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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.

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

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 California primary) and it forced a change of course. Vidal knew the consequences, he says now; it was a calculated decision, the right decision. "It's probably the only worthwhile thing I ever did in public life," he says. "Assuming that publishing is public life. Which is a great leap."

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 St. Albans School in D.C., and Vidal's first love. "He was an athlete," Vidal says. "Now we think of athletes as just dumb-dumb boys, they're all muscle and no brain. But our athletes, at least of the class we came from, the political class, from Kentucky -- he was from Kentucky -- they were not only body boys, they were brain boys."

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, Exeter, near Boston. Vidal saw Trimble one last time, at a dance in 1942, and they fled the hall together briefly, doing what teenagers in love are apt to do, leaving behind Vidal's fiancee, a young woman named Rosalind. Of course, Vidal never married Rosalind. And Trimble joined the Marines at the height of World War II and was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

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 United States, people would understand this," he says. "For grown people, [sex] is something apart from living with somebody; it's just a disturbance." But people in the States "want total fidelity from the other person, and as much sex as they can get on the side. Preferably in a massage parlor. We are not," he says, turning for emphasis, "regarded as brilliant by other people."

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."

*

The old Hollywood

VIDAL shares the house with his Filipino cook, Norberto Nierras, while his 23-year-old assistant, Daren Simkin, 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.

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