Inside Gore Vidal’s Cliffside Palace of Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity
The Daily Beast
July 22, 2017
The painting had once hung above Gore Vidal’s bed at his home, La Rondinaia, in Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi coast. And later, the painting was the last thing Vidal would look at, at night, as he took an electronic chair-lift to the top of his staircase of his Hollywood Hills home.
The picture was of Jimmie Trimble, whom Vidal claimed was his great love. His family and friends were not convinced, but there the picture was of Trimble (who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945), at his most boyish, holding a sailboat.
Variety reported Friday that Kevin Spacey was to star in a Netflix biopic, Gore, about Vidal, set both in Rome—where the production is currently filming—and at La Rondinaia, the home Vidal loved which stands carved dramatically into the cliffs above Ravello. The movie will be directed by Michael Hoffman.
The six-bedroom, seven-bathroom, 10,500-square-foot property was bought by Vidal in 1972, and somewhere he and his partner of 53 years, Howard Austen, lived and entertained many celebrities and public figures over the years. Austen died in 2003, and Vidal in 2012.
In 2013, when I wrote my book about Vidal’s private life and his complex views of sexuality, In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master, La Rondinaia stood in disrepair. Before selling it, its owners had been struggling to unite on a plan to renovate the property into a luxury rental. In 2015, it was put up for sale. (In 2004 Vidal had sold the property to a group, including a local hotelier, for a reported $18 million.)
The pool, once the site of Vidal’s lavish parties and suppers, was—my friend and researcher Liza Foreman observed—filled with dead fish. Abandoned sun chairs lay by the side of the pool.
Inside, the house looked like a building site. The cavernous entranceway with its wide stairwell was filled with bags of work materials. A tiled kitchen stood in disrepair. Wires and work tools were scattered throughout.
Vidal’s room with its old yellow and brown tiles was stacked with small wooden furniture Vidal left behind. Other rooms contained old books and photos and odds and ends left when he returned to Los Angeles.
Upstairs, much of Vidal’s office remained intact, with rows of wooden bookshelves still containing his literature and an old wooden desk and typewriter in the center facing the wall and not the ocean. A picture of Jimmie Trimble still sat on Vidal’s desk.
What happened in Ravello. at this dramatic home Vidal became so well-known for inhabiting, encapsulated the wider narrative of Vidal’s private and public life—the writing, the celebrity, the sex, and the depth of his relationship with his longtime partner Austen.
Christopher Hitchens referred to Vidal as the “Pope of Ravello,” and that, Vidal’s former Vanity Fair editor and good friend Matt Tyrnauer told me, “very much described him: the appreciative would come and kiss the ring.”
Perched in the cliffs, the multilevel property, built around 1930, was nicknamed “the birds’ nest.” Vidal’s former editor, Jason Epstein, recalled to me you would sit and have your breakfast on the terrace and watch planes going between Naples and Salerno fly beneath you.
Vidal and Austen always had separate bedrooms and “separate interests” sexually, Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers told me, but they were affectionate with one another, even if “Italy was all about the guys,” the hustlers and young men both Vidal and Austen enjoyed on their own and in orgies.
Steers and I spoke in the living room of Vidal’s home in the Hollywood Hills, where he moved to after La Rondinaia’s stairs became too much for the wheelchair-bound writer to negotiate.
In Vidal’s Hollywood living room were pictures of Edgewater, his former house in Dutchess County, upstate New York, and on the ceiling paintings by Paolo de Matteis, an 18th-century Baroque painter, which Vidal had hung in La Rondinaia.
One louche-looking, barely-clothed maiden, arms wantonly outstretched in the de Matteis painting, was described by Vidal in the image of one of his most famous house-guests: “Princess Margaret asking for another gin and tonic.”
Princess Margaret, Mick Jagger, Hillary Clinton, Susan Sarandon, Imelda Marcos…
“Gore and Howard had a lifestyle that was the envy of all of us,” said photographer Michael Childers, the surviving partner of John Schlesinger.
At Vidal’s Edgewater home were Sunday literary salons with guests like Saul Bellow. When a magazine asked Vidal to interview then-British Prime Minister John Major, he huffed that John Major should interview him. Imelda Marcos had once crashed one of Vidal’s parties in Ravello, he told his majordomo Norberto Nierras.
In Ravello, Mick and Bianca Jagger were among the guests. Vidal’s housesitter in Ravello, Donald Gislason, recalled the actor Woody Harrelson as a regular visitor and “Norman Mailer being on the phone. Princess Margaret’s room had a bathroom so big you could have a banquet in there.”
Gislason said Vidal was “very aware of money… He said Woody [Harrelson] made two million dollars a year in royalties from Cheers.
Gore would get faxes about his royalties and rights. Along with his intellectual sense came a certain amount of interest in wealth. He was keen to make clear he was part of the ruling class too. ‘You know, the family has been owed a president for some time now,’ he said. He expected the Gores to be in that league.”
