Arts

Gore Vidal

Inside the Sex Secrets of Kevin Spacey’s Gore Vidal Movie

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The Daily Beast

Date:
November 7, 2017

The future, if it has one, of the Netflix biopic Gore, starring Kevin Spacey as the author Gore Vidal, lies in an odd suspension. The movie has been filmed, and was in post-production when Netflix announced Friday that it would not be “moving forward” with the biopic’s release.

The news arrived in the same press release that announced Spacey would no longer star in House of Cards.

Netflix cut ties with Spacey in the wake of the many disturbing sexual abuse allegations being made against him, which began with Anthony Rapp’s BuzzFeed interview just over a week ago, and includes Harry Dreyfuss’ compelling, self-penned story on Sunday.

Spacey put Rapp’s experience down to Spacey’s “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior,” and denies the other allegations made against him.

Netflix may also be running scared of what Gore actually shows of Spacey’s sexual behavior as Vidal. If the movie shows anything approximating the truth about Vidal’s private life, then Netflix will have an even more controversial product on their hands than one simply starring the shamed Spacey.

What the film contains sexually is presently a mystery. I asked the film’s producer Andy Paterson and Jay Parini, a close friend of Vidal’s and the film’s co-screenwriter—based, as the screenplay is, on his book, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal—for detail, but both declined to comment for this article.

The film, as far as Netflix revealed, centers on a period following Vidal’s failed effort to secure the Democratic nomination in the 1982 election for California governor.

Following his defeat, and final failed foray into politics, in the movie Vidal retreats to his astonishing Italian home, La Rondinaia, carved and constructed in the cliffs above Ravello on the Amalfi coast with his partner Howard Austen (played by Michael Stuhlbarg).

The relationship of a young straight couple, played by Douglas Booth and Freya Mavor, is “derailed by Gore’s attentions.” Griffin Dunne and Nikolai Kinski play Leonard Bernstein and Rudolph Nureyev, “regular visitors” to La Rondinaia. (It’s unclear if the movie shows how Vidal would, using a telescope, spy on Nureyev sunbathing naked by his pool.)

Sexually, Vidal, like Spacey apparently, was attracted to younger men, especially those appearing as heterosexual, or seemingly heterosexual as possible.

There is some debate, as I covered in my book In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and The Private World of an American Master, about how young those men were.

Mostly, they seem to have been of legal age, in their early twenties. Vidal paid for sex, as it gave him an element of control. He was also in a decades-long, loving relationship with Austen who cherished looking after Vidal, and who once helped procure the hustlers the men liked to have sex with.

It is unknown if Vidal sexually abused young men; what is known is that the sex he had with them was transactional. He also never defined himself as gay, and never came out. Yet his sexuality, like Spacey’s, was something of an open secret. Both men shared different, but similarly furnished, closets.

If Gore portrays Vidal’s monetized age-gap encounters, with Spacey playing Vidal, it may have made Netflix even more nervous about releasing the film, given the present slew of headlines and allegations around Spacey’s own behavior.

Even if the film featured one such age-gap relationship, monetized or not—between Spacey and Booth—it might have given Netflix added pause.

Vidal’s physical ideal was his childhood friend and love Jimmie Trimble, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima, and whom Vidal claimed to have been his first lover, and a person he never forgot. Every night, before bed, he would gaze at Trimble’s portrait.

It is unknown if Vidal sexually abused young men; what is known is that the sex he had with them was transactional. He also never defined himself as gay, and never came out. Yet his sexuality, like Spacey’s, was something of an open secret. Both men shared different, but similarly furnished, closets.

If Gore portrays Vidal’s monetized age-gap encounters, with Spacey playing Vidal, it may have made Netflix even more nervous about releasing the film, given the present slew of headlines and allegations around Spacey’s own behavior.

Even if the film featured one such age-gap relationship, monetized or not—between Spacey and Booth—it might have given Netflix added pause.

Vidal’s physical ideal was his childhood friend and love Jimmie Trimble, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima, and whom Vidal claimed to have been his first lover, and a person he never forgot. Every night, before bed, he would gaze at Trimble’s portrait.

