Feature writing


For Gore Vidal, a final plot twist

The New York Times

November 8, 2013

Gore Vidal always kept a fire burning in the grate, his nephew Burr Steers said as we stood in the author’s living room in Los Angeles, “even when it was 110 degrees outside.” Mr. Vidal had suffered hypothermia while serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Steers added, and his left knee was made of titanium.

On the ceiling of the Hollywood Hills home were paintings by Paolo de Matteis, an 18th-century Baroque artist, which Mr. Vidal had hung in La Rondinaia, his home in Ravello, Italy, which he sold in 2005. Mr. Vidal, who died in July 2012 at 86 in a bed set up in the living room, with its view of tall trees that reminded him of Italy, once fondly described a de Matteis figure, a barely clothed maiden with arms wantonly outstretched, as one of his famous houseguests and friends: “Princess Margaret asking for a gin and tonic.”

Mr. Steers, 48, a screenwriter and director of movies including “Igby Goes Down” and “Charlie St. Cloud,” advised me to not sit in one chair. “He lost control of his bladder, so that chair’s been through a lot of ugly things,” he said.

A study room contained Mr. Vidal’s work, neatly shelved: the 25 novels and the 26 nonfiction works, including his celebrated and controversial essays. (He also wrote 14 screenplays and eight stage plays.) In part of the garden a swimming pool was full of water but was a brackish mess of dirt and cracks.

“You could see William Holden floating face down in this, couldn’t you?” said Mr. Steers, invoking “Sunset Boulevard.” “Norma Desmond was kind of what Gore was becoming.”

His tone was affectionate, but then Mr. Steers revealed, as an abrupt aside, that his uncle had left nothing to his family or intimates in his will. Instead, he bequeathed his entire fortune and assets to Harvard University.

Mr. Steers said that Mr. Vidal had promised the property to him, though as alcoholism and dementia had consumed the author in the last years of his life, Mr. Vidal had also accused his once-beloved nephew of being a C.I.A. impostor and of trying to kidnap him. He had accused dedicated staff members of the same and feuded with, and excommunicated, friends.

Nina Straight, Mr. Steers’s mother and Mr. Vidal’s half sister, is challenging her half brother’s will on the grounds that Mr. Vidal was not mentally competent when he changed the terms of his will the year before he died. On Nov. 22 in Los Angeles County Court, there will be a second hearing of case No. BP138192. On one side is Ms. Straight and on the other Andrew S. Auchincloss, son of Mr. Vidal’s distant cousin Louis Auchincloss and the trustee of the Gore Vidal Revocable Trust, which oversees Mr. Vidal’s estate.

The Harvard bequest mystifies Ms. Straight and Mr. Steers and many of the author’s closest friends, but it is also vintage Vidal: an appropriately ornery final salvo from a master contrarian. A close friend, who asked not to be identified because of the family’s sensitivity, said: “Anger was Gore’s default mode. He wanted to go out like Ebenezer Scrooge, with a huge finger to everyone around him.”

Mr. Steers said he was not angry about his uncle’s Harvard bequest, but instead bruised and resigned. When I spoke to him last December for a book I was researching about Mr. Vidal, Mr. Steers told me his uncle’s was a “miserable, drawn-out decline,” especially when one recalled his barnstorming public persona, the growling intellectual maverick scattering his withering bon mots in prime time.

“It was unsettling, dealing with Gore with dementia,” Mr. Steers said. “It was like having him replaced, and someone very different take his place. He let go of everything. He ceased to be Gore.”

Mr. Steers said Mr. Vidal, in his original will, left everything to Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years who died in 2003, then amended it in 2011, awarding it to Harvard. A few paintings were bequeathed to the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. At about that time Mr. Vidal also bought a house in the south of France.

“Part of the idea was to relocate there and live in exile,” said the film director Matt Tyrnauer, a close friend and former literary executor. Ultimately Mr. Vidal gave the house to his onetime assistant, Muzius Gordon Dietzmann, who lives there with his family. Mr. Vidal told Mr. Tyrnauer, “I have made him a rich boy.”

Mr. Vidal’s fortune, according to Ms. Straight, is estimated at $37 million; representatives for the estate would not confirm this or any other details about the will. Mr. Auchincloss declined to comment. His lawyer, Adam Streisand, a partner at the Los Angeles firm Loeb & Loeb, declined to answer questions, though in a statement said: “The claims asserted by Ms. Straight have no merit and we will have no further comment while this matter is in litigation. We will answer these claims in court, not in the press.”

Harvard has not yet been drawn into the case. “The University has been provided with notice of an interest under Mr. Vidal’s testamentary plan and is aware of ongoing proceedings related to it, but is not involved in those proceedings and awaits resolution of all issues,” a spokesman said in a statement.

There is an irony, as well as mystery, to Mr. Vidal’s bequest.

“He had an incredible insecurity about not having gone to university,” said Jay Parini, Mr. Vidal’s longtime friend, onetime literary executor and author of a forthcoming biography. “He was terrified of professors and academics. When he got an honorary degree from Brown, he was thrilled. But he was such a good actor he could intimidate a group of academics.”

