Gay Talese is under fire for his controversial new book on a sleazy Peeping Tom. With his prized reputation on the line, the literary legend tells his side of the sordid tale.
Gay Talese never met an interview subject he didn’t like. Or at least never one he couldn’t sympathize with. He hunts down losers, outcasts, criminals. He etches them into elegantly written books and articles that seem to normalize almost any possible human behavior. “I don’t find anything so unusual,” he says. “If you ask me, What shocks you? I can’t think of anything. I am not judgmental.” He seems almost repentant when admitting his lack of interest in reform, like an adult confiding that he can’t read. It’s a quality that makes him seem either hopelessly behind the times or far ahead of them.
Nevertheless, over the past few months critics have sought to reform Talese. In April, he trended on Twitter when he failed to cite more than one female nonfiction writer who inspired him as a youth. He irritated a New York Times magazine staff writer when he asked her how she got her job, and if she would be headed to a nail salon after a symposium. At 84, he should be enjoying his status as a long-time bestselling author and architect of such journalistic classics as “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” collecting honors as a national treasure. But Talese has always set off firebombs. Now, he’s in a mess with an unreliable voyeur.
The uproar centers on “The Voyeur’s Motel,” set to come out July 12. The book examines the decades-long activities of Gerald Foos, a motor-lodge owner in Aurora, Col., who rigged the attic of his Manor House Motel for the express purpose of spying on the social and sex lives of his guests. Foos, untrained as a sociologist or behavioral scientist, kept detailed journals of his surreptitious discoveries. Fashioning himself a latter-day Alfred Kinsey, he considered his records more illuminating than those of the pioneering sex researcher because he observed his subjects’ sexual behavior in a more pure environment: They didn’t know they were being watched.
Talese warns several times in the book that his subject can not be trusted entirely, and “The Voyeur’s Motel” was never going to be inspirational fare. But the trouble began in April after a pre-publication excerpt appeared in the New Yorker. In one passage, Foos reports that in 1977 he witnessed a murder from his secret aerie, and not only did he fail to interrupt the crime, he inadvertently instigated it by disposing of a drug stash that caused the dispute. Talese, in the excerpt, weighed turning in Foos to the police, but decided that, since the alleged murder happened six years before he read the account, he wouldn’t aid justice with his intervention. In another passage, Talese describes visiting the motel attic himself and watching a couple engaged in oral sex. Reaction to the excerpt was swift, as critics accused Talese of negligence and unethical conduct.
“I don’t think there is a whole lot of difference between the voyeur and me. Good journalists are really voyeurs.”
Then, two weeks before the book’s publication, the controversy intensified when Talese announced he would “disavow” the book after factual discrepancies about the years Foos owned the motel were pointed out to him by reporters. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?” Talese said in an article on June 30 in the Washington Post.
The very next day, however, Talese did an about-face. Both he and the book’s publisher, Grove/Atlantic, issued a statement saying they stood by “The Voyeur’s Motel” and would carry out scheduled promotional activities, perhaps appending a new author’s note and making any necessary corrections on future editions. Talese’s overnight rationale was that while some material he writes about may have occurred when Foos didn’t own the motel, the bulk of the story held true: Foos had spied on his guests for a long period of time and kept copious notes.
Talese had sat for a lengthy interview with me before the news story broke, but in a July 5 email he wrote that when he confronted Foos, the only error Foos admitted to covering up was the eight-year gap in his 26-year ownership in the motel. He cited no other errors of which Talese should be aware. The voyeur expressed “a mixture of remorse and confusion because he said he did not ‘intentionally’ leave these details out. But,” Talese adds, “remember he is unreliable.” Over the three-plus decades they had been corresponding, Talese noticed no shift in tone during the years that Foos didn’t own the motel, a period in which Foos now says he had been raising horses and dabbling in real estate.
Talese was left to handle the fallout. In our initial interview, Talese had spoken about his reverence for his profession: “We are like judges. We are pure, we don’t sell out, we are presumably not corruptible people. If journalists are corrupt, they are exposed and drummed out by journalists. It wasn’t that the Supreme Court said get rid of Jayson Blair (a New York Times reporter who resigned in 2003 over accusations of plagiarism and fabrications). Journalists said get rid of Blair.” Talese likely feared he would suffer the same fate.
