THE FANTASTIC MAN
I’d be lying if I said I’d read even 10 percent of what Gore Vidal has written so far. Perhaps the world’s most prolific novelist, historian, critic, TV personality, politician and screenwriter of such classics as Ben-Hur and Spartacus, he’s a downright intimidatingly famous man to meet. He’s the closest thing to an aristocrat in America. Gore has been influential in terms of gay visibility, but in real life he’s anything but a chatty homo-sexual. His recent memoirs, Point to Point Navigation, is a highly entertaining book: hilarious, even bitchy, and often incredibly sensitive, like when he writes about his long-time partner, Howard, who died four years ago. Gore, 81, recently moved back to LA from Italy. We met on a quiet Saturday afternoon.
Gore: What does the name BUTT stand for? Culo?
I feared it. (laughs) Well, santé! Hmm, this bourbon still tastes perfect even though it’s been on my bed stand all night. I always go to bed with a full glass, but I never drink it. It’s just to know it’s there.
I love your home.
Howard and I got it 40 years ago. Do you want to see more of it? You should walk over to the dining room.
This ceiling is pretty amazing for a living room.
It was a ceiling in a palace in Naples, and when the palace fell down somebody had the sense to go in and save the paintings. I had it on the wall in a long corridor in our house in Ravello, but I don’t have big walls here. That’s why it’s on the ceiling. Which is where it started out anyway.
So your house in Ravello was even bigger?
Yes. Bigger rooms, too. But I actually don’t mind this, because now I get to look at the pictures.
Did you purchase all this art, or did you inherit some of it from your family.
There’s a little stained-glass piece behind you from Kaspar Vidall from 1535 — that’s a really old family piece. Other than that, I bought everything. I wouldn’t say my family had great taste in art. My grandfather was blind. He was a big reader. I had to read to him from when I was six years old until I was 17, when I went into the army.
That must have been a tough education for a six-year-old boy.
Well, it definitely taught you how to read. I had to figure out how to do it phonetically at six. My grandfather was in the Senate, so I had to read the Congressional Record, which did set the teeth a bit on the edge. I was probably the only seven year old in the world who understood bimetallism.
Could you have cared less?
I thought it was fascinating, because a lot of history was being made by my grandfather and others at that time. I’d go down with him to the Capitol and I’d lead him onto the floor of the Senate and I’d meet all the senators. One summer day my grandmother sent me down with Davis, the driver, to pick up my grandfather and bring him home. It was hot — equatorial — and I was wearing a bathing suit. Those were the days before air conditioning. So I walked onto the floor of the Senate and I said, ‘Grandmother wants you home.’ The Vice President of the United States at the time, John Nance Garner, from Texas, came over to us and said, ‘Senator, this boy is NAKED!’ (laughs) Grandfather, who couldn’t see me, felt my arm and so he realized that I in fact was in a bathing suit. We flew up the aisle!
Was he embarrassed?
I don’t think he was ever embarrassed. But it surely wasn’t done…
…being picked up by a naked boy.
His mind didn’t go along lines like that.
Anyway it makes sense that your blind grandfather didn’t have a big art collection.
No need for that. But my mother was a great decorator. She had two or three mansions at the time when she was Mrs. Auchincloss, ’cause after divorcing my father she’d married a wealthy man, Hugh Auchincloss. Unhappy marriage. Two children. She had natural good taste, which is quite extraordinary, since most Americans don’t have it. They don’t have any examples of how things should look.
Well, one thing that strikes me about Los Angeles is that people have an obsession with beautiful houses.
Well, yes, if they’re in ‘the business’, as it’s known, then they’re quite used to beautiful houses and interiors. Like, David Geffen bought Jack Warner’s old house. I used to go there a lot when Jack Warner was there. It was grand! Like a stage set. It was in fact a stage set, ’cause it was all put together by the art department at Warner Bros. Jack would see something in his movies and he’d say, ‘I like that, do it for me.’
You mention somewhere in your new memoirs that you should have focused more on film work, no? Since film was the medium of the 20th century.
No, I just said that to my generation films were nice and exciting. It was the golden age of the movies. I don’t feel I’ve made much of a contribution myself, nor did I want to. I was writing books. You don’t know what mess it is to make a movie. And every year it gets worse. Television didn’t help the business. So, no, I have no regrets about not making more movies. Actually, I’d rather have been an actor than write movies.
Would you’ve been a good actor?
Haven’t you seen me? Well, the good American movies don’t get to Europe, I think. There’s one called Bob Roberts, made by Tim Robbins, who wrote and directed it and appeared in it. I play a sort of ineffectual New Deal senator. I enjoyed that. When Howard died, the first thing I did was go on Broadway, which I’d never done before. I was in a play about a blacklisted writer. We played it for several weeks. I find, when things go wrong, when somebody dies, it’s good to go to work and get busy. A wonderful therapy. It’s totally relaxing to be out of yourself. That’s the joy of acting. I remember Laurence Olivier saying, after somebody had been talking about the theatre-in-the-round as a place where you can’t lie and you can’t cheat, Olivier said, ‘Well, then I’m out of the business.’ (laughs)
In your bathroom I saw the framed poster of you running for Congress. Or was it for the Senate?
