Tim Teeman, In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master (2013).
I was, as usual, minding my own business, when I stumbled on (or should I say, as when we refer to a seen-too-late pile of doggy-doo, “stepped in”?) a column in the Guardian newspaper a couple of months ago. I had only to read the beginning of the headline, “If the rumours about Gore Vidal are true…” to experience a familiar sinking feeling. Ok, what now? Vidal has already been accused, both while alive and posthumously, of such sins as elitism, snobbishness, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, political incorrectness, general wackiness, and various other mortal and venial transgressions. Obviously, that’s not enough.
Among 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); and his wonderful memoir, Palimpsest (1995). Vidal died a year and a half ago, on July 31, 2012, at age 86, and already, perfectly timed (right between a suitable period of mourning and the moment 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 in the vicinity of the Guardian’s chaotic book pages, and the rest of the heading, which began by wondering if the unspecified rumours about Vidal were true, asked with faux-earnestness, “what does this mean for his work?” The payoff was in the sub-head: “Allegations of paedophilia threaten to destroy the late writer’s reputation. If true, should his books be pulped, or does the Wagner defence apply?” (The “Wagner defence” refers to 19th century composer Richard Wagner whose virulent anti-semitism we are allegedly required to stop our ears against in order to hear his music.) If annual awards were given for journalistic pieces that pack in the most lies, smears, innuendos, and hyperbole in the briefest space, this would be a contender. (Mark Lawson, “If the rumours about Gore Vidal are true…”, The Guardian, Nov. 15, 2013).
Ah, pedophilia. Like unprovoked declarations of patriotism, accusations of pedophilia are among the scoundrels’ last refuge, as Dr. Johnson would be quick to point out were his counsel available today. The brief answer to the fog of rhetorical questions above is: no, there is no evidence of pedophilia in Vidal’s charmingly checkered sexual past; therefore, what the rumours “mean for his work” is, precisely, nothing; and no, the rumours do not “threaten to destroy the late writer’s reputation” since the rumours will soon dissipate, leaving only a faint stink; and finally, Vidal’s work should not be pulped given that the rumours are not true, and even if they were (partially) true, the works should not be pulped. In fact nothing should be pulped, not even E.L. James’s execrable Fifty Shades of Grey, and its infinite epigonoi, both published and forthcoming. However, I’m obliged to supply rudimentary details of Lawson’s allegations, hence wasting more of my (and your) time on trivia, but such is the nature of gossipology.
Lawson warms up to his bit of gossip-mongering by noting that Vidal, in addition to his various literary accomplishments, was a first-rate gossip. “But now, less than 18 months after Vidal passed into history, he is himself subject to the most reputation-destructive scuttlebutt there is: the suggestion that he may have been a paedophile,” intones the columnist. Naturally, Lawson fails to acknowledge his own role in further spreading this “reputation-destructive scuttlebutt,” and so, too, mea culpa, is anyone else commenting on, or even refuting, the scuttlebutt.
The rumour arises, Lawson informs us, “in connection with a new book about Vidal.” (The book and its author are hyperlinked but, somewhat oddly, unnamed in the column. The reference is to U.S.-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 possible “ire of the relatives” left out of the will – let’s flag that for further review.
If we’re short of 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 record, does any more need to be said?
In any case, Lawson doesn’t really have anything more to say about Vidal. He 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,” Lawson broods. And soon we’re off to “the mood music of Nazism” composed by Richard Wagner, as well as the recalling of the exploits (and exploitations) 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, the posthumous revelation of whose sexual crimes against children has stirred up intense emotion in England. (The last, Savile, is probably the only actual pedophile in Lawson’s thumbnail history of pedophilia list.)
It’s probably the current British flap over pedophile Brit broadcasters that has inspired this “news takeout” of alleged pedophilia from Teeman’s tome, which has generated various columns in the British press. Whether journo appetites for this stuff were whetted by publishing publicists or if author Teeman was himself party to the foray into sensationalism is unclear. Teeman, like other fawning scribblers, has been relentlessly co-operative with the media in the course of promoting his “celebrity biography,” but somewhere in the accumulated bumpf he’s also been quoted as saying, “as far as [the half-sister’s] weird allegation about under-aged sex, maybe dementia runs in the family.”
