I’ll never be able to read Gay Talese without shuddering ever again


Gay Talese said some stupid things lately, especially that he was never inspired by women journalists, but we’re not supposed to throw him under the bus, because he’s old, and he has written some good stuff. Both statements are true, although it’s not clear how these passes give anyone an out, or much more importantly, when you get them. Is this like the discount you get at the Sizzler for having an AARP card? You’re over 50, so you get 10% off the all-you-can-disgorge gaffe buffet?

But I agree, he should not be thrown under the bus for not reading or enjoying women writers. I suspect he was just being honest — he doesn’t. Was he supposed to lie and say he loved Diablo Cody and Lena Dunham? No! He’s a man of a certain age, uninfluenced by women’s words, and that is who he is.

Although, we might suggest that exploring the wider world of human experience might have been good for him, given his other remarkable publication lately. He’s written a story called “The Voyeur’s Motel”, and it is very well written — you’ll read the whole thing. The one problem is that there is an absence of humanity at its center. It’s as if the person writing it had so mastered the motions of clinical objectivity that he could calmly watch and participate in gross ethical violations of other people’s privacy because he was following a higher calling, the crystal clear rules of journalism, and could then dispassionately describe these activities as just things that happened. A sequence of events. Nothing more.

A man, a motel owner, tells him that he has customized his motel with crawlways and carefully designed grills so that he could sneak about at night and watch his customers. Talese notes this. The man asks him to sign an agreement to not disclose his secrets, and in return, he’ll tell him more. Talese signs it. He invites Talese to see his clever passageways and peepholes. Talese flies to Colorado to witness it. He invites Talese to join him in his nightly spying. Talese dutifully crawls through the ceiling, and watches two people having sex. The motel owner gives him his notebooks, in which he describes all of the activities that went on in his motel after hours, including one murder, which he witnessed, but did not testify to the police. Talese does not judge. He writes it all down. He sells the story to the New Yorker. He writes a book.

The motel owner, Gerald Foos, is sublimely creepy because he buys an entire motel explicitly for exercising his voyeurism, which he carries out very professionally and thoroughly, and pretends to be doing a scientifically objective study of human sexuality. It’s the disconnect that is disturbing, that he abuses the rights of his customers all the while confident that he’s committing no crime, that while he knows they would be upset if they found out, by being careful and meticulous he voids any personal moral failing.

Gay Talese is doing exactly the same thing. He has no moral failing, because he’s abiding by the rules of his craft, staying aloof from his subject, not judging, just describing. And he succeeds in becoming just as creepy as Gerald Foos.

It’s rather disturbing overall, actually. Does he even know what human experiences are like any more? Does he just watch people, like they’re ants on the sidewalk?

I also have to admit that when I started reading his story, he just says it was in a motel near Denver, and I thought…what, we stayed in an older motel near Denver for my daughter’s wedding, and my mother and sisters stayed in a different one. I was trying to remember the names of our motels, and reading through looking for clues — fortunately, it was not where we stayed, and the motel had been torn down by the time we were there anyway. Still, now I’m going to check future hotel rooms for mysterious vents, and maybe I should bring plastic garbage bags and duct tape to cover over any dubious openings.


  1. jamiemccarthy says

    It’s disgusting and repellent. The ease with which he dismisses the difference between his earlier research and this criminal’s — consent! — is breathtaking. That he will now profit from this man’s decades of criminal invasion of innocent people’s lives, indeed that he participated in those crimes, is truly awful.

  2. says

    I read Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife way back when, and never bothered to read any of his other books. It’s always been clear that Talese will do whatever he thinks necessary to obtain a story, he followed Sinatra for months to write the oh so famous Esquire article. I was around nine years old when that was published, and I still remember reading it. Talese’s writing has always had impact, but it has always left me with a chill.

  3. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    @mnb0 #3 & Caine #5,
    When I’ve wanted to link to a webpage or video, I’ve used:
    <a href ="httttp//site.com/page"> ClickableWords </a>,
    manually typing out the <a href =""> … </a> and pasting the link into the quotes.

    E.g. Whistling guy Geert Chatrou

    How is this different from the method used to embed?

    I presume the aversion to emedding is about load times and/or autoplay. Is this correct?

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Sounds like Foos is going the “not guilty if never caught” route.
    Does Gay totally dismiss the concept of “copycat criminals”? (do they actually exist?)

  5. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Now, on topic,

    I don’t see too much problematic about his response, especially with the later clarification that he thought the question was from his formative years.

    From the linked article:

    … he was asked which women writers had inspired him. Talese said that, outside of Mary McCarthy, he couldn’t think of any.

    He wasn’t saying women couldn’t be inspiring, just that he could only think of one.

    I feared something like Hitchens’ abominable “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. I read it multiple times looking for the satire, only to realize he was being serious.

    That Voyeur’s Motel sounds extremely disturbing, both for the subject matter and for the detached writing style. I don’t think I’ll read it.

  6. jaybee says

    I read the article, and the murder scenario is a lot more muddy than it seems.

    The way the motel owner tells it, the occupant of the room was selling drugs, so when the occupant left the room, the owner flushed his stash down the toilet. When the drug dealer and his girlfriend returned, the drug dealer accused his girlfriend of having ripped him off, and he beat her. The motel owner says he thought she was alive as he could see her breathing and making small movements. But the next morning housekeeping discovered the woman dead.

    Now for the interesting part: the motel owner kept meticulous, dated notes. Talese asked the police department to check for any murders that day, and they said they had no record of it. Talese also said there were other inconsistencies in the Motel owner’s story, and not just about this purported murder.

