Departure Lounge

As Gore settled back into the Hollywood Hills for his “Cedars-Sinai years” in “life’s departure lounge,” he managed to keep writing. Snapshots in History’s Glare is a collection of photographs, letters, movie stills, and other memorabilia from his personal archives, strung together with his reflections (and photo-edited by AIR MAIL’s Ann Schneider). Many of the photographs had been taken by Howard, who’d intended to publish his own collection before he died. “I have now gone through them,” Gore wrote in his introduction to the book, “and as a memorial to him, I am now publishing them.” It would be his final work.

I’d kept in regular touch with him and offered to help promote the book by interviewing him for Vanity Fair. (He’d written for the magazine in the late 90s and early aughts.) He agreed, and we set a date and time to do the interview. When I rang him at the appointed hour, he was miles into the Macallan. We exchanged our usual greetings, then he abruptly announced that the Secret Service had just left. I assumed it was the scotch talking.

A few days earlier, he’d gone on CNN. Host Joy Behar reminded him that he’d once said his greatest achievement in life was not killing anyone. She asked, “You have anybody in mind right now?”

“No, I won’t name names.”

But after the discussion careened toward former president George W. Bush, Gore blurted out, “That’s one murder that I missed not committing.”

I still wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg as he continued describing the Secret Service visit to me. “The doorbell rings. It’s two young detectives, exquisitely clad in the latest Brooks Brothers suits. They pay them a lot better now than they did in my day. I’m lying in bed wearing a T-shirt that says, Veterans Against the War. I thought I was being renditioned right then and there.”

“What did they say?,” I asked.

A president George W. Bush doll that Vidal kept in his home in the Hollywood Hills.

“They said, ‘We’ve heard from people that you were speaking in favor of killing President Bush.’ They knew that I was a potential assassin. I could see their poor little boyish hands trembling. Here they were up against Lee Harvey Oswald, who for some reason did not speak with a Russian accent. But they know we masters of crime can imitate thousands. In fact I sound just like Gore Vidal, don’t I?”

It was the first time I thought maybe he’d passed some point of no return, like a vintage probe crossing the heliopause and sailing off into interstellar space. Attempting to get him back on course—any course—I suggested we play a “names game” instead, whereby I would give him a name and he would give me “the first one word, ten words, or hundred words” that came to mind. “It’s called the non-interview,” he shot back, “given by lazy interviewers.”

The first name was Eleanor Roosevelt: “A wonderful old granny.” Then Andy Warhol: “A genius with an I.Q. of about 20.” Mick Jagger: “More intelligent than most showbiz people.” Federico Fellini: “He put his name on [Roma] because the Italians steal everything not nailed down.” Truman Capote: “He’s now in a better world.” Bernie Madoff: “Love him. He’s merciless.” Homer Simpson: “A great American.”

A few days after the interview was posted on Vanity Fair’s Web site, Gore’s agent called me. It was only the second time in the decade I’d known Gore that he was so angry at me he’d deputized a messenger instead of calling me himself.

“He’s livid,” his agent imparted. “He says you did a hatchet job on him.”

“How on earth could a Q&A be a hatchet job?,” I countered.

“I don’t know, but he’s very upset. He wants Vanity Fair to take it down.” I said I’d ask but never did.

A year passed without our speaking. I was afraid to call him. A mutual friend kept me posted, at one point informing me that Gore had said he was still angry over the Q&A and that I didn’t “understand fame.” I’m still not exactly sure what he meant by that remark. As for the Secret Service visit, “I’m very clear on this incident,” says Gore’s then assistant and caretaker, Fabian Bouthillette, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant. “I was the one who answered the door for the agents.” Bouthillette issued only one correction to Gore’s account of the visit: “I was the one wearing the Veterans Against the War T-shirt, not Gore.”

I wondered if I might be doomed to the fate of poor Fred Kaplan, Gore’s pre-posthumous “authorized” print biographer, whose book came out in 1999. Kaplan opened Gore Vidal: A Biography with “I prefer my subjects dead.” We’d soon find out why.

When I rang him at the appointed hour, he was miles into the Macallan.

There’s no doubt Kaplan did his homework, yet many of the reviews were brutal. “This extremely long biography … drowns in encyclopedic detail” is how Publishers Weekly summarized Kaplan’s effort. “Vidal seems entombed within the pages of the book.” The Guardian was even more unsparing. “The fact that the witty, vain, self-protective Vidal authorized this book will seem like a brilliant practical joke.”

