Behind every great man, it is said, stands a great woman. For Lord Nelson, it was Emma Hamilton. For Scott Fitzgerald, it was Zelda. For Kenneth Tynan, it was Elaine Dundy. Sometimes the woman is a man. For Somerset Maugham, it was Alan Searle. For W.H. Auden, it was Chester Kallman. For Christopher Isherwood, it was Don Bachardy. For Gore Vidal, it was Howard Austen, who died on Sept. 22 in Los Angeles of brain cancer at age 74.
Unsung and largely invisible, such companions are the unacknowledged Enablers of our Great Creators. In Austen’s case, it was his commitment to the quotidian, to the mundane, to the heroism of everyday life that made him much more than a valet to one of American literature’s great divas. For Austen, as for Vidal, rules were made to be broken. He was an original.
Gruff, plain-spoken and quick-witted, Austen, a lifelong chain-smoker, was just 21, a recent graduate of New York University, when he met Vidal, anonymously, at New York’s Everard Baths on Labor Day, 1950. Red-haired and freckle-faced, Austen worked by day for an advertising agency, Lever Brothers, and by night yearned to become a pop singer. He would go on to become a stage manager for Broadway shows in the 1950s and ‘60s. He also dabbled in pictures, assisting the casting of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He had a talent for many things but reserved his genius for friendship.
His steadfast companionship of half a century to Gore Vidal was a marvel to all who knew him. Friends often wondered how the couple had managed to keep alive so vital a relationship over so long a time. Vidal was in the habit of quipping, “Simple. Like so many old marriages, no sex.” Vidal, whose candor is legendary, wasn’t joking. After all, the compact they had struck meant that Austen juggled the couple’s complicated financial affairs, travel arrangements and housing needs in Hollywood and Ravello, Italy, thus permitting Gore a degree of solitude so necessary to a writer of astonishing productivity and ambition.
Three years ago, I had lunch with Vidal at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel -- the “La Brea Tar Pits of Hollywood, where all the old dinosaurs go to die,” he said. Midway through lunch, Austen arrived, sweating profusely, clutching a portable Olivetti typewriter in each hand.
When he had caught his breath, he complained bitterly of having to search high and low all over L.A. to find for Vidal the preferred writing instrument now rendered obsolete by the arrival of warp-speed computers. He had managed, he claimed, to buy the Olivettis in East L.A. from cholos who ran a barely profitable racket by trafficking in endangered industrial species. He made it sound like a big-bucks drug deal.
Austen played an invaluable role in making possible the career of a remarkable writer. It was an honorable trade. He was not alone; the tradition of such backstage work is long, if too little recognized. After all, what would Eugene O’Neill have been without Carlotta? Or Edna St. Vincent Millay without Eugen Boissevain? Or, for that matter, Virginia Woolf without Leonard? These are the men and women who manage the money, make sure the household functions, act as first readers and critics, and in so doing help to free their creative partners from being held hostage to the otherwise grinding reality of daily life. Alas, no Nobels are awarded for such contributions to the republic of letters.
It is said that, from time to time over the decades, Austen, sitting either in their home on Outpost Drive in Hollywood or in their palazzo in Ravello, would, with a sweep of his arm indicating the art hanging on the walls and the various possessions gathered over a lifetime of travel and collecting, say (with a mischievous gleam in his eye): “You know, Gore, after you’re gone, all this will be mine.” On one occasion, Vidal, not missing a beat, is said to have replied: “Yes, Howard, that’s true, but no one will call.” Now, the Great Gore sits alone, the phone ringing, but Howard is no longer there to answer for him.
Steve Wasserman is editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.