Gay Talese is the legendary American writer famous for uncovering the private lives of his subjects. When he received a letter from a motel owner who spied on his guests having sex, it was the beginning of an extraordinary 40-year relationship
I know a married man and father of two who bought a 21-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring 6in by 14in in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminium screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.
I first became aware of this man after receiving a handwritten special-delivery letter, without a signature, dated January 7, 1980, at my house in New York. It began:
Dear Mr Talese: since learning of your long awaited study of coast-to-coast sex in America, which will be included in your soon to be published book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, I feel I have important information that I could contribute to its contents or to contents of a future book.
He then described the motel he had owned for more than ten years:
The reason for purchasing this motel was to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies and compelling interest in all phases of how people conduct their lives, both socially and sexually … I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not as just a deranged voyeur.
He went on to say that although he had been wanting to tell his story, he was “not talented enough” as a writer and had “fears of being discovered”. He then suggested I come to Colorado to inspect his motel operation:
Presently I cannot reveal my identity because of my business interests, but [it] will be revealed when you can assure me that this information would be held in complete confidence.
As a nonfiction writer who insists on using real names in articles and books, I knew that I could not accept his condition of anonymity. And I was deeply unsettled by the way he had violated his customers’ trust and invaded their privacy. Could such a man be a reliable source? Still, I reflected that his “research” methods bore some similarity to my own in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. I had, for example, kept notes while managing massage parlours in New York and while mingling with swingers at a nudist commune in Southern California (one key difference: the people I observed had given me their consent).
As to whether my correspondent in Colorado was, in his own words, “a deranged voyeur” – a version of Hitchcock’s Norman Bates – or instead a harmless, if odd, man of “unlimited curiosity,” or even a simple fabulist, I could know only if I accepted his invitation. I decided to send him a note, with my phone number, proposing that we meet during a stopover in Denver. He left a message on my answering machine a few days later, saying that he would meet me at the airport baggage claim.
Two weeks later, when I approached the luggage carousel, I spotted a man holding out his hand and smiling. “Welcome to Denver,” he said. “My name is Gerald Foos.”
He seemed in no way peculiar. In his mid-forties, Foos was around 6ft tall, and slightly overweight. He wore an open-collared shirt that seemed a size small for his muscled neck. He had neatly trimmed dark hair, and, behind horn-rimmed glasses, he projected a friendly expression befitting an innkeeper.
After we had exchanged courtesies, I accepted his invitation to be a guest at his motel for a few days. “We’ll put you in one of the rooms that doesn’t provide me with viewing privileges,” he said, with a grin. He added that, later on, he would take me up to the attic viewing platform, but only after his mother-in-law, Viola, who helped out in the motel office, had gone to bed. “My wife, Donna, and I have been careful never to let her in on our secret, and the same thing goes, of course, for our children,” he said.
He handed me a typed document stating I would not identify him by name, or publicly associate his motel with whatever information he shared with me, until he had granted me a waiver. I signed the paper. I had already decided I would not write about Gerald Foos under these restrictions. I had come to Denver merely to satisfy my curiosity about him.
As he drove he said he had chosen the single-storey Manor House Motel years earlier because it had a pitched roof – high enough for him to walk upright across the attic floor – which would make it possible for him to realise his dream of creating a viewing platform to peer into the rooms below.
He bought the property for $145,000.
Foos pulled into the parking area of a brick building painted green and white, with orange doors leading into each of its 21 guest rooms. Donna, a short blonde woman in a nurse’s uniform, greeted us in the office. She was heading to the hospital, to work a night shift.
I asked Foos if he felt guilty about spying on his guests. While he admitted to constant fear of being found out, he was unwilling to concede it brought harm to anyone. He said that because his guests were unaware of his voyeurism, they were not affected by it. He reasoned, “There’s no invasion of privacy if no one complains.” Still, he took great pains to avoid discovery, and he worried that, were he caught, he could be charged with a crime.
Over dinner, he described how it had taken him months to fashion his motel’s viewing vents to “foolproof perfection”. Only Donna, who was in on the plan, could help Foos with the installation. She would stand on a chair in each of the designated rooms and reach up to fit a louvred screen into the opening in the ceiling that Foos had made with a power saw. He installed three layers of shag carpeting over a central strip of the attic floor; the nails that kept the carpeting in place were rubber-tipped, to deaden any squeaks from footsteps.
After the screens were in place, Foos asked Donna to visit each room, recline on a bed, and look up at a ventilator as he was staring down at her. “Can you see me?” he would call down. If she said yes, he used pliers to bend the louvres into an angle that would conceal his presence while maintaining a clear view.
