What did you set out to accomplish when you took on the task of writing about a literary lion’s personal life?
I had interviewed Vidal in 2009 for The London Times, where I worked as a writer and editor for 15 years. I said he could have been America’s first gay President. He said, seriously, “No, I would have married and had nine children.” So, I was already fascinated by the gay man who didn’t believe in gay people only gay sexual acts, who said he was bisexual when he really wasn’t. Yet he was also a radical, maverick, fighter, and oddly never in the closet. He was such a bundle of contradictions, in private and public, around his sexuality. I wanted to unpack those. It genuinely isn’t intended to be disrespectful and salacious: all the questions emerge from Vidal himself. I set out to address them, and maybe answer a few.
Read the rest of the interview at: blogs.wsj.com.
From Amazon readers' reviews of Teeman's book:
From Sam Neal "East Coast Reader":
This is a fascinating, scrupulously detailed and brilliantly researched biography of one of the most intriguing and, at times, inscrutable American writers of the past century. What is most surprising is just what a fun "read" it is, filled with fresh, juicy gossip and often hilarious anecdotes, many of which can not be found in any other work -- short and book-length -- on Vidal. I'm amazed this is Teeman's first book. I can't wait to read his next one.
From Bob Baublitz "Bob":
I really enjoyed Tim Teeman's "In Bed with Gore Vidal." Not only was it fun and gossipy, which I enjoy, as apparently did Gore, but it also is an in depth analysis of his "hang ups" about his sexual orientation which were part of his generation. Having come just behind him (he was born the same year as my mother) I can understand better his views. Having come from a prep school environment as did he also helped me to understand some of his attitudes. While I appreciated much of what he believed (I don't think I learned anything in college that helped me in my later career) it was the beginning of the end of his life I understood very well. He died like most of my old friends in dementia. His was induced by alcoholism, theirs by AIDS, but the end result is the same. Teeman's treatment of Gore's progressive deterioration after the death of his life partner was sensitively described. That this is what led to his end is the dichotomy that ties the whole book together. What tortures we put ourselves through only to discover we are mere mortals after all.
I found Mr. Teeman's book to be extremely interesting, and, in many ways quite sad. The theme is clearly about becoming entrapped in an artificial public persona and not being able to break out of the self-created shell, no matter how false it becomes over time. I like the way that Mr. Teeman lets Vidal's relatives, friends, acquaintances and occasional enemies talk in their own voices and leaves it up to the reader to sort out their often conflicting stories. One thing is quite clear, Gore Vidal lied a lot about his feelings, sex life and relationships.
Photo: Gore Vidal,1964. Everett Collection
The thing that remains in many people's minds if they have heard of Howard Austen, Gore Vidal's partner of 53 years, is Vidal's contention that the key to their relationship was not having sex. Vidal also claimed that he didn't believe in gay people, just gay sexual acts. And so, speaking about Austen as a partner or husband was out of his ken completely. And yet Austen kept the Vidal train on the tracks, meaning that the Master could write and bestride the world's cultural stage. He was a dedicated spouse and one of the few people who could prick the balloon of Vidal's pomposity.
More at www.huffingtonpost.com
The actress Susan Sarandon, a friend of Vidal's for many years, recalls that together the men seemed "like an old married couple," adding, "Howard took care of real life." She, her then-partner Tim Robbins and their children spent a lot of time at La Rondinaia, Vidal and Austen's home on the Amalfi coast that Vidal purchased in 1972. "[Howard] spoke better Italian than Gore, took care of the house," she says. Out at dinner, after a few drinks, Vidal would say, "Go ahead, Howard, sing," Sarandon recalls. "He would sing, a cappella, something bluesy. Gore would gaze at him proudly and lovingly."
Image: Howard Austen and Gore Vidal at their home in Ravello, Italy.
Gore Vidal left his entire $37 million estate to Harvard.Vidal was proud of having been self-educated following his years in prep school and he was dismissive and scolding relative to academics, but that doesn't mean he wasn't sensitive about not having a degree. That he would leave his papers to Harvard would be entirely consistent with his character, but to leave his entire estate, which would include the proceeds of his book sales, to an institution that doesn't need it may well have been a decision born of the dementia that overtook him late in life.
