July 11, 2016

A seamy view

By Gay Talese
Review by
Pioneering reporter Gay Talese tells the ultimate surveillance story in The Voyeur’s Motel, the true tale of innkeeper Gerald Foos, who spied on his customers for decades.
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Pioneering reporter Gay Talese tells the ultimate surveillance story in The Voyeur’s Motel, the true tale of innkeeper Gerald Foos, who spied on his customers for decades. From what he called his “personal observation laboratory”—an attic space equipped with screens that looked down into the rooms of his Aurora, Colorado, motel—Foos witnessed the full range of human behavior, as his guests slept, ate, argued, watched TV and, of course, had sex.

The latter activity was of special interest to Foos. Starting in the 1960s, he documented his guests’ erotic activities in a journal, an invasion of privacy he justified by positioning himself as a Kinsey-esque sexologist—a researcher whose work merited outside attention. In 1980 he reached out to Talese, who had undertaken his own exploration of America’s sexual mores for his book Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

Receiving a letter from Foos that detailed his activities, Talese says he was “deeply unsettled.” But his curiosity was piqued, and so he traveled to Colorado to meet Foos—to all appearances, the unremarkable owner of a typical roadside motel. Pudgy, with a side part and glasses, Foos was married to a nurse named Donna. He ran the Manor House with the help of his mother-in-law, Viola. Donna, surprisingly, sanctioned his spying; Viola was kept in the dark.

Talese stayed at the Manor House Hotel, a one-story affair with 21 guest rooms, a green facade, and orange doors, and he accompanied Foos to his carpet-laden loft several times. Together, they spied on guests. “I knew that what he was doing was very illegal,” Talese writes of Foos, going on to question “how legal” his own participation might have been.

Foos wouldn’t allow his name to be used in print, and he made Talese sign a privacy agreement. (Foos freed him from the contract in 2013, making it possible for Talese to finally publish his story.) After their meeting, he began mailing the reporter pages from his journal. You name it, Foos saw it: “I have witnessed, observed, and studied the best first hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex deviations,” he wrote. In addition to this A to Z of erotica, Foos, from his overhead perch, also claimed to have witnessed a murder.

Talese—a master of elegant, understated prose—uses an objective reportorial style to tell the voyeur’s story, and it’s the right approach for a narrative that requires no extra spice. (Graphic entries from Foos’ journals provide plenty of kick.) In a book that chronicles the vagaries of human conduct, Foos’ behavior is the most baffling. “My absolute solution to happiness was to be able to invade the privacy of others without their knowing it,” he wrote at one point—one of many head-scratching admissions from him that appear in the narrative.

The question of whether Talese should’ve blown the whistle on Foos at the outset instead of remaining silent adds another layer to this twisted tale. Further muddying the waters are Washington Post reports that cast doubt on Foos’ credibility, which caused Talese at first to “disavow” his own book, and later to disavow his disavowal.

Ethical questions aside, this is an unforgettable book that’s bound to give frequent travelers pause. Hotel-goers, take heed: Before you settle into that room, look up. 

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