Chronicle of a Creep

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In his epic fifteen-page New Yorker tour through the career of hotelier and self-proclaimed sex researcher Gerald Foos, Gay Talese briefly entertains a moral quandary. Why should he, Talese—the big-picture chronicler of media empires and wayward human intimacies—take a sustained interest in a nasty character like Foos? This was, after all, a scheming sicko who bought a 21-room Denver-area motel for the express purpose of obsessively observing and chronicling the sexual hijinks of his guests, without their consent. He erected an upper-floor panopticon and spied on visitors over the course of three decades.

Talese, like most established bigfoot journalists, is a practiced chin-stroker, and in the act of bringing Foos’s sordid story to light, he muses that, apart from skipping the critical step of obtaining formal consent from his sources and research subjects, Foos’s “‘research’ methods and motives bore some similarity to my own” in Talese’s doorstop-sized study of American sexual mores, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. What’s more, he notes, in an apparent argument-clincher, “the opening line of my 1969 book about the [New York] Times, ‘The Kingdom and the Power’” was: ‘Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.’”

There must be some German word that evokes the fiercely untenable conflict of interest that occurs when the search for a decisive moral arbiter culminates in the quotation of oneself as authority of first resort. But stepping ever so gingerly out of range of our correspondent’s own titanic self-regard, we can still productively weigh his substantive claim: Are we ink-stained wretches really “restless voyeurs”? Of the sort who, like Foos, go to heroic lengths to delude themselves that they’re pursuing scientific research in the very particular and elaborate rituals of getting their rocks off? 

Much as I dislike the runaway proliferation of cable and Net titillation that masquerades as breaking news (which, for the record, is nearly as much as I dislike the deliberative spectacle of the journalistic ethics dilemma), I’m just not seeing it. Oh, many journalists—myself among them—relish a good scandal, a compromising affair, and the exposure of a political windbag or self-appointed public moralist as a swashbuckling hypocrite. But voyeurism is pretty much the opposite of this impulse. The point of scandal-minded journalism is to bring deceitful, criminal, or sordid conduct into public view, precisely because its perpetrator is a public figure who has made extravagant claims on the public’s attention, moral composure, and/or patience. The point of voyeurism is the cunning concealment of its practitioner and the secret use of its target.

Are we ink-stained wretches really “restless voyeurs”?

Investigative reporters justify, to the point of sanctimony, their labors as serving the public’s all-consuming “right to know”; voyeurs, by contrast, don’t want anyone other than themselves to know anything at all. They find an erotic charge in the undetected invasion of a subject’s unprotected personal life; their fantasized introjection into the frail and undetected personal scenes before them hinges without question on a fantasy of interpersonal dominance. “Knowledge is power” is a worn-out mantra of the Foucauldian cultural-studies left, but if it applies to any social group without qualification, that group would be voyeurs. 

Of course, the entire saga of Gerald Foos, as Talese relates it, is an extended study in voyeurism—but Foos’s voyeuristic agonies are, by turn, an extension of Talese’s own rudderless voyeurism. If it weren’t for Talese’s unarticulated belief that Foos’s antics bore some larger public significance, we wouldn’t know anything more about what Foos thinks and believes than we would about the inner life of, say, the roving Seattle masked masturbator, or that of any other dreary sex offender on any major metropolitan police blotter. 

Talese does, of course, make a pro forma effort to depict the Foos chronicle as a worthy study in the Way We Live Now—this is the New Yorker, after all. Citing Steven Marcus’s study of Victorian sex diarists, The Other Victorians, Talese summons the precedent of My Secret Life, the anonymous triple-decker account of a wellborn Englishman’s nineteenth-century amorous exploits. As Marcus writes, “‘My Secret Life’ shows us that amid and underneath the world of Victorian England as we know it . . . a real, secret social life was being conducted, the secret life of sexuality.” And Talese announces that Foos’s own record of the sexual pursuits of his guests across the thirty-year run of his motel-cum-social-laboratory in Aurora, Colorado, just might “serve as a kind of sequel to ‘My Secret Life.’”

Fat chance. Once he has his attic perch rigged to his voyeuristic specifications, Foos’s own breathless chronicle of the unclad frolics of his guests rapidly becomes a thankless chore to read, and increasingly it seems, for the intrepid researcher to write. “This is real life,” one especially grandiose and self-pitying entry reads in part:

These are real people! I’m thoroughly disgusted that I alone must bear the burden of my observations . . . . My voyeurism has contributed immensely to my becoming a futilitarian, and I hate this conditioning of my soul. 

