Gay Talese and Voyeurism

Gay Talese and Voyeurism


Howard Adelman

An article in the 11th April issue of The New Yorker entitled, “The Voyeur’s Motel” about an American motel owner who years ago deliberately bought a small motel so he could spy on the sex lives of his guests. The article is an extract from Gay Talese’s forthcoming book with the same title and it will almost certainly be a best seller. My surprise on seeing the article was the realization that Gay Talese was not only still alive, but still active as a writer, though, if I read the current cultural news I should have known that given the recent gefluffle over what he said about women journalists. Of the three or four so-called founders of the New Journalism, although Tom Wolfe was the most famous and Jimmy Breslin the most infamous, Gay Talese was the one who I liked best ever since Cathy Breslin introduced me to his writings when I worked on The Varsity as a student.

The reasons were obvious. I then considered myself a playwright and Gay Talese had a great ear. He was able to bring to life a character even if he never interviewed them directly. Further, you not only could hear the character talk; you could hear him think. I say “him” because I believe Gay seemed almost always to write about men and belonged to an old school as an Italian from the Jersey shore, even though it was his mother’s great skills as a listener in her women’s wear store that Gay Talese absorbed from the period in which he helped her as a kid. But he also took from his father, a men’s tailor for the mafia among others, not only his love of wearing bespoke suits, but an attention to detail and quality. And when he applied both skills, he listened carefully to how his subjects spoke about themselves as well as the revelations in what they did not say in the silences and pauses and hesitations.

But most of all, he introduced the writer preoccupied with verity into journalism, a field then traditionally of amateurs for whom writing the exciting story rather than the truth had been the norm. (Read Ben Hecht.) That required surrendering the omniscience of the author and including within one’s writing self-impressions and reflections so that the writer was part of the story. I try in my own writing to bring that lesson learned from the New Journalism, though I have never developed Talese’s ear nor his patience. What writer would wait almost four decades before putting in print such a “sensational” story as a motel owner who spied on his “guests” for years and kept a diary and records of his observations? In the days of the Panama Papers, Edward Snowden and Wiki-leaks, it is very difficult to call Talese’s revelations about an inconsequential motel owner as sensational. But then Talese was the writer least concerned about notoriety and fame even when writing about Joe DiMaggio or Frank Sinatra. For him, the story of an ordinary guy could be enormously revealing about the human soul, and Talese’s concern in selection was whether the interviewee could and would be a partner in such revelations.

The irony was that his attention to detail incorporated the devices of fiction – providing a back story and context while doing, as I did with my first play, cutting out the traditional first act which was used to introduce the characters and the story line, a practice which was becoming standard. (I always claimed that the reason I did so was because, when I hitch-hiked down to New York to see plays, I never saw a first act because I snuck into the theatres during the first intermission.) The truth was that plunging into the story from the opening scene, whether in a novel, a play or a film, had become the new norm; Gay Talese was one of the pioneers. But Talese had one practice that both his mother and father introduced him to, keeping detailed notes and very orderly files on his clients and subjects. Gay Talese was the Charles Darwin of the New Journalism, except he included as much about his own responses as about the “client.” He was really a cultural anthropologist rather than a biologist. I suspect this was a main interest in his voyeur subject who had similar habits.

Most of all, Gay Talese was the writer as a voyeur of the commons and the commonplace to help understand the larger world and the historical changes underway. So it should be no surprise that near the end of his life as a writer that he would choose to write about voyeurism, for voyeurism was an essential prerequisite to being the kind of writer he was and remains. In this story of the motel owner, he is a voyeur of a voyeur. And we, the audience, the readers, are voyeurs of a voyeur examining the life of a voyeur so we learn a great deal about voyeurism. But not just any voyeur! But a voyeur who recollected and reflected on his voyeurism and kept notes as meticulous as Gay Talese himself did. The outstanding feature of Gay Talese as a voyeur is looking at the other in order to see into his own soul.

It also explains why I personally am not a good fundamental voyeur of the everyday. I lack the curiosity about detail requisite to becoming a proper voyeur as distinct from one interested only in thrills. I am sure when his book is reviewed that reviewers will repeat his titillating stories that interest me the least. Neither do the parts of the tale concerned with his subject’s clever techniques and detailed preparations grab me. I am not a lover of the detective story. Of interest to me is not that Guy Talese used shirt cardboards on which to write his brief notes, but the fact that Gay Talese as an Italian always felt himself to be an outsider, and an outsider in search of recognition, that led to his talent and writing style. But what most intrigued me were the ethical and legal quandaries with which Talese wrestled as he gathered and recorded his observations and reflections.

