By Heidi Simmons
People are fascinating to observe. Just look at the growing popularity of reality television programs. Perhaps there is a voyeur lurking in all of us. But most of what we spy is in a public forum. In The Voyeur’s Motel (Grove Press, 233 pages) by Gay Talese, one man looks in on the most private moments of unsuspecting motel guests.
Author and journalist Gay Talese tells the true story of voyeur Gerald Foos who watched hundreds of people through the ceiling of his motel taking copious notes on his “subjects.”
Foos grew up in a household where sex was never discussed. But as a Colorado farm-boy, he certainly saw animals doing it. His sexual curiosity lead him to spy on his aunt who was married and lived in the house across the field. Foos became a “Peeping Tom.” Born in 1934, Foos didn’t have sex until he was on leave with the Navy during the Korean War.
In 1966, Foos bought a motel with twenty-one guest rooms in Aurora, Colorado. He specifically purchased the motel because it had a high pitched roof above the rooms where he, being six feet tall, could walk in the attic.
Foos set about cutting and customizing viewing vents in the ceilings of each room to observe the motel’s guests in bed and in the bathroom. He lined the attic with thick shag carpet and secured nails so there would be no creaking. Foos made wide panels above each room where he could lie flat to relax and enjoy the show.
Donna, Foos’ wife, a nurse, shared in the experience. She suggested he take notes. The two kept their viewing experiences completely secret. Sometimes having sex while observing. The couple had two children and Donna’s mother worked at the front desk of “Manor House.” Foos regularly observed the guests sexual conduct and took copious notes.
Foos saw himself as a social scientist like Masters and Johnson, but considered his “work” more authentic since his guests did not know they were being observed. From 1966 to 1978, Foos wrote down statistical information and private observations about guests, their intimate relationships and how they had sex in his motel. Foos would often enter the subjects’ rooms to gather personal information.
At times, Foos would stage experiments. He’d hide money to see if the guests were honest. He’d place pornography in a drawer to see if guests would use the magazine.
In the 70s, author Talese was approached by Foos with a desire to share his “research,” but Foos wanted to stay anonymous. As a journalist, Talese had no intention of telling Foos’ story without naming him. After receiving a letter from Foos, Talese went to Colorado and toured his motel. During the visit, Talese went into the attic with Foos to watch a couple having sex. As Talese looked down on the couple, his tie went through the vent nearly revealing their lair.
In 2015, Foos now in his 80s and failing health, decided it was safe for Talese to tell his story using his name and notes. And what a story it is!
Foos describes the couples and the sex in detail. Height, weight, hair color, breast and penis size. Married, mixed-race, adulterers, siblings, homosexuals, physically challenged sex, Foos witnessed it all. Foos saw himself as two different people (The Voyeur and Foos) and writes his notes in the third person as “The Voyeur,” not Foos.
Beyond the sex acts and private moments, there is a social commentary Foos tries to include. Between Foos and Talese the changing culture of the time and sexual revolution is seen unfiltered.
Talese gives the narrative gravity, making literary references to earlier authors who wrote about observing sex and changing sexual practices. Whereas Foos’ comments are indeed interesting and provocative, they are not academic or scientific.
Yet, I was impressed by how he appreciated and recored some lovers. In his observations, he believed lesbian sex was the most thoughtful, loving and tender. He saw men who respected women and hated them in the privacy of the motel room.
At first I was caught up in Foos’ world. But by the end of the book, I saw the motel and Foos as sleazy. Foos failed to put a stop to deadly behavior he observed, content to just watch detached as The Voyeur. Yet, when a couple ate greasy food and wiped their hands on the bedspread, he nearly lost it by yelling at them through the vent.
Talese does challenge the validity of Foos’ story checking facts and details that don’t necessarily match dates and events. I liked how the author organized and used Foos’ notes along with his own story knowing and communicating with Foos over the years. However, I wish the publishers used an italicized font for Foos’ writings that were a little easier to read.
People’s sexual practices and what they do in private can be intriguing and the social commentary of it all even more fascinating. Talese reveals Foos’ story making the reader a participant in the voyeuristic experience as his bizarre life unfolds.