Mark Simpson checks out The Voyeur’s Motel
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix.
Which is what I seem to mostly do, TV-wise, these days – being middle-aged and male. This one wasn’t about Hitler, or unsolved grisly murders, or steam trains, however. It was called Voyeur. So, I think you can understand what drew my dirty old eye.
Despite the lack of any actual visual filth, it was firmly fascinating. Voyeuristically. I’m not generally into the ‘older male’ – especially now I’m fast becoming one – but I found myself engrossed by the exposed intimate interplay of two elderly gentlemen endowed with unfeasibly large egos. Made in 2017, the doc tells the story of how an 85-year-old journalist and a 79-year-old voyeur sired a New Yorker article and then a book. And even more intriguingly, how they try to fuck each other – in the Mametian sense of the expletive.
Gerald Foos, the voyeur, for three decades owned a 22 room Colorado motel which he bought in the 1960s for the specific purpose of secretly spying on guests in their room, and bathroom, from an ‘observation platform’ he had installed in the loft. Peering through 6 x 14-inch holes cut in the ceilings of his rooms, covered by specially designed fake ceiling vents.
And when I say ‘spy’, I mean perve. Although Foos saw himself as a researcher into human behaviour, it was nakedness and sexual activity between the guests that mostly interested and aroused him and filled the many journals he kept, and which Gay Talese, the journalist in this coupling, used as the basis of his essay and book. Foos, who frequently refers to himself in his journals in the third person as ‘The Voyeur’, originally approached Talese after reading his 1981 exploration of the free love subculture, Thy Neighbour’s Wife – which Talese assiduously and selflessly prepared for by residing several months at a clothing-optional resort. Writers and voyeurs savour human nakedness like mosquitos.
Foos did also manage to do quite a bit of common-or-garden non-erotic spying – such as the time he waited in the loft to catch a couple’s pet dog crapping on the carpet in their room, and then dumbfounded them during check-out inspection by being able to immediately detect the mutt mishap, despite the fact they had hidden the stain behind a chair. Foos triumphantly withholding their $15 pet deposit he required against… pet deposits.
(Actually, in the re-telling, this anecdote does seem to be mostly about anality.)
The celebrated – as much as any scribbler can hope to be – and devastatingly dapper Gay Talese essentially created the New Journalism with his Esquire profile ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’: an extraordinary literary tour de force of 15,000 glistening words, and only a handful of them surly Sinatra’s. Bearded, burly Foos, until now a much more obscure figure, is less dapper and distinguished (in fact Talese insists that he wear a shirt and tie when on camera with him, instead of Foos’ favoured loungewear). Hilariously, Talese’s fastidiousness nearly gave the game away when he joined Foos on his viewing platform one evening to confirm the set-up. Foos had to suddenly yank him away from the vent: his silk tie was dangling into the room, just above the love-making couple he was peering at – fortunately, they were too engrossed in one another to notice the pendulous necktie trying to join in.
Foos was glamorous and devastating back in his 1950s US Navy diver days, as an old photo we glimpse of him in his trunks attests: I would certainly have perved. Though perhaps not gone to the trouble of building a viewing platform.
The documentary is not however just about Foos and Talese. It’s a foursome. It’s about the relationship between the two of them and their agendas and their relationship to the documentary makers, Josh Koury and Myles Kane – and their agenda. Towards the end of the doc, from behind the camera, one of them asks Foos, with Talese sitting next to him, if he has any regrets about the collaboration – having already asked him this question earlier without Talese there. Talese is nobody’s fool and immediately and loudly denounces the directors for trying to trick Foos into contradicting himself and warns him that they’re trying to discredit him. He’s absolutely right, but it’s also perhaps his way of preventing that issue being aired.
Another point of drama is Talese’s incandescent rage on discovering that Foos had misled him: the journals begin a few years before he even owned the motel (something discovered by Washington Post fact-checkers – not by Talese). Talese rages on camera, in the bunker-esque basement of his palatial Manhattan Brownstone, that he is going to cancel the launch and publicly disavow the book, complaining that Foos has trashed his reputation. He later relents and re-avows the book, arguing that some factual inaccuracies don’t detract from its importance. Talese is certainly media-savvy enough to know the value of this kind of outburst on film, but his anger seemed very convincing to me. It was as if he’d suddenly realised that Foos had fucked him. Or been spying on him in his bathroom.
(An excellent write-up of the documentary with some input from the makers can be found here.)