In my analysis, we have four levels:

1.      The perspective of the voyeur and what he or she sees;

2.      The recollections and reflections of the voyeur looking at himself;

3.      The voyeur of the voyeur;

4.      The recollections and reflections of the voyeur of the voyeur who would not only record what he heard and his impressions, but his own reflections about the moral quandary into which he, Gay Talese, had been cast in hearing what had been said, particularly when he was told about a murder that had been seen.

“I spent a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in. But I reasoned that it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Also, since I had kept the Voyeur’s secret, I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator…” “I was the Voyeur’s pen pal, his confessor, perhaps, or an adjunct to a secret life he chose not to keep completely secret. Several times over the years, it occurred to me that I would be wise to discontinue our correspondence.”

Then there is myself, the voyeur writing, recollecting and reflecting about the voyeur of the voyeur, and then you, my readers, who look on, and hopefully recollect and reflect on what I am writing. So there is an infinite regression in voyeurism that makes the subject of Gay Talese’s article so interesting, for he is very much self-conscious of that reality. But why in his own mind and in that of Talese and in my own is voyeurism so fascinating? I insist that it is not for the vicarious pleasure of the voyeur looking at adults engaged in sex. But perhaps I protest too much. Perhaps my delight in reading Gay Talese is that it allows me to distance myself from the immediate – something Gay Talese refused to do when on a rare occasion he wrote about women, this time women in massage parlours, and insisted that he experience the performance literally first hand.

Gerald Foos, the subject of Gay Talese’s article, was perhaps even more honest than Talese, and certainly myself, for he admitted openly that he enjoyed and got a great deal of pleasure in watching others engage in sex. Further, he, very much like Talese, and vey unlike myself, was “very curious about everything and everyone I see.” I, by contrast, have a very narrow range of interests and they are not primarily driven by curiosity so much as concern. I, to the best of my recollection, have never been preoccupied with invisibility (as Foos was), though, like many adolescents, I too dreamt of dying and observing how the attendees at my funeral reacted to my death. Though I shared with both Foos and Talese what Foos called the advantage in youth of “unsupervised freedom,” and the resulting precocious freedom, perhaps I never followed in the footsteps of Foos because I never had the “rear window” experience of watching a young aunt cavort in her bedroom nude when I was a pubescent adolescent. Perhaps that is why I am more concerned with throwing things out than collecting them, for collecting was a preoccupation of both Foos and Talese, though Talese focused almost exclusively on his own observations and reflections rather than on sports cards or other paraphernalia.

As Talese wrote about Foos, “he always associated his collecting with his boyhood attraction to his aunt. He wrote, ‘The youth will confuse sexuality and the art of accumulating objects. . .  There was a direct association from his aunt being nude and his collecting.’” Talese was not only interested in the genesis of Foos’ obsessions, but with their development as well as the evolving character of his own observations. “The entries become increasingly portentous, and Foos starts to invest the omniscient Voyeur character with godlike qualities. He appears to be losing his grip on reality. But only once, while posted in the attic, did he actually speak through a vent to a person below… [The “guest” never clued into the source of the words he heard.] The journal entry ends with an existential rumination: “Foos is sinking deeper into isolation and despair. The more I read, the more convinced I became that Foos’s stilted metaphysics were his way of attempting to elevate his disturbing pastime into something of value.”

Conclusion: “I am still unable to determine what function I serve. . .  Apparently, I’m delegated the responsibility of this heavy burden to be placed upon myself—never being able to tell anyone! . . . The depression builds, but I will continue onward with my research. I’ve pondered on occasion that perhaps I don’t exist, only represent a product of the subjects’ dreams. No one would believe my accomplishments as a voyeur anyway, therefore, the dreamlike manifestation would explain my reality. Finally, I will be able to satisfy my constant yearning and uncontrollable desire to peer into other people’s lives. My voyeuristic urges will now be placed into effect on a plane higher than anyone else has contemplated.”

