Talking Sex with Gore Vidal
Author: Donald Weise
November 9, 2013
This month sees the publication of journalist Tim Teeman’s new biography In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master (Magnus). As the subtitle suggests, the book for the first time looks at Vidal’s romantic and sexual lives and their influence on his writing and political advocacy. I say “for the first time” because a book on this topic could not have been published before Vidal’s death in August 2012; not only would he have sued the publisher, but his family members and closest friends, interviewed at length in the book, would not have spoken on record as they have—and with surprising openness—because they too would have incited Vidal’s fury. Vidal spent a lifetime suing people, and I gather this only became more prevalent as the years passed. When asked late in life what replaces sex when one gets older, Vidal answered, “Litigation.”
I’ve been a big fan of Vidal all my adult life. It wasn’t so much that I loved the novels but that I was fascinated that a gay man (who never really came out as such—most of his literary peers didn’t either) could be so erudite and clever and openly disdainful of so much and not only get away with it but be celebrated. In short he was the first gay man who showed me that you could live life on your own terms, at least if you had the talent and guts to pull it off.
Because of my tremendous admiration for Vidal, I wasn’t sure when I commissioned the biography from Tim about a year ago whether I’d like the book—or Vidal—after reading it. As Tim shows us, the Vidal I knew—that anyone knew—was a public persona carefully constructed and maintained for years, since the end of World War II when he published his first novel and up to his death. His longevity was awesome, and if the legend allowed for that longevity, I personally didn’t mind. But what then would I think of a book that looked beyond the legend, showing the Master for all of his flaws and vulnerabilities, perhaps even his own homophobia, for the first time?
Rather than answer this right away I’d like to speak instead to the book itself, because what Tim handed in was infinitely richer and more in-depth than anything we discussed in the beginning. For example, I hadn’t anticipated that actress Claire Bloom would share with Tim the intimate details of her romantic friendship with Vidal, including rumors of Vidal having proposed marriage to her, or that his Hollywood pimp for decades (the inimitable Scotty Bowers) would catalog all the male movie stars Vidal had hooked up with. I wasn’t expecting Vidal’s half-sister (I wasn’t even expecting a half-sister) to open up about the private side of his decades-long public feud with William F. Buckley and how Vidal suspected and feared that Buckley had evidence with which to blackmail him. Till now I’d more or less taken Vidal at his word, in his memoir Palimpsest and elsewhere, when he described his lifelong pining for the one boy he truly loved: Jimmie Trimble, a classmate who was later killed in World War II. And I believed his repeated proclamations that the key to his fifty-three-year partnership with Howard Austen was “no sex.” Well, Tim really “unpacks,” as academics like to say, these latter two well-polished myths, and I can no longer accept them—or Vidal—as I once did. In short, In Bed with Gore Vidal is the most complete and unguarded look at Vidal’s life that we’ve ever had. Most of us will see him in a new light, one that won’t necessarily flatter him or support his side of the story.
Despite my misgivings, I didn’t think it was possible for me to feel anything but uncritical adoration for Vidal because he gave me my real start as an editor. For this, I’ll be eternally indebted to him. In an incredibly generous move he had nothing to gain from, he agreed to let me—a total stranger with no formal editorial training who worked at a small San Francisco press—collect his essays on sex into a book I called Sexually Speaking. Unlike Vidal’s fiction, which sometimes was too clever and out of touch, I felt, with readers, his essays uniformly delighted me. Regardless of topic, I could read his essays over and over. In fact I did, which is how Sexually Speaking came about. After countless re-readings, I had a special fondness for his pieces on sex and sexual politics (those on Nasser’s Egypt and Barry Goldwater, less so). I couldn’t think of anyone who matched Vidal’s wit and intelligence on the topic of sex—I still don’t think anyone does—so I came up with the idea of publishing a book devoted to just these writings. I suppose, being young at the time, everything, including working with Vidal, felt within reach. I got his address in Ravello, Italy, from a non-profit group he’d done a fundraiser for, and mailed the table of contents along with a letter of introduction to his home. About a week later a fax was waiting for me at the office, written in his own hand: “Dear Donald Weise, Yes I will do your book. Contact my agent at the number below.” It was the biggest moment in my life up to that point, and may still be. Gore Vidal—the impossibly forbidding and imposing literary giant—said yes to me.