Gore was furious. Before the book came out, he’d retained formidable New York legal eagle Marty Garbus, after Kaplan refused to share the manuscript with him, which Kaplan was under no legal obligation to do. But what peeved Gore the most was Kaplan’s mining of Gore’s sex life for insight. “He was interested in my sex life, about which he knew nothing other than what little I had written in Palimpsest,” Gore later complained, adding that “I’ve not read his book other than an occasional passage.”

Working out in his villa, La Rondinaia, in Ravello, Italy, in 1974.

“The true scholar-squirrel, of course, must itemize everything sold in the shop,” Gore had once written in a letter to The New York Review of Books during a dustup with a trio of eminent Lincoln scholars. He’d used this particular derogatory hyphenate many times in our conversations over the years, referring to the “academic careerist who mindlessly gathers little facts for professional reasons.” Unfortunately for Kaplan, he fit perfectly into Gore’s “scholar-squirrel” mold.

Kaplan attempted to rebut Gore’s version of events in a lengthy piece in Lingua Franca a year after the book came out. Among other indignities, he recounted one particularly robust outburst on the part of his subject. “On about the fifth day, when I asked whether a certain relationship had involved sex, he exploded: ‘Can’t you get it through your head that these were commonplace, unimportant things, just sex! Nobody cared. Kaplan, you’re never going to understand me!”

One can only imagine, then, what Gore’s reaction would have been to Tim Teeman’s book In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master, which came out the year after Gore died and dispensed such sensational morsels as the time Gore told a friend he’d fucked Midnight Express star Brad Davis “on the bathroom floor of the Chateau Marmont.” The book riled up the gay chattering classes, and Teeman rode the media wave as resident expert on the subject of Gore Vidal’s sex life.

“Although [Gore] says he never performed oral sex,” Teeman wrote in the book, “he once told a friend of the longtime friend quoted here that he had done it once and ‘it didn’t work out’ and he never did it again.” The “friend of the longtime friend” is me. I’ll spare you, dear readers, the lubricious details, other than that the setting was Paris in the late 1940s and the recipient was a “pale boy” with a prodigious output. I never considered this or any of Gore’s many other sexual-conquest revelations anything more than locker-room talk, and I wasn’t sure why anyone would want to try to find deeper meaning in them.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Teeman laid into Gore as “an old-school closet case” who “hated fags [and] gays who were gay.” I never understood the closet-case charge often leveled against Gore. How could the man who wrote The City and the Pillar—in 1948, mind you, decades before Teeman or I was born—which is considered to be one of the first openly gay American novels and included sufficient autobiographical clues to out its 23-year-old author, possibly be a closet case? Or who publicly bragged about having had sex with a thousand guys before he reached the age of 25? Or who went on CBS in 1967, challenging his homophobic interviewer with the assertion that “it is as natural to be a homosexual as it is to be a heterosexual,” akin to the “difference between having brown eyes or blue eyes”? Or who was called a “queer” on live TV in 1968 in front of 10 million viewers by a menacing William F. Buckley Jr. (“I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered”) and laughed it off without ever issuing a denial? But not without issuing a retaliation: “I’ve always tried to treat Buckley like the great lady that he is,” Gore told a reporter the day after the exchange.

As for Fred Kaplan, he would get his revenge two days after Gore died, in an op-ed/obit for CNN, in which he catalogued Gore’s “appalling, almost other-worldly weaknesses,” among them “coldness, narcissism, pomposity.” And, beating the dead horse, “Vidal was vain and delighted in his physical good looks until he lost them” and “went to fat farms to work off dozens of pounds before doing a book tour.”

A mutual friend kept me posted, at one point informing me that Gore had said he was still angry over the Q&A and that I didn’t “understand fame.”

Tim Teeman put a slightly more generous spin on his roundup: “[Gore] was so himself, so contrary, so unwavering,” he told the Huffington Post. “You could argue there is absolutely something exemplary and heroic about that.”

Final Reproach

The last time Fabian Bouthillette saw Gore “truly happy” was during a visit to the Macallan estate, in Craigellachie, Scotland, in early 2010. Gore was wheeled around the distillery during a specially arranged tour, “grinning ear to ear the whole time,” recalls Bouthillette. To top it off, they were invited to stay in the estate’s 310-year-old Easter Elchies House, described by the distillery as “The Spiritual Home of The Macallan,” where Gore, Bouthillette, and their host spent the night sampling “almost every vintage of every Macallan ever made.... Gore was having the time of his life.”