    However, the overall story is still creepy and Talese doesn’t get a “get out of moral jail free” card simply because he is a writer and because he signed a non-disclosure agreement 35 years ago.

  7. pacal says

    Reading this reminded me of another Motel owner, although in this case the owner was fictional, who had secret holes and openings so he could spy on female customers undressing etc.; his name was Norman Bates.

    So did Mr. Talese notice the similarities between what he was describing and the Bates Motel?

  8. butterflyfish says

    This creep is an accomplice. He signed a non-disclosure agreement and flew out to see this? How about instead I call the police right now? From my house. Gross.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    … he’s old…

    Born February 7, 1932, it says here.

    I agree he definitely should’ve learned better in the last, say, five decades – but you gotta make a few allowances for gender issue problems in any boy who had to grow up in the US in the ’40s & ’50s with the given name of “Gay”…

  10. Jake Harban says

    This creep is an accomplice. He signed a non-disclosure agreement and flew out to see this? How about instead I call the police right now? From my house. Gross.

    IANAL, but I’m pretty sure there are/were whistleblower protection laws that exempt you from an NDA for the purpose of reporting a crime. He could have signed the NDA, witnessed the details himself, and then notified the police as a direct witness to the crime.

    In fact, it’s entirely possible that the police could have obtained a search warrant based on his description of what he saw in the attic; if so, the presence of the grates and fingerprints confirming his presence in the attic would have convicted Foos without Talese needing to testify. Talese could have called the cops and still been able to publish the story without even making it known that he’d called the cops at all.

    Of course, that’s assuming the story is actually true. Lately, the New Yorker has been sounding more and more like a smug pseudosophisticated version of The Onion.

  11. taraskan says

    Eh, can’t agree with the ‘man of his time’ argument in this case. One publication that has to frequently juggle the “iconic” with the “representative” is the Library of America series, and I can’t see them ever picking Gay Talese over the many MANY women authors they’ve already showcased. You aren’t obligated to love all of them equally; personally, Alcott, Ingols Wilder, and Chopin I do not enjoy ten pages between them, but the breadth is so wide there have to be some you would like, if you only knew about them (I’d go with Wharton, Bishop, and McCullers). Because these are all people whose works have flown under the radar for decades upon decades due to the various Gay Talese’s of the world writing them off.

    Bottom line: there were female authors who deserved recognition writing before Talese was out of diapers, and if he doesn’t recognize that, what can his tastes or opinions really matter in the scheme of things? I’ve read exactly one half of Talese’s novels, Honor Thy Father, and there is much better American Noir out there. LOA has even come out with a two-volume set of strictly female noir authors, and most but not all of what’s there just reads better, for me.

  12. taraskan says

    LOA also recently brokered rights to Usula K. Le Guin’s works, and the first volume is due soon.

  13. chigau (違う) says

    re: embedding videos
    PUT A return AFTER YOUR COPYPASTED address
    that’s all it takes
    hit the “return” key
    or maybe put a
    and then hit the “return” key

  14. methuseus says

    There’s a Sizzler just a few minutes south of Disney World in Florida on 192. I’ve been too scared to ever go there.

  15. Holms says

    So long as it is not an autoplay video – and youtube embeds never are – what’s the problem?

    Embedding is actually simpler than the html to turn words into a clickable link. All you do is post the video url, and wordpress automatically turns it into a video window.

  16. Ichthyic says

    but we’re not supposed to throw him under the bus, because he’s old, and he has written some good stuff.

    so, can we call this the Dawkins Defense?

  17. says

    What does “throw under a bus” mean exactly, in this instance? What consequences for his behavior are being contemplated?

  18. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Ok, so reading up on him a bit more than the article linked in the OP (which mentions nothing about his elaboration on the what he thinks women like to write about) gives me more of a sense of his douchiness towards women, even just the additional comments he made at that same event (journalistic version of estrogen vibe). And yeah, not calling law enforcement about the ongoing crime of the peeping motel is a massive black mark.

    From the linked article:

    So, OK, let’s dislike his answer. But then let’s also separate the artist from the art. Talese’s work is too important to shun because of his comments, which, really, had the significance of a flitting butterfly.

    (emphasis mine)

    Yeah sorry, I can’t do that. If I were studying journalism I’d want to include all sources that I could learn from but, as a consumer, I won’t support anyone I don’t respect. My time is finite and I can easily fill any free time I have supporting decent people.

  19. says

    IANAL, but I’m pretty sure there are/were whistleblower protection laws that exempt you from an NDA for the purpose of reporting a crime. He could have signed the NDA, witnessed the details himself, and then notified the police as a direct witness to the crime.

    This is a matter of constructive knowledge (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_%28legal_construct%29 )

    Knowledge is also found where a defendant suspects that circumstances exist and “deliberately decides not to make any further enquiries” in case his suspicions prove well founded.[3] A common example is a person who purchases significantly inexpensive and unprovenanced, but desirable items from a stranger. Such a person is likely to be fixed with constructive knowledge that the items were stolen.

    If I understand correctly he could have gone to the police, and prevented anyone further being victimized. He could have probably made a deal with the police to be able to interview them after the bust, and maybe gone an interviewed the perpetrator once they were in prison. Signing an NDA when you think you’re agreeing not to disclose a crime, there’s a word for that: “conspiracy.” Sounds like he’s a douchebag. I did read his bit about Sinatra once and it was pretty good. This is no great legacy.

  20. Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy says

    Talese is a year younger than my mother, who also worked as a journalist, though without the famous byline. I cannot imagine her signing an NDA like that.