Gore Vidal: Devil with a Soul
Author: Frank Pizzoli
July 1, 2015
In Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) author Michael Mewshaw reveals an individual as gorgeous as any of Vidal’s historical or fictional characters. His portrayal of Vidal is not a bouquet, yet it does reflect the love of a friendship lasting four decades. Mewshaw was in awe of the master, but he was not taken in by him. He and his wife, Linda, first met him in October 1975 in Rome; Vidal had just turned fifty and was financially solid. At the time, the biographer approached Vidal to write what became a series of interviews for various magazines.
Vanity Fair’s James Walcott takes Mewshaw to task for revealing so many of Vidal’s shortcomings in a book he says is “dominated by the jagged decay of Vidal’s final stage.” The biographer explained that that’s what his book is about by design: “I’m mostly speaking about Vidal in later life,” a life that was troubled and, according to his account, had a long decline. “Seven years after meeting, Vidal told Linda he had contemplated suicide.” Vidal was fifty-seven then, eighty-six when he died.
Counterpoint to his darker side, Mewshaw tells how Vidal—an otherwise barbed tongue who once said, “Every time a friend succeeds, a little bit of me dies”—had a soul. He often helped others on the sly without drawing attention to himself. Vidal was veiled while appearing accessible. The book’s first sentence is: “Despite his aloof and at times forbidding demeanor, Gore Vidal managed to project an image that persuaded millions of people around the world that they knew him on a personal basis.”
For perspective, Christopher Bram, in Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, said about Vidal, among other observations: “I’ve been reading him since I was a teenager in the 60s and loved reading him, especially his essays. But I realized early that he wouldn’t be the kind of guy I’d want to hang out with.”
Mewshaw did hang out with Vidal for decades, witnessing drinking habits that brought Vidal to his knees, although it is important to remember that Big Drinking was part of the 20th-century literary scene. Vidal’s nemeses Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, as well as his cruising-for-sex pal Tennessee Williams, consumed vast quantities of alcohol, as did Jack Kerouac, whom Vidal claimed in a 1994 interview he screwed in the Chelsea Hotel, where they each signed their own names. In an interview with Martin Amis in The Sunday Telegraph, Vidal claimed he left the U.S. “because I didn’t want to become an alcoholic,” mentioning Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner as “the classic examples.”
A notorious drunk, Vidal’s mother Nina eventually married Hugh Auchincloss, as did Jacqueline
Kennedy’s mother Janet, positioning Vidal and Kennedy to share the same stepfather, but through different mothers. That’s not all they shared. Gore’s room became Jackie’s, and then the First Lady’s and John F. Kennedy’s for their visits, a fact of life no Drag Queen could make up. After Time published a cover story on her son, Nina sent the magazine a letter “excoriating Gore for ingratitude,” insisting she played a crucial role in his career, even setting him up in the film industry. Nina’s intercession severed her relationship with Vidal for life. The point is that the demon alcohol was never absent from Vidal’s life, but it would be a huge mistake to see him only through that hazy lens.
Beneath the cultivated, hung-over veneer was a man who helped actors secure parts and sent friends money. “Vidal wasn’t a conventional friend,” Mewshaw says. He wasn’t going to show up at your door with a casserole after a trying week. However, when Vidal put on his bitch cap, one wanted to steer clear. After all, he did say, “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.”
Wondering whether he would win or lose, back in 1975, Mewshaw had Vidal’s telephone number passed along by a mutual friend. “Vidal didn’t so much invite us as summon us to his apartment for drinks.” John Rechy reveals a similar experience: “Oh, yes, he was mighty arrogant. When he was living in Los Angeles, he got a friend of mine and his—the wonderful writer Gavin Lambert—to call me to ask whether I would like to come to lunch with them at his home. It was 11:30 a.m. and he was inviting me to lunch! That was insulting. Of course I didn’t go,” although Rechy concluded that he “truly admired him, highly, for several decades.”
Perhaps Vidal’s pedestrian insecurities, noted by Mewshaw in many scenes, helped him style his “strike first and often” posture. In a 1975 interview with Gerald Clarke in The Paris Review, Vidal calculated that the disdain he earned from so many resulted from his creative versatility:
“I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing.” Later, he laments the fact that “no critic has ever noticed” the theme of The City and the Pillar, that character Jim Willard finds all future lovers wanting when compared to his first love. “The novel was not about the City so much as about the Pillar of Salt, the looking back that destroys.” Although he swore otherwise to the point of protesting too much, perhaps Vidal suffered the same fate as his protagonist Willard—the fate of always having to look back. This may explain why he doled out details of his fixation with James Trimble piecemeal: “I knew him for 18 years before he ever mentioned Trimble. I think […] Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years, went 30 years. Lifetime friends went 40,” Mewshaw says. Vidal’s own divergent accounts, plus the skepticism of friends, have led some to wonder if the ardent love Vidal remembered was imagined with Trimble as his “perfect twin.” Was his love for Trimble the defining feature of his emotional framework, or was it his mother Nina’s relentless, alcohol-fueled infusions of self-doubt?