Is it possible that he did it to ingratiate himself with Harvard in the hopes they'd name a chair after him or something similar? Very doubtful, especially given that it's easy enough to make a bequest conditional upon doing such a thing--the bequest then funds the chair, or center, or seminar, or award, or whatever.
It seems more likely that Vidal would have willed his estate it to The Nation before he'd will it to Harvard.
In terms of family and friends, I think it entirely consistent for him to not will his estate to family. Friends, maybe, the rare family member who was a friend first, like Burr Steers, maybe. Vidal's advice about family was famously, "Get out as soon as you can." He had an alcoholic disaster of a mother and a non-relationship with his father, and he grew distant from his siblingings including Jackie Kennedy.
I commend Burr Steers for dealing with this so philosophically. It can't be easy.
As far as Nina Straight's weird allegation about under-aged sex, maybe dementia runs in the family. If Vidal was a fetishist about anything sexual it would almost certainly have been heterosexuality, not extreme youth and certainly not pre-pubescent youth. Jack Kerouac was supposedly more Vidal's style, and the all-American athlete is the closest thing to a type that exists in his writings, assuming we dare read the autobiographical so strongly into his fictional works.
“It was unsettling, dealing with Gore with dementia,” Mr. Steers said. “It was like having him replaced, and someone very different take his place. He let go of everything. He ceased to be Gore.”
Mr. Steers said Mr. Vidal, in his original will, left everything to Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years who died in 2003, then amended it in 2011, awarding it to Harvard. A few paintings were bequeathed to the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. At about that time Mr. Vidal also bought a house in the south of France.
As we approach what would have been Gore Vidal's 88th birthday on October 3, 2013, it's interesting to be reminded that Vidal was once, of course, young and highly impressionable...as well as deeply human at every stage of life. This year saw the revelation by Kim Krizan in A Cafe in Space: The Anais Nin Literary Journal, Volume 10, that Gore Vidal, when still in his early 20's and relatively recently returned from service in the Second World War, proposed sexless marriage to Anais Nin and mis-characterized the matter in his first memoir Palimpsest.
Kim Krizan offers a version of her analysis on The Huffington Post.
Nin never accepted Vidal's offer of a sexless partnership and their once-vivid closeness dissolved into hostility: Gore Vidal's. Nin became bewildered by his growing resentment and her diary reports she asked him, "Why do you splatter venom on me?"
The reason was most likely his mother. Vidal had been abandoned by the woman when he was a boy and some believe her continued hurtful treatment of him further broke his heart. Anais Nin was a most glamorous replacement for a faithless mother: maternal, beautiful, infinitely interested - but doomed to repeat Vidal's abandonment for a second agonizing time.
Forty years later, nearly twenty years after Nin's death, Vidal wrote a memoir he called Palimpsest [in which he] accuses her of being a "chickenhawk" whose "hope" to have an affair with him turned into "a chagrin d'amour" that eventually became a "fureur," leaving the impression Nin had loved Vidal unrequitedly.
In her article, Krizan includes the content of an unpublished letter Vidal wrote to Nin in 1947. It is an interesting and valuable find relative to the controversial Vidal-Nin relationship
For more on that relationship, which in its early stages--and presumably only then--included Vidal's defense of Nin against harsh literary criticism, visit The Anais Nin Blog.
Photo: Vidal and Nin in c. 1946.
"What was compelling for me," says director Nicholas Wrathall, "is his ability to speak truth to power, to analyze motivations, to understand why people do things."
Vidal existed mostly in a time of monopoly newspapers and three television networks but was never black-and-white. Instead--with Buckley and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote--he became the intellectual as celebrity, an anti-Zelig always in the foreground of events.
Here's an example. The actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and their families were visiting Vidal at his Italian villa, where he spent most of his time. Vidal said some friends were coming over for dinner--his friends Sting and Bruce Springsteen and their wives. Perhaps you've heard of them.
The moveable feast never really ended, not even when's Vidal's partner in a proudly nonsexual relationship, Howard Austen, passed away. Even when he was wheeled around in a wheelchair at the end of his life, Vidal always stood read to fire away, which he did with glee that knew no atrophy.
Never was that more evident than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the criticism that stoked Wrathall's documentary interest.
"He was one of the voices in the wilderness in the rush into war," Wrathall, 47, says now.
Vidal railed against the national amnesia: our vestigial inability to embrace the obvious lessons of the pass, particularly the lust for empire at the point of a gun.