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.
While we can understand similar articles appearing, as they did, in the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, and even the Times of London, what’s this piece of dreck doing in the progressive, left-of-centre Guardian? That’s what many of the paper’s reader-respondents wanted to know, when several hundred of them posted their comments on its website in the wake of Lawson’s column. Even more of them wanted to know where the evidence was that justified Lawson’s pan-hysterical speculations.
Before getting to Tim 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 rumour, quarter-truths, and slander in the shameful Guardian column by reiterating my earlier remarks.
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 about Vidal’s will, that Vidal “may have had a secret passion for underage boys” (italics mine). Actually, the elderly half-sister, Nina Straight, goes further than that. When sex-biographer 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.” Sandusky, for those who don’t keep track of these things, was the former Penn State assistant football coach who made a practice of sexually molesting pre-pubescent boys. He’s now in jail. The details about the Thailand travel itineraries were supplied by Vidal’s nephew, Burr Steers, a film director, and 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. As for Buckley’s file, a litigation file labelled “Vidal legal” (since he and the writer had been engaged in a lengthy and tedious set of mutual defamation suits three or four decades before their respective deaths), according to somebody who actually does know something, Christopher Buckley, the son of the late conservative broadcaster, the file was discarded while cleaning out some of his father’s effects. So, no file, no information even about what kind of file it was, no nuthin’.
Second, the term “pedophilia” (or “paedophilia,” as the Brits like to spell it), is bandied about with splendid imprecision. It means (or ought to mean) adults engaging in sexual acts with pre-pubescent children. There is also the practice of adults engaging in sex with post-pubescent adolescents, which is generally known as pederasty, and is or is not the subject of disapprobation, depending on jurisdiction; in ancient Greece, circa 400 BCE, it apparently wasn’t a problem, but in the contemporary U.S., being found in bed “with a dead girl or a live boy” is still considered a hindrance to a political career. When I was younger, a wise friend advised me not to try to explain the distinction between pedophilia and pederasty when confronted by a lynch mob. If you’re able to remember the difference between “pre-pubescent” (under age 12) and “post-pubescent” (older than age 12-14-16 or whatever your local jurisdiction declares), then you can lay down your pitchforks, coils of ropes, and tar-and-feathering equipment, or apply them to rumour-mongering columnists.
But what about Lawson’s damning remark that “Vidal more or less admitted it himself, writing in his memoir Palimpsest that he was ‘attracted to adolescent males.’” (By the way, Lawson is borrowing this insight directly from Teeman’s book, where it casually appears right after the report of half-sister Nina Straight’s allegations of “Jerry Sandusky acts.”) 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 self-declared one true love, Jimmy Trimble, an agemate at a boy’s prep school with whom Vidal had a romance (including sex) sometime before World War II, when they were pubescent adolescents. Briefly reunited at age 17, just before they both went off their separate ways to serve in the war, they once more consummated their fleeting relationship.
Some time later, Vidal was stationed aboard ship in the Aleutian islands off Alaska, while Jimmy Trimble was shipped off to Iwo Jima in the south Pacific, where he died in battle. Vidal honoured his side of the love affair ever after, and insisted he had never fallen in love since. In case there are any doubts about the attractiveness of the fetching Trimble, Vidal provides a full page photo of Jimmy (see Vidal, Palimpsest, “The Desire and the Successful Pursuit of the Whole,” p. 25). Only those “not all bad” people, to paraphrase W.C. Fields, who hate children, dogs, and beautiful youths will be unmoved by the sight.
In the chapter about Jimmy Trimble, Vidal pertinently rambles on about 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. He adds, “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 14-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 remark is hardly a confession of, as we say today, “inappropriate” sexual desires.
As it turned out, initial attraction indeed turned to affection, and Vidal lived most of his life in a largely sexless but thoroughly satisfying relationship for 53 years with a lifelong companion, Howard Austen, who died in 2003. Inbetween, 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, with Vidal on “top.” Got it? Any more explicit details, and we might as well be in Fifty Shades of Pink, or become lawyers.
