Gore Vidal, Iconic American Author, Had Way More Sex Than You
Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, Jack Kerouac, and even Jacqueline Kennedy show up in a new "sexual biography" of writer Gore Vidal. Author Tim Teeman examines why discussing the iconic writer's sex life expands our understanding of him rather than contracts it.
In December 2011, about seven months before he died, Gore Vidal turned to his good friend Scotty Bowers as the two relaxed in Vidal's home in the Hollywood Hills. "You suppose we could find Bob and bring him over?" the frail, nostalgic Vidal asked. "Bob" was Bob Atkinson, a favorite male prostitute of Vidal's whom Bowers had first set him up with around 60 years prior. They had long lost touch. "Gore liked Bob because he had been in the Navy and he had a cock as big as a baby's arm," says Bowers, who recorded his life as a trick, then pimp, to Hollywood's rich and famous in the book Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.
"Scotty was the closest person to Gore in the last four years of his life who wasn't a servant," says Matt Tyrnauer, Vidal's close friend and former editor at Vanity Fair.
Vidal, one of America's most preeminent authors and lionized cultural-political figures, himself supplied a laudatory testimonial for Bowers' book: "I have known Scotty Bowers for the better part of a century. I'm so pleased that he has finally decided to tell his story to the world … Scotty doesn't lie — the stars sometimes do — and he knows everybody." Presumably, then, Vidal would have sanctioned as fact Bowers' revelations to me that Vidal not only had sex with him, but also with "many" hustlers Bowers arranged for him, as well as Hollywood stars Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, and Charles Laughton.
The numerous stories about Vidal's sex life I unearthed while researching my book, In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private Life of an American Master, about Vidal's private life and sexuality and how both intersected with his public life and identity, were inevitably salacious and fun. Vidal had a lot of sex — 1,000 men by the time he was 25, he once estimated. But the stories were also revealing and moving.
This was someone who, after all, did not believe in gay people but rather "gay sexual acts"; who claimed to be bisexual, but who — apart from some early sexual experiences with women — was gay. Vidal never came out in a conventional sense, though remained radical, and a public supporter of sexual freedom and equality, all through his life. He genuinely believed categorizing sexuality was foolish, but also had his own very personal reasons for not being fully open.
Vidal would have sex with hustlers in the afternoon, quickly, and only after he had completed a day's writing. The hustlers Vidal paid were young men, and the encounters would be quick. Control in this part of his life matched the control he sought to exert as a public figure and writer. He said he hated the gossip in books and newspapers about people's private lives — yet he relished gossiping about others' private lives.
The hustlers would be procured by Bowers, but also — especially when the couple lived in Italy, first in Rome and later Ravello — by Vidal's devoted partner of 53 years, Howard Austen. Vidal's relationship with Austen (only mentioned by Vidal later in life), who died in 2003, is fascinating, and deeper than he confessed. They had met in 1950 at New York's Everard Baths, a then-legendary sex joint. Vidal said their relationship worked because they did not have sex, which was a witty-sounding, though mean-spirited and diminishing canard: In truth, as I discovered, Vidal fell apart after Austen's death and grieved his loss deeply, crying to his friends that he had loved Austen. My book traces for the first time Vidal's terrible decline into severe alcoholism and dementia in the last decade of his life.
Vidal's enduring love and lust object, he wrote, was a lad he knew in school called Jimmie Trimble, but his friends and family think Vidal mythologized their connection. The all-American athletic Trimble, though, certainly remained Vidal's sexual archetype when it came to hustlers — and also, in his campaigning life, the enduring image of the American soldier who Vidal thought had been grievously ill-served by America's political class.
He lived as he wrote and bestrode the public stage — as a singular, unclassifiable maverick. "Gay" to a man like Vidal, and perhaps of his era, meant without power, marginalized: an anathema to Vidal, who relished his closeness to the Camelot of the Kennedys and the Hollywood elite he partied with. He felt being gay had both made him — his trailblazing novel The City and the Pillar, published in 1948 when he was in his early twenties, brought him fame — yet also disqualified him from holding public office, specifically to be president, just like his friend John F. Kennedy, whose sexual drive and appetite he admired.