"'Amnesia' is something Gore says in the film," Wrathall recalls. "He's written essays about it. We don't learn from our mistakes. We go around and make the same mistakes again. That comes out in the film. All through his life he's been so far hear of his time, warning us of imperialism throughout the ages, like Vietnam and Iraq."
Vidal saw nothing conspiratorial about our mistakes because the players on the stage were strutting about in the open. You might even say the Iraq War worked out perfectly for the amorphous cash-sucking beast President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, called "the military-industrial complex" in his farewell address of 1960.
That night, when I went to bed, I took with me Vidal’s 1981 historical novel, Creation, his very under-rated tale of the classical world told from the point of view of an elderly, blind Persian ambassador to Athens, whose adventures and memories include encounters with Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius. Vidal was not exactly shy about doing virtuoso turns. I wanted to re-read a chapter or two in memory of its late author, and as on previous occasions I found the story and bravura writing as satisfying as ever. As I nodded off, I put the book not on the bedside table, but on the empty pillow next to mine, indulging in the terribly sentimental conceit that perhaps the book would be a little less lonely tonight, given that from now on it had to make its way in the world without its deceased scribe. As far as I know, that’s the only time I’ve slept with Mr. Vidal.
The first page of Gore Vidal’s FBI file, released by the Bureau after his death a year ago on July 31, is not about his political activism, his critique of the National Security State or even about his homosexuality. The first page, from 1960, says he made disparaging remarks about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The problem: Vidal’s play The Best Man (a satire of Washington politics with characters loosely based on real political figures) had just opened on Broadway, and the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the New York City office sent a memo to Cartha DeLoach, Hoover’s right-hand man, informing him that the play contained “an unnecessary, quite unfunny and certainly unfair jibe at J. Edgar Hoover”—according to a show-biz columnist for a daily newspaper reported.
One for one and none for all.
- summing up Ayn Rand's worldview, Esquire. July, 1961
This is not at all bad, except as prose.
- on a paragraph by Herman Wouk
He's a magnum of chloroform.
- on Hugh D. Auchincloss, Gore Vidal's and Jacqueline Lee "Jackie" Bouvier Kennedy's stepfather; 1979 interview in Views From a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal (ed. Robert J. Stanton), 1980
Robert STANTON: [Y]ou once said something...about your first sexual experience. Do you recall it?
Gore VIDAL: Yes, I was asked if my first sexual experience was homosexual of heterosexual. I said I was too polite to ask.
- Ibid.; referencing a televised interview with David Frost; also quoted in the Sunday Times Magazine, September 16, 1973
These books are a great deal harder to read than they were to write.
- on Sufi spiritualist writer Idries Shah
Without ever saying so, Vidal also manages to suggest that everything is political, though in a very different, non-postmodern sense. The clarity and elegance of his prose, for example, make a political point: that a critic with public purposes has rhetorical obligations, above all transparency. More generally, to a sufficiently sensitive and knowledgeable critic, everything will appear intelligent or unintelligent, skillful or shoddy, graceful or graceless, truthful or mendacious. In each of these pairs, the latter is--not immediately, perhaps, but ultimately, in some measure--a threat to our common life, our res publica. Intellectual virtues are civic virtues; intellectual vices leave the citizens vulnerable to superstition and demagoguery. There is, of course, no more sense in trying to legislate the intellectual virtues than the moral ones. But one can propagate intellectual virtue, first of all by example. This is Vidal's abiding contribution to American politics.
The prevailing American superstitions are: one, there is a Supreme Being, omnipotent and benevolent; two, some sexual predilections are more natural than others; and three, there is no class system in the United States. No one who denies any of these things can be elected to high office. As a patriot, Vidal naturally has no patience with this affront to our civic intelligence. Some of his most memorable onslaughts on our national delusions are included in Selected Essays.
Read more via www.thenation.com
Gore Vidal has known, or at any rate met, nearly everyone of literary, political or cinematic note during his lifetime. A great many of his essays feature anecdotes, always charming and often revealing, about his personal encounters with his subjects: Tennessee Williams, Dawn Powell, Christopher Isherwood, Norman Mailer, Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino, Amelia Earhart, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, the Roosevelts, Luces, Kennedys, Reagans and Gores among them.
Read more at: www.thenation.comScialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament (forthcoming), both from Pressed Wafer.