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Steinberg: Talese gives us a peek inside ‘Voyeur’s Motel’

Gay Talese is 84 and at the very top of his game, roiling the media world two, maybe three, different ways in the span of a week. | AP file photo

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Note: After reporters more vigorous than myself poked holes in Gay Talese’s account, at the end of June he renounced his own book as unreliable. I apologize for trusting a source that proved untrustworthy, and am leaving the column up as a cautionary tale.

When I’m 84, I just hope to be somewhere. Sitting on a comfortable chair in the sun, perhaps, plaid wool lap rug neatly tucked, flipping through Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and someone to bring a fresh cup of tea. Sign me up right now.

The thought of being Gay Talese, 84 and at the very top of his game, roiling the media world two, maybe three, different ways in the span of a week, well, it’s unimaginable.

And no, I don’t mean the Twitstorm over his telling a crowd at Boston University on April 1 that, as a young man, he wasn’t inspired by female reporters. That’s called candor, and the shriek rising up from the Internet is only news because we’re still accustoming ourselves to it. It’s too omnipresent and witless to have actual value, and someday will be seen not as news so much as similar to how we view the writing inside toilet stalls: a trivial element of modern life of interest only to those who find themselves directly before it.

No, I mean his article, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” in the April 11 New Yorker. An incredible story, leaving behind important questions, something they’ll discuss in journalism schools 50 years from now (assuming, of course, there are journalism schools 50 years from now) the way we’re still talking about Talese’s profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published 50 years ago this month in Esquire (the anniversary being Talese’s third source of notoriety this week).

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On Jan. 7, 1980, Talese gets a special-delivery letter from a man in Colorado telling him that in 1966, he purchased a motel for the purposes of watching people having sex. “I have witnessed, observed and studied the best first-hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex derivations during these past 15 years,” the man writes, adding that he took careful notes and, learning of Talese’s then soon-to-be-released book, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” wants to share his findings with a skilled writer. The only stipulation is that Talese promise to shield his identity in “complete confidence.” He gives Talese a Post Office box number.

What would you do? Go to the police? Talese didn’t even know if the man really owned a motel. He realized, “I could know only if I accepted his invitation.”

Talese flies to Denver, meets Gerald Foos, and soon they are together in a crawl space in the eaves of the Manor House Motel, watching a couple going at it on a bed below, through a custom-made metal louver in the ceiling. Talese leans forward so far that his necktie dangles into the room “a few yards from the woman’s head.” Foos yanks him back.

Thus begins a 35-year relationship between Talese and Foos, who sends him his hundreds of pages of notes taken over the years. Foos sells the motel in 1995, when arthritis makes navigating the crawl space difficult. Talese keeps his promise, even after he learns someone is killed due to Foos’ peeping. Finally, the former motel owner gives Talese permission to use his name. Liberated — he wouldn’t write about him anonymously — Talese disgorges this fascinating bolus of strangeness, starting with the increasingly grandiose Foos, who thinks he’s a researcher akin to Alfred Kinsey, his pair of wives, Donna and then Anita, who know of Foos’ activities and not only approve but join him, and take dictation. Plus the details of the sex acts, drug sales and that murder.

The story is an excerpt from Talese’s next book, The Voyeur’s Motel, to be published in July. Though having read the article, I’m not sure whether I could stomach 240 pages of this. It’s both fascinating and deeply sad; part of me says I couldn’t, part of me says I’ll have to.

The question, “Should Gay Talese have kept his word?” will echo. Though as a journalist, the answer is easy: certainly. There wouldn’t be a book otherwise. We’re not a social service.

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