Having power and being in its orbit remained important to Vidal throughout his life, from his relationship to the Kennedys in the years before and during Camelot, to Hillary Clinton visiting him in Ravello in 1994. Vidal was gleeful afterwards, recalled the author Dennis Altman. “It showed he still had power and control. He was still a force.”
Vidal once wrote to a friend that Clinton “was braced but edgy. Uncommonly bright with a dry sense of humor that, as a woman and politician, she dares not show the world.”
One of Vidal’s most glamorous female friends was Princess Margaret: they spent a lot of time together, exchanged letters and—according to one guest of Vidal’s in Ravello who requested anonymity, when speaking to me—“he sent her out on a boat with a young Italian guy with a big cock and she came back very satisfied. For Gore, being a host meant providing young men if necessary.”
The actress Susan Sarandon, a good friend of Vidal’s for many years, told me about first meeting Vidal over 40 years ago when she made her Broadway debut as Tricia Nixon in his play An Evening With Richard Nixon. His birthday, October 3, was the day before hers.
“He was involved in a lot of debates around Cambodia around that time,” Sarandon told me. “I really got to know him when I stayed at La Rondinaia. He loved people showing up to have a good time. I was never supposed to get pregnant by Eva’s father [Franco Amurri, the Italian film director, producer and writer]. It was a miracle.
“I did my pregnancy test at La Rondinaia. Gore was the first one to find out. He said, ‘Well, of course you’ll give your baby neuroses. The only important thing is that they’re productive.’ Later he told people I had conceived Eva by the pool.”
Sarandon, her then-husband Tim Robbins and their children spent a lot of time at La Rondinaia. “Howard spoke better Italian than Gore, took care of the house. When we went out for dinner, after a few drinks, Gore would say, ‘Go ahead, Howard, sing.’ And he would sing, a cappella, something bluesy. Gore would gaze at him proudly and lovingly.”
“Gore was very tolerant of children,” said Sarandon. “He was the godfather of our youngest, Miles, who he felt a special connection to. He said he saw him as the reincarnation of Jimmie Trimble.” Was that a little spooky, I ask. “I thought it was great he felt that way,” Sarandon said. “It was a real kinship: I would send Gore things Miles had written or music he had made.”
In his memoir Palimpsest, Vidal recalls getting to know Rudolph Nureyev when he moved to an island off the coast around Positano, near Ravello, and would visit Vidal at La Rondinaia to “let his AIDS-wasted body collapse beside the pool.”
On his last visit, the August before he died, Nureyev ruminated on the big cock of a fellow dancer, Vidal noting “the upper body has begun to waste away, but the lower is still unaffected, legs powerful, and the feet—for a dancer—not too misshapen, no hammertoes.”
In a second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, Vidal writes of a doctor coming regularly to “change” Nureyev’s blood. “When this happened, he would be full of energy for a few weeks.” He would dance and “sweated like a horse.”
Nureyev would strip off and swim in Vidal and Austen’s pool, then drink wine and watch TV. At La Rondinaia, Vidal showed Sean Strub, the founder of Poz magazine, the telescope he had trained on the chaise longue next to Nureyev’s swimming pool at Gallo Lungo, an island once owned by the ballet dancer off the Amalfi coast, where he liked to sunbathe nude. “He referred to how large Nureyev’s penis was,” recalled Strub to me.
Nureyev hated being seen as a Russian defector, he told Vidal. “I get out only to dance more. Is frozen there, the great dance companies. So I left.”
He also rejected criticism of not being open about having AIDS. “If I do, I cannot reenter U.S. Law says no one with such a disease can be allowed in. So I must be silent.”
Bidding farewell at the gate of La Rondinaia, Vidal made a sign of the cross over Nureyev’s chest. Nureyev bowed gravely and died soon after.
Togetherness: Gore Vidal and Howard Austen
The geography of Vidal’s house in Ravello was telling. There were five levels and terraces; Gore’s grand room, in the early years, was at the top and Howard’s “below stairs” at the bottom.
Later, Gore moved below stairs, one room away from Howard. Vidal even kept his membership card to the Everard Baths—where he and Austen had met in 1950—hanging, framed, in his Ravello bathroom.
Jason Epstein, saw Vidal and Austen’s relationship as “a marriage, but it was so peculiar. He set up Howard up so virginally as the man he didn’t have sex with while he had sex with so many other people.
“The outside of that relationship was very cool, but inside it was very heated. Howard took care of everything, Gore would blame him if an airplane was late, but they loved each other. They could quarrel and it wouldn’t make a difference.”
Vidal’s bibliographer and good friend Steven Abbott saw a different side of the Vidal-Austen relationship when he and his partner stayed in Ravello in 2001: opening their mail one day, Vidal and Austen had been sent a box of chocolates.
“Howard said, ‘What do you think the motive of sending us these was?’ The only power Howard seemed to have in the relationship was in the day-to-day running of the house and the imagined motives of people who they thought had more to gain from Gore than Gore did from them.”
