'I Write About Awful People,' Says Gay Talese

Jul 9, 2016
Originally published on July 10, 2016 6:05 am

Journalist Gay Talese has never shied away from controversial topics. He took on the mafia in Honor Thy Father and dove deep into America's sex life in Thy Neighbor's Wife. But even Talese paused when he first heard about the Manor House Motel in Aurora Colo., back in 1980. Innkeeper Gerald Foos had outfitted his motel with a special platform which allowed him to spy on his guests — and he invited Talese to take a peek as well. Talese, a man of seemigly insatiable curiosity, did just that. But Foos demanded anonymity, so Talese decided not to write about the experience. Until now.

His new book The Voyeur's Motel is based on Foos' journals, and Talese is already on the defensive about it. Last week, after the Washington Post unearthed some discrepancies in Foos's story, Talese disavowed the book — then quickly changed his mind and now says the Post was wrong, and he stands by his story. He tells NPR's Lynn Neary that he was very upset when the Post initially confronted him, because "for 60-some years, I'd been a reporter who took pride in getting the facts right, and I was now told I got the facts wrong."


Interview Highights

On whether he thinks Foos made up his account of witnessing a murder

Talese: No I don't. ... He admitted that he saw this woman being strangled. And Foos is a former football player, hefty guy, big guy, muscle. He didn't do anything to help her, he stayed in a cowardly way up in the attic. I thought, "This is the worst thing I can write about this guy ... No one who ever reads this book is going to ever, ever have any sympathy for him because he's showing himself a coward."

Lynn Neary: But you didn't report it either.

Talese: That's true. That's true. And I am vulnerable to whatever you or anyone else wants to say. I didn't do it. How do I justify this to you or to anybody? Well, as a reporter, I protect sources. I once dealt with the mafia for six, seven years. I protect sources. I was dealing with killers and I wasn't calling the cops. My whole life, though — not to justify it, but let me tell you — has always been, I'm less a person than a reporter. I keep secrets. I respect when people tell me it's off the record, it's off the record. And I was off the record for 32 years with this voyeur, Gerald Foos. I kept my word to the voyeur, who was a despicable guy. But I've dealt with despicable people, including killers and the mafia before. I've been through this. That's no excuse, but that's the way I am.

On how the book turn its readers into voyeurs themselves

You feel like a voyeur, but I tell you, I was a voyeur before I met Gerald Foos. Reporters are voyeurs. I also felt as a boy so curious about people — I was born in a very strict Catholic background. My Catholicism is not today what it was in the postwar 1940s. [It was] filled with guilt and censorship, because the church — my church, my boyhood church — fostered censorship. You shouldn't read this, you can't read that dirty book, you can't think this ... that's my world. It's not a good world, but it's what formed me as a curious person. And maybe also some appreciation for a negative light because we all aspired to be living in a heavenly light when I was a boy, an altar boy. And so the devil kind of attracted me because it was part of nature that was being censored or I was being advised to stay away. And I didn't stay away because I'm a little bit drawn to what is forbidden. That's not a good defense, but that's me.

On whether, having dealt with Foos, he developed a dark view of humanity

That's true, but ... that's been true of me long before I met the voyeur. Thy Neighbor's Wife, I was worse off than I am now. I was a reporter of the darkness of our democracy and I was vilified, OK? I'm not the first. ... But this is the voice of free America. First Amendment. You can write about awful people and I write about awful people on many occasions. I want to report the dark side, because, I mean, I just choose the wrong people — to most people's opinion, but to me they're the right people. So I have a problem: It's communicating to a polite audience and justifying what it is that I want to write and how I go about it. And I do get close to my people. I mean it's true, I get close, but that's all I can tell you.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Journalist Gay Talese has never shied away from controversial topics. He took on the Mafia in "Honor Thy Father," dove deep into America's sex life in "Thy Neighbor's Wife." But even Talese paused when he first heard about the Manor House motel in Aurora, Colo., back in 1980. The innkeeper, Gerald Foos, had outfitted his motel with a special platform, which allowed him to spy on his guests. And he invited Talese to take a peek as well.

Talese, a man of seemingly insatiable curiosity, did just that, but Foos demanded anonymity. So Talese decided not to write about the experience until now. His book based on the journals of Gerald Foos, "The Voyeur's Motel," comes out on Tuesday, and Talese is already on the defensive about it. Last week, after The Washington Post unearthed some discrepancies in Foos' story, Talese disavowed the book, then quickly changed his mind and said he stands by it. Gay Talese joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

GAY TALESE: I'm honored to be here. Thank you.

NEARY: And I want to start by asking about those discrepancies reported on by The Washington Post. First of all, Foos did not own the motel in the 1980s. And though most of the journal entries are from the '70s, there are a few from the '80s, as well. And according to The Washington Post reporter, you were really shocked and really, really upset when he told you this news. What - why were you so upset by that?