Mewshaw says: “I think it’s important that we separate parents and family experiences from Jimmie Trimble. With regard to his family, yes, he felt alienated at an early age; he steeled himself early against future hurts. Concerning Trimble, I’m not sure that their relationship happened the way Vidal says it did. Certainly, they seem to have had an adolescent fixation with each other, a crush. I think that he used the Trimble story to great romantic fact almost like his fiction.” Vidal himself wavered. In Palimpsest, Trimble figured in as a love match because “there wasn’t any other.” In Point to Point Navigation, Vidal replaces him with Austen.
Although close with school chum Trimble, Vidal didn’t view writers as one big fraternity. Mewshaw excels at documenting both cutting and hilarious stories from their years together. His pages include Austen, with whom he claimed not to have sex with for decades; the ubiquitous Mickey Knox (“You have any idea how hard it is to get Burt Lancaster blown every night of the week?”); and various film stars, literati and glitterati—enough modern-day “selfies” to fill fleets of limousines.
Some of Vidal’s guests were writers, not exactly his favorite group. “Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind,” Vidal said in an interview. “And their own kind can often be reasonably generous—if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of American life.” Wondering what kind of reception his writer friend John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) might receive, Sean Strub was worried as they made their way to Vidal’s renowned Italian Villa La Rondinaia, off the Amalfi Coast. Strub remembers in Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival his host’s marathon drinking and moist eyes as he pined for actor Dick York. Despite his emotional amour, Vidal was a man capable of feeling, unlike his well-rehearsed trope: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Vidal’s self-effacing description may have prompted Italo Calvino, whose work Vidal had introduced to U.S. readers in a New York Review of Books essay, to comment that he thought Vidal “had no unconscious.”
Vidal’s constant sex romps with hustlers, which Mewshaw describes so that readers can understand the man beneath the sex, comes up against Tim Teeman’s In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master. Archconservative William F. Buckley, with whom Vidal spared regularly in the era of early talk television, figures into things in a lurid way. Teeman asked Vidal’s half-sister Nina Straight, “[Was] Vidal right to be afraid of Buckley, did she know the details of what Buckley held on Vidal[?]” She told him: “I can guess what they are. Jerry Sandusky acts.” According to Teeman, Buckley claimed to hold evidence that Vidal was having sex with underage males. Upon asking, Straight nodded to him, “It would be hypothetical but you can cover that range, yes.” Teeman next asked if he would “be wrong to take from this that she is suggesting Vidal thought Buckley had incriminating evidence Vidal had sex with underage men.” “No, you would not be incorrect in taking that from what I’ve said,” replied Straight. When Teeman subsequently asked for further detail from Straight, she declined to comment.
Vidal does say in Palimpsest that he was “attracted to adolescent males.” In a particularly riveting section of Teeman’s book, Hollywood actor and director Burr Steers, Nina Straight’s son, told him: “I know Buckley had a file on him that Gore feared. ‘The file,’ as he called it, was something he was afraid of. Buckley definitely had something over him. It would make sense if that material were about him having underage sex. Gore spent a lot of time in Bangkok, after all. My mother’s younger brother [and Jacqueline Kennedy’s half-brother] Jamie Auchincloss was caught with child pornography and was sent to jail, and Gore would not condemn him. [Auchincloss was indeed jailed in 2011 on such charges.] Gore also had a very weird take on the abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests—he would say that the young guys involved were hustlers who were sending signals. Gore was so twisted up about sex, there was a big difference between the public image he crafted and what he was about in reality.” Does Steers know if his uncle had sex with underage men? “I don’t know for sure and I don’t want to know. But look, the love of his life was Jimmie Trimble, stuck forever as a teenage boy, a Peter Pan. The photo he carried around of Howard in his wallet wasn’t of Howard as an adult, but Howard as a teenager.” Vidal left his entire $37 million estate to Harvard University, but Straight and Steers are contesting the will, claiming he was not mentally competent when he filed it.
