The last mystery of Vidal

Times Staff Writer

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.”

Vidal pauses and gazes out across the high-ceilinged room to where a tall window reveals sunlit greenery atop an adobe wall. It’s a comfortable silence; Vidal is in no hurry to recollect, but he’s in no hurry to finish recollecting either. He has been drawing deeply upon his memory in the last few years as he puts the finishing touches on his second memoir, “Point to Point Navigation,” due out in November from Doubleday, the sequel to 1995’s “Palimpsest.”

“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.”



Old wounds

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.”

He must feel Auster’s absence? “It was only 55 years,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s.... Everyone handles it in their own way.” He stares into a distance beyond the room. “I’m at the age where I’m asked to dinner parties with numerous widows and widowers, and they’re all kind of cheery in a macabre kind of way. One illustrious lady said to me, don’t you hate it when people tell you that time will heal all wounds? Of course I hate it. Time just reminds you of what is lost and not coming back again.”


The old Hollywood

VIDAL shares the house with his Filipino cook, Norberto Nierras, while his 23-year-old assistant, Daren Simkin, lives in an apartment above the garage. He goes out very occasionally -- he enjoys, for instance, the acoustics and architecture of Walt Disney Concert Hall -- but mostly he stays at home. Work remains the constant throughout his days, as it always has been. He reads and writes in an upstairs study, where three windows look out onto swaying palm fronds; beyond, fancy cars speed too quickly around the curves. He prefers a typewriter or pen and paper to the computer, which he calls “that machine,” but he respects the Internet and has published several political essays on his friend Robert Scheer’s website, He rarely writes letters, because “practically everyone I know is dead.” What friends remain do come calling fairly often. He abhors the telephone.

Today, when his tumbler runs dry, Vidal glances down at leftover ice. “Where’s my Filipino gentleman?” he asks, fiddling with an intercom on the table in front of him. Daren has left on an errand, so for the moment Norberto is doling out the whiskey. The intercom doesn’t seem to be working; “Norberto!” Vidal bellows, and back comes an indiscernible guttural shout. “It’s an ancient Philippine folk song,” Vidal says, half-smiling, and then Norberto arrives, middle-aged and in street clothes, and hands over a fresh tumbler, filled to the brim. Vidal has been drinking like this for years, but there’s no noticeable effect on his formidable oratory and wit.


Norberto seems relaxed with Vidal, comfortable. After Auster died, he took the liberty of installing a chair in front of the door leading from Auster’s room into Vidal’s study; atop the chair he placed a large wooden puppet. “It’s something superstitious,” says Vidal, smiling. “He’s a Filipino, and they have all sorts of meanings. I intend to get rid of it. Maybe it’s to ward off the evil eye.”

So. About Los Angeles?

“Rosebud,” he says, echoing Charles Foster Kane’s dying whisper in “Citizen Kane,” and the idea that a single object or place can unlock the mystery of a life. He’s joking, of course, hinting at the ridiculousness of this vein of inquiry. Vidal is in this city but not of it, he accepts but does not embrace it. “Rosebud” adds another wrinkle, however -- it is born of the movies, which are born of Los Angeles. And Vidal’s language, if you listen closely, is run through with references to the product and process of film.

About the way memory works, he says: “When you were 10 years old, which in my case would be 60 or 70 years ago, you broke your leg. Trauma. Duly recorded, somewhere, on the tapes in your head. But if you recall it, the moment when your leg broke at the age of 10, you’re not summoning up that movie, it’s not as though you can just get the experience going in your head again. What you do, which is much more interesting and strange: You remember the last time you remembered it.”

And it begins to make sense, now, to ask Vidal to remember remembering his first days as an adult in Los Angeles, the days when, he says, “the magic of the movies got through to me.” Perhaps here lies the anatomy of his choice of home: It was 1945, and Vidal, the 19-year-old first mate of an Army freight-supply ship, was trying to jump from the ship to the dock at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. He could not; his knees simply wouldn’t spring. He had been drenched with icy water from the Bering Sea more than once, and osteoarthrosis was the result. Many years later it would require an operation, an artificial knee, but at the time it delivered him to a hospital in Anchorage and left him pondering “home.”

The Army sent soldiers to convalesce close to their hometowns; for most of them, that was an easily locatable destination. Not so for Vidal. His mother, Nina, was living at the Beverly Hills Hotel after two divorces and the death of her third husband. “I much preferred my father to my mother,” Vidal says, “but I much preferred Hollywood, or the notion of it, to either of them. So, ‘L.A. is where I come from,’ I said.” He was delivered to Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys. “It was pretty wonderful. Charles Laughton used to come over and read poetry and act plays. But only for the guys who were interested; he didn’t want the ones who were just in it for autographs.”

