LOS ANGELES TIMES
Sunday April 02, 2006
Style & Culture
THE WRITER'S LIFE
The last mystery of Vidal
* A writer steeped in history and remembrance makes his stand in a city of reinvention.
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
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
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
So why not
"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."
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
Why not settle in
"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
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
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
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,
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
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."
VIDAL shares the house with his Filipino cook, Norberto Nierras, while his 23-year-old assistant, Daren, 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, Truthdig.org. 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."
"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
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
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
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,"
"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
"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
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
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