“We Started Drinking at Six”: Sparring and Slurring With Gore Vidal

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Only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I flew from New York to Tuscany for the wedding of two dear friends. Afterward I traveled south with my then boyfriend for a weekend stay at the storybook villa in Ravello of Gore Vidal, the American man of letters who once described himself thus: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

I had met Gore earlier that year in New York City when I took part in a reading of his play Visit to a Small Planet. I wasn’t really a fan of the play, but it isn’t every day you get to meet someone like Gore. The whole thing was very glittery, with Tony Randall and Lily Tomlin among the cast, as well as my old chum Kristin Chenoweth—who had played Lily St. Regis to my Rooster in the Disney remake of Annie two years before—and Christine Baranski, whom I’d go on to have many years of fun with in The Good Wife.

Alan Cumming in 2001. BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/REDUX.

Like many people I was both fascinated and slightly scared of Gore. I loved his stories and he loved that I loved them. I was flattered by his attention, and the invitation to visit him in Italy, but at the same time I would never want to be on the wrong side of him. He was a legendary drinker, but the few meetings we had were usually breakfasts or lunches, with maybe a glass of white wine the extent of the alcoholic consumption. So, I had never seen the other side of Gore’s personality. All of that was about to change.

When we arrived a little late after a taxi ride along the Amalfi Coast that was both the most terrifying and most beautiful car journey I’ve ever had, Gore had greeted us in a shaft of moonlight at the door of the villa, ice cubes clinking in the whisky glass he held aloft, and ushered us into his rococo study, where Howard Austen, Gore’s longtime partner, was completely plastered.

“We started drinking at six and so your tardiness is the reason for us being a little buzzed,” Gore slurred.

I asked Howard how he was doing. He peered up at me out of a huge armchair next to the drinks table that made him seem even more diminutive and impish than he actually was. “I’m floating,” came the reply.

I really liked Howard. It must have been hard to get a word in edgewise living with Gore Vidal, and so perhaps that gave him the time to hone his one-liners down to such a degree that every single one was a gem. Gore had once described Howard to me—not in his presence, of course—as “a wisecracker” and smiled with a rare fondness. And that is exactly what he was, especially that evening.

Gore showed us upstairs to our room. Golden yellow drapes hung at the huge windows, and the walls were festooned with slightly menacing gilt eagles. Behind the two voluminous sofas that abutted the marble fireplace was a four-poster bed, and books, books everywhere.

VISITING ARTIST 
Vidal and partner Howard Austen, shown in 1974. 
JOSEPH LEOMBRUNO, JACK BODI, & GIANNI LAMI. VOGUE, 1974.

“This is gorgeous,” I gasped.

“It was Princess Margaret’s room,” Gore said over his shoulder as he stepped unsteadily out onto a terrace with the most beautiful view I had ever seen. We were so high up that the sparkling lights from the ships moored up and down the coast for miles looked like fireflies. There was another little room off the terrace that Gore told us had been the maid’s quarters but now housed all of his foreign editions. “I am published in 62 languages,” he almost moaned. “They keep sending them to me. I have to have somewhere to put them.”

We freshened up quickly, then went back downstairs to join our hosts and four other dinner guests. Gore and Howard, doing their well-worn double act, were on a roll. “I once spent two successive Christmas Eves in Paris, in the company of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” Gore declared.

Howard, fixing us cocktails from his seated position next to the drinks table, deadpanned, “Just lucky, I guess.”

We all roared with laughter. Howard handed me my drink and winked.

“There was some little French accordionist playing, and the duke didn’t know the words of the hymns in English. He kept lapsing into German. He was a supporter of Hitler, but I don’t think he was intelligent enough to know what Nazism was,” Gore continued undeterred.

By the time we sat down to dinner, prepared by a famous Japanese chef who was vacationing nearby, the mood was quite raucous. Gore and Howard were not very au fait with Japanese food and at one point, Gore, who had refused chopsticks, forked up a huge mound of the hottest wasabi I had ever tasted, and was about to swallow it whole. The table exploded in cries of panic, especially the chef, who had just regaled us with the list of ingredients in every dish and was obviously acutely aware of the consequences of a drunk 76-year-old ingesting this thermogenic condiment.

