Gay Talese’s Other Problem

The writer’s latest New Yorker piece is far more troubling than his sexist comments.

Gay Talese.

Gay Talese.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Entertainment.

Gay Talese probably wishes he’d had a cold. Instead, the 84-year-old journalist ventured out to Boston University last week, and made a series of simultaneously inane and offensive comments about female writers. Since that time, Talese has been the unsurprising object of mockery and scorn on Twitter and elsewhere. But within the same week, to less fanfare, Talese revealed an even darker side of himself via a massively long piece in the current issue of the New Yorker, titled “The Voyeur’s Motel.” Although it has been on the magazine’s “most read” list for days, it hasn’t elicited a fraction of the commentary that his remarks did. But the article is a failure of journalistic ethics and a revealing window into Talese’s character.

Talese’s narrative is undeniably fascinating. The story is about a strange man named Gerald Foos, who owned and operated a motel in Colorado. With the help and knowledge of his wife, he modified many of the motel’s rooms in such a way that he could watch his guests from above the ceiling. Although he admits to being sexually aroused by his spying, he is also intellectually curious: He fastidiously records details about the occupants (especially about their sex lives), and believes himself to be gleaning a great deal of sociological insight into them. As the story moves from the 1960s through the 1990s, he witnesses and catalogs various societal changes, such as an increase in interracial couples, that are compelling but ultimately unsurprising and never revelatory. The real interest of Talese’s piece, in other words, is Foos himself.

Foos wrote to Talese in 1980, hoping someone would tell his story without revealing his name or blowing his cover. It’s here that things get murky. Talese traveled to Colorado to meet Foos and see the motel for himself. Immediately upon arrival in the state, the journalist also signed a document promising that, in his words, “I would not identify him by name, or publicly associate his motel with whatever information he shared with me, until he had granted me a waiver.” Talese claims that by this point he had already decided not to write about Foos because of the confidentiality restriction. It’s not really clear, however, what he told Foos about his motives; like much else in the story, Talese’s intentions are never properly delineated.

When Talese finally got to the motel, he made a fateful decision: He entered the attic with Foos and watched an unsuspecting couple have oral sex. Throughout his recounting, Talese is constantly noting his own ambivalence, but it’s impossible to know how much of this is sincere. (The absurdity and bathos of the scene—with Talese’s tie slipping through a slat and dangling over the bed, thus almost revealing him and Foos—is just one of the bizarrely compelling, borderline unbelievable bits in the piece.)

Several weeks later, Foos begins sending Talese his journal, which he started writing in 1966, and most of the piece is taken up with its insights, and Talese’s comments on them. As the journal progresses, however, the story takes a disturbing turn: Foos had a habit of going into his guests’ rooms and dispensing with any drugs they had; he had witnessed drug deals from the attic and disapproved. (His hypocrisy and moralism on certain issues—such as government spying, which he is against—is one of the things that make him such an interesting protagonist.) This time, a drug dealer notices his missing stash, and subsequently blames and murders his girlfriend, in view of Foos. (Foos watched the whole thing happen, and did nothing; once the drug dealer departed the room, he noticed that the victim was still breathing but decided not to help her.) As Talese writes, “Foos reasoned that he couldn’t do anything anyway, ‘because at this moment in time he was only an observer and not a reporter, and really didn’t exist as far as the male and female subjects were concerned.’ ” Talese, one hopes, finds such reasoning disgusting, although it is hard to know, since he seems to be operating on similar principles. (The murder appears to have occurred in 1977—Foos is bad with dates—before Talese entered the picture. Foos did eventually call the police; there was, after all, a dead body in one of his motel rooms.)

By 2013, Foos had sold the motel and wanted to “go public” with his story. The statute of limitations, he reasoned, would protect him from lawsuits and/or criminal charges. The confidentiality agreement Talese signed was voided by Foos; in addition to the New Yorker article, which is an excerpt, Talese has written a book on the subject, which will be out later this year from Grove/Atlantic, which even paid Foos some money for his trouble. (Retrofitting the motel for optimal spying couldn’t have been cheap.) Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, told me that because of the book’s reliance on “over 20,000 words of copyright material, we either have a choice of not using it, or paying the copyright owner a fee.” When I asked about Foos, Entrekin responded by saying, “Is the guy a particularly savory character? No.”

So, let’s review: Talese signs a confidentiality agreement that states he won’t reveal anything about Foos. He then goes and spies on two people having sex at Foos’ motel. Then, Foos, after enough time had elapsed that he could no longer get in trouble, sells his story, and Talese sells his book.

Was Talese planning to write about Foos all along? Although he says in the piece that he hoped to, on the condition that the confidentiality agreement would one day be voided, he also says that he originally went to Colorado “merely to meet this man and satisfy his curiosity.” If the latter is true, then it’s hard to know what the journalistic motive was in not revealing the goings-on at the motel to authorities. But, assuming that he was indeed planning to write about Foos, there is surely something objectionable about waiting until both men were out of legal danger before cashing in on the story. It’s true that any journalist who writes about war or crime or violence is in some sense “profiting” from bad behavior. (Entrekin mentioned to me that many wrongdoers throughout history, from the Watergate conspirators onward, made money off of their stories.) But this case is categorically different: Foos’ story is not a matter of great public interest; sticking with him in the hopes of one day blowing the lid off some institutional failure was never the point. Talese had an obligation as a citizen to reveal Foos’ creepy, dangerous, illegal behavior, and did not do so.

The most revolting part of the piece occurs after Talese learns of the murder, when he confesses to having spent “a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in. But I reasoned it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend … I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator.” Talese’s “reasoning,” such as it is, would mean that no one should ever turn anyone else in for a crime that has already been committed.

I reached out to New Yorker editor David Remnick, who declined to comment beyond what he said to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi: “While the scene is certainly disturbing (Talese writes that he was ‘shocked, and surprised’ to read the account in the journal), 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.” Reading Talese’s story, it is impossible not to wonder what else Foos had been up to. In a creepy episode revealed in his journal, Foos followed one of his occupants home, and questioned a neighbor at her apartment complex. Was Talese ever concerned about what other dangerous and possibly illegal things Foos had done? He appears uninterested in even wrestling with the question.

I wrote Talese asking him several specific questions, including why he didn’t turn Foos in to authorities. Talese responded late Friday night, promising more detail in his forthcoming book, but noting that in the meantime he could not provide answers to my “serious and important questions.” He was writing from Denver; he had just arrived in the city, he said, and was “now worrying about the death threats to the voyeur my writing has just exposed. Many mean-sounding people here in Denver are warning him not to leave his house—and, for three days, he hasn’t. The police had been notified, they are patrolling the area around the clock.” He wrote that he planned to pay Foos a visit this weekend, before adding: “As he felt responsible for the death he did not prevent, I also feel responsible for communicating his very complicated and controversial relationship with his life-long compulsion to invade other people’s privacy. Now, with America a Voyeuristic Nation—so much of it in the name of security (which I explain in the magazine excerpt) it is almost pathetic to witness the petrified voyeur seeking privacy.”

It was a bizarre message (he doesn’t once mention Foos by name), both more contemptuous and pitying of Foos than anything in the actual piece. It’s good to know that Talese is finally feeling “responsible” for something, but the problem is that Foos’ behavior was able to continue undisturbed for so long, not that it is now finally public.