A MONTH OR SO AGO, I was minding my own business, when I stumbled upon — or rather slipped on — a scummy article in The Guardian. I had only to read the beginning of the headline, “If the rumours about Gore Vidal are true […]” to experience a familiar sinking feeling. Okay, what now? Vidal has already been accused, alive and posthumously, of such sins as elitism, snobbishness, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, political incorrectness, and various other mortal and venial transgressions. Obviously, that’s not enough.
Amid all the accusations, Vidal somehow found time to write historical novels such as Julian (1964) and Creation (1981); the National Book Award–winning collected essays, United States (1993); his landmark gay novel, The City and the Pillar (1948); the best-selling Myra Breckinridge (1968); the Narratives of Empire cycle, including Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984); or his wonderful memoir, Palimpsest (1995). He died a year and a half ago, on July 31, 2012, at age 86, and already, perfectly timed — after a suitable mourning period and before public amnesia sets in — a carrion crew is busily rummaging through his dirty laundry.
The column I happened upon, written by a literary type named Mark Lawson, was posted somewhere on The Guardian’s chaotic website; the rest of the heading asked with faux-earnestness, “What does this mean for his work?” The payoff was in the subhead: “Allegations of paedophilia threaten to destroy the late writer’s reputation.” If awards were given for journalistic pieces that pack the most lies, smears, innuendos, and hyperbole in the briefest space, this would be a contender.
The rumor arises, Lawson informs us, “in connection with a new book about Vidal.” The reference is to US-based British journalist Tim Teeman’s In Bed with Gore Vidal, which I’ll get to in due course. According to Teeman’s book, as Lawson describes it, Vidal’s “half-sister and a nephew have hinted that he may have had a secret passion for underage boys. And Vidal more or less admitted it himself, writing in his memoir Palimpsest that he was ‘attracted to adolescent males.’” Moreover, Vidal once asked English novelist Martin Amis, who conducted an interview with Vidal in 1977, to change his description of Vidal from “homosexual” to “pansexual.”
The missing smoking gun is “a sexual dirt file allegedly kept by one of Vidal’s many enemies, the late conservative thinker William Buckley,” which, Lawson admits, “is said to have been thrown away after Buckley’s death, and so definitive proof will be tricky.” Yes, I suppose so. The absence of any evidence whatsoever usually does make “definitive proof” tricky. Further, notes Lawson, “It also seems odd that no one claiming to be a victim has come forward, especially as Vidal left an estate of $37 million — a possible source of ire from his relatives, as he bequeathed the lot to Harvard University, where he had never studied, rather than them.” Ah yes, the “ire of the relatives” left out of the will — let’s flag that for further review.
If we’re short on evidence of Vidal’s pedophilic preferences, maybe we can make do with his geographic preferences, suggests Lawson: “Vidal spent much of his life abroad, living in Italy and taking regular vacations in Thailand, which must raise the possibility that, like many men with taboo sexual desires, he satisfied them in regions with looser laws.” Well, once we’ve verified Vidal’s frequent flyer points, does any more need to be said?
Lawson devotes the rest of his pungent piece to pondering the hypothetical consequences. “But, even if definitive evidence [...] were to emerge, it’s unclear what our reaction should be,” he broods. And soon we’re off to “the mood music of Nazism” composed by Richard Wagner, as well as the recalling of the exploits of a string of alleged and actual pedophiles, including film director Roman Polanski, playwright Joe Orton, Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, and most recently, the late British broadcaster Jimmy Savile.
In the end, Lawson pronounces Vidal guilty — “If Vidal’s published sentences on his sexuality are as precise about words as he liked to be, then he almost certainly did have sexual interests or encounters we now consider unacceptable” — but hesitates to recommend that his books be “metaphorically or literally pulped.” In the name of ever-cautious liberal humanism, Lawson declares, “Faced with a ‘pansexual,’ culture must not become pan-hysterical.” I think this closing pan-mot is meant to be reassuring.