So, while I can’t definitively prove Vidal was not a fill-in-the-blank, I can only repeat, one more time, there’s no evidence. Although Vidal, to the dismay of his detractors, doesn’t qualify for the sex offenders’ register, he was perfectly happy to admit that he wasn’t an altogether nice person. As he once put it, “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.”
Enough of all this, right? Which brings us to Tim Teeman and his adventures In Bed with Gore Vidal.
We find Teeman, at the outset, in the gathering gloom and developing 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 equivalent routine of the celebrity sex-biographer.
I should, in fairness, point out that the scurrilous underage boys allegations made by interested parties, and inflated by the British press, only occupy a sliver of his book, and though Teeman is not quick (enough) to dismiss them as unfounded, we can dispense with further comment, having adequately addressed them above. Although Teeman had the option of ignoring such charges, given their insubstantiality, he is, after all, a guy trying to sell books.
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 his credit, Teeman is as good as his word. For those interested in his life, Fred Kaplan’s Gore Vidal: A Biography (1999) will do, as will Vidal’s Palimpsest. Nor does the modest Teeman make 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. The work is published by a New York small press gay label, Magnus Books, an imprint of Riverdale Avenue Books. I read an electronic edition of it, which was marred by more typos, missing words and other evidence of limited editing than any allegedly professional text that I’ve run into in recent years.
Though Teeman is understandably trying to sell books, I’m not quite sure to whom. The sub-genre is “celebrity sex bio,” but since Vidal was not a celebrity on the order of such movie star friends and acquaintances as Paul Newman, Dennis Hopper or Jack Nicholson, there isn’t exactly a fan base waiting to gasp over every shocking detail. Perhaps there’s a gay readership out there just dying to know all, but given the state of gay literacy and the reports of the closing of most gay bookstores, I rather doubt it.
The only people who might be interested in the book are devotees of Gore Vidal (a minuscule contingent, of which I count myself a member), and those people are more likely to be interested in the broader outlines of Vidal’s biography or evaluations of his writing career than in his detailed sexual history. I hasten to add that I’ve absolutely nothing against writing about Vidal’s sex life, and it’s certainly relevant to both his life and his writing, but I think the appropriate place for it is in what Teeman calls a “general biography,” where its role would be proportionate to its fluctuating importance.
It can be said, in Teeman’s favour, 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 there are cameo roles for 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 both believable chat and a blurb for Teeman’s book. It’s Bowers, who counts Vidal as “a good friend for over sixty years,” who assures Teeman and the rest of us that the rumours of dalliances with the underaged would be completely out of character for Vidal, and very unlikely, and Bowers is one of the few people in a position to know such things. Although the sub-title of Teeman’s book includes the term “hustlers,” Bowers is the only representative of the sex work industry with a speaking part.
Teeman believes his book to be one with “sexuality at its heart,” and to that end, there are chapters that speculate on the various aspects of Vidal’s sexual interests. Teeman asks whether Jimmy Trimble was really Vidal’s “true love” or simply a Vidal-generated “myth” whose rituals Vidal acted out his entire life. In a chapter headed “A Partner in All But Name,” Teeman repeatedly picks at the issue of Vidal’s lifelong relationship with Howard Austen, and why Vidal seemed to underplay it and to publicly insist that it was a companionship that worked because it didn’t involve sex.
There are lesser sorties into the pleasures of the hustlers, but as noted, none of them were available for interviews; and there’s a dutiful tour of the question of whether Vidal had sexual relations with women and if he was a legitimate “bisexual,” as he often claimed. The short answer to that question is that Vidal had lots of legitimate women friends, and no, he didn’t have sex with them. Finally, there’s the issue, addressed in a chapter titled “The Label Game,” but it really pervades the whole book, of 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 Jimmy Trimble 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 or myth doesn’t, despite Teeman’s diligent probing into the question of “true love,” yield much. Teeman might have made a case that Vidal beatified Jimmy somewhat in the manner of the German poet Stefan George, whose devotion to a dead adolescent boy called “Maximin” achieved cultic proportions, but George isn’t referred to in the book.