Foos said he began watching guests during the winter of 1966. He was often excited and gratified by what he saw, but there were many times when what went on below was so boring that he nodded off, sleeping for hours on the shag carpeting, until Donna woke him up before she left for the hospital. Sometimes she brought him a snack; at other times, if a particularly engaging erotic interlude was occurring in the room below, Donna would lie down next to him and watch. Sometimes they would have sex up on the viewing platform. “The attic was an extension of our bedroom.”
He mentioned that an attractive young couple had been staying in Room 6 and suggested we would get a look at them tonight. Donna always registered the more youthful and attractive guests in one of the “viewing rooms”. The nine non-viewing rooms were saved for families or individuals or couples who were elderly or less physically appealing.
Attached to one wall of the utility room was a ladder. After acknowledging his finger-to-lip warning that we maintain silence, I climbed the ladder. On a landing, he unlocked a door leading into the attic. I saw, in the dim light, a carpeted catwalk about 3ft wide, extending over the ceilings of the 21 rooms.
Crouching on the catwalk behind Foos, so as to avoid hitting my head on a beam, I watched as he pointed down toward a vent in the floor.
I saw what Foos was doing, and I did the same: I got down on my knees and crawled toward the lighted louvres. Then I stretched my neck in order to see as much as I could through the vent, nearly butting heads with Foos as I did so. Finally, I saw a naked couple spread out on the bed below. Foos and I watched for several moments, and then Foos lifted his head and gave me a thumbs-up sign.
I realised my tie was dangling into the room within a few yards of the woman’s head
Despite an insistent voice in my head telling me to look away, I continued to observe, bending my head farther down for a closer view. As I did so, I failed to notice that my necktie had slipped down through the slats and was dangling into the room within a few yards of the woman’s head. I realised only when Foos grabbed me by the neck and, with his free hand, pulled my tie up through the slats. The couple below saw none of this: the woman’s back was to us, and the man had his eyes closed.
Foos’ expression, as he looked at me in silence, reflected irritation. I felt embarrassed. What if my necktie had betrayed his hideaway? My next thought was: Why was I worried about protecting Gerald Foos? Had I become complicit in his strange and distasteful project? I followed him down the ladder.
“You must put away that tie,” he said.
I nodded and wished him a good night.
A week after I returned to New York, I received in the mail 19 pages of The Voyeur’s Journal, dated 1966. At times, I could almost picture Foos rubbing his hands together, like a mad scientist in a B-movie: “I will have the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state, and then begin determining for myself exactly what goes on behind closed bedroom doors,” he wrote.
In an entry dated November 24, 1966, he describes using the viewing platform for the first time:
Subject No 1: Mr and Mrs W of southern Colorado. Description: Approx. 35 year old male, in Denver on business. 5ft 10in, 180lb, white collar, probably college educated. Wife 35 years old, 5ft 4in, 130lb, pleasing plump, dark hair, Italian extraction, educated, 37-28-37.
… As I peered into the vent from my observation platform, I could see the entire motel room, and to my delight the bathroom was also viewable, together with the sink, commode, and bathtub … After going to the bathroom with the door closed, she in front of the mirror looking at her hair and remarked she was getting grey. He was in an argumentative mood and appeared disagreeable with his assignment in Denver. The evening passed uneventful until 8.30pm when she finally undressed revealing a beautiful body, slightly plump, but sexually attractive anyway. He appeared disinterested when she laid on the bed beside him, and he began smoking one cigarette after another and watching TV …
Finally after kissing and fondling her, he quickly gained an erection… She had no orgasm and went to the bathroom …
Conclusion: They are not a happy couple. He is too concerned about his position and doesn’t have time for her. He is very ignorant of sexual procedure and foreplay despite his college education. This is a very undistinguished beginning for my observation laboratory …
I’m certain things will improve.
Things did not improve for Foos with regard to the second couple he observed. The man and woman were in their thirties; they talked about money, drank bourbon and went to bed with the covers pulled “up to their noses”.
The third couple were affluent-looking people in their early fifties.
She removed her shoes and sprayed the interior of the shoes with some sort of deodorant … After the bath, she spent 1 hour preparing her hair in rollers and primping in front of the mirror. This is a 50-year-old woman! Imagine the hours she has wasted in her lifetime. By this time her husband is asleep and no sex transpired tonight …
Between Thanksgiving and January of his first year as a motel voyeur, Gerald Foos spent enough time in his attic to observe guests perform 46 sex acts, at times alone, at times with a partner, and, on one occasion, with two partners. Each time, he summed up his observations in a formal conclusion.