At the top of the back stairs of Vidal’s Los Angeles house in the Hollywood Hills, where a chairlift had been assembled to transport the wheelchair-bound Vidal between floors, hung a portrait of a blond teenage boy holding a model sailboat.

It was Jimmie Trimble, the painting a reproduction of the original painted by Trimble and owned by his mother.

It embodies the most intriguing, possibly most telling mystery of Vidal’s personal life, a former classmate from prep school whom Vidal claimed to have had an intimate relationship with before Trimble was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

In previous years it hung above Vidal’s bed in Ravello, recalls his good friend, the director and writer Matt Tyrnauer, who edited Vidal’s essays for Vanity Fair and Vidal’s former literary executor. In later years, Vidal would “meditate” in front of the picture before going to bed in Outpost Drive.

He met Jimmie Trimble as a boarder, from 1937 to 1939, in the lower form dormitory of St. Albans School, “along with other Washington sons whose parents didn’t want them underfoot,” as Vidal’s friend Walter Clemons put it.

Vidal was un-self-conscious about his own early sexual feelings, he told his biographer Fred Kaplan, reassuring one of his friends that it was alright to masturbate.

Trimble was an idol to all the boys: a star athlete at 15 who was offered a contract with a professional baseball team. “Romantic jargon was out of the question for these two very masculine young men,” writes Kaplan. “For both, it was prelapsarian, a combination of adolescent sex and friendship.”

When Trimble arrived, Vidal went for a shower with him, he wrote in Palimpsest. “As I looked at him, he gave me a big grin and so it began, likeness drawn to likeness, soon to be made whole by desire minus the obligatory pursuit.”

When I interviewed Vidal in 2009 for the London Times, I asked if Trimble really had been the love of his life, as he once said. “That was a slight exaggeration. I said it because there wasn’t any other.” He told me that in the book he was then completing, Snapshots from History’s Glare, there were “wonderful pictures” of Trimble from their schooldays. “He was a great athlete.

“We were both abandoned in our dormitory at St. Albans. He was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima because of bad G2 [intelligence],” Vidal added in a mournful growl.

Did Trimble’s death affect him, I asked. “No, I was in danger of dying too. A dead man can’t grieve a dead man.” I asked Vidal if love had been important to him, and he was back to withering form. “Don’t make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay men’s relationships are like heterosexual ones. They’re not.” He “wouldn’t begin to comment” on how they are different.

“He thought everybody was bisexual,” Parini told me in 2013. “He came to believe his fantasy about Jimmie Trimble. I think he needed an objective correlative for his sense of longing and loss. Jimmie stands for all of Gore’s longings. If anything had happened or was there, Jimmie wouldn’t have noticed it: we’re talking maybe about a look in the eye, the brushing of a hand.

“Jimmie would have taken those for what they were. Every time Gore talked about Jimmie with me the story came out slightly differently. He was like the ghost of Christmas Past.”

Austen, Parini said, would “jerk off” behind Vidal’s head if he talked about Jimmie. “Gore’s talking and writing about Jimmie came comparatively late in their relationship. I think Howard would have disliked it. He understood Gore, and rolled his eyes. ‘Oh Gore, basta basta with the Jimmie Trimble, here we go again.’ ‘Stop it now, put it to bed.’ There was an awful lot of that.”

“Jimmie Trimble becomes the consistent pattern for the kind of hustler he liked,” Fred Kaplan told me. “Gore didn’t want relationships. None of those young men ever became part of his life: They were 15 minutes of sex. As for professing eternal love for Jimmie, Gore’s capacity for love struck me as quite limited. Gore’s interest was substantially in himself. He was as narcissistic a personality as you can imagine. I don’t think Gore was ever in love with anyone, male or female, or any of the people he had sex with.”

Nina Straight stated with certainty, “Gore and Jimmie didn’t happen. Gore liked famous people and before all the celebrities he knew, Jimmie was already famous: the blond, blue-eyed fantasy, the multi-sports star, the pitcher of the century.

“He was a knockout hero in the suburbs of Bethesda and Chevy Chase. But he would have been utterly clueless about Gore. He left school in seventh grade. They didn’t have sex. Because gay sex and relationships became chic to write about, Gore constructed it. Jimmie was what he hoped he was.