The Macallan-estate visit was the prelude to what would turn out to be a disastrous European farewell tour—involving stops in Istanbul, Ravello, the Czech Republic, and the South of France, where Gore had bought a crumbling old villa, and culminating in allegations of kidnapping and extrajudicial rendition.

Living the dream: Vidal at work on a balcony of La Rondinaia, 1979.

Bouthillette vividly remembers the moment things started to go terribly wrong. They were staying at the Czech castle of an old friend of Gore’s, Diana Phipps Sternberg. “Gore called her the Countess of Bohemia,” says Bouthillette, “but I’m not sure if that was her real title.”

One evening, Gore abruptly announced he wanted to go back home to L.A. Bouthillette tried to explain that they would have to return to France first to close up the villa and gather their belongings, not to mention secure three first-class plane tickets, but Gore was having none of it. “He looked me square in the eye and demanded that we leave immediately,” recalls Bouthillette. “That was the last time I saw him clearheaded.”

As they were crossing the border into France, nearing the end of a 15-hour drive—after a tense overnight stop in Germany—Gore awoke in the back seat and asked why they weren’t in L.A. already. Bouthillette again tried to explain that they had to stop at the villa before catching their flight. “Drive us home right now!,” Gore demanded. “Gore, we can’t drive across the Atlantic Ocean,” Bouthillette, exasperated and exhausted, replied.

Later that night at the villa, Gore called the police to report that he had been kidnapped. But “no one showed up, so I guess they didn’t believe him,” recalls Bouthillette. Finally, the next day, they were able to get a flight back to L.A. “It wasn’t a pleasant flight for anyone in first class.”

“The alcohol got too much and ravaged his beautiful mind,” Gore’s friend Patty Dryden would later tell the Daily Beast. Not long after Gore landed back in the Hollywood Hills, he was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, better known as “wet brain,” whose symptoms include confusion and hallucinations.

Gore eventually forgave my “hatchet job,” and we resumed our occasional phone chats. Among other topics covered, he was insistent that I “take over” a new documentary about him that had recently gone into production—only to grind to a halt after Gore accused its director of blackmail. I told Gore I’d already produced a perfectly fine documentary about him and wasn’t inclined to step into such a messy situation. But I promised I’d see what I could do.

As time went on, it was increasingly difficult to carry on any conversation with him at all. “I’ve forgotten where I am,” or “I’ve just gone totally blank,” he’d say, before drifting off into long silences.

He’d had the painting of Jimmie Trimble hung above the staircase so he could gaze at it while he rode the stairlift up to bed. “Gore was on a planet all his own,” his friend and onetime literary executor, Jay Parini, later put it. “Gore loved this country so much and was literally heartbroken over what happened to it,” says Bouthillette, “how the Founding Fathers’ principles have been so betrayed.”

Vidal sizes up William F. Buckley Jr. during their coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

“Gore’s neglected person and lapsed hygiene bordered on that of a street person in the last few years of his life,” his half-sister, Nina Straight, wrote in Vanity Fair six months after he died. The hospital visits had become more frequent, more dire. But he kept right on drinking. Nina recalled how Gore “had a bottle of Macallan scotch by his bedside even as the hospital staff tried valiantly to rehydrate him.”

It was after one such hospital stay that I would have my final words with Gore. When I heard that his beloved orange male tabby cat, Baby, had died, I called to offer my condolences. Gore’s nurse, Ernie, answered, reporting that they’d just returned from Cedars-Sinai and Gore was dehydrated and unable to speak. Ernie offered to convey my message. “Please tell Gore that I have just procured an orange male tabby of my own and have named him ‘Baby Junior’ in honor of Baby.” I could hear Ernie relaying my words. When he got back on the phone, he was ecstatic: “He smiled! He hasn’t smiled in months!”

First Howard, then Baby the cat, would prove too much to bear. Six months later, Gore died of complications from pneumonia—his liver somehow faithfully serving its master to the end—in an adjustable bed that had been set up for him in the living room so he could have a view of the grove of towering palm trees outside.

Not long after Gore landed back in the Hollywood Hills he was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, better known as “wet brain,” whose symptoms include confusion and hallucinations.

Not surprisingly, Gore did not go gently into the good night. As his dementia worsened, he alienated and excommunicated many longtime friends and allies, at one point even accusing his nephew Burr of being a C.I.A. impostor. Shortly before he died, he amended his will, bequeathing his entire $37 million estate to Harvard University, a stinging snub to his blood relatives, especially Nina and Burr, who’d looked after Gore during his decline and to whom he had promised the Hollywood Hills house.

