Gay Talese Has a Cow—and The 'New Yorker' Risks Collateral Damage
Author Gay Talese has backtracked on disowning his latest non-fictional book about a pervy motel owner. Now he will proudly publicize it, whether the events described are true or not.
As legendarily prudish New Yorker editor William Shawn would never have permitted any of his writers to write, even the best people fuck up from time to time.
Thus, Shawn’s successor thrice-removed, David Remnick, is offering fragile justifications for excerpting a problematic book, and the benighted soul at the center of the embarrassment—the famously dapper iconic wordsmith, Gay Talese—can’t figure out what to say about it all.
The 84-year-old Talese is nothing if not eloquent. He’s the author of some of the classics of New Journalism, in which novelistic techniques are employed in fact-based reporting, including his unforgettable Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.”
Yet Talese was strangely tongue-tied and flustered this week when confronted with a series of factual errors that could easily have been avoided. (Ironically, the author’s wife, publisher Nan Talese, who runs an eponymous imprint at Random House, faced an even more harrowing fact-challenged situation in 2006 when Oprah Winfrey championed Talese author James Frey’s addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces, turning it into a mega best-seller, and then roasted Frey and Talese on her syndicated daytime show when SmokingGun.com revealed that the purported true-to-life book was largely made up.)
Remnick, the editor of the 91-year-old magazine, sought to minimize the problems in Talese’s book-length narrative about a creepy innkeeper, The Voyeur’s Motel, a 13,000-word excerpt of which was published last April in The New Yorker.
“This is not an account of, say, national security,” Remnick argued Friday to The Washington Post’s media blogger, Erik Wemple, after Post media reporter Paul Farhi published a blockbuster story revealing that Talese’s book about Denver area motel owner Gerald Foos, and his pervy predilection for spying on his guests, was at least partly based on apparent fabrications contradicted by, among other things, official property records.
Remnick (who didn’t respond to an email from The Daily Beast) seemed to be saying that because the subject of Talese’s book was not of world-shaking consequence, verifiable facts were likewise of less than vital importance. A New Yorker spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the magazine’s excerpt of Talese’s book did not include anecdotes from the period in which Foos did not own the motel.
“This was, from the start, a profile of a very peculiar character, to say the least,” Remnick continued to Wemple, adding: “The central fact of the piece, that Gerald Foos was, in the late ’60s and ’70s, a voyeur, spying on the guests in his motel, is not in doubt in the article or in the Post’s article. The fact that [Foos] could sometimes prove an unreliable and inaccurate narrator is also something that Gay Talese makes clear to the reader, repeatedly, and is part of the way Foos is characterized throughout the article.”
Talese, for his part, was all over the lot and extremely emotional when Farhi informed him of his damning conclusions on Wednesday.
At first defiantly defensive, then abjectly apologetic, and then pitifully self-flagellating, Talese made a variety of clashing statements to Farhi between Wednesday and Thursday, as though the the author was transitioning through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief.”
Talese (who didn’t respond to a voicemail message) first suggested to Farhi—who initially flagged factual inconsistencies in Talese’s narrative when the New Yorker excerpt was published in April—that The Voyeur’s Motel isn’t about property records, so basically who cares?
Then, after getting on the phone Wednesday and interrogating Foos—who admitted to Talese that he misrepresented facts in diary entries (for which Talese’s book publisher, Grove Atlantic Press, paid the innkeeper an undisclosed sum) that formed the basis for Talese’s narrative—the author realized that he’d been conned.
Farhi reported that property records showed Foos didn’t even own the motel from 1980 to 1988, when it passed through the hands of two different owners before Foos reacquired it.
Farhi had previously reported that Talese’s riveting central anecdote of Foos hiding in the motel ceiling and quietly bearing witness to a woman being strangled to death by a boyfriend was at best highly dubious, as no police records of the supposed 1977 murder existed. The apparently bogus story, which Talese credulously repeated from one of Foos’s diary entries, was featured in the New Yorker’s excerpt.
Gerald Ballard, a subsequent owner of the Manor House in Aurora, Colorado, told Farhi that he had blocked access to the ceiling vents that Foos used to spy on his customers. Foos, meanwhile, didn’t have access to the motel, in any case, during the eight years he didn’t own it, Farhi reported.
“The source of my book, Gerald Foos, is certifiably unreliable,” Talese conceded to Farhi this week. “He’s a dishonorable man, totally dishonorable... I know that... I did the best I could on this book, but maybe it wasn’t good enough.”
Distraught, Talese added: “I should not have believed a word he said… I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”
Farhi’s story was posted Thursday under the headline “Author Gay Talese disavows his latest book amid credibility questions.”
But then Talese promptly reversed himself in an interview with internet gossip columnist Roger Friedman, who wrote in the wee hours Friday morning: “Talese tells me that the [Post] headline should read: ‘Author Gay Talese disavows Paul Farhi for distorting how he feels about the book.’ Gay says: ‘I definitely am going to promote it, beginning this coming week.’”
On Friday Farhi vehemently dismissed Talese’s claim of distortion, telling The Daily Beast: “I stand by everything we wrote. I won’t take back a word. It’s all straightforwardly factual. Everything I quoted Talese as saying, he said… It’s all good, as far as I’m concerned.”
Shortly after that, Talese did yet another about-face, acknowledging in a Grove Atlantic press release, “When I spoke to the Washington Post reporter, I am sure I was surprised and upset about this business of the later ownership of the motel, in the eighties. That occurred after the bulk of the events covered in my book, but I was upset and probably said some things I didn’t, and don’t, mean.”
Talese added, however: “Let me be clear: I am not disavowing the book and neither is my publisher. If, down the line, there are details to correct in later editions, we’ll do that.”
Grove Atlantic chief executive Morgan Entrekin, meanwhile, said: “The vast majority of the book focuses on Foos’s early life and the years from 1969 to 1980, which is not at issue in the Washington Post story. Grove takes the Post story seriously and will work with Talese to address any questions in future printings.”
It sounds like they have their work cut out for them.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended. Contrary to what The Daily Beast initially reported, the New Yorker excerpt did not include anecdotes from the period in the 1980s when Gerald Foos did not own the Manor House motel.