But Talese had set himself up for trouble when he chose to write about such a slippery character. The voyeur in effect lied every time he handed a room key to a privacy-seeking guest, and Talese chose to tell the story of that liar. Steven Spielberg liked the tale well enough to buy the film rights, with Sam Mendes slated to direct. Talese identified with his subject’s curiosity. “I don’t think there is a whole lot of difference between the voyeur and me,” he says. “Good journalists are really voyeurs.”
“I am beginning to believe that portions of Mr. Talese’s publication is sheer fabrication,” says Aurora, Col., Det. Steve Conner, “or at least a departure from fact.”
Talese has always been a highly invested reporter, one who creates his work by doing whatever is required to get the story — spending more than a month following Frank Sinatra or ten years dallying in the hot center of the sexual revolution for “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” Could it be that Talese identified so much with Foos that he blindly trusted the voyeur’s reporting as his own? “I’ve always had a second sense of self,” Talese says. “No matter what I am doing, whether I am an altar boy or going to an orgy. Like when I went to my first massage parlor (for research on “Thy Neighbor’s Wife”) — yes, I am enjoying this woman, but I’m also [asking her], ‘How did you get from there to here?’ What’s her story? What’s her secret life?”
Talese mentions an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, about a man looking up at a window at night and seeing himself looking. “You’re there but aware of being there. I’ve had that trailing me at all times: ‘Is there a story there? Is there a story there?’ That’s a sickness. But it’s also a living, you know.”
When Gaetano Talese was 11 or 12 years old, he recalls an evening seated on a chair in his family’s vast living room in their unusual house, the former offices of the Ocean City Ledger, in Ocean City, N.J. His elegant parents were giving him their full attention, a treat since they tended toward a clique of two. But a waltz wafted up from the radio and, meeting each other’s gazes, they rose and began dancing the full length of the room. They continued for 10 or 15 minutes without once looking toward their son. As the song ended, they strolled to the light switch and suggested that he go off to bed (in his room which was the former linotype room). Then they moved on to their bedroom, presumably to consummate the emotion. “It was a very sad moment,” Talese says, and he included the scene in his 2006 memoir, “A Writer’s Life.”
Talese’s whole career might be considered an effort to get a glimpse into that bedroom. He never understood how his parents could be so “closely married” their whole lives that, for 60 years, they would never be out of each other’s gazes, how they could make no place for him in that love. It was the unreportable story because he had no access. No amount of staring, no exhaustion of fact-finding would allow it. But it probably motivated him to conjure a fascinating facsimile of intimate emotion. He could delve into a person’s life and give away the secrets.
SEE YOU LATER Manor House owner Gerald Foos, who spied on his guests for decades, fashioned himself a latter-day Alfred Kinsey, the pioneering sex researcher. His exploits are recounted in Talese’s new book.
“When I was a kid in the store at my mother’s dress shop, I was a reporter,” he says. “I am eavesdropping, I am snooping around, I’m watching customers.”
Talese’s curiosity about those secrets crops up everywhere in his work, perhaps never more so than in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” In 1971, as he neared 40, Talese already had six books behind him, including bestsellers about the New York Times, “The Power and the Glory”; and the Bonanno crime family, “Honor Thy Father.” He was very much a respected reporter living a charmed existence with his wife, Nan, a well-regarded book editor, and two young daughters.
Coming home from dinner one night with Nan, he noticed a neon sign on a building flashing LIVE NUDE MODELS — a curiosity which Nan declined to investigate, but welcomed her husband to pursue. “Massage parlors were all over New York,” Talese says. “And they weren’t quite understood for what they were.” Most people assumed they offered therapeutic massage. “What they really were was mercenary sexual prostitution — women were jerking guys off and getting $25 for one come.”
“I was writing about adultery, including my own. The reader has to know who the hell I am writing about, including me. How did I get this information? Well, I’m in the middle of an orgy.”
