I would have happily sat for hours with Gore Vidal, listening to him talk about everything, from the state of American politics to his various sexual encounters.
Much has been written about Gore Vidal, the man with a mind greater than Voltaire and Noel Coward combined, the author, the essayist, the curmudgeonly old gentleman who could easily rip you a new one if you dared criticise him. But as for his private life, well he gave interviewers glimpses into that, but never revealed too much.
The private life of Gore Vidal is what fascinated journalist and author Tim Teeman. In his illuminating new book In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master, Tim reveals the sexual rollercoaster that was Vidal's life, and how this rollercoaster shaped his views on sex and sexuality in general.
I caught up with Tim to find out more about Gore Vidal's life, away from the spotlight.
Gore Vidal as a young man
Firstly, just what's so fascinating about Gore Vidal?
Where to begin? He was one of the fiercest and most vital intellectual and cultural presences in American public life. He was a maverick and radical, he fought, he was intimidating, he wrote wonderful essays. He shaped the political conversation. He was a left-wing firebrand in primetime. And he knew everyone and had a glamorous, exciting life. He was also very funny. You knew when you'd been Gore-d.
What compelled you to write a book about his private life?
Gore himself. His contention, as a gay man, that there was no such thing as gay people, only gay sexual acts; and during an interview I did with him in 2009 he said, in all seriousness, that he would have married and had nine children if he'd been President. He said he was bisexual, so what did his bisexuality mean to him? He wasn't actively bisexual as an adult; just gay. He also didn't believe in categories of gay and straight. He said he and his partner of 53 years didn't have sex. He said his true love was a boy he'd known in prep school who died in the War. He liked hustlers... all of this - the public and personal - seemed a ripe area of research. Gore was so controlling about the information he divulged himself, I wanted to see what his friends and loved ones felt about some of the things he'd spoken about, and the reality of how he lived that part of his life.
What research went into writing this book?
Naturally I curated what Vidal and his biographers and those who had written about it, said about the subject. But I wanted to uncover fresh information and construct a historically sound and plausible trajectory of his private life. So the mainstay was to interview close family and friends, which I did and at great length and with great candour - I met some amazing people, and I'm not sure they would have spoken so openly, if at all, had Vidal been alive. I also immersed myself in as much of Vidal's archive at Houghton's Library as possible, which was fascinating, and some other archival work too. It was amazing to be able to be in Vidal's home with his nephew Burr Steers. The interviews yielded the most amount of surprising new information - like that he had left his entire fortune and estate to Harvard, that he had had sex with some famous people, that he had loved his partner deeply, that he had a wonderful, fun time sexually as a younger man, his need for control, that his last years had been a pretty rough and ugly rollercoaster. I found old tapes of interviews that hadn't been heard and an old manuscript of Gore's first biographer too. It was fascinating.
Trying to understand Gore Vidal's psyche must have been a very difficult task, do you think you managed it in this book?
It is, and I hope I have been as embracing of Vidal's complexities as possible. My intention wasn't to "understand" his psyche, as much as a journalist to fairly unpack his private life and note its correspondences with his public persona, and sometimes the non-correspondences and contradictions. The book isn't intended to neatly define him, or box him in, because he resolutely refused that. But it does try to understand why he said what he said about sex and sexuality - his own and others.
What have been the responses to your book from the people that knew him?
Very good. His friends have said they think I've got him right. That means a lot. It was meant to be thorough and respectful, and honest. Close friends of his say it hits the mark, and is informed and sensitive. I had a lovely email from one relation after a piece I wrote for The New York Times came out about him leaving everything to Harvard.
Do you think he became trapped in his public persona?
If so, quite willingly. He liked being famous, and at home, off-stage, was very well cared for by Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years, who Vidal rarely spoke about and when he did most memorably said they didn't have sex. He only revealed his love, and grief, after Howard's death in 2003. Somebody said to me his public persona had become a mask that suffocated him. But he seemed to like wearing it. The problem, if there was one, is that he was always "on," so people only very close to him saw his warmer side. Howard's sister Arlyne tells me some lovely stories about him being caring and kind towards Howard's parents and her children.