Readers can’t help but agree—especially when Foos stalwartly continues immersing himself in the minutiae of every wayward Aurora tryst. For Foos’s scopophilic hobby to qualify as serious social history in the vein of My Secret Life, it would have to stand out in contrast to . . . something, as opposed to the postwar explosion of casual sex that has been chronicled to singularly tedious effect in Talese’s own Thy Neighbor’s Wife. So in place of the anxieties, tensions, and upheavals of a repressive social order cracking under the pressure of free libidinal expression, Foos’s chronicles of American sexual license in the late twentieth century gives us a furtive, transgressive threesome among local vacuum-cleaner sales personnel. Here’s Talese’s paraphrased account of the steamy scene:

Within minutes, Foos was in the attic and had positioned himself over their room. They were a “very polite, very organized couple with [a] male companion,” he wrote. All three immediately disrobed. Then the husband snapped photographs as his wife and the other man had sex in various positions. Foos recorded the encounter in minute detail. When it was over, he wrote, “They all three laid quiet on the bed and relaxed, discussing vacuum cleaner sales.”

(Foos also learned that the companion was a sales rep for the couple’s firm.)

Not exactly the society-wrenching transports of Eros ascending as channeled through the muse of a D.H. Lawrence or a Colette. Indeed, as Foos continues to tally up the assignations under his roof, it appears that his heretofore limitless ability to cathect these hermetic, routine collisions of genitalia suffers. His notations take on a dark, even fascistic tenor. “Women especially have a difficult time adjusting to both the new surroundings and their husbands,” one typical lurch into social theory explains in Foos’s faux-scientific prose:

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.

Perhaps Foos fabricated the story of the murder whole cloth.

Perhaps this worldview is what made Foos so comparatively blasé about the most sensational disclosure in Talese’s piece: the hotelier’s inadvertent witnessing of an alleged murder on the premises in 1977. The male-female couple in Room 10 at the Manor House Motel were smalltime drug dealers—another man and woman who had what Foos approvingly described, in typically exhaustive detail, as athletic and satisfactory sex. But Foos also saw the man dealing drugs to a couple of teenage boys, and that got him in high dudgeon: He went down to the room while the couple was out and flushed the controlled-substance stash down the toilet, as he had on previous occasions when he’d witnessed drug-dealing on site. (Like the national surveillence state he professes to condemn, Foos seems to retain an expansive vision of his own authority to police the conduct of others—albeit always behind the voyeur’s self-protective veil of anonymity.) When the male half of the couple returned to find that his stash had vanished, he blamed his female companion, and tried to strangle her. Foos thought he saw the victim still breathing, so he elected not to call the cops—which would, among other things, jeopardize the security of the voyeur’s elaborate upstairs perch (a set-up that Foos elsewhere describes as “sacred”). However, a maid found the woman’s corpse the next day, and so the sexual inquisitor was finally forced to call in the cops, and supply a bowdlerized account of what had transpired behind the doors of Room 10.

Talese suggests that the whole homicide yarn may be suspect. He notes that Foos’s grasp of other easily verified details, such as the date of his purchase of the motel, were wildly off base, and the Aurora police were unable to locate any record of the alleged killing, even among the department’s cold case files. He indulges some more chin-stroking speculation about his own journalistic responsibility when he stumbles upon the hair-raising tale. But here, too, Talese alights on the most superficially inviting rationale he can concoct:

as I thought about it, his response—the observation that he “really didn’t exist as far as the male and female subjects were concerned”—was consistent with his sense of himself as a fractured individual. He was also desperately protective of his secret life in the attic. If the police had grilled him and decided that he knew more than he was telling, they might have obtained a search warrant, and the consequences could have been catastrophic. . . . I filed away his notes on the murder along with all the other material he had mailed me. I now knew all that I wanted to know about the Voyeur.

This isn’t moral reasoning so much as a code of honor among voyeurs. If there was indeed a murder, Talese and Foos both seem as though they both could be charged as accessories after the fact. But there’s another unsettling version of events that so far hasn’t cropped up among the flotilla of journalistic-ethics commentary about the Talese piece: Perhaps Foos fabricated the story of the murder whole cloth. Like any pornographer, he had to be alarmed at the prospect that his voyeuristic audience—Talese—might be nodding out over the cookie-cutter details of yet another depressing Mountain West tryst.

If that’s the case, does Talese then become a culpable party in the invention of imaginary mortal crimes, apart from the question of whether he might have been implicated in the ex post facto coverup of an actual one? This is the sort of reflection that Janet Malcolm makes in her far more sustained and serious meditation on journalistic moral accountability, The Journalist and the Murderer. But needless to say, it’s not a scenario that Talese comes close to entertaining. He does, however, tell us one thing without qualification. As he reviewed the countless exploits recorded on the legal pads Foos kept at his side during his nighttime defilements of human intimacy, Talese concluded that “the penmanship was excellent.”

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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