When Abbott was preparing a book of laudatory quotes for a birthday of Vidal’s, Austen said he would help but begged Abbott not to tell Vidal, “because he may not approve.” Abbott says, “I remember thinking, ‘After all this time, he’s scared of Gore.’”
Or was he? Matt Tyrnauer, says, “Howard was willing to put up with it because I think he really loved Gore, and I think he knew Gore loved him and he felt Gore was a great man and there was a price you pay for being around greatness and I think he was willing to pay that price. They were a family.”
Austen referred to their life together as “family life,” said Tyrnauer. “When you were invited to lunch in Ravello and it was a simple meal, pasta and a salad, Austen would say, ‘We are not eating fancy, because you’re family.’” Vidal “clearly liked this kind of chatter. If he disapproved, it would have been voiced, with acid.”
Sarandon recalled that Vidal and Austen together seemed “like an old married couple. Howard took care of real life, did all the heavy lifting.”
For other friends, the relationship remained a mystery. Vidal’s friend, the former beefcake model Richard Harrison, “didn’t understand, never in a million years” Austen and Vidal’s relationship. He didn’t think Austen’s IQ “much over one hundred…he had a typical whiny New York voice, it drove me nuts and could never understand how Gore could bear to be with him longer than five minutes.”
Once in Ravello, Harrison recalled Austen telling him Princess Margaret was coming over, but she never arrived: when she heard Vidal wasn’t there, and only Austen, she cancelled her plans.
Harrison asked Austen how he had met Vidal and said Austen replied, “I was trying to be a singer. I was broke and I met him because he had money.”
In Ravello once, Harrison overheard Vidal on the phone to Austen, “and it was all ‘OK, coochy coochy baby baby lovey lovey.’ That was very unusual to hear Gore like that. In all the years I knew him I never saw him hug Howard, nothing physical. Gore wasn’t a hugger.”
Austen was a wonderful crooner, recalled Jason Epstein, singing old Cole Porter songs. “Gore’s arrangement with Howard was very domestic, it was a long-term marriage with a strict division of labor.”
Sean Strub, who also saw the couple in Ravello, said, “I got the impression that Gore was very protective and appreciative of Howard. I’m not saying that the reverse isn’t true, I’m sure it was, but what I observed was surprising to me because I kind of expected Howard to be more overtly protective of Gore, maybe even in some sort of gatekeeper role.
“But that wasn’t the case. Howard wasn’t deferential or secondary, and Gore was very solicitous and caring towards Howard. They were very much equals from what I witnessed.”
On one visit to La Rondinaia, accompanied by John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Strub remembers Vidal telling him not to use the toilet, because the flush would wake Austen.
In his memoir, Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival, Strub relates that Vidal told him to piss out of the window instead, “gesturing toward the French doors in his library that faced the Gulf of Salerno. As I stood on the small, wrought-iron Juliet balcony outside the window, John joined me and unzipped.
“Then Gore came over and the three of us stood shoulder-to-shoulder, peeing over the balcony into a dark night sky, our urine splashing on a skylight on the villa’s lower level roof.”
Other of Vidal’s friends said he asked guests to do the same on his patio in the Hollywood Hills; one wondered if “it was just so he could see your dick.”
“I think Gore and Howard had a shared sex life, but as in all things, Gore was boss and Howard the facilitator,” Matt Tyrnauer told me. “It was an open relationship in which they relied upon what they referred to as ‘trade.’ I heard the word from Howard mostly: in Ravello he would point to some of the locals and say, ‘He’s trade, he’s not trade.’”
In his book Defying Gravity, Dennis Altman described how Vidal advised him to procure Italian men in Rome and the Amalfi Coast and reward them appropriately.
“I first learned the rules of commercial sex from Gore Vidal in Italy,” Altman writes. On the beach near La Rondinaia, Altman “had met two young men who seemed interested, as most Southern boys are, in a little adventure. Through Gore’s assistance, appropriate arrangements were made and the men and I went off to their rooms in town for the evening.
“On Gore’s advice a small financial incentive was offered, more it seemed to reassure them that they were really not faggots than for any other reason. At the time it seemed to me that one of the men was clearly interested in doing it for more than just the money.”
From Rome To Ravello
As Gore the movie seems set to bring to life, before Ravello came Vidal’s revels in Rome.
Vidal and Austen settled there in the early 1960s so that they could have access to the library at the American Academy, where Vidal researched his bestselling novel Julian (1964). In that period, mid-“Dolce Vita,” Rome was embracing the glamorous, bustling café society popularized by Federico Fellini’s classic 1960 film of the same name; Vidal later appeared in Fellini’s 1972 film, Roma.
The city “was a very good place to meet really attractive young guys willing to do anything. That was another big point of the Rome move,” Matt Tyrnauer told me. “The other city contender had been Athens, which they decided was too ugly. Gore had been humiliated by Bobby Kennedy at the White House, and things were deteriorating in his relationship with Jackie Kennedy. He’d lost his race for Congress in 1960. Capote was literary king of New York and Gore could not abide that.”