Talese was no sexual adventurer. He was raised in a highly religious Italian-American household, trained to sleep in the chaste Catholic pose, flat on his back with arms crossed over his chest to clamp his wayward hands to his shoulders. But he entered and tested the services, while simultaneously interviewing the masseuse. He started returning and, after subsequent visits, convinced a proprietor to allow him to manage one of these businesses for no pay. “I wanted the girls to take notes for me,” he says. “I turned the masseuses into researchers and I paid them for it.”
It’s worth noting that Talese’s impulse was not to investigate the operation and legality of these massage parlors. Nor was it to expose how much revenue flowed into the pockets of the owners. He turned the masseuses into de facto reporters, much as he accepted the reporting of Gerald Foos through his journals. He did not retreat as illicit aspects of the work were uncovered. Quite the opposite.
Ultimately, Talese couldn’t get his masseuse-reporters to go on the record so he moved on, broadening his inquiry to include Hugh Hefner, Supreme Court obscenity battles and Sandstone Retreat, the free-love colony in California. What got him in trouble then was not his failing to delve too deeply in his material, but for getting too close. His research temporarily damaged his marriage, which Talese decided to address in the book. “I was writing about adultery, including my own,” he says. “The reader has to know who the hell I am writing about, including me. How did I get this information? Well, I’m in the middle of an orgy.”
Eight years before the book’s publication, Talese had allowed a former Esquire editor, Aaron Latham, to trail him for an article in New York magazine. No one could have guessed from the article’s ribald scenes that Talese’s embedded account from the front lines of the sexual revolution would result in a serious 568-page book, exploring the ecstasies and pathos of flawed Americans trying to navigate a complex terrain. While by no means puritanical, the book is not a romp either.
“So now I am not only a perverted, lecherous creep with two innocent daughters and a wife, but now I am rich. This is too much!”
“I blithely report that I’m naïve,” Talese says of allowing Latham in. “This pretension I had of being a serious reporter — I still have that pretension — went down the tubes with that piece. Because here’s a middle-age guy married with two daughters frolicking and saying it’s research. ‘Bullshit, this guy is getting out his jollies and putting it on his expense account.’
“That New York magazine article put a mark on the book yet to be published,” Talese continues. “And even when it was published, that queered it. To make it even worse, six weeks before the book came out, United Artists got an advanced copy and paid $2.5 million dollars to Gay Talese. So now I am not only a perverted, lecherous creep with two innocent daughters and a wife, but now I am rich.” Talese laughs, sympathizing with his detractors. “This is too much. This is too fucking much!”
IT’S A LIVING Talese has hobnobbed with people from all walks during his 62-year career. (Clockwise from top left) Talese rubs elbows with (from left) Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal; with Pete Hamill; in Ocean City, N.J., his birthplace; showing support for striking hotel and restaurant workers outside Cipriani 42nd St.
Despite Talese’s tendency to pursue controversial topics, he seems constantly surprised by the lack of regard for his adventurousness. “I felt pretty disgraced,” he says. “I so naively thought I was doing serious research in the dark world of human nature. I felt similarly with this book now, with this voyeur. But when (“Thy Neighbor’s Wife”) came out, everyone reviewed it and reviewed me and pretty much decided I was perverted and felt sorry for Nan. Nan never got any publicity before. And now she was an infamous editor because of me.”
Talese’s participatory research on that 1981 book, and his experience with the public scolding, might have made him more open than others would be to Foos’ transgressions. When asked what Foos might have hoped for from the book, Talese edges into his reply. “You know, Kinsey, he was vilified,” he says. “In the 1940s, he was (considered) a dirty old man. And when I went to Sandstone in 1971, I met a lot of psychologists and sexual therapists who were frolicking around in nudeland and were loving themselves, enjoying themselves, but they still had the credentials. Men and women of science were just frolicking swingers. This guy (Foos) thinks, Hell, maybe I don’t have the credentials, the doctorate degree, but I have as much in the way of experience as Kinsey — and even more — because I didn’t have these staged. And I am not sure he’s not right.”
Talese received his first letter from the man who would go on to describe himself as “the world’s greatest voyeur” in January 1980. Over the years, Talese has received a lot of unsolicited mailings. If the letters are handwritten Talese generally assumes them to be the work of a prisoner. “The guy’s got a novel,” he says, “or he wants you to save him because he’s been unjustly accused of murder.” He casts an eye over these and found Foos’ letter to be relatively well written, albeit less well-written than the writer himself seemed to think. “He has a grand sense of himself,” Talese says recalling that first introduction. “Norman Mailer was modest compared to this guy! I mean this guy thinks he’s goddamn Chaucer.”