As if working with one of my celebrity icons so suddenly and unexpectedly weren’t enough, I wrote and asked if I could come to Ravello and interview him about sex: an interview which would appear at the end of the book as sort of a culmination of his lifetime writing on the topic. In some cases twenty-five years had passed since he’d written these essays, and I wanted him to weigh in on where he stood now. He said yes again. And a few months later I was in Italy, sitting with Vidal in his home talking about sex.
I prepared for this meeting with the determination of an Olympic athlete. I re-read many of Vidal’s novels, went through his plays, read all the essays again at least twice, tracked down documentary films about him on video, and I even watched the old movies he’d written or at least had a hand in writing, like Ben Hur and Catered Affair. I wanted to be able to reference anything that might come up about any of his work because this interview quite literally meant the world to me. I’d been trying to get my foot in the door as an editor for a while but hadn’t had any help. Now here was the opportunity of a lifetime. I prepared so intensively for the visit because it was about more than just publishing his book of essays or trying to make a good in-person impression on Vidal. That trip was the start of my career, and I was lucky enough for it to open like a fairy tale, thanks to him.
Although I’d seen him in person at book signings and public talks, there in Ravello I was thoroughly intimidated from the moment I shook his hand. He was wearing a brown jogging suit and looked like he hadn’t shaved for days, reminding me of how my grandfather looked in the hospital. I followed him inside his villa, through the foyer, down a long tiled hallway, and into a handsome living room that I had seen photographed in magazines. He went to one of the windows and pulled open a large curtain that revealed a breath-taking view of the Gulf of Salerno far below. Vidal then pointed out the island where Nureyev once lived and reminisced about Nureyev coming to swim in his pool. I gathered this overture was one he performed for all wide-eyed newcomers like me, and if it was meant to put me at ease, that was immediately undone when I turned and saw behind us a row of elegantly framed photographs along a table— signed portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Amelia Earhart prominent among them.
With the view properly taken in, we went to a less formal but similarly elegant room where Vidal did all his writing when in Italy, he said. We settled into big leather chairs opposite one another, a floor-to-ceiling wall of books behind me. I set out my tape recorder on the table between us to begin the interview. Having never interviewed anyone before, I’d typed up a list of about twenty-five, overly detailed questions that must have run more than twenty pages. What I was thinking when I came up with them all or what I was expecting Vidal to endure that day, I can’t say. I was incredibly earnest, however, and wanted to demonstrate I could be taken seriously as an editor. The fact that I had mistakenly put on one black sock and one white sock before I left the hotel that day would, I feared, signal otherwise. My questions ranged broadly—over history, politics, and literature, mostly—and his often hilarious off-the-cuff answers sounded exactly as you’d expect:
On ancient Greece: “The Greeks never had a word for ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke,’ the concepts didn’t exist. They knew about feminine men and sometimes thought they were funny — more ‘ha-ha’ than peculiar. They certainly knew about lust, they didn’t make a fuss about it. This was a world I understood and was bought up in: it was, sexually, extremely free. Homosexuality was institutionalized, because it was useful for training soldiers—in Thebes and Sparta specifically. You also got married to have children so there would be more babies. It never occurred to people you would be one thing or the other.”
On sexual guilt: “As I said to Ian McKellen, ‘I’ve never had a moment of sexual guilt,’ and he said, ‘I bet you haven’t.’ If you’re bought up in the house of a senator you’re not going to be very concerned about what a postal worker thinks of your private life.”
On Eleanor Roosevelt: “It was perfectly clear [reading the private correspondence between Roosevelt and her long-rumored lover Lorena Hickok] that they were having sex. The writing is full of tactile images which are erotic…On the topic of sex, she didn’t like anything about it. And when she said ‘sex’ she meant hetero sex. She had these funny veins in her temple that would pop out like serpents when the subject of sex came up. She was very non-judgmental about others: ‘People are what they are, there’s nothing you can do.’”