Cruising for sex in Rome was “the best it could have been for them,” a longtime friend told me. “It was exactly their speed: up, down and everything.” Vidal and Austen would go to the Pincio [a hill near the center of Rome] where the hustlers gathered back then.
They had a Jaguar convertible, which was immediately surrounded by young men, the longtime friend of the couple told me. “Italians are very innocent and sincere to this day and obviously, besides seeing these rich guys, they’d want to talk about the car. Then Gore and Howard would pick which boys they liked. I asked Gore what his line was and he said, ‘I’d try, “You’re the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen” and see how that works.’”
Vidal once asked Sean Strub, “Do you know what the difference is between American boys and Italian boys? Italian boys have dirty feet but clean assholes, while American boys have clean feet but dirty assholes.”
He also repeated to Strub his contention that “he had sex with hustlers in the afternoon, so in the evening he could focus on conversation rather than cruising.”
The couple would take one or two young men to the penthouse at the ‘Via de Torre, 21 Argentina’ where they lived. The sex, the friend says, was conducted separately.
Vidal’s type was “basically a straight masculine guy.” In his memoir Palimpsest, Vidal says he was only sexually active, that he was never passive. That was certainly the impression he wanted you to have. Although he says he never performed oral sex, 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. Austen was known to take Polaroids of some of the young men they met in Rome.
In 1961, Vidal said Rome was “a sexual paradise…every evening hundreds of boys converged on the Pincio in order to make arrangements with interested parties.”
At night in Rome, Vidal and his friends would go to nightclubs like 84 and the Pipistrello, recalls Bernie Woolf who met him in Rome in 1960. “They were laughingly called nightclubs, not gay, but popular with glamorous rich gay people,” says Woolf.
Vidal would eat and drink at Harry’s Bar, Tullio’s, Campo dé Fiore, Nino’s (“the best food I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Vidal once said; the T-bone steaks a particular favorite), and the downstairs bar at what was the Flora Hotel. Female prostitutes, and the “fancier” male prostitutes, would parade down the Veneto.
The literary critic Richard Poirier, a friend of Vidal’s, told Fred Kaplan that Italian gay life was “very seductive. It was sort of older to younger brother, and in the sixties it still wasn’t that easy for a young Italian guy to sleep with a young woman, a young girl. He may have wanted to get married but didn’t have much money.
“This sex for money and favors was sort of a common thing to do… And you’d meet very, very sweet boys. The other advantage of it was that you didn’t need to cruise, that is, you knew where these guys were and you got to know them and they’d introduce you to others, so you’d have a whole social life.
“That was perfect for Gore, and he liked the types, the Italian boys who were available, as I did. In a sense, whenever we went out, we’d be looking at good-looking people… In Rome it was the practice to take the boys back to the apartment.
“He’d pay them and give them clothes. They were very sweet. A few times I’d be sitting out in the front room with Howard. Gore would come in with someone and introduce him. One time he was passing through with someone I had met before and said to me, ‘Say goodbye to Antonio.’”
The theater director David Schweizer visited Vidal and Austen in Rome in 1971, three years after Vidal had published his scandalous bestseller Myra Breckinridge and the year after his autobiographical novel, Two Sisters, came out. Schweizer was a twenty-year-old Yale student and the lover of Tennessee Williams, who he had met on spring break in Key West.
Williams invited Schweizer on a European trip, taking in readings at poetry festivals; Schweizer found people surprised he “had a brain” and wasn’t just some pretty boy-toy.
In Rome, Schweizer “could tell the stakes were getting higher” when Williams “pimped me out” to Rudolph Nureyev. “Tennessee retired from the ring briefly and wanted to hear all about it. Nureyev and I had sex: there was a tragic neediness and loneliness about him.”
Williams said they were to “spend a certain amount of time with Gore and that awful Howard.” Austen had a “dry, undercutting humor” that Schewizer didn’t find charming. Schweizer recalls the taxi bumping along the teeming streets to Vidal’s house.
Vidal had recently written the film adaptation of Williams’s “horrible” play Last of the Mobile Hot Shots. In the taxi, Schweizer recalls, Williams “was babbling, ‘I don’t know if I have the strength for Gore. You know he’s so full of himself. Baby, you know he can’t write—he could never write.’”
Williams’s relationship with Vidal was rooted in deep affection, despite occasional squalls and rivalries. Palimpsest features some delicious scenes, such as Vidal turning up alone in Cambridge to visit a gloomy E.M. Forster, without Williams (“I do not choose to lunch with old gentlemen with urine-stained flies”), much to Forster’s disappointment.
When Schweizer met Vidal for the first time at his home, “My first impression of Gore was standing at the top of his stairs, peering down. I’m a small, compact man and my impression of him was of a giant. He seemed so tall: big chest, long legs, so handsome and so deft. Dazzling.”
Schweizer first properly spoke to Vidal at a supper at an outdoor restaurant, where the sex chatter was “who was a top or bottom, a little cock or big cock. Gore took a liking to me, it wasn’t sexual. I was so used to everyone coming on to me sexually and he did not.