TALESE: Well, I was very upset because my whole life, for 60-some years, I've been a reporter who took pride in getting the facts right. And I was now told I got the facts wrong. And the main thing that hurt me - it was mentioned in the newspaper, The Washington Post, that the voyeur sold - the voyeur being Gerald Foos - sold the motel to man named Earl Ballard. I never heard of him.

And I just want to say, briefly as I can, that the inference was that while Ballard owned the motel, there's no way the voyuer, Gerald Foos, could be in there. The next day I called Ballard, and Ballard said that's not true. Even though we owned the motel, the voyeur had access to it and was sometimes in the attic when Mr. Ballard, the owner, wasn't even aware of it.

NEARY: So you're basically saying - even though Gerald Foos didn't own the motel, you're saying he had access to it during that time.

TALESE: I'm declaring - I'm declaring he did. And I'm declaring he did, and I'm saying as - my source is Mr. Earl Ballard himself.

NEARY: What about the murder that Foos says he witnessed? Because there seems to be no record on this.

TALESE: That's right.

NEARY: Do you now think you might have made that story up?

TALESE: No, I don't. If I can tell you briefly, what he admitted - that he saw this woman being strangled. And Foos as a former football player, a hefty guy - big guy - muscle. He didn't do anything to help her. He stayed in a cowardly way up in the attic. He didn't want to be involved. I thought this is the worst thing I can write about this guy. This is going to - no one who ever reads this book is going to ever, ever have any sympathy for him because he's showing himself a coward. That's why.

NEARY: But you didn't report it either?

TALESE: That's true. That's true. I am vulnerable to whatever you or anyone else wants to say. I didn't do it. I - why do - how do I justify this to you or to anybody? Well, as a reporter, I protect sources. I once dealt with the Mafia for six, seven years. I protect sources. I was dealing with killers, and I wasn't calling the cops.

My whole life though - not to justify it, but let me tell you - has always been a kind of reporter. I'm less a person than I am a reporter. I keep secrets. I respect - when people tell me it's off the record, it's off the record. And I was off the record for 32 years with this voyeur, Gerald Foos. I kept my word to the voyeur, who was a despicable guy, but I have dealt with despicable people, including killers in the Mafia before. I've been through this. That's no excuse, but that's the way I am.

NEARY: I didn't feel great reading this book to be perfectly honest with you. I...

TALESE: I didn't feel great writing it.

NEARY: (Laughter) At the end of it, I thought it kind of made me feel sleazy, but then I thought I became a voyeur myself by reading it. It was almost as if you got drawn in by Gerald Foos to be a voyeur and anyone who reads the book becomes a voyeur reading it. Did you mean it to have that effect?

TALESE: Well, you felt like a voyeur, but I tell you I was a voyeur before I met Gerald Foos. Reporters are voyeurs. I also felt as a boy so curious about people. I was born in this very strict Catholic background. My Catholicism is not today what it was in the post-World-War 1940s. It was filled with guilt and censorship because the church - my boyhood church - fostered censorship. You shouldn't read this. You can't read that dirty book. You can't think this. You can't - that's my world. It's not a good world, but it's what formed me as a curious person.

And maybe also some appreciation for negative light because we all aspired to be living a heavenly life when I was a boy - an altar boy, you know? And so the devil kind of attracted me because it was part of nature that was being censored. Or I was being advised to stay away, and I didn't stay away because I'm a little bit drawn to what is forbidden. That's not a good defense, but that's me.

NEARY: Has Gerald Foos read the book, seen the final book? And what's his - how did he react to it?

TALESE: He was upset. He thought he was going to be - he thought it was going to be respected.

NEARY: You know, he comes away from all this with a very dark view of human nature and a sort of scorn for traditional morality, let's say. And perhaps you feel that way, having delved into these different societies. But it seems inevitable given what he was doing that you would come away with that kind of view of humanity.

TALESE: That's been true of me long before I met the voyeur. That - "Thy Neighbor's Wife" - I was worse off than I am now. I was a reporter of the darkness of our democracy, and I was vilified, OK? I'm not the first. I mean, don't - in a literary sense James Joyce, for God's sake - one of the greatest novels of history was vilified, and he was a pornographer. And Kinsey - somebody mentioned Kinsey - that my voyeur thinks he's as great as Kinsey. I said, listen, when Kinsey reported to the world in the 1940s, he was considered a smut peddler.

So maybe we are smut peddlers. Maybe as a writer, I'm a smut peddler, but this is the voice of free America. First Amendment - you can write about awful people, and I write about awful people on many occasions. I want to report the dark side 'cause I just choose the wrong people to most people's opinion. But to me, they're the right people, so I have a problem.

NEARY: You know, I have to say you may have a problem, but you've had a pretty successful career for many years, too.

TALESE: Well, maybe if more people wrote about the terrible people I wrote about, I wouldn't have the audience to myself (laughter).

NEARY: Gay Talese is the author of "The Voyeur's Motel." Thanks so much for joining us today.

TALESE: Thank you very much for listening.

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NEARY: Our theme music is written by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.