On James Baldwin: “Along comes Jimmy Baldwin of all people who accuses me of homosexual panic. If ever there was a book of homosexual panic it was Giovanni’s Room. What is this homosexual panic? Bob Ford [in The City and the Pillar] suffers from it, and rejects the other one because of it, and gets himself beaten up because of it. But there was no ‘panic’ on the part of the writer, which should have been perfectly clear to Jimmy, although he wasn’t clear headed…He had more to carry than any writer I know. A black writer who then turns out to be a queen and also a preacher of the Lord; it was one of the reasons he was so often hysterical and very often made no sense at all, because he was living too many contradictions.”
On Dr. Alfred Kinsey: “Kinsey found that thirty-seven percent of men had had a sexual experience with another male to the point of ejaculation. Well, the intellectuals moaned and whined at these findings. They asked, ‘How do you measure sex by ejaculation?’ ‘How else do you measure it? There is no way of measuring love, compassion, and goodness and all that you value and I value. I’m a scientist and I have to have something to measure and that’s something’…They did a recent survey, and they now have it down to one percent, one percent of males have had a same-sex experience. That’s so palpably a lie. It had middle-class women asking people questions. No one is going to tell these ladies that ‘I’m not going to touch you with a ten-foot barge-pole, you are absolutely safe from me and my kind.’ It’s just an embarrassing situation, and they confessed to having a lot of non-responses.”
On gay novelists: “There are certainly people who call themselves ‘gay novelists’ like Edmund White. I think he’s out of his mind. Why limit yourself any more than literature has limited you? In a world where people don’t read, what are you going to make of a man who calls himself a ‘gay novelist’? What’s that supposed to mean, that he’s only go to write about cock? He’s a quite good writer, but I didn’t think he was that dumb to characterize himself.”
We spoke for about three hours, and while there wasn’t enough time to go through my complete list of questions (even after three hours!), he’d given me enough material for an extraordinary interview.
As the afternoon wore on, Vidal’s answers became shorter and shorter. I took this to be a sign of him tiring—of answering questions and maybe even of having me there. I didn’t drink at the time so couldn’t appreciate the fact that evening approaching meant the first drink of the day. Almost at five o’clock on the nose he said, “I’d like a drink.” He went over to the bar and returned with two glasses of Scotch, something I’d never had before. He then turned on the television and said, not waiting for a reply, “If you don’t mind, I’m following the hearings and they’re about to start.” The hearings were the Senate hearings to impeach President Clinton.
At this moment—as if on cue—his red-haired partner of forty-odd years, Howard Austen, walked into the room wearing a terrycloth bathrobe and made his way straight for the bar. I don’t remember if I was introduced to Howard, whom I’d recognized from pictures, but Vidal, holding up the book of nude photographs I’d brought as a gift, said to him, “Look, Don brought us a dirty book.” While Howard paged through the book over his cocktail, the live hearings started on TV. Talking with Vidal in his home all afternoon about sex was surreal enough, but watching an event as historic as a Senate hearing to impeach the president was even more so. I stayed quiet and just listened as he kept up a near-constant conversation with the proceedings on TV, critiquing one Republican senator after the next, saying over and over how senators hated to be lectured by one another. He was as bawdy and as outspoken and outraged as you’d imagine. After a young male Republican senator finished condemning the President at length, Vidal said, “Well, that’s the mouth of a cocksucker if ever I saw one.”
After a while I noticed it had gotten dark outside. The liquor kept coming and there was no sign of food, but I didn’t know at what point I was expected to leave. Finally Vidal made a phone call and said his driver would take me back down the hill to my hotel in Amalfi whenever I was ready, which I took to mean now. I thanked him profusely for his time and cooperation as he walked me back to the gate. I’m glad he led the way. Given how much I’d had to drink, I might have wandered around the grounds all night trying to find the exit in the dark.