But Gore, who was seated next to me at the head of the table in a very low chair (“Have you shrunk?” Howard had quipped), refused to heed anyone’s advice, and like the willful, wicked schoolboy he was, held the forkful of wasabi in front of his mouth, his eyes darting around the table to be sure we were all watching, then swallowed the lot of it. We all waited for something to happen, but miraculously he did not explode. He gave a silent toast with his sake glass and we all followed suit, but then, under the cover of the nervous, stilted conversation that finally resumed at the other end of the table, I heard him emit a series of weird grunts.

Howard was being charming and getting a lot of attention, and I could tell Gore was becoming a little jealous. He asked me what I was working on and I told him I was trying to finish off my first book, a novel, but what with all that had been going on over the last few weeks, I was having a little trouble.

“Well, of course you are, you’re not a novelist,” he snapped, without looking at me.

I said nothing. I knew exactly what was happening. Sadly, a response like this was an old standby for bitter old queens of a certain age. They show you kindness that you mistake as respect, then they bring you down or humiliate you when they know you can’t—or wouldn’t—retaliate because, actually, you want to protect them, not embarrass them. I knew this was in Gore’s lexicon, and I had even imagined something along these lines happening during this visit. In a way it was a sign that he liked me enough, or trusted my kindness, to be that cruel. And also, of course, in a way he was right. I wasn’t a novelist. Yet.

There was a rather long pause that I wasn’t going to break. Not with Gore’s belly full of whisky and sake and wasabi, and his speech slurring and his eyes straining to focus. Also, at that moment, I actually held the upper hand. I found Gore boring and wished I was farther up the table listening to Howard being witty and hilarious—which I knew would be a dagger to Gore’s heart.

“Write about what you know,” he said quietly.

I wanted to say that was exactly what I was doing, that my novel was a thinly veiled roman aà clef about my debaucherously fun deep dive a few years prior, overlaid with my still very present physical yearnings for fatherhood. But I didn’t have a chance. He was off. “You get around the world, you meet interesting people, you have ideas. Write them down! And analyze,” he said, with great emphasis.

“Write about this weekend,” he continued, looking over his sake glass at Howard. “Write about two men who have been together for over 50 years and yet have hardly ever had sex. Analyze it.”

Their relationship did indeed fascinate me. They had been together at that point for 52 years and seemed completely dependent on, and loyal to, each other. But Gore had written copiously about his other lovers, his fear of commitment, and that he had never been in love except once, briefly, with his fellow schoolboy named Jimmy Trimble, whose death, soon after their teenage love affair ended, haunted him and his work—Palimpsest, Gore’s memoir, was a paean to Jimmy. I wondered how Howard felt about all of that.

I had finished reading Palimpsest just a couple of hours earlier, rushing through the last chapters on the train that afternoon like a guilty schoolboy cramming for a tutorial. And now here I was, listening to the man himself recount many of the anecdotes I’d so recently read. It was like having drinks with a living audiobook. When he started the one about Greta Garbo saying to Cecil Beaton that she wished her genitals got smaller as she got older, it was all I could do to stop myself from chiming in with the punch line.

WITHERING HEIGHTS
The often caustic Vidal would famously entertain guests at his home, known for its transfixing vistas.
ROBERT EMMETT BRIGHT & ALESSANDRO DE CRIGNIS. ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST, 1994.

Gore and Howard had met in the aptly named Everard Baths on 28th Street in New York City in the late ’40s, where they had had some sexual contact (“mostly in the presence of others,” as Gore delicately put it). Gore talked fondly of those halcyon days when men of all sexualities gathered in bathhouses (“It was cheaper than a hotel and they could get blown”) and where, he said, you could have anyone.

Even sitting down, Gore was swaying now, and beginning to needle me. He could feel I was taking him up on his challenge and, by questioning him about his views and past adventures, I was indeed trying to analyze his and Howard’s relationship. So, he kept throwing challenges back.

“Don’t you hate commitment?” he asked wickedly, knowing my boyfriend was within earshot.

“No,” I said, thinking carefully. “I don’t hate it.”

“But you obviously aren’t that fond of it by the way you responded.”

“Well…” I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable and Gore could tell and was loving it. “It’s not that I’m not fond of it. When I make a commitment, I like it. I just don’t like to feel trapped.”

Gore’s eyes sparkled and he flashed a vulpine smile, no doubt honing his next salvo. I decided to retaliate. The hunted became the hunter.