In 1974 Mr. Vidal told Fag Rag magazine that he was supposed to have gone to Harvard, but went into the Army instead.

“What was the point of going into another institution when I had already written my first novel?” he said.

He lectured at Harvard when his classmates from high school were undergraduates there. “The greatest moment of my life,” he told the magazine. “I mean, I really rubbed it in. It’s all been downhill since.”

In Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” Mr. Vidal said he had been accepted at Harvard but had opted to write instead.

As the will stands, Ms. Straight told me during an interview in Washington earlier this year, Harvard not only receives Mr. Vidal’s fortune, but also profits from the continued sales of his books. She intends to ask the school if an arrangement could be reached in which her son’s two daughters receive some money.

Ms. Straight, who had a turbulent though close relationship with Mr. Vidal, said she was also owed around a million dollars by her half brother in legal fees she paid for him in his protracted battle with the conservative columnist William F. Buckley.

Mr. Buckley called Mr. Vidal “a queer” after Mr. Vidal had called him a “crypto-Nazi” during a 1968 television debate. Subsequently, Esquire magazine commissioned Mr. Buckley to write an article about Mr. Vidal and then Mr. Vidal to respond in another article. Mr. Vidal then sued Mr. Buckley; Mr. Buckley countersued, and the case went on for three years before being abruptly terminated.

Mr. Steers said Mr. Vidal was terrified that Mr. Buckley had evidence that Mr. Vidal had sex with underage men. “Jerry Sandusky acts,” Ms. Straight said, referring to the former Penn State assistant football coach convicted of child molestation.

Mr. Steers said: “I know Buckley had a file on him that Gore feared. It would make sense if that material was about him having underage sex. Gore spent a lot of time in Bangkok, after all. Gore also had a very weird take on the abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. He would say that the young guys involved were hustlers who were sending signals.”

After Mr. Buckley died, his son, Christopher (who declined a request for interview) wrote of throwing, with “a sigh of relief,” a filing cabinet marked “Vidal Legal” into a Dumpster. Other friends of Mr. Vidal told me they doubted he had sex with underage men.

Mr. Tyrnauer, recalling discussing Mr. Vidal’s legal affairs with him in 2002, said: “Gore was clearly uncomfortable talking about a world without Gore Vidal. Nothing above immortality and world domination would ever be enough for him.”

At the beginning of 2011, Mr. Vidal put his Hollywood home on the market for $3.4 million. Ernie Bernal, his nurse at the time, said the author planned to move to Rome, where he had lived in the 1960s. He told Mr. Bernal that Italians “were more cultured and the environment better for him.” But after the house underwent repairs, he took it off the market. Mr. Parini said Mr. Vidal also contemplated moving to New York, claiming Los Angeles was too uncultured.

The death of Mr. Austen precipitated Mr. Vidal’s painful final decade.

“He lost half of himself after Howard died,” Mr. Steers said.

Mr. Tyrnauer said: “Howard’s death ended the main chapter of Gore’s existence pretty much. Gore was in perpetual mourning after Howard died. His drinking became epic. He drank after he finished work,” typically Macallan 12, a single-malt scotch. “He didn’t stop till he collapsed.”

He listened to CDs of Mr. Austen singing, with tears in his eyes. His worsening physical state combined darkly with his growing disgust at what he thought the United States had become; his perceived corruption of its rulers; and his old, percolating sense of thwarted ambition. He had always wanted to be president.

In his uncle’s final months, Mr. Steers said, Mr. Vidal’s “brain had gone. He had all this fluid that was filling up inside him. They’d drain him every day. He had congestive heart failure. It was really miserable. The only thing he reacted to was pain. His eyes were open but he was struggling to breathe. But his body didn’t give up. The doctors said it was as strong as an ox, considering he was so sedentary.”

Mr. Vidal had dementia and “wet brain,” said Mr. Steers: its proper name is Wernicke-Korsakoff, a syndrome characterized by a number of symptoms, including confusion and hallucination.

“Gore was on a planet all his own,” Mr. Parini said. “In the last five years he was not at his full hilt, full strength. He had been in a state of decline, highly diminished, sad and depressed. I feel very sad about the case. He felt very close to Burr, loved him and liked Nina very much.”

It is his sharply declined physical and mental state — Ms. Straight wrote in a piece in Vanity Fair after Mr. Vidal’s death that his appearance “bordered on that of a street person in the last few years of his life” — that have led some friends and family members to claim that the Harvard bequest was one of a man not fully in control of his faculties.

“Gore didn’t care about Harvard,” said Boaty Boatwright, a talent agent and a longtime friend, though the author used a somewhat earthier expression to make his point. “Why not fund a Gore Vidal School for Young Writers or a Foundation for Women? He was always championing feminism.”

Mr. Steers said his uncle despised Harvard’s “neocon” academics. “His last will makes no sense,” he said.

Mr. Tyrnauer, who edited Mr. Vidal’s writing at Vanity Fair, said he saw the bequest as an expression of the author’s split identity.

“He was the liberal iconoclast, railing against the Establishment, and he was the man boasting about spending time at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, with Princess Margaret,” he said.

