Gay Talese: Voyeurism is disgusting, but I’m no moral crusader.

Why the New Yorker writer chose to humanize voyeur Gerald Foos, and why he isn’t disavowing his book amid allegations of lies

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NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 05: Gay Talese attends ‘Genius’ New York premiere at Museum of Modern Art on June 5, 2016 in New York City. (Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Gay Talese attends the New York premiere of 'Genius' at Museum of Modern Art on June 5, 2016 in New York City. (Walter McBride/Getty Images)
Gay Talese attends the New York premiere of ‘Genius’ at Museum of Modern Art on June 5, 2016 in New York City. (Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Gerald Foos thinks of himself as a pioneering sex researcher. Others might consider him a pervert for buying a motel in Aurora, Colorado for the purpose of spying on guests having sex through what would appear to the naked eye as ceiling vents.

For more than 30 years, Gay Talese knew about Foos’s observation deck at the Manor House Motel—he even joined him for a few days in 1980—but needed to sign a confidentiality agreement beforehand. Talese, a regular New Yorker contributor and one of the pioneers of New Journalism, is a man of his word and so he largely forgets about Foos despite getting the occasional “research” update in the mail. Then, in 2013, Foos says he’s willing to tell his story on the record, which results in Talese’s latest book, The Voyeur’s MotelRead Maclean’s book review here.

Here, Talese tells Maclean’s about humanizing a voyeur, worrying for Foos’s safety, and what it was like staring on motel couples himself.

Why write about this creep? Why humanize this creep? I do a lot of this. I was condemned for humanizing a killer in the mafia book Honor Thy Father. I was criticized for Thy Neighbor’s Wife for writing about smarmy, pornographic obscene people like Al Goldstein. It’s not that I’m high on the list of the moral teachers of our time. I’m a reporter and I like to write about the other side of morality because I was raised on a strict diet of morality as a Catholic altar boy in a small, religious town. I never lost my interest in how immorality is defined. I wanted to know: who are these obscene people?

This guy writes me a letter and says I’ve done this [voyeurism] for all these years. It can’t be true. I never knew of a voyeur who would buy a motel with the express purpose of turning it into a human laboratory. That to me was news. That was interesting. Who was this guy? Gerald Foos was a German-American farm boy, a high-school football player who joins Uncle Sam’s Navy for four years. He was a voyeur and an ordinary guy. When I first met him at the airport, he looked like the ordinary guys on the airplane.

I find out that he did indeed own this motel, that he did indeed have this attic. I myself shared his little slats and looked through and saw oral sex. But I didn’t spend 30 years looking through those slats. I only spend four days in 1980 and I wrote the most interesting thing that justified that trip—the one time I saw sex. Most of the time what made me so bored as an observer was there’s not much to see. You see people smoking cigarettes and watching television through the slats. You see boring people. Reality is really boring. After three days up there, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I signed a [confidentiality agreement] when I first met him at the airport. I held these stupid letters [that Foos mailed] for 30 years. Then in 2013, suddenly, after I’d more or less forgotten about him, he says he’ll go on the record. Why? Because he’s getting old. Because he’s got arthritis. Because he wants his story told. He thought he had valid information to share with society. People can mock this guy all they want, but he believes—and I believe—that he had information worth being in the dialogue of the American society. With me as his chronicler of this slimy guy, the greatest voyeur in the world—what a dubious distinction—I wanted a story.

I went to write about this creepy guy who takes pride in being the world’s greatest voyeur. That’s sickening to many people. Don’t think I’m unfamiliar with anti-social characters. I’m a reporter and I do write about anti-social and sometimes disgusting characters.

I was interested because he presented an alternate view of history. When he writes about peeping down on [wounded] veterans, he’s writing about the real ravages of war. It could be Afghanistan or Iraq today. He was reporting on people being hypocrites. He watches a nice-looking woman and a doctor having sex in the middle of the afternoon. Then he sees her address in the registry living not too far away so he follows her home. The kids’ toys are in the lawn and she embraces the kids. Later, her husband comes home with a suitcase and she kisses him on the mouth, the Voyeur says, the very mouth mere hours before had the doctor’s penis in there. Yes, he’s disgusting. Voyeurism is disgusting, but I’m not a moral crusader. My parish priest would not like what I do.

When I started researching this, I had a camera crew follow me around every time I was with the Voyeur. I got everything on film. When he tells me he saw this murder—others say he made it up or got the date wrong—I have him telling me on film in great detail what he saw. We rode 80-some miles to the farm in Ault, [Colorado] and I went with a camera to the same house where as a little boy he was peeping at his Aunt Katheryn.

He could be lying. I’m also aware of some inconsistencies and I put them in writing. But I didn’t say I didn’t take this guy seriously. I wouldn’t spend years with him if I thought he was a fraud. He certainly gets his facts wrong and I write that he got his facts wrong. The first time I met him, he got his goddam birthday wrong.

I reported on what he reported and I, to a degree, saw some of what he saw. He considers himself a researcher. I consider him a researcher. Dr. Kinsey was a researcher in the 1940s and he was considered a pervert.

When the New Yorker published an excerpt [of The Voyeur’s Motel] in April, we went down [to visit Foos] because he was getting death threats—and Colorado is full of guns. Morality sometimes contributes to violence. We stayed for three days, getting eggs thrown by passing vehicles at his house and telephone threats.

The book will wind up at the Barnes & Noble in Denver. The Denver Post will write about it. And someone will read the Denver Post and maybe will take a gun. This guy doesn’t have security agents. He doesn’t want to move because he has sports memorabilia in the basement and he’s afraid someone will steal it and he thinks it’s worth millions of dollars. I don’t really care what that stuff is worth, but I do care if, as a result of my book, he’s going to be a target for somebody.

I wrote what I wrote. When [Foos] read what I wrote in the New Yorker, he didn’t like it. But I don’t blame him because people are throwing eggs at his roof. Now, the book is out. He saw a review copy. It’ll be out in Barnes & Noble in a week. He’s going to have to take responsibility for talking to me.

So there we are. The book comes out and everyone can knock it around, knock me around, and knock the Voyeur around. I hope they don’t shoot at him and kill him.

Note: After this interview took place, the Washington Post reported that Foos sold his motel in 1980, before repurchasing it eight years later, a detail that wasn’t shared with Talese until after the book’s publication. Talese said he was, then later said he was not, disavowing the book but ending his promotional tour. In a follow-up email on Monday with Talese asking about the credibility of Foos given the recent news, Talese replied: “Despite the lies and lack of candor to me at times, I believed that most of what Gerald Foos wrote in his diary, and letters to me, are accurate.

“If you read the book—or even limit yourself to the excerpt—you’ll see that I was not writing a real estate story.”

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.