Eager for more, I read the New Yorker article. Then I downloaded the Kindle version of the book. Which I devoured, but it was, in truth, slightly anti-climactic. After all that build-up, all that edging, the book seems a bit thin, considering Foos journals supposedly cover thirty years of nightly viewings. Talese fillets what I imagine are the best bits of Foos’ journals and writes connecting synopses, which attempt to distance himself somewhat from his subject/source. I’m sure that Foos like most fetishists (and narcissists) was extremely repetitive. I certainly I am. And Talese probably had a difficult job working through three decades of ‘observations’. But I can’t help but wonder if a less Talesed version of his journals might not have been more interesting, or at least more useful – as a case study.
Many of Foos’ entries suggest his voyeurism was bound up with a sadistic need to a prove his own superiority and smarts. When he is talking/bragging about the lengths and expense he has gone to design and manufacture ceiling vents that will allow him to observe his guests without himself being observed, and the problems he’s having with the manufacturers, he repeatedly sneers at them for their stupidity in asking entirely sensible questions about the design of his vents:
Nov. 21, 1966 – These idiots working for this sheet metal shop are dumb as radishes. They never think on a level higher than cigarettes or beer. “This vent will never function properly,” they say. If I told them what purpose it was going to serve they probably wouldn’t comprehend.
[Talese, Gay, The Voyeur’s Motel, Atlantic Press; Kindle edition 2017]
The fetishist often entertains a sense of superiority over those that don’t share their fetish (see also homosexuality). Voyeurism is a kind of omniscience, or a hankering after it. And the voyeur of course imagines that he (or she – but usually he) controls what he sees. And in a sense, he does, because in this case, he is unseen – while his subjects are seen by him. They exist for him. For his pleasure, and for his abuse. His curiosity is a desire to see what is supposed to be hidden and in that knowledge there is power.
But woe-betide the guest who has sex with the lights off – or under the sheets. At least one guest who preferred darkness – turning off the lights and the TV – for the performance of his conjugal duties prompted an immediate, creative and somewhat aggressive response from Foos:
‘I won’t stand for this at all. I return to the ground level and get in my car, and then drive it and park it directly in front of the #4 unit, parking it and leaving it there with the bright lights beaming on their window. Returning to the observation platform, he is standing up peeking through the curtains, complaining that “some son-of-a-bitch has left his lights on.”’
Unfortunately for Foos, his valiant efforts to lighten their sexual darkness come to nothing: the couple and the action then retreat to the Christian safety of beneath the bed covers, and he has to satisfy himself with observing the ‘animal-like thrusting under the covers’ that lasts for ‘three minutes’.
‘I finally get to see her body when she uncovers to wipe the semen away on my bedspread. She is very beautifully proportioned, but probably equally stupid and dumb. He comes back from the bathroom and notes that the lights outside are still on. He says, “I wonder what the situation is with this car with the lights on.” Stupid bastard, he’ll never know what my situation is, but I am well informed as to his unfortunate position in life.’
Note the God-like omniscience of the voyeur again: Stupid bastard, he’ll never know what my situation is, but I am well informed as to his unfortunate position in life.
In fairness, Foos is also angry with the ‘stupid bastard’ because of his lack of tenderness towards and communication with his wife (he often takes this gallant position, from his lofty eyrie). But it is mostly about him frustrating Foos’ perving – and anyway, she is dismissed as ‘probably equally stupid and dumb’. Perhaps because she wiped ‘the semen away on my bedspread’.
And then we have Foos’ pronounced tendency to despair of human nature and his general lack of trust in people – based on his ‘research’. That’s to say, he becomes bitter at the human failures and shortcomings of his paying customers, who wipe their KFC-covered hands (and semen spills) on the bed clothes. That he witnesses while spying on them for cheap thrills.
People can’t be trusted, is his sad conclusion about the human race. So true.
He even organises a test, a kind of Satanic temptation which involves a small, padlocked suitcase left in a cupboard in the room. He arranges for his wife to call him when guests check in, pretending to be a guest who has left her suitcase in the room with $1,000 in cash, making sure they overhear him. He then takes his position on the observation platform to witness human weakness in action.
The human race fails this test, dismally. A result which, I suspect, gave Foos a semi. He claims almost everyone forced the lock, and when they discover that instead of money, it’s full of old clothes, they then try to smuggle it out of their rooms to dispose of the evidence. Out of fifteen guests, only one, a middle-class woman, returned the suitcase to the office without trying to open it: ‘And so of the fifteen test cases, only the woman was not tempted by greed. The Voyeur rests his case.’
