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The last mystery of Vidal

A writer steeped in history and remembrance makes his stand in a city of reinvention.

April 02, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

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 Italy overlooking the Amalfi Coast -- not far from where the sirens sang, and Odysseus sailed on -- and returned to his sometime home in Los Angeles to live out the rest of his life.

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 Rome, he has said and written, but he does not by any means love Los Angeles. A writer lives in his head, he says, and so place is mostly immaterial. But then a writer is also human and hardly oblivious to his context.

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 Rome] is a trip indeed."

So why not Rome? Or London, where he buys most of his books from Heywood Hill?

"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."

*

Old wounds

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 Washington, D.C., estate that his grandfather built at Rock Creek Park, where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood, his "true home." When at Rock Creek, Vidal's gentle eyes stood in for his blind grandfather's useless ones. Reticent no more, Vidal enthuses -- but slowly, with aristocratic poise -- about reading the Congressional Record aloud to the grandfather he idolized. These are good memories, and warm.

Why not settle in Washington, then? The Malaysian ambassador has moved into the old Rock Creek house, sure, but there are other estates nearby.

"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 Washington and hold office. Vidal knew this as he wrapped his arm around his grandfather and his grandfather leaned proudly upon his cane and the flashbulbs popped. But now Vidal is a year older than his grandfather ever was, and he's a long way from the capital.

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