I did both.
Talking about lying and cheating — I feel like you’ve always been delightfully outspoken and you’ve never been very good at hiding your opinions. Whereas successful politicians are always great masters at hiding what they really mean or think.
I was always honest.
Don’t you think that’s a no-no for a politician?
I did get a lot of votes so I must have done something right. When I ran for Senate there were nine candidates in the field and I came in at no. 2 with half a million votes and no money. I just went out and talked to people. I still do that. I still draw the biggest crowds of anybody on the circuit. I’ve just been to Cuba. That was quite exciting. And I was in China recently. Dazzling country. Beautiful architecture, as opposed to American architecture, which is hideous.
But right now the debate is all about if a woman or a black man could be the president. I mean, if that’s already a question, how easy could it have been for a gay man to actually make it into Congress or the Senate in the 1960s?
You know, I never talked about my private life, and I rarely wrote about it.
So you would never call yourself a gay politician? Or a gay writer?
I would never characterize myself. Nothing is applicable to me. Nor is it to anybody else.
I’m asking because I do consider you one of the more influential homosexuals…
I don’t even think about the subject. Never. Well, when I see something in the newspaper about gay marriage, I’ll read it because I’m curious what are the new forms of homophobia, and how the Republicans are using it. I’m only interested in it from a political standpoint. Private lives should be no business of the State. The State is bad enough as it is. It cannot educate or medicate or feed the people; it cannot do anything but kill the people. No State like that do we want prying into our private lives. That’s the thing with gay marriage — it implies that the government has all the powers that it likes to have, and it can regulate who we have sex with, how we do it, how many times. I don’t think that’s any of the government’s business. I’m willing to accept that marriage is a religious ceremony, like it’s always been. And if you’re not getting married for religious reasons, you’re on your own.
Although it makes sense to let people inherit their loved one’s possessions and pensions and stuff.
Oh, yes, I think so. I mean, my god, I think I paid a million dollars when Howard died. A million dollars! And I don’t have many of those. It’s just silly to give it to a fascist government that spends it on wars.
I was fascinated by what you wrote about Howard — it was very loving and tender, yet never very intimate or…
Those are about the only personal things I wrote. How we lived together for 53 years and that we never had sex.
Well, yes, that’s an interesting one. It’s extraordinary, no?
For god’s sake, no! Most people seem to think that you pair off with somebody because you want to have sex. Well, I don’t want to pair off with anybody just for sex! If you want sex, you can go out and buy it!
A lot of people do pair off to have sex.
Yes, and that’s why they have horrible lives. Half of all the marriages in the United States ends in divorce. And I’m speaking of heterosexuals here. If there’d be homosexual marriage they’d be splitting up even more, so what’s the point?
Did you feel like you found your ideal brother or companion in Howard then?
I wasn’t looking for any ‘ideals’. As Montaigne said, ‘Since I cannot cover others, I shall cover myself.’ And that’s my general view of the world.
What actually struck me most in your book is when you wrote that you and Howard wouldn’t even kiss each other on the lips…
…and that’s why our relationship worked. I have demonstrated it. But nobody likes my example.
It’s almost like the way old royalty would pursue marriage. Not for lust but for the sake of companionship.
Yes, there’s that aspect. You know, for the lower classes, boy/girl stuff, it’s all about mating and making babies. Why would two men bother doing that? They’re not going to make babies anyway. And one can have an intense relationship anyway without making babies. Like Howard and I. There were so many things that I did badly that he did very well. You balance each other.
What was he very good at?
Business. Languages. He learned Italian in about five minutes whereas I was still speaking a horrible dialect after 40 years.
Your latest book is very personal, but it’s true that you don’t write about sexual relationships, if you had them, or…
No, I didn’t care to write that down. I don’t care really learning about others people’s relationships either. Unless it’s comical. I come from a world in which you’re encouraged not to babble about yourself. Which is a very American trade now, to babble. They do nothing but babble.
Americans are so good at it.
Or they’re so awful at it. Now that I’m very, very old, I know other 80-year-old men and women who are still talking about problems they had with their lovers 60 or 70 years ago. It’s insane. As if a) it was interesting to anybody but themselves and b) something had to be worked out still. I think we have been completely infantilized and that’s what a government like ours would want to do anyway. They’ve made babies of us. They tell us only nonsense, and Americans buy a lot of lies. They’re quite apt at buying lies, I think.
That’s what the media thrives on: silly gossip, FOX news’ lies, and whether Britney Spears shaved off her hair or not, and why, and…
Well, anybody could see that she shaved it off. It wasn’t a nice cranium.
Do you prefer to stay away from gossip?
Everybody likes a bit of gossip to some point, as long as it’s gossip with some point to it. That’s why I like history. History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true. I’m just about to get ready to work on my book on the Mexican War.