“He was intrigued why someone as smart as me would drag around Europe with Tennessee (who he nicknamed ‘the Bird’). ‘How are you faring with the Bird?’ ‘How’s it going with the Bird?’ ‘Watch your step.’” Schweizer asked why. “Just…he can turn,” said Vidal. “I don’t think you’re protected. Protect yourself.”
Schweizer thought Vidal was just “being bitchy but I found him incredibly compelling and so handsome. He was manly and had a deep voice and kept himself very well. I would have snuck out in the afternoon and thrown myself on him in a second.”
His attitude towards sex fascinated Schweizer who, even coming out at a “wildly promiscuous” time, still believed in a “romantic taint” to homosexuality. Vidal was far more “clinical, he lined people up and had sex with them every day.”
Vidal invited Schewizer to have tea in the afternoons, where his tone was “brusque, tough love.”
“We would talk politics and suddenly Gore would say, ‘Now it’s time for my afternoon…’ and some gorgeous young man would walk in. ‘David, this is Gabriel’, he would introduce us, then say I could stay and talk to Howard or see them later for supper. It was almost like clockwork. They were very high quality trade, extra presentable, their beauty was aristocratic and some were American. Gore insisted it was paid-for sex.”
Schweizer asked him why.
“That’s the way I want it.”
But why, Schweizer persisted.
“It becomes only itself. It is what it is,” Vidal replied, meaning, says Schweizer, ‘“It’s a service, it’s an activity, I am pleasured and someone is rewarded.’ It was very important for him to keep it at that level.”
So intriguing were Vidal’s contradictions and persona around sex, Schweizer one day asked him to explain his private life and desires. The young men he hired seemed very handsome, Schweizer said to Vidal.
“Yes, of course, they have to be,” said Vidal.
In Palimpsest, Vidal writes that Italian “trade has never had much interest in the character, aspirations, or desires of those to whom they rent their ass.”
“Do you ever get involved with any of them?” Schweizer asked him.
“No, why would I?” Vidal replied, aghast.
“It would be hard for me not to,” said Schweizer.
“Oh, you’d better get over that: it doesn’t make any sense,” said Vidal.
“Well, it makes sense to me,” said Schweizer.
“Well, my way is my way,” said Vidal. “It suits my life and will never be any other way.”
Schweizer asked him what Austen meant to him. “He’s my companion, we’ve never had sex,” said Vidal. “Even when you were both young and cute?” asked Schweizer. “I needed someone I could trust,” Vidal replied simply.
Schweizer today admits he found Vidal’s attitude “so perplexing but I liked he was so candid. There was something so vehement and legitimate about him, I accepted what he said. My radar was always up for a slip, a contradiction, a chance to say, ‘You say that, but you just did this…’ but it never happened. I trusted him.”
Vidal’s warning to Schweizer over Tennessee Williams’s behavior certainly proved prescient. Williams did turn on him, but they flew back to the US and became friends.
Vidal was less sexually inclined than Austen, Bernie Woolf, a friend of Vidal’s from his Rome days told me. “Howard was very promiscuous. He picked up sailors, he worked the streets and picked up trade. George [Armstrong, a friend of both his and Vidal’s] was a procurer of sorts and very friendly with Gore. He had a million tricks.
“Rome was a very advantageous place to live: if you were a homosexual of a certain age at that time you could have almost anybody. I don’t mean all the young men were gay, but for a certain amount of lire they were yours. If that was your proclivity and that’s what you wanted to do you were home free. It was just part of growing up for these kids: they felt no compunction about hiring their bodies out.”
Armstrong would boast that he had never had a lover in his life, “and I’ve never wanted one, I paid for sex every time and I’m the happiest person who ever lived.” Armstrong was “extraordinarily promiscuous,” like Vidal, “literally a revolving door,” says Woolf—yet unlike Vidal he was more at ease about being gay. “But then Gore was a celebrity and consider that time when nobody was out,” says Woolf.
The Pope of Ravello
One reason Vidal and Austen moved to Ravello in 1972 was because the cruising in Rome—where the men had moved in 1960—had gotten too dangerous.
“We thought we might be exposed to HIV or be murdered by a bad trick,” Austen told Tyrnauer, who says: “When they had first moved there all the boys were Italian, but by the eighties there were more immigrants and they said Albanian prostitutes, for example, tended to be rather violent.”
In Ravello the locals knew Vidal as Il Maestro or Il Scrittore. According to Altman, there was an unspoken rule that Vidal and Austen wouldn’t bring men back to La Rondinaia: one day, Vidal pronounced “apropos of nothing” to Matt Tyrnauer, “I’ve never had sex in Ravello.” Austen said, “I have.”
Tyrnauer asked Vidal why. “Well, when I moved here I didn’t want to be viewed as the pederast who lived at the end of the road, so I made it my business to never have sex with anyone who lived in this village.” Tyrnauer asked, “What did you do?” and Vidal replied,
“Well, I would go to Minori, which is right down the hill.”
