The Sporadic Beaver

Research

April 7, 2016

Tags: Gay Talese, Alec Baldwin, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Beaver Street, voyeurism, journalism, research, The New Yorker, Gerald Foos

"I really did believe that having oral sex with a hot young model in front of a loaded camera was a legitimate avenue of journalistic research. I also believed that to write insightfully about pornography, pornographic experience in front of the camera wasn't only invaluable, it was essential." —from Beaver Street

The above quote is from a chapter called “The Accidental Porn Star,” and when I wrote it, I’d forgotten that there is at least one other journalist who’s willing to do the kind of research that I do.

Gay Talese was not photographed as he was researching Thy Neighbor’s Wife, originally published in 1981 and described as “eye-opening revelations about the sexual activities and proclivities of the American public in the era before AIDS” and a “marvel of journalistic courage and craft.” But as Talese reminded me in his 2015 interview with Alec Baldwin on Here’s the Thing (which I just listened to), in the course of gathering material for Thy Neighbor’s Wife, he did get masturbated in a New York massage parlor.

Talese’s latest story, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” in the current issue of The New Yorker, is what got me thinking about his research methods. In the story, probably one of the strangest the magazine has ever run, Talese, now 84, describes his 35-year relationship with Gerald Foos, owner of a motel near Denver. Foos is a voyeur who bought the motel specifically because it had an attic, which he converted to a perch where he could watch his guests have sex. And he did so from the 1960s to 1995, taking notes on what he saw.

Talese, in the name of research, joined Foos in the attic, and together they watched people have sex. The article, which includes some of Foos’s notes, is both semi-pornographic and an exploration of Talese’s wrenching moral dilemma as he conducted his research.

When writers throw their bodies and souls into their work, the result is often literature that you can’t put down. Sadly, as Talese also points out in the interview, magazines that are willing to finance this kind of reporting are on the verge of extinction.

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