One day in December, two neatly dressed men and a woman came in and requested a single room. The more vocal of the two men, who had red hair, explained his furnace at home had stopped working and that his wife was freezing. Within minutes, Foos was in the attic and had positioned himself over their room. They were a “very polite, very organised 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 learnt that the companion was a sales rep for the couple’s firm.)
The trio represented the first group sex that Foos witnessed at the Manor House. Within a few years, however, he stopped regarding additional bed partners as a deviation; rather, he viewed them as posing a financial conundrum. Should he charge higher room rates for threesomes or foursomes than he did for couples?
In his records he complained about guests who smoked, “because the smoke rises and floods the vent”, impeding his view. He made note of guests whose behaviour he found weird or upsetting: the guy who secretly urinated in his date’s bourbon; the obese fellow who checked in with a much younger man and then dressed him up in a furry costume with horns, saying, “You are heavenly; I have never seen a more beautiful sheep-boy.”
But more often Foos found observing his guests depressing. They argued. They watched too much television. Gerald Foos reflected upon his “burden” as a committed voyeur and saw himself as an entrapped figure. He had no control over what he saw and no escape from its influence.
At the end of each year, he tallied his observations into an annual report, trying to identify significant social trends. In 1973, he noted that of the 296 sexual acts he witnessed, 195 involved white heterosexuals, who favoured the missionary position. Over all, he counted 184 male orgasms and 33 female orgasms. The following year, there were 329 sexual activities that he believed warranted recording.
In 1973, he observed only 5 instances of interracial sex; by 1980, he told me, the number was closer to 25. Foos viewed this as one of many examples in which his small motel reflected social changes throughout the nation.
Another of Foos’ categories, and one of the largest, was “honest but unhappy people”. A great majority of these were out-of-town couples who, during their brief stays, filled his ears with complaints about their marriages. He constantly reminded himself how lucky he was to have Donna for a wife.
He also got bored with cataloguing his guests’ dishonesty. So much so he concocted an “honesty test”. He would leave a suitcase, secured with a cheap padlock, in the closet of a motel room. When a guest checked in, he would say to Donna, in the guest’s hearing, that someone had just called to report leaving behind a suitcase with $1,000 inside. Foos then watched from the attic as the guest found the suitcase and deliberated over whether to break the lock and look inside.
Out of 15 guests who were subjected to the honesty test, including a minister, a lawyer, and an army lieutenant-colonel, only two returned the suitcase to the office with the padlock intact. The others all opened the suitcase and then tried to dispose of it in different ways.
The minister pushed the suitcase out of the bathroom window into the bushes.
A few years after Foos started mailing me photocopies of his handwritten journal pages, I received a large package from him containing a 300-page typescript of his viewing logs through 1978. It continued in the same vein – a litany of undifferentiated sex acts and accounts of people squabbling. There was one entry from 1977, however, in which the voyeur claimed to have seen, for the first time, more than he wished to see.
What he saw was a murder. It occurred in Room 10.
He described the occupants as a young couple who had rented a room for several weeks. Foos devoted pages to an approving account of the couple’s vigorous sex life. The journal also described people coming to buy drugs. This upset Foos, but he did not notify the police. In the past, he had reported drug dealing when he saw it, but the police took no action, because he could not identify himself as an eyewitness to his complaints.
One afternoon, Foos saw the man in Room 10 sell drugs to young boys. This incensed him. He wrote in the journal, “After the male subject left the room that afternoon, the voyeur entered his room … The voyeur, without any guilt, flushed all the remaining drugs and marijuana down the toilet.” He had flushed guests’ drugs before, with no repercussions.
This time, the man in Room 10 accused his girlfriend of stealing the drugs. The journal continues: After arguing for one hour, the scene below the voyeur turned to violence. The male subject grabbed the female subject by the neck and strangled her until she fell unconscious. The male subject, then in a panic, picked up all his things and fled the vicinity of the motel.
The voyeur … without doubt… could see the chest of the female subject moving, which indicated that she was alive and therefore OK. So, the voyeur was convinced in his own mind that the female subject had survived the strangulation and would be all right, and he departed the observation platform for the evening.
The next morning a maid said that a woman was dead in Room 10. Foos wrote that he called the police. When officers arrived, he gave them the drug dealer’s name, his description, and his license-plate number. He did not say that he had witnessed the murder.
He wrote, “The voyeur had finally come to grips with his own morality and would have to forever suffer in silence, but he would never condemn his behaviour in this situation.”
In 1977, Foos claimed to have seen more than he wished. A murder
The next day, the police returned and told Foos the drug dealer had been using a fake name and had been driving a stolen car.
I was shocked Foos had not mentioned the incident to me earlier. It almost seemed as if he regarded it as just another day in the attic. But his response – the observation that he “really didn’t exist as far as the 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 decided he knew, they might have obtained a search warrant.