At the time of Foos’ letter, pre-publication press on “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” had stirred up an unusual audience for his work. In the letter, Foos described in calm detail how he had bought the Manor House Motel in the 1960s, had constructed a peeping room in the attic and kept meticulous records of everything he saw as well as the demographics of the participants. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not as just a deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote. “This was done for the past 15 years, and I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I watched.” Foos wished to offer Talese his cache of sexual research.
Most people would have kept a wary distance from such a correspondent. Not Talese. “I read this letter and (thought), Jesus!” Talese recalls. “I was curious. Is this guy telling me the truth?” He immediately arranged a stop in Aurora to meet Foos on an upcoming trip.
“Foos has a grand sense of himself. Norman Mailer was modest compared to this guy! I mean this guy thinks he’s god***n Chaucer.”
In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” Talese describes the very normal first meeting with the very ordinary Foos at the luggage claim of the Denver airport. Foos drove Talese to the motel, introduced him to his friendly nurse wife, Donna, and showed him his carefully rigged observation station. Talese went on to spend three days with Foos and interviewed him. But Foos refused to be identified in any reporting — a deal-breaker for Talese, who won’t publish stories without his subjects’ true names.
Back in New York, Talese began receiving regular packets from Foos, including copied sections of his journals. Talese was fascinated by the meticulousness of the voyeur’s notes, and the content that included such previously undercovered stories as the agony of war veterans, patients of the hospital across the street, trying to re-establish their erotic lives after being maimed in battle. The correspondence ebbed and flowed, growing more sparse in recent decades, until 2013, when Foos told Talese he had checked with a lawyer about the statute of limitations on voyeurism and thought he was now safe. He was ready to go on the record. Talese flew to Aurora and met with Foos again, this time meeting Foos’ second wife, Anita, whom he had married after he and Donna divorced in 1984.
James Keivom/New York Daily News
TRUE ROMANCE Talese has begun writing a book on a topic he’s been researching since 1957: his marriage to book editor Nan.
Talese appears to have had no desire to enlist long in the voyeur’s world. In general, he seeks reporting for its escapism into the life of another person. He describes sex similarly. Maybe standard motel voyeurism was just too tedious. “Except for the blow job, I did not see much sex at all,” Talese says. “People smoking, watching television, and it’s so boring. I mean it’s not the movies. It’s real life.”
Talese allowed Foos’ records to speak for themselves. But before the New Yorker published its excerpt of “The Voyeur’s Motel,” Talese says Foos began getting cold feet. Despite his lawyer’s assurance that he was in the clear, Foos worried about being sent to jail for his voyeurism or for the 1977 murder he claimed to have witnessed, and asked Talese to leave that incident out. Talese refused.
For his part, Talese had looked into the crime and could find no police- or newspaper records and, therefore, didn’t really know what to make of it. Talese said he told Foos he could not promise that the legal advice on statute of limitations was correct. Maybe Foos would go to jail, maybe not. But he told Foos that, whatever happened, he could pin the problems brought up by the book on Talese. “Blame me,” Talese says he told Foos. “The deal is: You trust me to be a fair reporter; I am not going to lie. But if law-enforcement authorities say that something in this book harms you, you say, ‘That guy stabbed me in the back.’ The deal was you don’t see it until the publisher publishes it. So blame me. And he should. [I told him:] ‘You made a mistake. You shouldn’t have trusted me, Gerald. You shouldn’t have trusted me.’ ”
“I did not see much sex at all. People smoking, watching television, and it’s so boring. I mean it’s not the movies. It’s real life.”
Maybe the better question is, Should Talese have trusted Foos? Talese has made his career by living among his subjects, reporting firsthand, and crafting that material into mellifluous prose. He doesn’t create composite characters or use pseudonyms. “I am a storyteller,” Talese says. “I thought the story was really, really, really unusual. All I care about (is) is it real? As long as I don’t imagine anything, as long as I don’t embellish anything.… The reason I want names, addresses, phone numbers, is I want verification.” With a real name, the source must answer to what is said and other reporters or legal authorities can follow up with anything they wish to check. Which, ironically, is how the kerfuffle over the book’s factual and narrative inconsistencies came to light.