Much as I enjoy the description Foos gives of a light-fingered minister frantically heaving the burglarized (as they say in the US) suitcase out of the bathroom window and throwing it into the hedge – and, in my imagination, sweating coldly for decades after at the thought of it being discovered and connected to him – this ‘test’ seems to me to be another manifestation of sadism, mixed with god-like ambitions. Foos would have made an excellent reality TV producer. (In fact, a 2002 reality TV show called Swag, produced by Madonna’s then-husband Guy Ritchie, seems to have been based on the same premise as Foos’ 1960s test.)
Foos put me oddly in mind of the bored prison guard in Jean Genet’s classic 1950s porn flic Un Chant d’Amour, who peers through spyholes at various even more bored prisoners masturbating in different fashions. And after all, Foos’ motel, like many motels back then was a place that existed in part because of repression. Many of his guest were de facto criminals, sentenced to the limbo-land of roadside lodgings – and his ‘observations’ – by American mores. Much of what they were getting up to was taboo and illegal in 1960s America: adultery (sex with someone other than your marital partner) fornication (any sex outside marriage) and ‘sodomy’. Defined in Colorado law as oral and anal sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and carried a maximum penalty of 15 years, sodomy was only removed from the state’s statute books in 1971. (In 2019, many US states still had adultery and fornication laws on their statute books, though rarely used.)
The set up also put me in mind of Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, who famously spies on Marion Crane undressing in her room in his famous motel through a peephole in his office, hidden behind a symbolically significant painting. Foos bought his ‘voyeur’ motel a few years after Psycho, a film as much about the audience’s voyeurism as Bates’, was released in 1960 – though without, as far as we know, subsequently slashing anyone in the showers.
He does though claim to have witnessed the strangling of a young woman in one of his rooms. (In the documentary, Talese fails to find any mention of the murder in local police files.) Foos doesn’t appear to have any particular rage or hatred towards women – quite the opposite. He was married (twice), and both his wives seem to have been devoted and completely accepting and in fact supportive of his unusual hobby – that would often, he says, occupy him all night. His second, younger, wife, taken after the untimely death of his first, often joined in with his voyeurism, and is there in the documentary, endlessly tenderly patient, protective, and caring of him in his cantankerous dotage. (Women’s interest in men is an eternal mystery to me – precisely because I share it, but only on the surface. After all, when it comes to men, I’m a voyeur too.)
Most of the couples he spies on seem, by his account, to hate one another, be agonisingly mis-matched, or simply deeply uninterested in one another, and – most pitiful of all for Foos – hopelessly bad in bed. Foos’ misanthropy and pessimism about human relations (other than his own) is magically suspended for lesbian couples. He waxes lyrical about the mutuality and tenderness of sapphic lovemaking, in comparison to the selfishness of men:
‘Unfortunately, the majority of men I’ve observed are concerned with their own pleasure rather than the women’s. There is far less emotional love than just physical love. Lesbians, on the other hand, are better lovers to each other; they know what their partner wants and most of all there is an emotional closeness that can never be matched by a man. More tenderness, more consideration and understanding of feelings, etc.’
Foos is quite ‘liberated’ for his era. Not just in terms of his attitude towards lesbianism and women in general. He describes the attractiveness of the male partners as well the female ones, if generally in less detail – but he doesn’t pretend to be uninterested in or blind to the appearance of the males. In fact, when a single ‘handsome male’ checks in he makes sure he is assigned to a room with a viewing vent, in the expectation/hope that he will be joined by a girl later. He also records dispassionately instances of male-on-male activity, including one where a younger male dressed as a sheep and made loud baaa-ing noises while being chased around the room on his hands and knees by a ‘rotund’ older male. Foos, unlike me, refuses to judge:
Conclusion: This condition could perhaps be classified as a perversity, but it should not be condemned because both individuals are willing participants, and therefore the Voyeur will remain nondiscriminatory in its interpretation.
He also exhibits great sympathy for the plight of disabled young Vietnam vets, many of whom stayed at his motel with their wives. This helps turn him resolutely against the war, before mainstream public opinion did.
One particularly exciting tryst for him was witnessing his first threesome, back in 1966 when such things were still adventurous, involving a married couple and an attractive, hung (“at least 8-10 inches” – the lackadaisical two-inch margin of error being conclusive proof that Foos is not gay) younger man in the role of ‘stud’, while the husband directed and took photos.