I spent a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in. But I reasoned that it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Also, since I had kept the voyeur’s secret, I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator.
I filed away his notes on the murder along with all the other material he had mailed me.
I knew all I wanted to know about the voyeur.
Over the decades, I continued to get letters from Foos. He reported that, as far as he knew, investigators had failed to find the killer, but the police had been summoned to the Manor House for other reasons. He told me that one guest had committed suicide, shooting himself with a pistol.
In addition to these bits of news were his ongoing complaints about the appalling examples of human behaviour he’d witnessed. He had come to believe that the arrival of the birth-control pill encouraged many men to expect sex on demand: “Women had won the legal right to choose but had lost the right to choose the right moment.” He felt that sexual relations were getting worse, not better. (Lesbians were an exception.)
He wrote that he felt “overwhelmed by the fantasy, the play-acting, and the game-playing of the real world”. He continued, “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest.”
He claimed to have become antisocial, and when he was not in the attic he avoided seeing his guests.
Where was I in all this? I was the voyeur’s pen pal, his confessor. Several times, it occurred to me that I would be wise to discontinue our correspondence. Foos was not a subject I could write about, despite my curiosity about how it would end. Would he get caught? If he did, might I be subpoenaed to testify?
In March, 1985, after a long silence, he wrote to say that Donna had died. She had been in her mid-forties and suffered from lupus. There was a new woman in his life, a divorcée named Anita. Like Donna, she was happily complicit in Foos’ secret life.
He sold his motel in 1995, when arthritis in his knees made it too painful for him to crawl around the attic. First, he’d removed the vents and patched up the holes in the ceilings. He missed his motels, although he took comfort in the belief that the business was in decline.
In spring 2013, 33 years after I had met him, Foos called me to say that he was ready to go public with his story. Eighteen years had passed since he had sold up, and he believed that the statute of limitations would now protect him from invasion-of-privacy lawsuits that might be filed by guests. He was 78, and he felt that if he did not share his findings now, he might not be around long enough to do so. He said he was dissolving the confidentiality agreement and gave me permission to write about him.
I flew to Denver and met Foos and Anita for breakfast at an airport hotel. He carried a cane, and his grey hair was offset by a grey goatee and moustache. Anita was as he had described her in his letters: 18 years younger than Gerald, she was a petite, quiet woman with red hair.
I wanted to discuss the murder in Room 10. I showed Foos a letter from a division chief of the local police. He had checked cold-case databases and found nothing. Two coroner’s offices had no information, either. Two former officers said that it would not be impossible for there to be no remaining police records in a “Jane Doe” case such as the one I described: the identity of the victim was unknown and the crime took place before police departments kept electronic records.
“It seems as if that young woman just fell through the cracks,” Foos said. I thought he might be relieved, but he told me that he had talked to a lawyer. In publicly admitting that he had witnessed a murder and had not acted to prevent it, he said, “I could be an accessory to a crime. I might be convicted of second-degree-murder charges.”
Still, he was ready to come clean. “Life comes with risks, but we can’t be concerned with that,” he said. “We just tell the truth.”
After the meal, we drove to the Foos’ house. “I hope I’m not described as just some pervert or Peeping Tom,” he said. “I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher.” He maintained that most men are natural voyeurs. “But most women prefer being watched to watching others,” he said, “which may partly explain why men spend fortunes on porn and women on cosmetics.”
I asked him why, since he’d spent his life invading other people’s privacy, he was critical of the government’s intelligence-gathering in the interest of national security. He reiterated that his spying was “harmless,” because guests were unaware of it and its purpose was never to expose anyone. He told me he identified with Edward Snowden. He considered himself a whistleblower, although, so far, he hadn’t revealed anything to anyone except his wives and me. Asked which “things that are wrong” he wished to expose, he said, “That basically you can’t trust people. What they reveal about themselves in private they try to hide in public.”
The people who bought Gerald Foos’ motel in 1995 presumably never knew why some of the guest rooms had 6in by 14in plasterboard patches in the ceilings. In 2014, the motel was demolished. All that was left was a plot of flat land enclosed by a chain-link fence.
That is what Gerald and Anita Foos saw when I paid a visit to the site with them. “I hope we can find something to take home,” Foos said, walking slowly. Finally, Foos picked up a strip of electrical wiring from the neon sign that had spelled out the motel’s name. “It’s too bad we didn’t get here earlier,” he said. “We might have got a piece of that sign.”
It was a hot day, and Foos was perspiring. “Let’s go home,” Anita said. “Yes,” he agreed, “I’ve seen enough.”
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