Before getting to Teeman’s In Bed with Gore Vidal, a depressing affair in its own right, let me save you the trouble of unpacking the farrago of rumor, quarter-truths, and slander in this shameful column. First, there is no evidence. Not a scintilla. Lawson’s confection (and Teeman’s, too, it will turn out) is based on a “hint,” from a half-sister who is a litigant in a legal case over Vidal’s will; her half-brother “may have had a secret passion for underage boys” (italics mine). When Teeman asks her if she knew the details of what was in William Buckley’s alleged “sexual dirt file” on Vidal, she replies, “I can guess what they are. Jerry Sandusky acts.” The details about the Thailand travel itineraries were supplied by Vidal’s nephew, Burr Steers, a film director, also a litigant in the squabble over the spoils.
And that’s it for evidence: the unreliable narration of the half-sister trying to get a chunk of Vidal’s estate. Even sex biographer Teeman doubts her story — saying elsewhere that “as far as [the half-sister’s] weird allegation about under-aged sex, maybe dementia runs in the family” — though Lawson doesn’t mention this.
But what about the columnist’s damning remark that “Vidal more or less admitted it himself, writing in his memoir Palimpsest that he was ‘attracted to adolescent males’”? If Lawson (or maybe even Teeman) had read Palimpsest (which I heartily recommend), he would know that the cherry-picked, out-of-context partial remark occurs in a chapter where Vidal is recounting the story of his one true love, Jimmie Trimble, a boy his age. (It’s worth noting that the term “pedophilia” is bandied about with splendid imprecision. It means adults engaging in sexual acts with prepubescent children. There is also the practice of adults engaging in sex with post-pubescent adolescents, which is generally known as pederasty.)
At a boy’s prep school, when they were pubescent adolescents sometime before World War II, Vidal and Trimble had a romance (including sex). Briefly reunited at age 17, just before they went off to their respective fronts, they once more consummated their fleeting relationship. Vidal was stationed aboard a ship in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, while Trimble was shipped off to Iwo Jima, where he died in battle. Vidal honored his side of the love affair ever after, and insisted he had never fallen in love since. In case there are any doubts about Trimble’s beauty, Vidal provides a full-page photo of him (see Vidal, Palimpsest, “The Desire and the Successful Pursuit of the Whole,” p. 25).
In the chapter about Jimmie Trimble, Vidal pertinently discusses ancient Greek love for youths, Plato’s Symposium, and especially Aristophanes’s speech about the “desire and pursuit of the whole” as we seek our “other half.” At least once in his life, Vidal reports, he achieved that wholeness, never to be repeated: “Quite enough, I think, if the real thing has happened. At least, in Platonic terms, I had completed myself once.”
Later in this keynote chapter, Vidal remarks,
I realize that according to the School of Vienna […] I should have become a lifelong pederast. But that did not happen. Naturally, like most men I am attracted to adolescent males — this is, by the way, one of the best-kept secrets of the male lodge […]. But I did not go prowling for fourteen-year-old athletes. After all, if the ideal is the other self, then that self would have had to age along with me, and attraction would have become affection […].
The reasoning may be a bit woolly, but one gets the point. Returned to context, the attraction to adolescent males is hardly a confession of “inappropriate” sexual desires.
As it turned out, initial attraction did turn to affection, and Vidal spent most of his life in a largely sexless but thoroughly satisfying relationship with a lifelong companion, Howard Austen, who died in 2003. In their 53 years together, Vidal (and Austen, too, for that matter) experienced countless encounters of casual sex — which, by definition, Vidal claimed, were not memorable — with male hustlers, who are generally described in the trade as “trade.” Of course, you must know the grubby details. By all reliable accounts, Vidal preferred brief afternoon sexual encounters of anal intercourse with “straight-appearing” male prostitutes, where he was on “top.” Got it? Any more explicit details, and we might as well become lawyers ourselves.
Enough of all this, right? Which brings us to Tim Teeman and his adventures, recounted in In Bed with Gore Vidal. Luckily, the scurrilous underage boys allegations made by interested parties, and inflated by the British press, only occupy a sliver of the book.
We find Teeman, at the outset, in the gathering gloom and ruins of Gore Vidal’s final household, a Spanish Revival pile on Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills — something out of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s 1950 tale of a faded movie star. The ambitious Teeman, accompanied by Vidal’s loyal retainers and hound, is about to rummage through wastebaskets, rifle drawers, and check the dirty laundry hamper, or whatever is the routine of a celebrity sex-biographer.