Mr. Vidal “clung to those upper-class tropes, so Harvard, being the most prestigious of universities, was the place to put his legacy,” Mr. Tyrnauer said. “But why give it to an institution rolling in money, when Gore was not only passionately anti-academics but also so committed to the good fight? Why didn’t he leave a sum to the A.C.L.U., or any number of liberal causes or something subversive?”

But Mr. Vidal’s bequest could be the culmination of a late-in-life relationship with Harvard. He believed his papers had not been treated with the respect they demanded at the University of Wisconsin, where they were previously held, Mr. Parini said.

“During the 1990s he did a lecture series at Harvard, which brought him into close contact with faculty members,” Mr. Parini said. “He spoke about ‘the wonders of Harvard.’ To him, who hadn’t had a university education, Harvard represented the Platonic ideal of a university.”

The Houghton Library at Harvard took possession of Mr. Vidal’s papers in 2002, and “has done a great job of organizing his manuscripts, letters and correspondence,” Mr. Parini said.

Today Mr. Vidal’s archive and works are housed alongside celebrated writers like Henry James and Louisa May Alcott.

At the time, Harvard said the acquisition had been precipitated by a chance meeting between James Walsh, Houghton’s retired keeper of printed books, and Mr. Vidal,according to a 2002 article in the Harvard University Gazette.

“Walsh took a trip sponsored by the Boston Athenaeum to Italy,” the article stated. “Author and bibliophile spent the afternoon conversing and an idea was born. According to Vidal, he was already seriously considering Harvard as a repository for his papers as a result of conversations about the nature of his work with former Harvard professor and Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald. Houghton Library has long been regarded as a major repository for 19th and 20th century literary papers, and Mr. Vidal felt it was an appropriate place for his collection.”

Opinion is divided over how Mr. Vidal perceived his legacy. To Mr. Wrathall, Mr. Vidal said he couldn’t care less about it. Ms. Straight recalled that after they had seen a Shakespeare production, she said, “Wouldn’t it be fabulous for Shakespeare to somehow see his works still being performed?”

Mr. Vidal replied, “Do you think Shakespeare gives a damn, up there tonight, saying ‘Oh my, what a great revival?’ It’s the here and now, that’s all there is. No one’s keeping score.”

Ms. Straight added, “There was only the ‘Gore Vidal’ in his own mind and after that, nothing.” As for his works, “He didn’t give a damn,” she said. “He cared that his books carried on selling, but didn’t live his life thinking about leaving a legacy.”

But Mr. Tyrnauer recalled Mr. Vidal saying he would like to set up a foundation to safeguard the Bill of Rights.

Mr. Steers said, “He would have cared about being kept in the public consciousness and being deemed to be important.”

In his prime, Mr. Vidal spoke to Mr. Parini about turning La Rondinaia into a writers’ retreat.

“It would be great to use his legacy to promote younger writers,” Mr. Parini said, “to set up a Gore Vidal Foundation. He was also an immense supporter of left-wing causes, so perhaps a Gore Vidal prize in that spirit. Gore was never afraid and that kind of boldness is such a scarce commodity today. That was Gore’s greatest quality: his ferocity, his refusal to lie down.”

Arlyne Reingold, Mr. Austen’s sister, would like Harvard to allow her access to some of Mr. Austen’s possessions: a ruby ring he wore, a belt buckle, some of his singing recordings and pictures of her family, particularly a collage Mr. Austen made of their father’s old driving licenses. “Why would they want that?” she said.

The most hurtful omission in Mr. Vidal’s will, his family and friends agreed, regards Norberto Nierras, his housekeeper and chef.

“Norberto is not getting anything, and he was devoted to Gore,” Mr. Steers said.

Mr. Nierras said recently: “I’m 60 years old and had planned to stay with Mr. Vidal until I retired. I will have to go back to the Philippines, I cannot afford to stay in America. I didn’t expect he’d leave me anything, other people are surprised he didn’t. If Mr. Vidal did leave me something, I would be very, very grateful as it would help with my retirement in the Philippines, as I have a small pension.”

After being held by Mr. Tyrnauer and later Mr. Parini, the literary executorship of Mr. Vidal’s estate will be shared among several people, Mr. Parini said, while the estate “is keen to move forward with Gore’s work.” He said that Mr. Auchincloss and Richard Morris, Mr. Vidal’s agent, were working on ways to to repackage and republish Mr. Vidal’s work.

“There will be a major relaunch of his work as soon as possible after the dust settles,” Mr. Parini said. “There is so much great work, lying in publishing limbo.”

As we sat in Mr. Vidal’s living room, Mr. Steers said the house felt “depressing. There’s very little light. Nothing’s changed since the 1970s. Would I turn it down if it was left to me? No, of course not, but I am not going to passionately pursue it. I am repulsed by the whole situation.”

He said he was busy doing other things, prime among them directing the film of the Jane Austen parody, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel.

“You still feel him here,” said Mr. Steers, smiling, of Mr. Vidal. “He was such a presence. This house is so full of memories, I can’t imagine ever being able to come in here and not be overcome by them.”