Even if only for self-justification, there are “higher’ levels of purpose as well as perspective on the drives and reflections on the self. There is the utility of the practice. For Gerald Foos, there are lessons to be learned from the observations, though Foos himself never shared what he observed and concluded with his clients. But he wanted to do so, to tell men, for one, to be patient in their sexual practices, to be as much or even more concerned with pleasure one gives to one’s partner as for oneself. The indifference of many if not most men to their partner’s needs and desires is perhaps what most distressed this voyeur in all his observations. This was his reflection following his first engagement in voyeurism. “Conclusion: They are not a happy couple. He is too concerned about his position and doesn’t have time for her. He is very ignorant of sexual procedure and foreplay despite his college education. This is a very undistinguished beginning for my observation laboratory. . .”

When he saw so many men piss into the sink and most men partially miss the toilet when they stood up to urinate, he even thought he could advise the makers of bathroom fixtures on the manufacture of a domestic urinal.

Further, though the primary concern was voyeurism, the observing of another person as totally other when there is seemingly no relationship, the underlying theme is partnership, partnership between the voyeur and his unknowing objects as well as the partnership between a journalist and his or her interviewee and the potential for complicity. That partnership almost becomes a betrayal when Talese joins Foos in his attic observational post and, refusing to forego his insistence on being dressed-up in public, inadvertently allows his tie to slip through the slats in the vent, thus revealing his and Foos’ presence to the resident below in the motel room. Needless to say, they were not caught.

Then there was Foos’ concern with science, with generalization, with access to material that Masters and Johnson never had in their pioneering scientific study of sex begun when I was an undergraduate. “As the years passed, he (Foos) became more preoccupied with receiving recognition for what he viewed as his pioneering research. By necessity, he existed in the shadows, running his laboratory for the study of human behaviour. He considered his work to be superior to that of the sexologists at the Kinsey Institute and the Masters and Johnson clinic. Much of the research at such places was obtained from volunteers. Because his subjects didn’t know they were being watched, they yielded more accurate and, to his mind, more valuable information.”

Finally, there is the concern with norms and values. As a result of his spying and what he sees when he spies, Foos develops into a misanthrope.

Conclusion: Thousands of unhappy, discontented people are moving to Colorado in order to fulfill that deep yearning in their soul, hoping to improve their way of life, and arrive here without any money and discover only despair. . .  Society has taught us to lie, steal, and cheat, and deception is the paramount prerequisite in man’s makeup. . .  As my observation of people approaches the fifth year, I am beginning to become pessimistic as to the direction our society is heading, and feel myself becoming more depressed as I determine the futility of it all.

And then again:

My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit. . .  All their aggressions somehow are immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched. Women especially have a difficult time adjusting to both the new surroundings and their husbands. Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions. . . You can never really determine during their appearances in public that their private life is full of hell and unhappiness. . .  This is the “plight of the human corpus,” and I’m sure provides the answer that if the misery of mankind were revealed all together spontaneously, mass genocide might correspondently follow.

Another of the normative results was that Foos became anti-war since many of his “guests” were military personnel from the nearby base and he observed the effect of war on their personal lives.

Then there is the revelation, the great surprise – at least a hinted one. Was Foos not really just or even primarily a voyeur, but a writer of fiction? Talese never says this explicitly, but it is suggested when Talese discovers that Foos only bought his motel three years after he ostensibly recorded his first observations in his journal. And what about the murder Foos claimed to have seen? Talese could discover no record in the Denver Colorado police department or the coroner’s office of any such murder. Most importantly, is voyeurism less about objectivity than about the subjective imagination? For Talese noted that voyeurism is perhaps more about anticipating what one is going to observe than the actual observations.

There are also the conclusions about voyeurism more generally. The observations are not supported by any type of objective systematic or statistical data, though Foos did count and classify his observations of positions and male versus female orgasms. Mostly, he offers just impressions, not replicable observations. And there are no controls, no placebos. But the observations are a preoccupation with the nature of the world at present and the almost omniscient prevalence of surveillance. I very recently became aware of this when I sent some reviews in of the motels and restaurants to Trip Advisor and then was asked by email to review two motels at which I had stayed but had not written about. They knew motels in which I had rented a room even though I had told Trip Advisor nothing about those motels.

So you can consider this a review of a motel owner and a writer about him rather than the motel itself, a motel at which I never stayed, a motel which no longer exists because it has since been torn down to make way for a new development. But that is part of the character of this story. It belongs to a time which precedes modern internet, video and audio surveillance. “This conversation is being recorded to help us improve our service.” The story is a tale of nostalgia, a throwback to a time when vices were relatively innocent.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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