Some locals dispute this. Piero Cantarella, a friend of Vidal’s, said, “This is a village of 1,500 people. Everyone knows everything and we love secrets and to gossip.”
A few people think Vidal created the hideout in Minori as a sexual myth, just as some people believe he did with Jimmie Trimble.
Tyrnauer recalled, “Gore and Howard talked about sex a lot: it was pretty much all they wanted to talk about. If you were in Ravello with them you would sit at a cafe and survey the piazza, assessing and commenting on who was passing by. Howard was not shy about saying that he had sexual encounters with multiple generations of the Ravellaise.
“However, Gore maintained he never had sex in Ravello. It was all put on Howard. I was sitting with them in the piazza and they would say, ‘See that boy over there? His grandfather was the most beautiful man when we first came here.’
“Then they would go through three generations of that family: the implication was these guys had been trade for Howard over the decades. There was a long tradition of fluid sexuality among young and older men, they said.
“Young men in Italy seemed very sexually available: even if they didn’t identify as gay they would have sex with men for fun or money. Howard used to say that all Italian men were bisexual. And the Italian approach fit very well with Gore’s thinking on sexual acts and sexual identity [Gore believed ‘gay’ referred to a sexual act; not a sexual identity].”
A priest in Minori once told Donald Gislason how hypocritical the Italians were. “All women cheat on their husbands,” the priest said. How did he know? asked Gislason. “I hear confession.”
According to local lore and those that knew the couple, there were regular parties, often wild get-togethers, hosted by Austen who would come regularly to the main square in Ravello and announce that a party would take place on a particular evening.
Sex with straight men and drinking were all part of La Rondinaia’s poolside activities, although most people agree that Vidal was rarely present, instead staying in his room working while the parties went on.
Residents say Austen had a lot of sex with the locals and the parties were wild. “It was Howard who was the whore,” said one shop owner who often talked with Vidal. “Gore, Never.”
Lucy Fisher, a film producer who knew Vidal for 35 years, said that in Ravello Vidal would dress in mismatched clothes, and often in shorts “like a ragamuffin, quite the opposite to the elegant Gore.
Every morning he would read the International Herald Tribune on the piazza in Ravello and “make fun of or flirt with the boys. To him they were all gay, and he would joke about them being cute, hot or stupid or say, ‘This one Howard’s gonna fuck.’ He would brag about Howard’s sexual exploits and was proud that he’d have studly guys around.”
In Ravello, down on the beach, there were guys hanging around who were “obviously” available to richer men, recalled Altman. “Gore would say, ‘Are you interested in any of these boys?’ He would pick up the ones who were available.”
Like Nina Straight, Vidal’s sister, Altman told me he thought Vidal used prostitutes “as a way of maintaining total control and also a way of dealing with his own rather confused attitudes towards his own sexuality. He kept on saying he was bisexual, but he clearly wasn’t in any real sense.
“There is no question his sexual interests were not with women, but men and specifically in ‘trade’ or ‘rent.’ He liked young, good-looking working-class men, an old English tradition Gore seemed keen to take over. Cruising for him meant cruising for young men.”
In late-night conversations in Rome and Ravello Vidal would tell Richard Harrison, “the boys in Rome were easy to get undressed: you just tell them ‘You’re good-looking.’ He thought it was because Italian mothers treated their sons as babies.” Harrison asked Vidal what he liked to do in bed: blow jobs? anal sex? “He knew all the words, but he’d go ‘Ugh, agh.’ Everything was disgusting. I thought, ‘What the hell does he like?’”
Patty Dryden, a friend later in Vidal’s life, said he talked about sex “in the abstract: he would talk about men’s wee-wees [penises].”
Yet on the square in Ravello, in the San Domingo bar, one of his favorite hangouts, Vidal would turn to Richard Harrison and drunkenly shout, ‘Well, that fellow over there looks like he’s got a big cock.’ All around tourists were whispering, ‘That’s Gore Vidal.’”
Orgies and young men there may have been, but there was a certain formality to how Vidal and Austen presented themselves and liked to be seen publicly in Ravello—and that was certainly not as a gay couple, or as men having sex with the locals.
“The villagers knew Howard as Il Secretario. That’s how the locals referred to him,” said Donald Gislason. “I thought it was a euphemism because Italians don’t talk about gay relationships openly, but it wasn’t. That’s what they thought he was.”
Remembering Uncle Gore
Another side of Vidal, rarely seen by others, played out at La Rondinaia was that of indulgent uncle, to Austen’s sister Arlyne Reingold and her children.
When her daughter Karen, then 16, visited Vidal and Austen in Rome, she excitedly told her mother that Vidal encouraged her to try what he described as “good French fries.” She told Reingold, “Mom, he made me eat calamari and it turns out I quite like them.”
For Reingold, Vidal was “such a special man, kind, funny.” He called her, affectionately, “Arlynie” and was “tender and open-hearted” with Austen’s wider family. Did she ever see him angry, more withering? “He didn’t have much patience,” she says. “If you were talking nonsense, he would walk out of the room.”