Nina promptly sued the Gore Vidal Revocable Trust and its trustee, Gore’s cousin Andrew Auchincloss, claiming Gore was mentally incompetent when he revised the will and that he still owed her the give-or-take million dollars in legal fees she’d fronted him during his libel skirmish with longtime nemesis William F. Buckley Jr. in 1972. “The Harvard bequest mystifies Ms. Straight and Mr. Steers and many of the author’s closest friends,” Tim Teeman wrote in The New York Times after the suit was filed, “but it is also vintage Vidal: an appropriately ornery final salvo from a master contrarian.”

Why not endow a trust for emerging writers? Or donate his estate to the A.C.L.U.? Or, better yet, to the American Foundation for the Blind? After all, Gore’s maternal grandfather, Oklahoma senator T. P. Gore, was blind. As a young boy, Vidal would read to the senator for hours on end, everything from poetry to the Congressional Record. “He was my education,” Vidal said of his grandfather.

In his office in Ravello, with his beloved tabby, Baby.

I never found the Harvard bequest mystifying, in light of all the available clues. “I was supposed to go to Harvard,” Gore told Fag Rag magazine in 1974, but “what was the point of going into another institution when I had already written my first novel?” Nevertheless, to the end, he remained insecure about having never graduated from college, and Harvard represented the halcyon archetype of a college.

He was delighted when Harvard invited him to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures in 1992, an experience he called “quite a treat.” He wore his Harvard varsity letterman jacket everywhere, even to non–Harvard University seminars. “I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard,” he ribbed an audience at the University of Southern California in 2006, adding, “I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.” (The movie was With Honors, starring Joe Pesci and Brendan Fraser, and terrible though it was, Gore reveled in the role of the pompous Professor Pitkannan.)

His Harvard bequest would finally get him the endowed chair in the ivory tower—scholar among scholars—he so craved. Gore wanted more than anything to be taken seriously as a historian, by historians. Which is why he was so angry at us for including Arthur Schlesinger’s sound bite pegging him as “more a popular entertainer than a serious commentator” who’s “very much enslaved by certain prejudices.” But the fact that Schlesinger had agreed to be in the documentary at all was legitimization enough.

The Education of Gore Vidal presented Gore’s version of American history to the vast TV audience he also craved. It featured a formidable lineup of pre-eminent historians and literary critics as well as a supporting cast of Gore’s closest Hollywood chums—including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins—reading passages from his historical novels. The twin pillars of Gore’s canon were Washington and Hollywood, and the documentary neatly tied them together in a Technicolor bow. This, I can only imagine, is why he never turned on me, even at the bitter end.

At the precise intersection of Washington and Hollywood is also where Norman Lear once greeted Gore—interrupting an exchange Gore and James Carville were having about who was going to fetch whose martini from the bar—with a hearty slap on the back, accompanied by “Well, if it isn’t the original hard-crusted softy!”

From left, Vidal, Howard Austen, Earl McGrath, Carrie Fisher, Ahmet Ertegun, and David Hockney, photographed by Jonathan Becker at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 2003.

The occasion was the 2000 Democratic National Convention, where Gore’s distant cousin Al would soon pick up the nomination, and the setting was the Los Angeles home of Dee Dee Myers and Todd S. Purdum. For some reason, Dee Dee and Todd had agreed to let us roam the party with a camera crew, our first official shoot. Gore was stunned silent by his old pal Norman’s affront. He looked wounded and confused. “There is no warm, lovable person inside,” he’d often said of himself. “Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you’ll find only cold water.”

A softy? No, sir!

People often ask me these days what I think Gore would have made of America’s current state of affairs. My answer is that he had predicted it all along. “In many ways, this has been the most interesting election of my lifetime,” Gore wrote in an essay for GQ in November 1992, “because, unexpectedly, the people at large have become aware that the political system functions no better than the economic one, and they are beginning to suspect, for the first time, that the two are the same. When this awful connection is made, we will be seeing many more [Ross] Perots and [David] Dukes and worse, if possible, crawling out from under the flat rocks of the republic as the tremors grow more violent.” Cue the QAnon Trump mob.

It would be almost four years after his death before Gore’s ashes would join Howard’s in the “yellowy earth” of Section E, Lot 293½, at Rock Creek Cemetery. Once again, no one seemed quite sure how the remains—this time Gore’s—had traveled from the Hollywood Hills to Washington, D.C. “How the ashes made it from Los Angeles to Rock Creek Cemetery,” wrote Gore’s friend Kitty Kelley in The New Yorker, “is a mystery.”

Matt Kapp is the Research and Legal Editor for AIR MAIL