Somebody once suggested that the wonderful half-gossipy anthropological gay sex magazine Straight To Hell ran a lot of anonymous contributions by big-name writers like you.
Why would I do that?
I don’t know. Maybe because you liked the magazine and it turned you on to write for it?
Well, it was a lively magazine, that’s for sure. It opened up a world that one otherwise wouldn’t know much about. I bet a lot of it was made up by the editor, though.
Did you know Boyd McDonald, the old editor?
I think I did. We weren’t in contact much but he knew I liked his work. I always read it. It was a bold magazine! He said the sort of things that most people were thinking. It was fun to read. I remember somebody describing a meeting with the comedian Bob Hope in Straight To Hell. I’m sure it was totally libelous, but it was fun to read.
You’ve written about how your parents had a bad marriage — is that where your general opposition to the institution comes from?
I think that’s where a lot of it started. When I looked at my mother, who was really one of the few people in my life that I hated, I thought, ‘Dear god, it’s marriage that is the culprit.’
That’s quite something, to hate one’s mother.
Well, I adored my father. There he is, in that picture over there. The dark-haired guy. He was the greatest athlete in the history of American universities. Got a silver medal in the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920. A wonderful person. We knew each other for 43 years, we agreed on nothing and we never quarreled. Only men can do this. Women can’t.
Do you believe in the theory of homosexuality through upbringing? Like, your mother turned you off of women for good?
No, but I was definitely put off by the whole notion of marriage. My mother married three times. Once there was this event for me, and for some reason I couldn’t keep her away from it. There she was, and somebody from the press asked her if she planned to marry a fourth time. She said, ‘My first husband had three balls, the second had two balls, the third had one ball. Even I know enough to play it safe.’ (laughs) You know, she had an interesting side too…
How could your father have three balls? That’s kind of strange.
We’re strange people, the Romansh. We’re a separate race all by ourselves. We’re not Italians, not Swiss, we’re Romansh, high up there in the Swiss Alps, put there by Tiberius. I went to Sent not too long ago, a beautiful town just south of St. Moritz. There was a party for me with about eight hundred Vidals. We have a language that only 38 thousand people on earth speak. We’re so tiny, we might have genital defects. That’s part of being inbred in the mountains.
You never got yourself a nice little holiday house there?
Sure, in Klosters. I loved it there in spring and summer, and to kill off Christmas, which is a horror in Italy.
You’re very funny about the Catholic side of Italy in your book. The part about the corpse of Pope Pius XII exploding in the summer heat made me scream with laughter.
And the Swiss guards fainted! They passed out from the smell. I must say, I liked the Jesuits, and they liked me. I had a whole group of Jesuit students in Rome who used to come over regularly. They loved Julian, that book of mine on that apostate emperor.
Wasn’t ancient Rome quite a faggy society?
Nobody ever thought of such a thing. Humans were just sexual beings. They just did it. Which is the way I always did it. The whole idea of divisions and groups, where one group does this and the other does that, it’s insane! I think it took the Americans to really make a fetish out of everything. ‘I like potatoes. Do you like rice? Oh my god, I don’t want to see you again!’
Are the Americans to blame for that segregation?
In fact, I think it’s the Brits who are to blame. The British upper class fucked everything that they wanted to fuck and they fucked up the whole class system, which I think is a shame.
Do you long for a new relationship after your very long relationship with Howard?
Well, you don’t put an ad in the paper, do you?
Some people do.
Ha ha! And they get what they deserve! I’ve heard terrible stories. No, I have relationships with so many people anyway. The thing about getting old is, I have less and less people to talk to on the telephone. People like Barbara Epstein of the New York Review of Books, we’d call every day for about 30 years. We’d talk about everything from literature to politics. She had a horrible cancer death.
Does death scare you?
No. Death can’t be worse than the period before I was born, and I remember nothing unpleasant about that. We just go back to where we came from.
You don’t believe in a hereafter?
Oh no! That’s an absurd notion that only a bunch of devil monkeys could have thought out. Listen, since you’re Dutch, couldn’t you examine for fun the Dutch influence on the USA? New York was a Dutch city. These days there’s a boy on American TV, Anderson Cooper, whose mother is Gloria Vanderbilt. And our greatest president, Roosevelt, was a Dutchman. Mrs. Roosevelt, who was my neighbor on the Hudson River, told me about how Queen Juliana of the Netherlands came to stay with her. The Queen had this crazy medium woman with her that had séances with dead people. Mrs. Roosevelt would be asked to join the séances. She was shocked! She told the Queen, ‘We’re going to be dead for such a long time, I see no reason to talk to them yet.’ (laughs)
Do you feel like you’ve been loved and admired enough in your life?
I’ve never given it a thought. I’m only interested in what I think about something. I love to analyze things, but I don’t think about what people think of me. What others think is their problem and I’m not taking on anybody else’s problems.
Do you think you’ll live to see 100 years?
I hope not. It’s been more than enough already.
Yes. Are you here by car?
Let me call my assistant to tell him that Mr. Culo needs a taxi.