Her fondest memories are of sitting around the pool at Ravello, Austen, “a wonderful cook,” rustling up his favorite dish, pasta Alfredo. “Gore didn’t put on any airs with us, he was a good, nice person, so quick and witty. To me, as a young woman, he was a father figure.”
Burr Steers bought his two young daughters, Katharine and Theodosia (the latter named after the daughter of Aaron Burr), Steers said, to Ravello. “The only thing he ever pushed me for was to name her that, which I’ll tell her when she curses me as a teenager. The girls seemed to calm him.”
Vidal cherished his family, said Steers. When Katharine was three months old, suffering from meningitis and hearing loss, her father took her to Ravello for the first time. “Gore was very attentive and doting and a grandfatherly figure to them.”
Other, very personal elements of Vidal’s life—like his complex relationship with his mother, whom he was estranged from, after she had been viciously rude about Austen—were visible at Ravello.
For Jean Stein, one of Vidal’s oldest friends, “he was a desperately lonely human being. He was one of the loneliest people I’ve ever met. I think some of his alcoholism was due to his intense feelings of abandonment going all the way back to his early relationship with his mother. I always thought, in regards to his mother, that as much as Gore hated her, he loved her.
“A friend of mine who visited him one time in Ravello noticed he had his mother in a framed photograph on the table. She asked him about it and the next day it had vanished. Gore said his mother was monstrous about his homosexuality and Howard. I don’t know if she was, but alcoholics, as I believe she was, often have a vicious streak.”
Jason Epstein, so used to seeing Gore hardened and wry, was surprised in Ravello one evening when, beside his dog Rat, who had cancer, Vidal said, “‘Soon Rat’s going to die, Howard’s going to die, and I’ll be all alone.’ It was a rare moment of unguarded affection for someone who claimed to be beyond all feeling. I had never heard him speak like that.”
In Ravello, as later in his life in Los Angeles too, Vidal would stay up and invite his houseguest that night to stay up with him; a bottle of Scotch would be opened until after four in the morning, the Vidal story machine on full throttle.
“The term ‘heavy drinker’ was no shame to him, quite the opposite,” recalled Donald Gislason. “I remember once helping him home drunk from Ravello, getting to the gate and he showed a fence that had been constructed to the side preventing a drop to a vineyard below. ‘You know, a person could fall in there,’ he said, and I knew by his tone he had.”
Before he built a swimming pool and sauna at La Rondinaia, Vidal swam at the Lido delle Sirene in Amalfi. In 1983 Vidal was awarded honorary citizenship of Ravello.
Vidal was reserved and private; as Vincenzo Palumbo, one of the consortium-owners of La Rondinaia recalled, he was “a strange person. Not easy. Very intelligent but he was a friend just for ‘good morning,’ ‘how is the weather,’ but you cannot speak of important things with him if you didn’t understand politics.” Austen was seen as friendlier.
Their driver, in 30 years, had never been into the house. Austen told Gislason it was probably best not to make friendships in town “because they led to dinner invitations, which you can’t reciprocate because that would mean inviting them here, which is our house and something we wouldn’t want.” Vidal told Gislason, “I don’t have any friends in Italy,” which struck Gislason as odd as “they had lived there for 30 years.”
The men would dine in local restaurants such as Da Salvatore, one of Vidal’s favorites, with its spectacular views of the Mediterranean, or Villa Maria, a hotel and restaurant owned by Palumbo.
Vidal would sometimes frequent the San Domingo bar at night and café by day or the Luna Hotel’s nightclub down below on the coast, the beach clubs in Amalfi and restaurants such as Da Zaccharia along the coast.
Vidal’s love of cats, a constant, was evident on one occasion at Da Salvatore. One time, he was there eating a meal on its terrace and a cat kept wandering in. Another guest, a woman, kept saying, “Waiter, can you throw the cat out?” Cesare Calce, the owner, threw out the cat and it kept coming back in. Finally, Vidal called the proprietor over and he said, “Cesare, can you throw the lady out?”
Vidal and Austen hated any formality in Ravello and were “unconventional,” said Dominique Buonocore-Dauchez, a French teacher who with her husband, Sergio, a communications specialist, were friends of the couple from 1974 to 1984.
“[Gore] would walk around the home naked without even batting an eyelid. He was gorgeous and had a gorgeous body. He would read the paper in bed in the morning and throw page upon page on the floor. It was a crucial period for him.
“He was here to write. He was so modest and anti-conformist, not like any other artist. I learned a lot from their way of life. Gore was very welcoming with everyone, especially with us.”
In Ravello, Steven Abbott recalled the group going to a restaurant and no one paying the bill. He asked Gore if he had an account there: “He said, ‘Oh no, these people owe me. I bring enough business here.’”
Richard Harrison said: “Gore was cheap, very cheap, he didn’t like to spend money and bragged about never having had an expensive car or spending money. Gore never said ‘thank you’ for anything. I don’t think he knew the words ‘thank you.”