Yet, despite his ambivalence and shadow play, Vidal also lived a full and swinging gay life. He was friends with novelist Christopher Isherwood and playwright Tennessee Williams. He had lots of sex, including with Jack Kerouac. He hated Truman Capote, not least because Capote was visibly gay in a way that revolted him: He disparaged "fags," including the gay author Edmund White, as any homophobe would. Yet he wrote and quietly campaigned for sexual freedom and equality. As I learned over and over again in my research, you cannot pigeonhole Vidal in any way, and his sexuality and sex life form a fascinating centerpiece to his many contradictions. Friends say his attitudes toward sex and desire were formed in childhood, in his parents' divorce and his mother's turbulent personal life. Vidal worshipped his father, but his relationship with his mother was extremely fraught.
Vidal's long friendship with Bowers was one of the most consistent of his life: He feuded and broke up with a number of close friends, especially as dementia exerted its grip in the last few years. "There's no one who can say they were friends that long because Gore didn't keep friends that long," Bowers told me. "I never had a cross word with Gore. He was very opinionated, I was very easygoing."
They met after the end of World War II. A friend of Vidal's had told him about Bowers' gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, where gay celebrities were introduced to hustlers by Bowers, and Bowers had been told Vidal might be coming in. "That's how word got around in those days," says Bowers. "If you had money, you couldn't advertise as well as this."
The first time he met Vidal, Bowers recalls him driving in one evening just after 8 at the wheel of a two-tone '47 Chevrolet. He said, "I'm Gore" to Bowers and hung out for around an hour, looking at the "trade" — the hustlers — on display. "Wherever you looked there was someone," says Bowers. Vidal said, "I can see this is going to be a fun place, I'm going to be here often." For $20, Bowers fixed his clients up with hustlers.
Bowers and Vidal connected well: Vidal had been in the Army, Bowers in the Marine Corps, which probably made Vidal more open with him than others. Vidal was two years older than Bowers. On that first night Bowers was working till midnight, so he sent Vidal "off with someone else he liked, a clean-cut, all-American-looking guy, his type," he says. A couple of days later he returned and said, "That was great, do you have someone else?" Bowers introduced him to Atkinson, and Vidal saw him "quite often."
"Gore had a medium-sized cock, seven inches, he looked circumcised but wasn't," Bowers recalls. "He was basically a top [he liked to penetrate, rather than be penetrated], but with Bob he allowed himself to be fucked. With some men I fixed him up with he didn't have sex with them at all. He just talked to them if they were very bright. Gore enjoyed talking to people."
The few times Bowers had sex with Vidal were "pleasant, not mad love." Vidal was always "on the ball, not bashful or shy, rather aggressive and pushy," Bowers says, and was "more or less into a quick trick. He did everything sexually, you sucked his cock, he would suck yours, but he preferred to fuck. Gore and I fucked and rolled around and played with each other's cocks. He'd grab your cock and, boom, he was young and hot and sex was rather quick."
Did Vidal have sex with any of Bowers' other famous friends? "I fixed him up with my friend Tyrone Power, which Gore asked me for as a favor, and he did me a favor and had sex with him," Bowers reveals. "Charles Laughton was not Gore's type, but Gore went with me for kicks." It was a three-way? "Yes, Charles was a dirty old man, but they wanted to meet each other. It was the same with Tyrone Power." Bowers says, laughing, that he "probably introduced Gore to more famous people than he introduced me to." He recalls Jacqueline Kennedy at one party going off to a bedroom with one man, her parting shot to Bowers, "I can't fucking help myself." Bowers says: "They always talk about her husband [JFK] fucking people, but she was a regular little tramp too. She'd fly out to Hollywood just to see William Holden."
When Vidal and Power got together, Bowers recalls, it was a "sucky-fucky thing. Gore put his cock between Tyrone's legs and fucked him between his legs. They sucked each other off and played together." Bowers laughs and adds: "Gore told people I had introduced him to people he wanted to know, and that was certainly the case with Tyrone Power. Both Charles and Gore sucked each other off and of course Tyrone liked being pissed on, so we did that. Gore went right along with it."
Bowers introduced Vidal to Rock Hudson; the men "hit it off" and they "buddy-buddied" together as friends too. "We had three-ways just when Rock was getting started as an actor," says Bowers. "Gore did a little bit of everything with Rock. He started necking with him and pretty soon he was playing with his cock. Gore was quite into fucking people between their legs. He did that with Rock. Rock had a steam room, and that was across the courtyard as you came in. We went into the steam room. Gore was rubbing Rock and sucking his prick. There were hands here and hands there. We were necking, sucking and fucking: Whatever position you wanted to be in you got in. We had three-ways a dozen times, and I'm sure they did it on their own a few times. When you fix up two people very often, they see each other. Separately they both told me how glad they were I introduced them. I know without a doubt they got together other times on their own, and I'm sure, when they did, that Gore fucked Rock."
