“The Voyeur’s Motel,” by Gay Talese. The New Yorker, 4/11/2016.
Gay Talese is probably today’s best writer that you’ve never heard of. He writes non-fiction. Readers of non-fiction are drawn to the topic and rarely notice who wrote it, but he is successful enough to afford to live in New York City after growing up in Ocean City, NJ. He is famous enough to have appeared as a character in the Doonesbury comic strip. Like many other good writers, he started out as a newspaper sports columnist.
(If Jason Gay, another of my favorite writers, has a son, he could name him after Gay Talese. If his son grew up happy with an alternate sexual orientation, he could be known as “gay Gay Gay.” It’s possible, I kid you not.)
I have been reading Gay Talese’s articles in The New Yorker for so many years I cannot remember when I started. I’ll take a stab at sometime in the 1970s. He is often credited, along with Tom Wolfe, of creating the New Journalism, which is writing non-fiction using the techniques of fiction writers, such as establishing scenes by elaborate detail.
As an example of the technique, here is how he opened a non-fiction story in 1951 while still in college:
Rhythmic “Sixty Minute Man” emanated from the Super Store jukebox and Larry (The Maestro) Chiodetti beat against the table like mad in keeping time with the jumpy tempo. T-shirted Bobby Marlow was just leaving the Sunday morning bull session and dapper Bill Kilroy had just purchased the morning newspapers.
(Such an opening in a non-fiction story is more common now, but was far from typical back then.)
Talese was born in 1932 in Ocean City, NJ. He began his writing career while still a sophomore in Ocean City High School with a sports column in the weekly Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. Talese’s parents were Italian immigrants, two of many who formed a still-thriving Italian-American community in Ocean City. (Such communities are still found scattered all throughout rural southern New Jersey.) His dapper style comes from his father, who was a tailor, and he grew up wearing meticulously bespoken suits. He now lives in Manhattan with his long-time wife, Nan, also a writer.
He first got national attention in 1966 with an article in Esquire on Frank Sinatra. Esquire at that time was one of the best-written magazines and was a pioneer in publishing the New Journalism. Two well-known books by Talese are Honor Thy Father on the mafia (the rise and fall of the Bonanno crime family), and Thy Neighbor’s Wife about America’s sex culture: swingers, strip clubs, porn shops, nudist colonies, massage parlors, and the rest.
His latest piece in The New Yorker is a story so bizarre it is getting national attention, and you may have already read about it in your local newspaper.
In 1980, Talese received a letter from an admitted, even proud, voyeur, Gerald Foos, who offered information he thought could supplement the information in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Foos ran a motel in Aurora, Colorado, that he bought in 1966 to secretly observe travelers in their rooms. He bought that particular motel because it had a pitched roof that gave him space to crawl around in the attic. He cut vents in the ceilings over the beds and bathrooms of specific rooms and built a squeak proof crawl-way to get quickly to these vents. There he spent most of his evenings, taking extensive notes on what he saw. He felt he was engaged in serious scientific research on the sex habits of people who thought their rooms were private.
A month after receiving Foos’s letter, Talese flew to Denver to meet him. Talese found him to be an amiable man in his mid-40s, in no way peculiar. He had dark hair, horn rimmed glasses, and “projected a friendly expression befitting an innkeeper.” He was married to his high school sweetheart, Donna, who worked as a nurse and knew all about his voyeurism. She helped him adjust the vents in the ceilings for the best view while insuring he could not be seen and would sometimes join him in the attic to watch a particularly engaging couple.
After meeting in the airport, Foos took Talese to a local restaurant for dinner, then home to meet his wife and to see the motel. He later mailed his extensive notes to Talese.
Talese contacted Foos again after the shootings in Aurora in July, 2012. Foos was now willing to go public with his story because the statute of limitations had passed, and, at his advancing age, he was afraid his “scientific research” would be lost. Donna had died in 1985, and he was living with another woman who, like Donna, accepted his habit. He had sold the motel in 1995 when arthritis in his knees made climbing the ladder into the attic too difficult.
Talese traveled to Colorado again in 2014. Foos was now 80. The motel had recently been demolished by the current owners who knew nothing of its history. They visited the old site hoping to find a memento, but the demolition crew had pulverized everything.
(Many people think a writer can dash off an article in an hour, but note this story took Talese almost 40 years and two trips to Colorado to develop. The trick of all artistry is to make the hard work look effortless.)