‘…the husband got real close to the plunging penis and exclaimed, “You have such a nice big cock and I love to see it go in and out.” The husband was now more actively engaged in masturbation and reached orgasm at the same time as his wife and their companion. Then the husband said: “Hold it right there, and don’t withdraw your cock until I get my camera ready.” He took several pictures of the companion’s penis still embedded in his wife’s vagina, with the semen running down.’
As a famous 1960s Kodak commercial put it, record your ‘Warm and fuzzy memories’.
Foos concludes wistfully:
‘…And so I have seen my first episode of “threesome sex,” which enables this husband to fulfil his voyeur’s drive. I could completely envision myself playing the husband’s role, and I would definitely like to explore the possibilities of seeing this transpire in my life. I would really like to participate, and it displeases me that, at present, I must remain an observer. Incidentally, this was the largest penis that I have seen so far.’
Much like ‘hardcore’ porn, voyeurism is related to the visibility of the phallus – both the one spied and the one in the male voyeur’s hand (and the missing one of the mother, according to the Freudian explanation of fetishism). Even if the point of it, from a hetero perspective, is to be seen disappearing in a female orifice. And then reappearing: I love to see it go in and out. Group sex, along with oral sex, interracial sex and sex outside of marriage, was to become much more common as American mores, post-1960s, softened, according to Foos’ later observations. But it’s unclear whether he ever got around to participating. Or, more importantly, whether he ever saw a larger penis.
Foos would also plant sexual paraphernalia in guest’s rooms, one dildo and one pornographic magazine ‘and then wait for an unsuspecting subject, and place her, or him, or a couple in that room, depending on what type of information was desired from the subject.’ He bought 50 of each. No one complained or returned any of the items.
‘Fifty percent of the women utilized the dildo or magazines, the other fifty percent either ignored the devices or discarded them.’
Whether men ever used the Gideon dildos isn’t recorded. It is mentioned however that one of the women who did was a nun.
In keeping with his image of himself as a latter-day Dr Kinsey, as well as The Voyeur, he compiled annual reports. In 1973, for example, he noted that of the 296 sexual acts he witnessed, 195 were heterosexual white people who generally favoured intercourse in the missionary position, and less frequently accompanied it with oral sex and masturbation. The annual total of orgasms was 184 male orgasms and thirty-three female orgasms (though he admits some of these may have been faked).
The remaining seventy-four guests broke down into:
- Twenty-six sexually active black heterosexual guests, ‘their preferred positions and orgasmic ratio was similar to the whites’.
- Ten white lesbian guests, all of whom took turns performing cunnilingus.
- Seven white homosexual males exchanging oral and anal sex
- There were ten guests who participated in interracial sex and who also engaged in oral and intercourse.
- Fifteen guests whose sexual behaviour didn’t fit into any of these categories – and included a man who urinated secretly in his female partners bourbon, a cross-dressing single male and the aforementioned sheep-and-shepherd male couple.
Interesting as they are, I’m not entirely sure how much value these reports have. But then again, despite having repeatedly made fun of the notion myself, I don’t think we can completely dismiss the ‘research’ aspect of Foos perving. When it comes to sex, research is never entirely perve-free. Freud saw libido and curiosity as inextricably linked – ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ and ‘where do babies come from?’ being two sides of the same enquiry.
Although Foos’ repeatedly describes himself as ‘the World’s Greatest Voyeur’ this is clearly not true. The great Alfred Kinsey, or ‘Doctor Sex’ as he was dubbed by the press, would have to take that accolade: with his Sex Research Institute, he succeeded in constructing a gigantic panopticon of sex – or ‘viewing platform’ – in 1940s and 1950s America with him at the centre. Kinsey personally observed hundreds of acts of coitus and masturbation, and his Institute filed and photographed thousands more. Kinsey also famously conducted thousands of intimate interviews with people about their sex lives.
Granted his approach was rather more scientific than Foos’, not to mention consensual. But he wasn’t entirely ‘respectable’ or ‘perve-free’ either, thankfully. The ‘indecency’ of what he was doing was not lost on many at the time. The owner of a hotel where Kinsey was conducting interviews famously lost patience with the long line of young men waiting outside Kinsey’s room and threw him out, shouting:
‘I WILL NOT HAVE YOU UNDRESSING PEOPLE’S MINDS IN MY HOTEL!’
Foos, of course, wouldn’t have seen the lines. He’d have been too busy breathing heavily through his fake ceiling vents.
This post originally appeared on Simpson’s Patreon