When did he develop his unique attitude towards sexuality?
He had a very ambivalent attitude - yes, intellectually he was anti-category, but he also personally felt his sexuality had made him famous (The City and The Pillar, 1948, was one of the first modern novels about homosexuality), but he also felt it had also disqualified him from holding public office. He was determined never to let it define him, or let anyone use it to define him. "Gay" in Vidal's formative years meant without power, marginal: he never felt he was or wanted to be seen like that. But as well as these internal agonies, he had a great time sexually with hustlers (and Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson) and a fun, very gay social life with friends like Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams; and close friendships with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Claire Bloom. With Bloom especially, he had a deep, intense friendship which she talked to me about for the book. Vidal said he was bisexual, but as an adult he really wasn't - physically anyway. But perhaps he meant intellectually as much as anything else. He was a funny mix of the bracing philosopher around sexuality - we'd call it "post-gay" now - while also a guy of a certain generation who really didn't want to come out and say "it" for personal reasons.
Do you think his love for his work superseded his love everything and everyone else?
No. He loved Howard, although didn't show him that until too late. He was work-focused, but he had a full life away from the writer's desk. It was less his love of work overshadowing everything else, but more his love of himself. He felt aggrieved at not being appreciated enough, aggrieved at not being President, really he was the classic brilliant person who felt undervalued and appreciated, no matter how many books he sold or adoring fans attended his readings; and no matter how well he was looked after by his devoted partner and cherished by close family and friends, who he would eventually feud with. As those feuds with people like William F. Buckley show, he liked to fight, almost as much as he liked to write.
Why were his final years fraught with such pain?
His drinking spiralled out of all control, dementia took hold of him. He was grief-stricken over Howard as I discovered, and his anger at America and its decline was bitterly felt, as I found when I interviewed him in 2009. He was still in bitingly funny form that day, I should say, and friends describe this too - that, as wont to feud and excommunicate as he was, he could also still be the great, waspish raconteur he was. He could still turn on the public act, and he was a magnetic performer and lightning-quick wit, but these appearances got less and less. He was a warm and kind person too to some, it wasn't all awful. But friends remember his sadness over Howard and really, nearer to his death, things got very ugly indeed - especially for loved ones like his nephew Burr Steers, who's a kind and decent man who loved Gore very much and who Gore accused of being a CIA imposter. The last two chapters chart this decline - it wasn't easy to write, so I have tried to keep it as clearly told and unhistrionic as possible. Obviously by leaving everything to Harvard, as he did, that set up a legal battle I reveal in the book (and in the New York Times recently) - how very like him to leave trouble in his wake.
Finally, what will readers take away after reading your 'In Bed with Gore Vidal'?
I hope they'll be illuminated and intrigued. I hope they like the stories and insights of his loved ones and close friends. I hope they understand the purpose of the book and read it closely. I say right at the outset this is a "sexual biography," so no-one can be surprised by that. There are other biographies written about his work, and his life as a whole, and obviously you cannot detach them from this story either. But I wanted readers to follow me as I tried to understand why sex and sexuality was so important to his life and work and why an understanding of that for us helps us understand him. The book has already been described as "salacious," because of some passages around Vidal and underage sex. Read out of context they can be seen like that and, as a journalist, I understand that. But looking at Gore and underage sex is dealt with extremely carefully in the book, and again I source quotes and speak to people and navigate myself through that part carefully too. And yes, there are some very spicy and juicy sexual stories in the book too. But around that, and the mainstay of the book is, I hope, a colourful, informative and intelligent take on who the sexual and private Vidal was away from the page, told with respect, but also questioning and rigorous. It recognises, indeed celebrates - even when he's at his most contradictory - his complexity. I end quoting Vidal, because his voice is there throughout the book, and what a voice. So I wanted to end, very literally, with his voice - at its most Gore-like.
In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master by Tim Teeman is published by Riverdale Avenue Books/Magnus