In 2012, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, Buckley’s son Christopher wrote in an essay for New Republic that he had disposed of a file his father kept on Vidal. “When WFB [William F. Buckley] died, in 2008, I found in his study, more cluttered than King Tut’s tomb, a file cabinet bursting to the seams, labeled ‘Vidal Legal,’” Christopher wrote. “Into the dumpster it went, and I still remember the sigh of relief upon heaving it in.” Mewshaw is clear that with regard to the unconfirmed Buckley story, he saw nothing askew. He says, “My wife and I raised our two boys around him. I saw no evidence that he took an unusual interest in them at an early age or even as teenagers. He liked rough trade. That was his thing.” Perhaps Vidal’s penchant for afternoon sex with hustlers had its origins in his father Eugene’s heart attack, which did not kill him in middle age but prompted Vidal to advise: “The trick is to arrange for sex in the afternoon and save the booze and food for afterward.”
Rough trade is perhaps what embroiled Edmund White in a legal scuffle with Vidal when he published Terre Haute, a play with characters based on an imagined series of conversations between Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Vidal. Perhaps there was a reason Vidal said, “Litigation takes the place of sex at middle age.” Around that time, Mewshaw writes that Vidal was in one of his frequent “wanting to die” moods. Hoping to cajole him out of his funk, he told Vidal: “I like you. I don’t want you to die.” He closed this scene with the conclusion that Vidal “couldn’t be jollied out of his bleak mood.” He replied, “Maybe you don’t want me out of the way. But Edmund White, I bet he’d like to see me gone.”
Regarding White, the biographer says, “I have no real detail on the Edmund White suit or threat of a suit. Vidal was a litigious man. That created the opportunity for many unfortunate incidents.” He did remember that White at one point “explained to Vidal what he had intended with the play.” Vidal nonetheless told The Observer: “Edmund White will yet be feeling the wrath of my lawyers. It’s unethical and vicious to make it very clear that this old faggot writer is based on me, and that I’m madly in love with Timothy McVeigh, who I never met. [I don’t want to be] lumped together with Mailer and Capote. They both went for murderers, and I don’t go for murderers.”
At the time, White told The Telegraph about the play’s origins: “I thought, ‘How can I do that? I can’t imagine writing lines from McVeigh’s point of view.’ Then I remembered Gore Vidal had been in correspondence with him. I thought: ‘Well, they never met, but wouldn’t it be interesting if you changed the names and let them meet?’ I’ve known Gore. We’re roughly the same age group, we’re both Europeanized Americans, we’re both gay. I was presumptuous enough to write things from his point of view but as I went on writing the play, it became much more about me. Gore later told me: ‘I would never have been attracted to someone like that.’ But I would have been.” White told the New York Post’s Page Six that Vidal signed off on the portrayal: “I still have the fax saying it was OK by him. Maybe he forgot it, since he went into surgery the very next day. I changed the names of the characters […]. I invented all the dialogue and actions, [and] the character of James ended up being closer to my experience and politics than to Mr. Vidal’s. […] [White also insists that nobody who reviewed the show] made the mistake of confounding the character James with Gore Vidal. I hope upon reflection Mr. Vidal will withdraw his intention to sue me for libel.”
“He never sued me[,] just threatened, but he had already given me his approval by fax,” White confirmed in an email. “I wrote him a nice letter reminding him we’d first met in the 70s through Peggy Guggenheim,” he added, at her Venice residence where she entertained the world’s A-list. “I asked him for a blurb for Nocturnes for the King of Naples, which he gave me.” It reads: “A baroque invention of quite startling brilliance and intensity.”
Mewshaw concludes about Vidal: “Even though he died with $37 million amassed, he always had a deep sense of disappointment that he had not gone through his entire list of what you hope to achieve, being elected a Senator, even President. Of course, he would never have been elected to public office in the years that he ran because there were too many behind the scene negatives that opponents would force to be exposed.” For example, he points out that Vidal sought “Irish citizenship as a way to avoid paying taxes. He spent many years living in Italy saying publicly he needed to leave the United States in order to see it more clearly and, coincidentally[,] he had maneuvered lucrative tax breaks that made it all possible. So he was, in a sense, both noble and practical.”
Perhaps one of the master’s own quotes offers a glimpse of what is yet to come of his legacy: “The greatest pleasure when I started making money was not buying cars or yachts but finding myself able to have as many freshly typed drafts as possible.” With as rich a life as he lived, there are many drafts still to come on the life of Gore Vidal.