Teeman admits up front that the salaciously titled In Bed with Gore Vidal “is a book with sexuality at its heart; it is neither a general biography, nor evaluation of Vidal’s writing career.” To Teeman’s credit, he is as good as his word. (For those interested in Vidal’s life, Fred Kaplan’s Gore Vidal: A Biography (1999) will do, as will Palimpsest.) Nor does the modest biographer pass any memorable judgments about Vidal’s literary career. Given its self-imposed limitations, Teeman’s book is, at best, mildly interesting. It hardly rises to “the perfect combination of racy gossip — from steamy celebrity liaisons to hustlers in Rome — and penetrating analysis” that Edmund White’s book blurb proclaims.
It can be said, in Teeman’s favor, that he’s wonderfully energetic and successful in securing the cooperation of Vidal’s friends, associates, relatives, and staff. They’re happy to blab away about the deceased author. The result, expectedly, is a confection of chummy gossip and speculation, both informed and not. Teeman interviews everyone still ambulatory, including literary associates Edmund White, Jay Parini, Dennis Altman, and Jason Epstein; the relatives and retainers, Burr Steers, Nina Straight, the loyal housekeeper Norberto Nierras, and various pals; the old movie star women friends, Claire Bloom, Susan Sarandon, and Joanne Woodward; and a few sundry others. Most of them are able to offer little new by way of gossip, sexual or otherwise.
The most affable and reliable of the witnesses is a self-declared Hollywood pimp and hustler (or former hustler), 89-year-old Scotty Bowers, author of Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. Bowers provides believable chat and a blurb for Teeman’s book. Bowers, who counts Vidal as “a good friend for over sixty years,” assures Teeman and the rest of us that the rumors of dalliances with the underaged would be completely out of character and very unlikely, and he is one of the few people in a position to know such things. Although the subtitle of Teeman’s book includes the term “hustlers,” Bowers is the only representative of the sex industry with a speaking part.
Following the “sexuality at its heart,” Teeman devotes the chapters of his book to various aspects of Vidal’s sexual interests. Teeman speculates whether Jimmie Trimble was really Vidal’s “true love” or simply a “myth” he acted out his entire life. In a chapter headed “A Partner in All But Name,” he picks at the issue of Vidal’s lifelong relationship with Howard Austen, and why Vidal seemed to downplay it, publicly insisting that it was a companionship that worked because it didn’t involve sex. There’s a dutiful tour of the question whether Vidal had sexual relations with women and if he was a legitimate “bisexual,” as he often claimed. (The short answer is that Vidal had lots of legitimate women friends, and no, he didn’t have sex with them.) Finally, in a chapter titled “The Label Game,” Teeman addresses an issue that pervades the whole book: why Vidal not only adamantly refused to be labeled a “homosexual,” but also insisted that there was no such thing as a “homosexual,” only “homosexual” or “same sex” acts.
Most of this is not terribly riveting. On the basis of Vidal’s account of his relationship with Trimble as told in Palimpsest, I’m persuaded that the story is real and that Vidal’s interpretation of it is plausible. Ruminating on whether Vidal turned all this into a sort of personal cult doesn’t yield much, despite Teeman’s diligent probing into the question of “true love.” Teeman might have made a case that Vidal beatified Trimble somewhat in the manner of the German poet Stefan George, whose devotion to a dead adolescent boy called “Maximin” achieved cult proportions, but George isn’t referred to in the book.
Similarly, Teeman’s attempts to parse the lifetime companionship between Vidal and Austen are surprisingly unsatisfying. We learn that Austen ran the estate, thus making it easier for Vidal to write; that he shared Vidal’s taste for hustlers, whether of the Hollywood, Rome, or Bangkok variety; that Vidal “loved” Austen and was permanently devastated by his death in 2003. But Austen as a person doesn’t emerge here very distinctly; rather, he is a constant, slightly fuzzy background presence.
The theoretical question about Vidal’s views on homosexuality, though, is an interesting one. There are a number of practical reasons that Vidal sought to avoid being labeled “homosexual” or “gay.” Partly, it had to do with a time when public labeling of “queers” was nearly as reputation-damaging as the term “pedophile” is today (“queer” was what Vidal’s antagonist William Buckley called him on TV in 1968, but only after Vidal had called Buckley a “crypto-fascist”). But generational “closetedness” doesn’t explain everything; after all, Allen Ginsberg, an exact contemporary of Vidal, more or less invented public homosexuality, and Christopher Isherwood, from an even earlier generation, was delighted to be recognized as a gay icon.