Similarly, Teeman’s attempts to parse the lifetime companionship between Vidal and Howard Austen are surprisingly unsatisfying. We learn that Austen ran the estate, thus making it easier for Vidal to write; that Austen 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, oddly, Austen as a person doesn’t emerge here very distinctly; rather, he remains an ever-present, slightly fuzzy background presence.
The one question of interest is the theoretical one about Vidal’s views on homosexuality. There are a number of practical reasons that Vidal sought to avoid being labeled “homosexual” or “gay.” Partly, it had to do with generational background, when public labeling of “queers” was as shameful and reputation-damaging as the term “pedophile” is today (“queer” was what Vidal’s antagonist William Buckley had called him on TV in 1968, but only after Vidal had called Buckley a “crypto-fascist” or somesuch). However, generational “closetedness” doesn’t explain everything; after all, poet Allen Ginsberg, an exact contemporary of Vidal, pretty much invented public homosexuality, and Christopher Isherwood, from an even earlier generation, was delighted to be recognized as a gay icon.
In the case of Vidal, matters of class and power also come into play in explaining his resistance to gay labels. Vidal had political and social ambitions for which identification as a homosexual would be an inconvenient truth. As well, he had published an early gay novel in 1948, and felt he had been burned by the critical reaction to it, regarding it retrospectively as an act of near career suicide from which he was successfully able to recover only after a decade of hard literary labour on Broadway, in Hollywood and through television.
Further, among the many styles of homosexuality, both before and after the gay movement, two recognizable ones contrasted campy, stereotypically limp-wristed, often effeminate homosexuals with 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” and 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.
Above all, Vidal resisted homosexual labeling simply because he intellectually 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 Behaviour in the Human Male was published. Vidal knew Kinsey and agreed with his theory that rather than binary divisions, 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, bi-, and everything in between, 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 out a vast range of identifications. The identifications include passionate devotion to particular activities, literary and political choices, occupational decisions, even such trivial matters as, say, left-handedness or one’s tastes in wines or cheeses, and yes, such important matters as sexual preference. Vidal thought that focusing identity simply on one of those identifications, such as sexual preference, was a distortion of self.
The position is philosophically astute, but Vidal was probably historically wrong. For the period from 1969 on, when “gay liberation” was a movement for social justice in the U.S., elevating one’s sexual preference identification to the top of the identity priority list made political sense. It was important to be “gay,” or a “gay writer” or “radical gay activist.” After the success of the gay movement, and a shift in terrain to post-gay in the Western world, such labeling, among younger generations, is correspondingly less important 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 culled from his interviews seems hardly the most economical way of addressing the matter.
In Vidal’s 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. Tim Teeman thinks he’s written a book about the sex life of Gore Vidal – his extended title, with its “In Bed With Gore Vidal” and the hustlers, Hollywood, and the “Private World of an American Master” is a perfect storm of prurience and pomposity. In reality, Teeman 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 tells us a great deal about Vidal’s end that most of us who were not intimates didn’t know. In addition to diabetes and other physical ailments that made a wheelchair the octogenarian’s necessary mode of transportation, there is deep alcoholism, and encroaching dementia. At the end, what you get is a crabby old man, increasingly cranky, prone to conspiracy theory beliefs, almost constantly drunk, incontinent, devastated by loss, and losing it at every level. I don’t know if Teeman has got it all precisely in focus, but the testimony of the caregivers and other friends is sufficiently harrowing.
Teeman’s account makes one slightly more sympathetic to the claims of those contesting Vidal’s will. One of the stories Teeman doesn’t nail down is exactly how Vidal ended up producing a late will (the original will, which left everything to Howard Austen, was rendered moot by Austen’s death) that bequeathed the estate to Harvard University, and just exactly how compos mentis (or dementis) he may have been. Certainly, Vidal’s Philippine 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 rumour-mongering half-sister, well, that’s what the 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. The story probably only deserves a chapter or so in a revised and updated general biography by whoever is Vidal’s next full-scale biographer. In any case, the presence of this book is probably best accounted for by the maxim that we must never underestimate the motives of writers and publishers who are trying to sell books.
A briefer version of this essay was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb. 1, 2014. http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/dirty-laundry