In the book, Talese describes how he almost revealed himself on the first day he joined Foos in the attic when, while peering down through the specially engineered air-vent slats, the tail of his necktie slipped through. After the New Yorker excerpt appeared, some readers suggested the errant tie was too ludicrous to be true. “No, that happened!” Talese insists, sounding surprised when I inform him of that doubt. “And if I had been caught it would have been terrible for both of us.”
The authorities would certainly have cracked down on the man who had spent more than a decade watching people in their deepest intimacy. But, remember, there were two of them in that attic: Foos and Talese.
Talese looks a bit thin in his 84th year. He has the face of a Roman senator, like an ancient bust on a shelf in the Vatican. He once asked classmates at a high-school reunion to describe his youthful self. They offered aloof, complicated, vague, smug, quirky, in another world. His famously elegant taste in apparel can perhaps mark him as aloof, although that is more the consequence of his upbringing as the son of a tailor. One sign of his quirkiness is that, in the course of an interview, he spells the name of any non-famous person he mentions just after he says it. Thoroughly a reporter, he provides this service reflexively to spare others the task of requesting the proper spelling later. He is speaking for the record.
When he works, he enters “another world,” both by embodying the lives of his subjects and by disappearing into his basement office to write. It’s a bunker decorated like an old-world couture salon, an upholstered, soundless world of cream on cream, all accented in cherry red. Here, Talese stores shelves of file boxes collaged with a funhouse of words and images. By reading the labels you can see the subjects he has felled over the decades: Frank Sinatra, the Mafia, sports heroes, the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
One box says: A NONFICTION MARRIAGE. When Foos finally gave Talese authorization to use his story on record in 2013, he interrupted Talese’s work on another book that he began researching as far back as 1957: He has been taking notes on his relationship with Nan since two years before they wed. “This is stuff of me saying the wrong thing — which is frequent — usually being chided by the editor-wife I have, and me being the third person, the chronicler. I am the stenographer of this court case that is never in court.”
Talese has taken great care to be accurate with this marriage book — which he has been writing for seven years — not only referring to his copious notes, but hiring two reporters to interview his wife. But he is worried about the literal deadline. “You can’t get 50-plus years of marriage in one book. But on the other hand, I am 84 years old and I don’t want to die with this thing undone.” He has considered swift ways to structure the book, but rejected them as too “gimmicky.” This would be Talese’s ultimate work of participatory journalism, the closest he would get to solving the mystery his parents embodied: how two people could stay close for six decades.
“You can’t get 50-plus years of marriage in one book. But on the other hand, I am 84 years old and I don’t want to die with this thing undone.”
But he decided to let the voyeur project intervene, and he did not choose as trustworthy a subject. His on-the-ground reporting would be little match for a man who would lie about such things as ownership gaps. He is not agile with the tools that other reporters or his critics now wield. When he wants me to watch a clip from a short film that was made about Gerald Foos, we sit in front of his large-screen Mac as if we are the first post-apocalyptic apes to discover the remnants of the digital age. “How do you get into this?” he asks.
“Do you mean online?”
“There’s stuff hidden here,” he says mysteriously.
“Maybe in downloads?” I’m hesitant to take over the controls, so as not to inadvertently open any private files.
I open the downloads folder and the screen populates with row upon row of friendly snapshots, documents, PDFs. We are both daunted by the magnitude.
“I tell you what,” he says. “Do you have a little cell phone?”
James Keivom/New York Daily NewsBODY OF EVIDENCE Talese’s home office is a virtual museum to his life’s work (clockwise from top left): Research for articles he’s written over the years; his outline for the groundbreaking “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold;” collages of his best-selling books and magazine clips.
Talese doesn’t pore over internet searches or Excel data when conducting research, because he wasn’t raised in that era. He still conducts his reporting on foot, in person, with his self-constructed shirtboard cards stored in his breast pocket for taking notes. He has always immersed himself in the cultures he writes about, for however long it takes. In the case of Foos, he checked the validity of the voyeur’s claims then, satisfied with their accuracy, left the attic, allowing Foos to serve as his proxy. Other than the masseuses that Talese paid to take notes for him in the 1970s, Foos has been Talese’s only surrogate.