“All those guys at St. Albans: He could have had romantic moments looking at them in the showers—they never knew it and wouldn’t care. I guess Gore was a romantic: Romance was a Phantasmagoria of Gore’s.”

 

‘Most of the time the comments and his cruising were about sexy men in their twenties’

Vidal’s friend, the author and famed Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers (and subject of Tyrnauer’s latest documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood), never heard Vidal express a sexual interest in underage men. “Hell no,” Bowers told me. “The guys I fixed him up with early on were his own age, and later in his life were in their twenties and thirties, never younger or illegal,” Bowers says. “The guys I saw him and Howard cruise in Italy were in their twenties.”

The playwright David Schweizer, who met Vidal in Rome in the early 1970s, concurs. “I personally only witnessed a procession of very handsome young men in their twenties, no children as far as I knew. He liked that somewhat manly athletic type descending from his crush of yore [Jimmie Trimble] in his early days, methinks.”

A friend who knew Vidal for 20 years says he would “occasionally comment, jokingly” about attractive adolescents and teenagers, “but nothing out of the ordinary. Most of the time the comments and his cruising were about sexy men in their twenties.”

Vidal once shocked a guest at Ravello, this longtime friend says, by announcing: “You know I’m a pederast.”

The friend was not sure if Vidal had sex with underage boys—“and it’s worth remembering the age of consent is relative, depending on where you are in the world”—but thought Vidal “just liked to shock people he thought were square.

“He was also brutally honest: A lot of older guys are attracted to younger men. And yes, he did go to Thailand every year, and he was definitely having sex with male prostitutes there, and they weren’t older male prostitutes.”

In his later years after Austen’s death and growing more isolated and unhappy, Vidal employed handsome male assistants, like Muzius Dietzmann and Fabian Bouthillette.

“He surrounded himself with young men: typically straight, handsome, and strong. There was no sexual element at all,” Parini told me.

Another friend added: “Here was this guy in his eighties and he had these devoted adjutants. These weren’t bunnies or Gore Vidal’s two prostitutes. These guys were really devoted to Gore. It wasn’t a matter of ‘Stand in the background and look pretty.’

“Muzius was very splendid, a first class guy, very, very heterosexual,” Parini said. “He’s married with children now. Fabi was a very smart ex-sailor.”

Dietzmann worked for Vidal for over 10 years. He called Muzius “my son,” Patty Dryden, a former friend of Vidal’s, told me.

“There was probably some wishful sexual thinking on Gore’s part towards these young guys,” Nina Straight said. “Maybe he’d ask them to take off their pants or something. He used to like to say, ‘They’re all boy’—i.e., they’re all hetero macho men, they’re all Jimmie Trimble.”

Bouthillette had been a 28-year-old lieutenant in the Navy and part of the protest organization Iraq Veterans Against the War when he met Vidal in November 2008.

“I was super-angry, trying to adapt to civilian life after the military in Los Angeles,” he told me. They were introduced by a mutual friend, the author Jean Stein. “I went to his place, drank Scotch and talked for, like, 10 years,” Bouthillette told me.

“I became his assistant, but he introduced me as his naval attaché or ‘Fabian, a lieutenant in the Navy who was head of the veterans’ anti-war movement.’ His public persona was snobby and ‘aristocrat-y’ and he liked fights, but to me he was one of the kindest people I have ever known. He really took me under his wing.”

Was there a sexual relationship between Vidal and Bouthillette? “It wasn’t anything overt,” insisted Bouthillette. “Yes, I was an attractive guy and he responded to that. He wanted someone with competence to take care of him and with the social grace to look good while doing it, and I guess I had that.”

Did they have any kind of sex? “We had a very intimate, non-sexual relationship,” said Bouthillette. “I was the manifestation of a young, strapping guy to push him around, he was my manifestation of a role model to help me. He felt comfortable with me. I had to put my hands on him a lot and he trusted me and for that I loved him. Of course, he liked to have beautiful young men around. I had people tell me Gore was smitten with me. I was completely taken with him too.”