As it happened, Vidal later decided not to include our interview in the book. I don’t know if he felt he’d given away too much material for free or that he said a handful of personal comments that he now believed were too revealing—about his father, for example—but he changed his mind. Not at first, though. After I’d gotten home, a call came one afternoon when I was alone in the office. The voice on the other end said simply, “Gore Vidal,” as if answering a question. I’d gotten a lot of queries from strangers about how to get in touch with him once it became known that I was publishing his book, and I took this to be yet another. I said Gore Vidal wasn’t there, that the caller had reached his publisher. “No,” said what can only be described as a commanding voice, “This is Gore Vidal.” Panicked, I grabbed the nearest pen and paper, prepared to take down anything he said. He was phoning about the interview, he had changes. “Where I call Jimmy Baldwin a drunk, strike that,” he told me, then proceeded to go through the transcription I’d sent him, making further cuts that dramatically shortened the piece, much to my distress. I’d never been so nervous or caught off guard, and the whole time a voice inside me kept saying, “You’re in over your head! Who do you think you are, working with Gore Vidal?” Where I came from nobody met anyone who’d written a book or spoke with anybody who’d ever appeared on TV. But I stayed right with him, writing as fast as I could, not daring to ask him to repeat himself or slow down. Regardless of his cuts, however, he chose in the end to drop our piece entirely. So I’d held onto the interview tapes for years, thinking one day, after his death, I’d publish them somewhere.
Which brings me back to In Bed with Gore Vidal. As Tim made progress on the book, he shared with me one piece of exciting news after the next. Someone he’d been doggedly trailing for weeks gave in for an interview. That person in turn put Tim in touch with still another source close to Vidal. Unpublished material from Vidal’s first biography, which was never completed or released due to the author’s death, was made available to Tim. From the outside it all looked so easy, but for Tim, I can only imagine how much time and energy had to be invested to achieve these incredible results. Finally I had his amazing manuscript in my hands. It was so good, in fact, that I decided to give him my interview tapes for the book, because whatever plans I had for them couldn’t compare to their importance in helping to tell Vidal’s story in this groundbreaking biography. I felt I owed it to Tim—although, oddly, to Vidal, as well.
Before giving Tim the tapes, however, I listened to them for the first time in fifteen years, curious to know if I’d remembered our talk accurately. For the most part, yes. I remember commenting on the framed Time magazine cover from the 1960s on the wall behind him honoring his then-new novel Myra Breckinridge, which led him to talk about the flood of fan mail from transsexuals following the book’s publication, graphic photos included, he said. I remembered him impersonating President Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, priceless recordings that are sadly lost on the printed page. What I didn’t remember was interrupting him as often as I do in the tapes, or how forthright I was at times.
After listening to our conversation I found myself regretting more than ever Vidal’s decision not to include even an abbreviated version of our interview in Sexually Speaking, which became a Los Angeles Times bestseller. (When one of my mother’s friends saw the Times list and told her the news, my mother phoned me and said, “The book you did with your friend is on the bestseller list.” Even today, Vidal, for all his fame and accomplishments, is known to her alone as “my friend.”) Vidal himself never told me what he thought of the book, though he did agree to one public event to promote it.
He was visiting San Francisco to plug his latest novel and said he’d do an event in the Castro as I’d asked if I set one up. The local MCC was more than delighted to host. I was to introduce Vidal and then he would speak onstage by himself. But a half hour before the event I got a phone call from his publicist telling me Vidal expected me to interview him in front of the audience. I was nervous as usual in Vidal’s presence—made all the more so because the church was packed, as if it were a revival. From nerves, I ad libbed my opening remark: “I never thought I’d be sitting in church with Gore Vidal.” This in turn led to my first question: “So when was the last time you were in church?” Without missing a beat, Vidal said, “The pope’s funeral. I wanted to make sure he was dead.” It went on like that for the next hour, and how I wish that conversation had been taped, too.
So to answer my own question, what do I think of a biography of Vidal that looks at his life with complete honesty, showing all his shortcomings and personal contradictions for the first time? I feel this is a tremendous gift toward understanding the man and his work. While recalling the legend may be fun—quoting his outrageous remarks or watching vintage clips of Vidal on YouTube—it ultimately obscures the man behind the writing. Some of Vidal’s concerns—like his lifelong preoccupation with his fame—aren’t flattering for me, and I feel both disappointed that Vidal was so self-absorbed and sympathetic toward his burning need for adulation. In a sense, In Bed with Gore Vidal puts the pieces of his life’s puzzle together without lessening the essential mysteries of his great talent and his flinty, unusual character.