitter with the hashtag #womengaytaleseshouldread.
If more questions arise about “The Voyeur’s Motel,” it could leave a stain on Talese’s storied legacy. In a career that spans more than 60 years, he has written 14 books, including “The Kingdom and the Power,” about The New York Times, where he worked as a reporter for 12 years. He was a pioneer of New Journalism, a style of literary reportage that emerged in the 1960s. Among his most influential works were 1966 Esquire profiles of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio.
Whether his new book will withstand further scrutiny remains to be seen. In his statement, Talese emphasized that the central premise of his story held true. “Gerald Foos, as no one calls into question, was an epic voyeur, and, as I say very clearly in the text, he could also at times be an unreliable teller of his own peculiar story,” he said.