One reason Talese might have left the reporting to Foos was because he found Foos’ world too distasteful to inhabit himself. In his journals, Foos reveals he would sometimes walk or drive around the Denver area, peering in windows. He on occasion trailed trysting targets from the motel to their homes and spied on their domestic life, noting in at least one instance a name and in another, watching family members. One unfaithful woman returned to her house, children’s tricycles on the front lawn, and later she greeted her husband with a kiss. When I bring up the inherent creepiness of Foos’ stalking, Talese points out the scene’s raw poignancy, suggesting that it justifies his actions. Earlier he had said: “When he followed people around, that curiosity — I can identify with that.”
As a child, Foos kept a large collection of personally culled muskrat tails, and as an adult, a gun collection. He believes he can control subjects — particularly female ones — with his own thoughts. He admits to experiencing disassociation after selling both the Manor House Motel and a second property he had acquired, The Riviera, with its own spying stations, in the mid-’90s. “Now the voyeur and Gerald are separate entities,” Foos wrote, “completely disconnected since their tenure in the observation platform has ended.”
The public has good reason to be alarmed by voyeurs. While not all voyeurs are violent, Vernon J. Geberth, a retired New York lieutenant-commander, who in his career reviewed over 8,000 murders, wrote in “Sex-Related Homicide and Death Investigation: Practical and Clinical Perspectives,” “The fact is that, investigatively speaking, complaints about voyeurism must be treated as very serious offenses. The author cannot state that all voyeurs will become rapists or lust murderers; however I can emphatically state that in all lust murders that I have investigated and/or consulted on, the offender had a history of voyeurism activities.”
Even Foos himself seems to understand that stalking often accompanies more sinister crimes. When a Denver Post reporter found Talese and Foos at a city-records office in 2013, Foos rambled to the reporter about serial killers: “You know, there are one hundred in Denver? But they’re just plotting right now. They’re not acting, but they’re thinking. Some of them are interested in guys. Some are interested in little children. Some are interested in school teachers, some are interested in high political guys or CEOs. Some are interested in nice-looking girls like you, OK?” he said, referring to the reporter. “They will follow you around in secret, take pictures of you, follow you home, take a picture of where you live, find out how many you live with.”
Foos never repented for following his subjects home. He harshly judged the guests he watched — “People are basically dishonest and unclean: they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest,” he wrote — but never himself. There was one exception: His role in the 1977 murder he claims he witnessed. Foos says he observed a motel guest and his girlfriend whose actions led him to believe they were drug dealers. Fiercely anti-drug, Foos entered the room when the two were out and disposed of the goods. But when the dealer and his girlfriend returned, Foos asserts the dealer accused his girlfriend of stealing the drugs and choked her, then bolted. According to his account, Foos watched the altercation from above, saw the woman on the ground, but noticed her chest was still moving. Believing she was still alive, he left the attic. When his wife, Donna, returned from her work at the hospital, he told her the story and she thought the woman would be fine. But the next morning, the chambermaid allegedly found the woman dead. Foos said he called the police but without revealing that he had witnessed the attack.
“Gerald, you could have hidden. But you wanted to stick your neck out of the foxhole and hope it doesn’t get blown off.”
The only time I felt (Foos) was remorseful was on the murder,” Talese says. “But I think that was preceded by fear of being accused of negligence. He didn’t go downstairs. He always likes to brag that as a football player he could throw guys against the wall. He might have been afraid that the guy would come back.” Foos could have reported he overheard the altercation without saying he was spying from above. “He could have said he was walking by, but he didn’t.”
Foos claims the police told him, after they investigated, that the guests had registered under fake names and the car was stolen; the perpetrator could not be tracked. But weirdest of all, Foos may have felt remorse for a murder that never happened.
It was a murder with no official account — not in police files, not in newspapers. Talese says he went to the Denver Post many times and they tried to help him locate even a small item relating to the murder of the drug dealer’s girlfriend but came up empty. He points out that from his own obituary-writing experience, the ink goes to the famous. “This wasn’t Claus von Bülow,” he says.