In his later life, Vidal’s good friend, the author Jay Parini, saw Vidal’s sexual energy decline. “Howard would find trade, he would get Gore dates. Gore didn’t want intimacy, he wanted sex without intimacy. Gore liked non-intellectual men who looked like rugby players. But he wasn’t into sex: I always felt he would be happier not to think about it.”
Parini believed the couple “had really stopped having sex with that much trade in Ravello. Howard liked to hang out with 20-year-olds. They would invite these young men to parties at their pool and just hang out.
“Gore wildly exaggerated his sex life: in the last 20 to 30 years it had reduced to the bare minimum. I saw very little sex in Gore, it exposed too much to the possibility of intimacy. He liked the cozy, comfortable, asexual. Howard would constantly say, if we were having lunch in the square in Ravello, ‘Look at that ass, Gore, holy mackerel mamma.’ Gore would roll his eyes.”
Goodbye To All That
Austen was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1999. In Point to Point Navigation, Vidal described the cancer recurring in his partner’s brain.
Vidal chartered a private plane to bring Austen back from Rome to the U.S. for treatment. “Gore spent God knows how much money and effort to save Howard from that terrible cancer,” recalled the actress Claire Bloom, Vidal’s close friend. Vidal wished he’d never moved back to the U.S. from Ravello, but he did so, say his friends, for Austen who needed the best medical care available.
Susan Sarandon told me Austen’s death, in 2003, affected Vidal profoundly. “It was such a huge thing that opened up in Gore when Howard passed. He expressed to me that he missed him, and he talked of his own final days.
“He had never talked about it before, or shown me this emotional vulnerability. Nobody thought Howard would go first. He seemed the stronger of the two and everyone was worried about what Gore would do without him. Paul’s [Newman] death [in 2008] was a big thing for him too.”
In Ravello, Vidal’s maid and cook, Rita Calce, recalled that Vidal would sit by the pool and worry about what he would do without Austen. After Austen died, he cried. Calce said he became “a different person.” He drank more and felt he could not keep the house because it contained too many memories of Austen. Vidal finally sold La Rondinaia in 2004.
Jay Parini recalled that after Howard died “Gore completely fell apart, his mental capacity shrank, his delusional qualities increased. I took him back to Ravello in 2009. He was drinking so heavily. He could walk but preferred the wheelchair.
“He knew he was going to die soon, ‘the sooner the better,’ he said. He certainly fought to keep living when dying, but after Howard died he didn’t want to live. He was lonely, he had lost the love of his life; it shows you marriage is about companionship just as much as sex.”
Vidal’s drinking was already visibly damaging him when Richard Harrison approached him about it in the late 1980s.
“He was so vain, handsome, brilliant. That’s what gets me about the end, and why he let himself go to hell. In Ravello he would get up, read the papers in an old robe and write 40 pages before lunch.
“The drinking started in the early afternoon until he went to bed. I decided to talk to him about it. He said the drinking ‘doesn’t bother me one bit.’ I said, ‘That’s what all alcoholics say. Gore, you’ve got a great mind, you have to take care of it.’ That hit a nerve with him and he was never really the same with me after that.”
From 1995 onwards, Vidal “was sucking back heavy-duty alcohol,” Nina Straight told me.
At La Rondinaia, Vidal would drink two bottles of Scotch in a sitting, drinking a bottle “without saying boo.” He would eye a guest’s comparative sobriety with arch disapproval: “I suppose he drinks wine,” was the disparaging remark aimed at someone Vidal felt was a lightweight.
Why did he drink so much? Straight shrugged. “It released his imagination, allowed his passions to rage, and him to scream at the bathroom mirror and at the poor person sitting next to him. It allowed him to talk about anything, to fantasize and have a full fantasy life sitting by himself on the cliffs of Ravello.”
Once back in Los Angeles, the drinking became “insanity,” Straight said.
In Austen’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, the author recalled an incident where Austen swept his hand over La Rondinaia and its surroundings. “You know, Gore, after you’re gone all this will be mine.” Vidal not missing a beat, replied: “Yes, Howard, that’s true, but no one will call.”
Sarandon and Vidal returned to La Rondinaia after it had been sold. “That day there was a double rainbow,” she said. “He couldn’t get down the stairs because he was in a wheelchair, which I was quite glad about: the little room wasn’t as he or I would remember it. Every window was open and the wind was whipping through.”
Vidal told Sarandon that “everyone was dying,” that “he was the only one left, he and Joanne [Woodward]. He told me, ‘I think about death all the time. Who would have thought I’d be the last one standing?’ But he never seemed morose. He was befuddled sometimes, but on certain subjects—and if he had to give a speech—he was as clear as a bell.”
While Vidal died in America, there is little doubt he was happier—and absolutely the grand author and august host with the most—as ‘Pope of Ravello.’ Variety has reported that, in Gore, Vidal’s study at La Rondinaia will be meticulously reconstructed within the villa itself, which means Vidal’s writing desk will be just where it should be.