To understand Vidal’s resistance to gay labels, one must consider his class position; he had political and social ambitions for which identification as a homosexual would be inconvenient. He published an early gay novel in 1948, and felt he had been burned by the critical response. In retrospect, he regarded it as an act of near career suicide, from which he was only able to recover after a decade of hard literary labor on Broadway, in Hollywood, and for television.
Further, among the many styles of homosexuality, both before and after the gay movement, two recognizable ones existed in contrast: campy, often effeminate homosexuals, and those who preferred “a man’s world” where homosexual acts were a “normal” outgrowth of passionate friendship. Vidal was repulsed by what he regarded as the self-conscious milieu of “faggots.” He preferred the supposed masculinity of prep schools, military encampments, and hustling scenes. No sisterly cries of “you go, girlfriend!” for him.
Although it’s little remembered now, there was a positive aspect to pre–gay liberation non-labeling: it made it easier to get more or less straight guys into bed. Since the acts weren’t labeled, it was possible to regard them as something that “just happened,” or even, as Vidal preferred to view them, as “natural” expressions of bodily exuberance.
But, above all, Vidal resisted homosexual labeling because he distrusted the rigid binary categories of “straight” and “gay.” His gay novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), appeared the same year as sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Vidal knew Kinsey and agreed with his theory that sexuality manifested itself along a continuum, allowing not only for a greater range of practices but also changes in preference over time. People could be not only straight, gay, and bi, but could also at times — say, during prep school adolescence — be undefined and available, or even just not very interested in the whole thing.
Identity is constructed across a vast range of favored activities, literary and political choices, occupational decisions, even such trivial matters as, say, left-handedness or one’s tastes in wine or cheeses. Vidal thought that focusing identity simply on one of those identifications — sexual preference — was a distortion of self.
The position is philosophically astute, but on this matter Vidal was probably on the wrong side of history. From 1969 on, when “gay liberation” was a movement for social justice in the United States, elevating one’s sexual preference to the forefront of one’s identity made political sense. It was important to be “gay,” or a “gay writer” or “radical gay activist.” After the success of the gay movement in the Western world, such labeling is correspondingly less important among younger generations, and, in some instances, a hindrance to the development of self. Teeman gets most of this, but doing so through an assemblage of speculation and opinion seems hardly the most economical way of addressing the matter.
In Vidal’s more or less last full-length work, Point to Point Navigation (2006), the opening line begins, “As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit […].” The inevitable exit, it turned out, was neither gracious, graceful, or pleasant. Teeman thinks he’s written a book about the sex life of Gore Vidal; in reality, he has written a book about Vidal’s death, a sad story with an unhappy ending. It could have been called, as is one chapter, The Door Marked “Exit.”
While the sex stuff is not especially revelatory, Teeman’s portrait of Vidal’s painful last years and death offers much that outsiders didn’t know. In addition to diabetes and other physical ailments that relegated him to a wheelchair, there is deep alcoholism and encroaching dementia. At the end, what you get is a crabby old man, prone to conspiracy theories, almost constantly drunk, incontinent, devastated by loss, and losing it at every level. I don’t know if Teeman has got it all exactly in focus, but the testimony of the caregivers and other friends is sufficiently harrowing.
Teeman’s account makes one slightly more sympathetic to those contesting Vidal’s will. One of the stories Teeman doesn’t have is exactly how Vidal ended up producing a late will, after the original will, which left everything to Howard Austen, was rendered moot by the latter’s death. It remains unclear why he bequeathed the estate to Harvard University, and just exactly how compos mentis he was at the time. Certainly, Vidal’s Filipino houseman, Norberto Nierras, should have been left with enough to live out his years; the Outpost Drive manse probably should have devolved, as apparently promised, to Vidal’s nephew, Burr Steers, who seems, by his good-natured palaver in the book, a nice enough person. As for the rumor-mongering half-sister, well, that’s what courts are for in our litigious times.
A Gore Vidal exit book would have been a rather different proposition than Tim Teeman’s Gore Vidal sex book. Certainly, Vidal’s sex life is relevant to both his life and his writing, but I think the appropriate place for it is in a “general biography,” where its role would be proportionate to its fluctuating importance. The story Teeman ends up telling probably only deserves a chapter or so.