To this day Talese says he remains mystified about what really happened. He went over the story many times with Foos and came away convinced he was telling the truth. Only later did he consider the possibility that Foos had concocted the tale. “But why the fuck would someone make up that?” Later he says, “I mean, this guy is not St. Francis of Assisi. He’s a hustler. I believe he has made mistakes, but I do believe him. I believe he saw that murder [of the woman]. And he convinced me, and I am not the most naïve reporter.” At another point, he added, “I am not going to solve the fucking murder,” but welcomed other journalists to try.
When the New Yorker excerpt came out, I became intrigued by the murder and started looking into the matter in preparation for a hoped-for interview with Talese closer to his book’s publication. In searching for the 1977 crime, I came across a strange documented cold-case murder in 1984 at the Manor House Motel, involving a father of two, James Craig Broughman, the apparent subject of a burglary gone wrong. Since I had no access to the full book I didn’t know if Talese had reported on the crime, although it seemed strange that it would be left out of the excerpt. With Talese unavailable for interviews until closer to the book’s release, I contacted Steve Conner, the cold-case detective in Aurora, to inquire if Foos had been questioned. Had he witnessed this crime too?
Conner told me that Foos had not been interrogated according to the case documents, which struck me as an odd omission, given that he was the motel’s owner. I checked back just over a week later and learned that Conner had called Foos, who told him that he had sold the motel around 1984 and bought it back in 1987, and that he had no knowledge of the crime. That property transaction seemed odd too, and had not been mentioned in the excerpt; it also raised the question of whether he had sold the place before or after the murder. Conner then consulted Arapahoe County Records and confirmed the ownership gap — albeit beginning in 1980 and ending in 1988 — and provided the dates to me. “I am beginning to believe that portions of Mr. Talese’s publication is sheer fabrication, or at least a departure from fact,” Conner wrote me in an email. What was still uncertain was if Talese had reported on this gap in the full version of the book.
“Gerald Foos doesn’t believe he’s a slimy little pervert. And he is famous because of this book. When he dies, he is going to get an obituary.”
Just days before interviewing Talese I found a Denver Post story from 1984 in which Foos said he sold the property in 1982. Under the headline, “Motel Life Was Heartbreaker,” he describes many of the scenarios that make “The Voyeur’s Motel” more than just an unsavory account of voyeurism. He talks of GI amputees trying to put their lives back together and transient families looking for work, though he never reveals how he actually discovered this information.
I provided Talese with a copy of this article when I finally interviewed him on June 21. The book had included another revelation missing from the excerpt: Foos briefly described the 1984 Broughman murder that I had found in the cold-case records. I asked Talese how, given the ownership gap, did Foos come to know of it? Talese seemed confused by these discrepancies, as if learning about them for the first time, but then told me that even if Foos switched title on the property, Talese believed he had still been somehow involved in the motel, if not in ownership, then in its operation.
On June 24, Detective Conner unexpectedly forwarded his and my correspondence concerning the ownership gap to a Washington Post reporter who had inquired about police logs at the Manor House Motel from 1969 to 1995, and cc’d me. In an earlier email, the reporter had inquired about the 1984 murder at the motel, but received no reply. When the Post reported this development on June 30 it became breaking news: Talese had failed to note the ownership gap and any narrative discrepancies stemming from it in the book. He had gotten duped by his unreliable primary source.
As “The Voyeur’s Motel” neared publication, but before the news blew up, Talese said Foos had grown edgy. He claimed that he had been receiving death threats and people had thrown eggs at his house. “I talk to him on the phone and he’s antsy,” Talese says. “And this is often how we all are. We have done this thing and now there is this period of emptiness. We are not communicating anymore.” Foos expressed a desire to move — as much to spare his aging knees from his current house’s staircase as to escape the scrutiny that’s headed his way — but Talese advised him to stay near neighbors who know him. “If you move you are going to be in trouble because you will be treated like a child molester,” Talese says he told Foos. “Sooner or later someone’s going to catch up with you.”