Nina’s friend Jules Stein, head of MCA, gave Vidal a pass to all of the studios, and he would hitchhike in and watch the movies being made. The first set he breached was that of “Marriage Is a Private Affair,” written in part by his dear-friend-to-be Tennessee Williams. Vidal remembers Bette Davis, on the set of “The Corn Is Green,” standing in front of a manor house “in a riot of Harris tweed” and struggling to mount a horse. “You don’t need an actress,” Davis was saying. “You need an acrobat!” Vidal, now in his armchair, chuckles.

New York stole Vidal for a few years, which is where he met Auster, who had given up a career as a singer and was pursuing work in advertising. “He was having trouble getting a job in a New York advertising agency, despite an NYU degree,” Vidal remembers. “The agencies, in general, did not hire Jews. So I said change the ‘r’ to an ‘n.’ He did, and was promptly hired by an agency that had turned him down the previous year.” (Auster was thus known as Austen, in some circles.)

Then Hollywood wooed Vidal back; he signed a screenwriting contract at MGM and he and Auster lived with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in Shirley MacLaine’s old house in Malibu. He worked on “Ben-Hur,” among other movies, but was ultimately dissatisfied with the studio system. It was too rigid; fluid collaboration seemed impossible. Europe beckoned; he answered. Rome. Ravello.

“I was fascinated by the movies,” he says. “We all were, my generation.” Fascinated, in past tense. “The problem with movies is that they’re not for encouraging argument, for the mind,” Vidal says. “It’s for emotions. And you can excite people to a point.... Well, a medium that has that trouble is in deep trouble. And I think one of the problems of today is that literature has no prestige, while movies have all the prestige. And movies cannot do argument, they cannot do the mind, they cannot do anything -- except get your pulses going a little faster.”


Despair and dreams

MOVIES, in other words, cannot do change, or at least cannot do it effectively enough. It was change that Vidal was after through politics, as well; in one way or another, he’s always been after changing society, under many auspices, wearing his many hats. He is credited as the first to label the United States an empire, back in the 1970s, and has long been an outspoken critic of what he sees as American stupidity, greed, reliance on archaic moral structures. It’s as bad now as it ever was, Vidal says, with Bush and the neoconservative agenda running the White House. “Did you see that story in the New York paper?” he asks. “All the money that Halliburton owes the government, and they’re being forgiven this vast debt, because it’s Cheney. In a well-run country, that wouldn’t happen, a country of law. But we’re now lawless.”

“I don’t see any optimistic signs on the horizon,” Vidal says. “It’s just, how much money can we wring out of the public, before all the oil has dried up and before soybeans can be properly processed? So we’re at a curious point; obviously there are intelligent people who do have solutions, but not one of them will ever get inside the White House, not one of them is going to get to Congress, and God help you if you take on the bench. So all doors are shut at the moment.”

Even in liberal Hollywood, after a year in which gay sheepherders fell in love, a preoperative transsexual reunited with her son and CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow took a stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, all in front of audiences’ eyes, even after this, Vidal sees little reason to rejoice. After all, “Brokeback Mountain” failed to win the Oscar for best picture, exactly as Vidal predicted. “Nobody believed me,” he says, relishing his prescience. “I said there’s not a chance in the world the older members of the academy, the carpenters, the grips, the this’s, the thats, living over in Van Nuys, they’re not going to vote for that.”

It seems hopeless, really, and yet, at 80 years old, Vidal continues the fight. “I have no choice,” he says. “I have no selfish interests. All of my selfish interests are public interests.” Under the weight of the world, at the apex of his frustration, Vidal is wont to smile. There is satisfaction in the muck, somewhere. “I’ll never forget the joy,” he says, and trails off, and pauses, and sips. “The four greatest words on Earth are ‘I told you so,’ ” he says. “I have seen to it that I’m able to say that at period intervals, like a cuckoo clock.”

One of the few people Vidal speaks with regularly on the telephone is Barbara Epstein, his longtime friend and editor at the New York Review of Books. “Like many people in Los Angeles, he’s in exile,” she says of Vidal. “Los Angeles is a place of exile. In a way, I think the one fits in the other very nicely.”

Perhaps home, for Vidal, is exactly that -- exile -- a home that is not a home, from which he spies, somewhere in the nowhere of the distance, a better world.

But Vidal is not sentimental. The closest he comes is in his dreams. On good nights, as he sleeps in a second-floor bedroom down the landing from his study, he dreams of his father. “I’m always happy to see him again,” Vidal says. “He starts climbing up a hill, and I follow him up, and it gets more and more full of bushes and so on. And then he vanishes.” The landscape is not Los Angeles and not Ravello. “It’s placeless,” he says. “It’s just a hill. It’s wild country. When you dream of your father after a certain age, you’re having a death dream. Any more of these doctors, and it won’t be a dream.”


Contact the writer at steven