In 1979, Gay Talese sold the film rights to “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” his look at America’s evolving sexual mores, for $2.5 million. Though its publication date was still months away, the book was already making news.
In Colorado, a motel owner read about Talese’s project and felt compelled to reach out. He had a story the author simply had to hear.
Three-and-a-half decades later, that story is the subject of “The Voyeur’s Motel,” one of the summer’s more beleaguered nonfiction titles.
According to Talese’s reporting, the central figure of his new book (due out July 12) is a very unusual fellow. As the author puts it in his opening sentence, “I know a married man with two children who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur.”
Gerald Foos claims he spent decades spying on his motel guests, peering through custom-made vents as they argued, ate and engaged in private activities. He says that he even witnessed a murder but was powerless to stop it.
Unfortunately for Talese and his publisher, The Washington Post recently poked a sizable hole in his account: Foos didn’t actually own the motel in question for an eight-year period during which he was supposedly the in-house voyeur.
Talese is a giant of modern journalism, but this is the kind of factual discrepancy that makes you wonder about the book’s other assertions. With a story like this, which depends so heavily on the word of the admittedly sneaky Foos, it’s tough to say for sure what’s true and what isn’t.
With this in mind, is Talese’s sensational tale worth the time?
As a longtime Talese fan, I’m the sort of reader who’s predisposed to answer this question with an enthusiastic “yes.” But as I read this book several weeks before questions about its credibility began to emerge, it was clear that it didn’t deserve a place alongside Talese’s finest work, a list that includes “The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at the New York Times” and many other books.
Though “The Voyeur’s Motel” is initially gripping, it soon reveals itself for what it is: a one-note portrait of a man with an extremely disturbing hobby.
Foos’ story is bizarre, but Talese says he can vouch for the basics. That’s because in 1980, shortly after Foos first contacted him, the journalist visited the motel owner to look into his claims. Together, Talese writes, the men climbed to a catwalk “extending over the ceilings of the twenty-one guest rooms” and peered down into a room occupied by two unsuspecting guests.
In an attempt to understand what motivated Foos, Talese delves into his subject’s childhood, his Navy days and his two marriages (both wives, according to Foos, were willing participants in his voyeurism).
Nonetheless, Foos comes off as single-minded — he appears to have been unaccountably obsessed with his guests’ amorous habits. As a result, the book is correspondingly one-dimensional; chapter after chapter is devoted to Foos’ half-baked theories about human sexuality.
In Foos’ view, he was an amateur “researcher” and his catwalk was a “laboratory.” He maintained thorough logs of his guests’ conduct, but because he kept the information private, Foos reasoned, no one was harmed.
“The Voyeur’s Motel” relies heavily on a journal Foos says he kept for many years; according to a note at the beginning of the text, the publisher paid Foos an unspecified fee for his writing.
This is an unusual transaction, and the idea that he’s profiting from his intrusive behavior is sure to bother some readers.
Why did this book emerge 35 years after Foos contacted Talese? According to the author, the men exchanged letters throughout the 1980s and ’90s but eventually lost touch. In 2012, after reading about a horrible crime near Foos’ home, Talese contacted the aging motel owner. After a bit of back and forth, Foos decided that he wanted his story told.
Late in the book, Talese asks Foos how he’d like to be received when his secret goes public. “I think of myself as a ‘pioneering sex researcher,’ ” he replies.
It’s a safe bet that some readers won’t see it that way.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.
“The Voyeur’s Motel,” by Gay Talese (240 pages; Grove; $25)