Following the New Yorker excerpt in April, Foos said he would no longer do interviews. “After July 12, certain people with money in their pocket can talk to me,” he told a reporter for Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper. “It’s gonna be costly.” (He ended up speaking to the Washington Post reporter about the ownership timeline.)
James Keivom/New York Daily News
ONE-TRACK MIND Talese, in his office lair, cops to a feeling of constant disconnection from the world. “I am not a person,” he says. “I am really a total journalist.”
At the end of the day, Talese believes Foos has no one but himself to blame for what will unfold from here. He says he told Foos, prior to the revelations about the time gap, “Gerald, you could have hidden. No one would know you, and your material would have been buried with you. Everything would have been fine in hell, or wherever you’re going to go. But you wanted to stick your neck out of the foxhole and hope it doesn’t get blown off.”
Talese equates Foos’ authorizing the book to clues left by the Unabomber, or journalists Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” informer Mark Felt revealing himself late in life. “Woodward and Bernstein went out of their way to protect this goddamn Felt guy for many, many years and why does he blow it? Because he thought, I want to take a bow,” Talese says. “Gerald Foos believed that he was important. He doesn’t believe he’s a slimy little pervert. And you know, he is famous because of this book. When he dies, he is going to get an obituary.”
“God, I would (go to Damascus) in a minute. What can happen? ISIS is going to chop my neck? At my age, I don’t give a sh**.”
The obit, for Talese, whose heaven is column inches, is the equivalent of a presidential burial at Arlington, the symphony conductor’s requiem at Carnegie Hall, or a painter’s ashes mixed into pigment. Talese also promises his subjects the dignified ending, the velvet-lined casket. To get approval to tell Bill Bonanno’s story, to break omerta, Talese offered the mobster his rewrite. “I said, ‘Bill, the obituary you get will be told by the FBI to the New York Times. You’re going to be a thug. Which is what you are. But I am going to write that you’re a human being. You’re not all the time a mobster. You’re a father and a husband. You’re a big balance. And he went for it. I did the same thing with Bill Bonanno as I did with the voyeur Gerald Foos.”
When asked who else he would like to provide with such a nuanced portrait, Talese doesn’t hesitate: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “I would have liked to have been sitting in Damascus these last two years,” he says. “I’ll bet there is Pilates, somebody practicing their backhand. Mr. and Mrs. Assad probably have bridge night out.” He sympathizes with Assad’s decision not to step down, knowing he would likely lose his neck. “I like Assad because he says, ‘I am going to do it my way.’ ”
Damascus would intrigue Talese in a way the voyeur’s attic could not. For his best work, he needs to be his own watcher. I asked him if he ever sheds the observer self, when focused by pain, or even in sex, and he cops to a feeling of constant disconnection from the world. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” he says. “I am always looking around the room, I have an internal cinema. There’s in my head a picture of what is going on with me, what I am doing, who I am with. I can recall something that happened 25 years ago in a bedroom, and the light, and how she, this woman in bed, posed, how she moved. I can see it. Now this is sickness. But it’s also good journalism. I mean, I am not a person. I am really a total journalist. I don’t think Pulitzer Prizes are given to such journalists, but that’s why I never won a Pulitzer prize.”
He thinks again of Damascus. “God, I would do that story in a minute,” Talese says, energized by the idea of such a plum assignment. “What can happen? ISIS is going to chop my neck and I’m going to be on television? At my age, I don’t give a shit. I would get a perfect obit. I would be front page above the fold, or at least below the fold. Otherwise, you’ve got an ordinary page-39 obituary. I would rather be killed on a story than having some cranky nurse in assisted living not getting me a glass of water at 4 in the morning.”
Before the recent controversy over “The Voyeur’s Motel,” Talese would expect that his reputation for evenhandedness and accuracy would figure prominently in his own obituary. They are the two qualities he values most. “No one knows I have it,” he says, “but I have it: I have the prize that I never wrote about anyone who screamed that I abused them. Everybody I interviewed — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. If they are still alive, I can call them, and they will still talk to me. And you can check this — you’ll probably find me wrong — I don’t think I have ever had a correction. Not that I haven’t made mistakes, but at 84, what did I do wrong?” He pauses, considering. “I can’t remember.”
Not long after our conversation, Gay Talese had something to correct.