Hudson, Power, Laughton, and Fred Astaire weren't the only celebrities Vidal had sex with. The writer John Bowen says Vidal described once having sex with Noël Coward. "Coward said to him, 'Let's have a roll in the hay.' And they did. Gore said it was quite enjoyable, but nothing very new." In his diaries, Kenneth Tynan, the writer and theater critic, wrote that Vidal had told him that Coward asked him to bed in Italy. "When he entered the bedroom Graham Payn [Coward's partner] was already naked between the sheets. Noël bustled in and stripped; Gore buggered Graham, and Noël masturbated with his prick against Gore's bottom. Having rapidly come, he rose and dressed within seconds and went off to work…"
Vidal told his nephew Burr Steers he had also successfully pursued and had sex with Fred Astaire when he first moved to Hollywood. "He also told me Dennis Hopper had a lovely tuft of hair above his ass. He never told me how he knew that." Another close friend of the author revealed Vidal had asked, when hearing the friend was staying at the legendarily rock-starry, scandalous Chateau Marmont, "How is the Chateau?" He then added: "Brad Davis [star of Midnight Express and Querelle] was a beautiful boy and I fucked him on the bathroom floor of the Chateau Marmont." Davis, who was bisexual and HIV positive, died of a drug overdose in 1991.
One of Vidal's most fruitful periods, sexually, was when he and Austen lived in Rome in the 1960s: their very own Dolce Vita. The playwright David Schweizer — then Tennessee Williams' younger lover — recalls visiting Vidal. "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," Vidal said. 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," Vidal said. 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. Today Schweizer 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."
Jason Epstein, Vidal's longtime editor until they fell out in the 1980s, insists, "He wasn't unhappy about being gay. He was unhappy about being wrongly classified, pigeonholed. I think his main interest was men, but of course he slept with women — why wouldn't he? He'd sleep with anything. He was horny. For him, sex was like having lunch. He was certainly quick about it. He didn't linger." Once, at the American Embassy in Rome, Vidal's eye was caught by a young Marine. Marines had sex "for pin money," Vidal told Epstein. Vidal told Epstein to wait for him. Epstein began reading a magazine article, when Vidal very suddenly appeared in front of him. "When is he coming?" Epstein asked Vidal of his hookup. "He's been," Vidal replied.
All that sex, I ask Steers, and he never worried about HIV and AIDS, let alone wrote about it, where he might have made a difference in the dark days of 1980s ignorance and widespread discrimination? Burr's brother Hugh died of AIDS; before his death he asked his uncle to publicly speak out, but Vidal did not. "I don't think he ever worried about HIV and AIDS," Steers says of Vidal. "I think he was quite confident it was something that wouldn't happen to him." Because he thought he was at less risk of infection, as he liked fucking men rather than being fucked? Steers laughs. "No. Because he was Gore Vidal."
Epstein puts the number of men Vidal had sex with down to this all-pervasive desire for dominance. "He talked about sex like you talked about a golf game, and he bought sex because it was the easiest way to do it." Vidal's "life's obsession," says Epstein, was the idea of the continuum of sexuality "with its roots in classical civilization. Everything wrong in the world could be put down to how narrowly sexuality was seen, he thought. For Gore it was ridiculous — and I agree — that people were being forced to live in these little prisons of definition invented by stupid people. Gore's so-called radicalism has a lot to do with that."
Epstein says Vidal "felt he was being forced to accept a sexual definition by a culture that wasn't worthy to make such a definition. He wouldn't make a sacrifice like that, around sexual identity, for the corrupt culture he lived within if he could help it. No one wants to be defined in a way that doesn't feel right to them: It's annoying, and if it's about your sexuality, it's extremely annoying."
For Vidal, the great lover of history, modern culture's obsession of categories was just that: annoying, bogus, not him. Though he didn't feel entirely easy with his sexuality and a public declaration of the same, his very individual attitudes toward sex, desire, and even love also reflected Vidal's innate contrarianism, the turbulent, fascinatingly complicated personality of their subject. No slave to identity politics or the crowd-pleasing sound bite, Gore Vidal was, and will remain, stubbornly, even heroically, impossible to classify — in and out of bed.
In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master by Tim Teeman is published by Riverdale Avenue Books/Magnus. It's available for purchase here. Read more at the author's website.