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Why Gay Talese just disavowed and then reavowed his book about the creepy motel sex guy

'Knight of Cups' New York Screening Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It’s been a rough year for poor Gay Talese.

First, he told the audience at a lecture that he couldn’t name a single woman writer who inspired him. The statement sparked a storm of outrage and controversy on Twitter (although, let’s be real, the odds that the 84-year-old journalist has enough knowledge of Twitter to be more than dimly aware of said outrage are pretty slim).

And now, reports the Washington Post, Talese has been forced to disavow his forthcoming book, The Voyeur’s Motel. And then, per a press release distributed by his publisher, disavow his disavowal.

Buzz for the forthcoming nonfiction work has been steadily building since Talese published an excerpt in the New Yorker in April. It tells the story of Gerald Foos, a self-proclaimed voyeur who decided to buy a motel for the sole purpose of spying on its guests.

Foos built a “viewing platform” in the building’s attic, with peepholes disguised as air vents that gave him a clear view to the rooms below. He would retreat to the platform whenever he had interesting guests — “interesting” meaning mostly “attractive couples” — to watch their activities. If they had sex, he would watch and either masturbate or have sex with his wife, who occasionally accompanied him. Then he would return to his office and write detailed notes on everything he had just witnessed.

Foos approached Talese about his story in 1980. He described himself as a researcher, a student of human sexuality like Alfred Kinsey — only better, because his data came from real couples having real sex rather than Kinsey’s laboratory conditions.

Talese had significant ethical qualms about responding to Foos. Not only was Foos violating the privacy of everyone who stayed in his motel, but he was also clearly a practiced liar. “Could such a man be a reliable source?” Talese writes in the New Yorker excerpt. Nevertheless, he decided to meet with Foos, if only to satisfy his own curiosity about the kind of person who would do such a thing.

Foos and Talese struck up a casual acquaintance and corresponded for years — Talese writes that Foos seemed to have considered Talese his “confessor.” And in 2013, Foos told Talese that he was ready to go public with his story, having concluded that the statute of limitations had run out on any lawsuits his former guests might bring against him.

Drawing on the enormous reams of notes Foos had taken over the years, and his own experience getting to know Foos, Talese compiled The Voyeur’s Motel.

The buzz was deafening. Steven Spielberg optioned the movie rights almost immediately and tapped Sam Mendes to direct.

There were, to be sure, some discrepancies in Foos’s story and notes. Some were minor date errors, but some were more significant. The most dramatic one concerned a murder that Foos claimed to have witnessed as a voyeur.

According to Foos, he saw a man sell drugs out of his motel room and, incensed, snuck into the room while it was empty to flush the remaining drugs down the toilet. When the guest returned to his room to find the drugs missing, he accused his girlfriend of stealing them. And then he strangled her.

In Foos’s notes, he insists he saw the woman’s chest moving after her boyfriend fled the scene. He was sure she was still alive. He left his viewing platform without intervening. The next morning, the maid found the woman lying on the floor, dead. But this was not, Foos insists in his notes, his fault, “because at this moment in time he was only an observer and not a reporter, and really didn’t exist as far as the male and female subjects were concerned.” (Foos regularly uses the third person to refer to himself in his notes.)

When Talese attempted to confirm this story, he could find no police records corresponding to such a case. But the ostensible murder occurred before electronic record keeping, so it was possible, Talese concluded, that the case files had disappeared or that Foos had mixed up his dates.

But now the Washington Post has uncovered a far less explainable error in Foos’s story.

Foos told Talese that he owned his motel from the mid-’60s into the mid-’90s. But the Post has obtained property records that show Foos sold the motel in 1980 and bought it back in 1988. Which means his notes from 1980 to 1988 must be fabricated.

“I should not have believed a word he said,” Talese told the Post. “I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”

For his part, Foos swears, “unequivocally and without recourse, that I have never purposely told a lie. Everything I said in that book is the truth.” He concedes that he left out those missing eight years, but insists that it was merely because “I didn’t think it would be interesting to people to see two voyeurs fighting over the same turf.” (The man to whom he sold the motel insists that he is not a voyeur.)

Talese’s publisher, Grove Atlantic, says it will continue in its plans to publish The Voyeur’s Motel — which is set to come out in July — and that most of the events of the book take place before 1980 (and thus are unaffected by the discrepancy). The publisher may, however, append a note to later editions to clarify any missing information.

And today, Grove Atlantic distributed a press release with a new quote from Talese that falls largely in line with its statement to the Post:

When I spoke to the Washington Post reporter, I am sure I was surprised and upset about this business of the later ownership of the motel, in the '80s. That occurred after the bulk of the events covered in my book, but I was upset and probably said some things I didn't, and don't, mean. Let me be clear: I am not disavowing the book and neither is my publisher. If, down the line, there are details to correct in later editions, we'll do that.

Truly, who among us could have predicted that the creepy motel sex dude would turn out to be an unreliable source?

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