So the guy who made elaborate amendments to his Colorado motel in order to spy on the sexual activities of his paid guests turns out to be very, very unreliable. As The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports, Gay Talese, author of the book “The Voyeur’s Motel,” has disavowed the work after learning that property records disputed parts of the timeline laid out by the motel’s owner, an 82-year-old man named Gerald Foos.
The skinny: Foos kept a journal of his eavesdropping activities in the suburban Denver motel; it starts in 1966, though Foos didn’t buy the place until 1969. He also professed to have watched his guests with his second wife in the mid-1980s, though he didn’t own the motel during that period. Talese didn’t know about the sales history of the motel — he was apprised by a reporter — and said that he wouldn’t be promoting the book as a result. “I’m not going to promote this book,” he told Farhi. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”
Apparently these latest revelations hit Talese’s tipping point.
There’s little surprise here: Where one glaring credibility problem is exposed, many others are likely creeping around. To wit, the dramatic highlight of a massive “Voyeur’s Motel” excerpt published in the New Yorker (the book version will be released on July 12) comes when Talese describes Foos’s witnessing a 1977 murder in one of the motel rooms. Via his eavesdropping catwalk and his louvered vents, Foos saw a guest selling drugs to some boys. After this guest later left the room, Foos stormed the room and threw away the drugs. His intervention, as he described in his journal, affected subsequent events, as the drug dealer accused his girlfriend of stealing the goods. He strangled the girlfriend, who was later found dead, according to Foos’s scribblings.
No record has been found to corroborate this account, and a murder of similar circumstances occurred miles away just days before the event described by Foos. Confronted about this matter, Talese emailed Farhi, in part, “I did my best as a reporter; I wrote as well as I could in telling the story.” New Yorker Editor David Remnick told Farhi: “[W]e make abundantly clear to the reader that Foos’s journals are his work alone, and that he may be unreliable. . . . To the extent Foos’s journal is less than a factual record of events, readers are fully appraised of that possibility.”
In light of the new revelations regarding the motel’s ownership, Remnick offered a similar statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, which had asked if the New Yorker would be inserting any editor’s notes into its archives: “The central fact of the piece, that Gerald Foos was, in the late Sixties and Seventies, a voyeur, spying on the guests in his motel, is not in doubt in the article or in the Post’s article. The fact that he could sometimes prove an unreliable and inaccurate narrator is also something that Gay Talese makes clear to the reader, repeatedly, and is part of the way Foos is characterized throughout the article. This is not an account of, say, national security. This was, from the start, a profile of a very peculiar character, to say the least, and Gay Talese flagged those qualities honestly and repeatedly.”
True — Talese writes in the New Yorker excerpt, for instance: “I have no doubt that Foos was an epic voyeur, but he could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator. I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.”
Why would Talese bail on the guy now, just because of some additional details that turned out to have been false? Don’t the property-records problems fall under the “unreliable narrator” clause? We have attempted to contact Talese and haven’t yet heard back from him.
Let there be no doubt that Foos was a serial voyeur; that he went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate his criminal eavesdropping on the sexual activities of his guests; that he did this for years; and so on. As part of his multi-decade project on Foos, Talese visited the setup and stared into the abyss alongside Foos, and another owner told Farhi that he plied that shameful catwalk alongside Talese’s subject. Yet there’s an awkward journalistic tension in the account (full disclosure: this blog has read the excerpt, not the book): Sure, the New Yorker provides unequivocal alerts that this fellow may be unreliable, but we don’t know just how unreliable. And as often happens in these situations, we learn about the full unreliability in dribs and drabs.