Vidal would argue strenuously against Bouthillette’s heterosexuality. Bouthillette would reply, “I don’t know what to tell you, Gore, I like to have sex with women.” No,” Vidal would tell him, “you’re fooling yourself.”

Bouthillette never saw a late-in-life Vidal with any hustlers. “I think he would have liked to have been sexual in those last years, but there’s no way he could have. He wasn’t physically able. I stumbled on his porn collection one day: It was mostly Hispanic, and I’m half Puerto Rican so we joked about that. He would ask, ‘Are you sure you’re not into guys?’ ‘Gore, stop it,’ I would say. I would leave porn on for him to watch when I left him at night. He enjoyed that.”

Bouthillette recalled that “many nights” Vidal would stop in front of Trimble’s portrait on the back stairs “for a few minutes and look at the picture. Gore talked about him all the time, about how beautiful he was, how ‘my’ Navy had killed him.

“He was still fixated on him. He still loved him. For anybody to be still fixated on their high-school love interest at that age might seem odd, but Gore Vidal was, and not just Jimmie but that whole generation of boys who were killed at Iwo Jima.”

 

‘It’s a service, it’s an activity, I am pleasured and someone is rewarded’

Vidal’s attitude toward sex fascinated David 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.”

In early 1970s Rome, 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.”

Schweizer one day asked Vidal 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.

Vidal was less sexually inclined than Austen, said Bernie Woolf who knew Vidal in Rome. “Howard was very promiscuous. He picked up sailors, he worked the streets and picked up trade. George [Armstrong] 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.”

“I think Gore and Howard had a shared sex life, but as in all things Gore was boss and Howard the facilitator,” said Vidal’s friend and editor Matt Tyrnauer. “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.’”

 

Italy’s sexual attractions continued to be enjoyed by Vidal when the couple moved to Ravello in 1972.

In his book Defying Gravity, Dennis Altman describes how Vidal advised him on how 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.”

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.”

Tyrnauer recalled, “Gore and Howard talked about sex a lot: t 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.”

Dennis Altman visited Vidal and Austen at their Rome apartment in the mid to late 1970s. “I was going out for dinner with them. Gore opened the door and with a big wink said, ‘Would you like a pre-dinner appetizer?’

“He took me to a bedroom in the apartment where there was a rather attractive Sardinian boy laid out on the bed. It was clear the boy was available. Gore would provide and you would pay. The assumptions were quite extraordinary: I don’t know how he would have reacted if I had said, ‘I don’t want to have sex with this guy.’ I suspect he would be displeased, he was obviously very pleased with himself for setting things up.”

In Ravello, down on the beach, there were guys hanging around who were “obviously” available to richer men, recalls Altman. “Gore would say, ‘Are you interested in any of these boys?’ He would pick up the ones who were available.”

Like Vidal’s sister, Altman thinks 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.’”

Her half-brother’s use of hustlers was rooted in his desire for control “and an attitude of contempt,” Straight believes. “He just paid for it and didn’t have to do anything. They would do whatever had to be done for him and that would be that. It allowed him to feel superior: ‘I’m paying for you. You do whatever I say, you piece of you-know-what.’

“I’m sure the contempt that Gore had for the people involved was huge because he had contempt for himself and his own homosexuality, which is there in the fact he was saying he was bisexual, which was total rubbish.

“You had the money and you said, ‘Well, you contemptible person, you’re coming in here for me to do something to you. And you’re letting me pay you for me to do what I want to do.’”

In 2013, researching my book, I asked Burr Steers whether he knew if his uncle had sex with underage men.

“I don’t know for sure and I don’t want to know,” Steers said. “But look, the love of his life was Jimmie Trimble, stuck forever as a teenage boy, a Peter Pan. The photo he carried around of Howard in his wallet wasn’t of Howard as an adult, but Howard as a teenager.”

Gore Vidal died with question marks still hovering over his many sexual mysteries. Kevin Spacey will likely not enjoy a similar privacy.

Meanwhile, what Gore shows, and the kind of sexual Vidal that Spacey plays in it, remains a mystery—until Netflix decides otherwise.