From the archives
The last mystery of Gore Vidal
A writer steeped in history and remembrance makes his stand in a city of reinvention.
You hear Gore Vidal long before you see him, the steady tap-swish-tap of foot and cane on an upstairs landing in his sunny Spanish Colonial house in the Hollywood Hills; then there's the slow whir of a mechanical chairlift carrying the novelist-essayist-playwright-screenwriter downward. Vidal is 80, with an artificial knee, and in 2003 he left his Mediterranean aerie in southern Italy overlooking the Amalfi Coast -- not far from where the sirens sang, and Odysseus sailed on -- and returned to his sometime home in Los Angeles to live out the rest of his life.
The 1-kilometer trek from the house in Ravello to the piazza became difficult, Vidal explains once he's settled into a floral print armchair in a drawing room that brims with books yet to be shelved, paintings wrapped in brown paper leaning against naked walls. "I could walk it," he says, "but it takes me half a day. Also, I have diabetes. Also, the Cedars-Sinai years are here."
"I always knew that we were going to need a house for the Cedars-Sinai years," he says. "Which is indeed what happened. But we always rented it out, until the last few years, when Howard got sick. And here I am." Vidal rarely mentions Howard Auster, his companion for half a century, when in the company of the press. It was Auster's cancer, as well as Vidal's bad knee, that spurred the move from Ravello. And then Auster died less than a year after they arrived.
These explanations make sense; but there remains something odd about Vidal's choosing Los Angeles as his final home, his patrician demeanor and deep sense of history clashing with the never-ending reinvention that pop culture requires of this city. Why did he and Auster not return to Rome, say, where for two decades they lived in a grand penthouse atop a palace in the Historic Center, and where the hospitals are just as good as they are here? Vidal adored Rome, he has said and written, but he does not by any means love Los Angeles. A writer lives in his head, he says, and so place is mostly immaterial. But then a writer is also human and hardly oblivious to his context.
In a 1985 essay for Architectural Digest magazine, Vidal contrasted his home in the "unfashionable Hollywood Hills," near Runyon Canyon, with his idyllic Roman penthouse: "In Los Angeles we live in our cars," he wrote, "or en route to houses where a pool is a pool is a pool and there are only three caterers and you shall have no other. A car trip to Chalet Gourmet on the Sunset Strip is a chore not an adventure. But a trip down our street [in Rome] is a trip indeed."
So why not Rome? Or London, where he buys most of his books from Heywood Hill?
"Come to my funeral and ask," Vidal answers, and pauses for a long time. The only sound is the rattling of ice as Vidal sways his tumbler of whiskey. "One hospital could kill you just as easy as another."
VIDAL grips his brown wooden cane, lets it go. His maternal grandfather, the blind senator T.P. Gore, holds a similar cane in a black-and-white studio portrait, published in "Palimpsest." A 10-year-old Vidal stands alongside, his arm over the senator's shoulder, his eyes gentle, his posture reverent, protective. Vidal has called the Washington, D.C., estate that his grandfather built at Rock Creek Park, where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood, his "true home." When at Rock Creek, Vidal's gentle eyes stood in for his blind grandfather's useless ones. Reticent no more, Vidal enthuses -- but slowly, with aristocratic poise -- about reading the Congressional Record aloud to the grandfather he idolized. These are good memories, and warm.
Why not settle in Washington, then? The Malaysian ambassador has moved into the old Rock Creek house, sure, but there are other estates nearby.
"God, no," Vidal says. "Unless you hold office, there's no point in being there." That was the plan, in the beginning. To live in Washington and hold office. Vidal knew this as he wrapped his arm around his grandfather and his grandfather leaned proudly upon his cane and the flashbulbs popped. But now Vidal is a year older than his grandfather ever was, and he's a long way from the capital.
A clue to this mystery of place sits on the brown rattan table, here in the Hollywood Hills. A pile of books, titles like "Extreme Islam," "Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election?," "Worst Pills, Best Pills." Among them, Vidal's own novel, "The City and the Pillar," the first serious literary work by an American author to deal openly with homosexual themes. It was a death knell for a politician at the time (although Vidal ran for Senate in 1982, coming in second to Jerry Brown in the California primary) and it forced a change of course. Vidal knew the consequences, he says now; it was a calculated decision, the right decision. "It's probably the only worthwhile thing I ever did in public life," he says. "Assuming that publishing is public life. Which is a great leap."
Vidal was just 23 when he published "The City and the Pillar," but it was his third novel and he was already a literary star. He dedicated the book "For the memory of J.T.," initials that remained mysterious for years. Today, Vidal speaks openly of Jimmie Trimble, a fellow pupil at St. Albans School in D.C., and Vidal's first love. "He was an athlete," Vidal says. "Now we think of athletes as just dumb-dumb boys, they're all muscle and no brain. But our athletes, at least of the class we came from, the political class, from Kentucky -- he was from Kentucky -- they were not only body boys, they were brain boys."
Trimble and Vidal were inseparable for a while, sexually and otherwise, and then fate intervened in the guise of Vidal's shrill and beautiful mother, Nina, who, concerned about her son's mediocre grades, transferred Vidal from St. Albans into yet another boarding school, Exeter, near Boston. Vidal saw Trimble one last time, at a dance in 1942, and they fled the hall together briefly, doing what teenagers in love are apt to do, leaving behind Vidal's fiancee, a young woman named Rosalind. Of course, Vidal never married Rosalind. And Trimble joined the Marines at the height of World War II and was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Vidal has written that he never again felt unity with another sexual partner -- at least, he hasn't yet. "It's not something you look for," he says sharply. "Things happen or they don't." He's been sliding down into the comfort of his armchair during conversation, and now a bit of his midriff peeks between his white button-down and his slacks. He's dallied with plenty of men, and some women, over the years -- more than plenty -- but none, except that first, was of lasting import. His relationship with Auster was platonic; which is exactly why it endured, says Vidal.
"In any country on Earth but the United States, people would understand this," he says. "For grown people, [sex] is something apart from living with somebody; it's just a disturbance." But people in the States "want total fidelity from the other person, and as much sex as they can get on the side. Preferably in a massage parlor. We are not," he says, turning for emphasis, "regarded as brilliant by other people."
It wasn't a marriage with Auster, nor a partnership. Vidal doesn't like to name what they were, just as he hates being pigeonholed as homosexual. No, they were Gore Vidal and Howard Auster, two men who decided to spend their lives together. "He's a private person," Vidal demurs. "There's not much to tell."