You seem to be the one with the commitment issues, Gore.” There was a pause for a moment. He slurped more sake. “Oh yes.” Suddenly Gore reminded me of Tommy, the eponymous hero of my unfinished novel, shagging everything he could and refusing to be pinned down or defined. But unlike Tommy, he had enjoyed all that in his life and commitment. Gore had no commitment issues. He had been committed to Howard for more than half a century. What he had a problem with was admitting his commitment.

He then started to talk about never having loved.

“What about Jimmy Trimble?” I asked.

“Ah yes.” I could tell he was torn—half pleased I had done my homework and read his memoir; half pissed off I was interrupting his lament. “I didn’t realize how much he meant to me,” Gore conceded.

“But you were never really in love with him, were you?” I pounced, knowing the answer already, but wanting to hear him say it aloud.

“How could I have been? We were so young. We were just friends fooling around.”

Of course, Gore would be an exponent of my least favorite American phrase.

“He was just a teenage infatuation?” I pushed.

“Yes.”

“So, you have never loved, Gore?”

“No.”

I suppose I should have been outraged that Gore Vidal had just confessed to me that the central theme of his memoir was a lie, but I wasn’t. A human being in his 70s sitting in front of me asking me to believe he had never been in love was far more outrageous. Just as he had never properly acknowledged the commitment he had made to Howard, he couldn’t admit to ever having been in love.

Vidal in a 2006 V.F. portraitBY JONAS FREDWALL KARLSSON. VANITY FAIR, 2006.

I couldn’t understand it. The usual recipe of shame and self-loathing you might attribute to a man of his generation in such a scenario just didn’t wash: He’d been very vocal about his male partners. And his female ones. In fact, let’s face it, Gore was pretty vocal about everything. His first novel, The City and the Pillar, is very graphic in its description of a gay relationship and caused a sensation when it was first published, in 1948. It’s not as if he had a problem with admitting he liked cock. He just had a problem admitting to liking the rest of the person a cock belongs to.

“You Brits are more prone to affection in sex,” he said, reaching for the sake bottle.

“You make that sound like a bad thing,” I replied.

The subject was closed. Gore was finished.

Later, with yet more sake sloshed into our glasses, Gore launched into another elaborate and racy story. Things were getting pretty woozy by now, but I seem to recall this one was about a youthful Prince Philip and the coterie of European aristocrats on whose kindness he had depended. Howard interrupted with another wisecrack that made us all howl, and the next thing we knew Gore was up and out of his seat, staggering against the kitchen door frame as he exited stage right. A big, huge baby in a big, theatrical huff. He did not return.

Everyone was a little embarrassed, and Howard seemed genuinely worried, but then someone suggested a nightcap, and the promise of alcohol numbed his anxiety.

When the other guests had left to drive home to their villa, I told Howard to go to bed and that I would clean up. “Well, it can’t be too bad, he must quite like me, we have been together for 52 years,” he said, his ever-present cigarette wobbling in his mouth as he spoke. I thought it both sad and strangely sweet to be that insecure, after all that time. And with that, Howard bade us good night.

As we climbed the stairs to the Princess Margaret room, I heard voices coming from the study, where Gore had retreated and Howard had now joined him. They were bickering. Through the open door I saw Gore hunched over in a chair, balancing a tumbler of whisky on his knee. He glanced up and our eyes met.

“Good night, children,” he said sadly.

As we reached the bedroom door, I could hear their argument continue. I sat down on the top step and listened. Suddenly I was taken back to my childhood home, and the many times I sat on our stairs attuned to the raised voices of my parents, my stomach clenched in anguish, wondering if it was anything I had said or done that had sparked this latest conflict.

“You weren’t using your brain, Howard, you didn’t know what you were doing, you were so drunk,” growled Gore, who at this point was barely intelligible himself.

“This is not working, Gore, it’s not working, period. I have got to get out of here.” I heard Howard leave and start down the stairs to their bedrooms below.

Oh, good, I remember thinking, he only means he has to get out of that room.

But then, after a few seconds came Howard’s final, departing cry: “I am putting the lights out now, Gore, and don’t worry, in the morning I will be so out of here.”

Oh my God, I thought. They are splitting up! I was present on the very night a 52-year relationship ended, and all because I was late, and they got so drunk before dinner! I am partly to blame for Howard and Gore breaking up! (Please note I had been drinking heavily myself.)

In the morning, my boyfriend and I crept downstairs, fearful of the carnage we might find. At first, we couldn’t find anyone at all, but then a little Italian lady appeared and ushered us out to a terrace overlooking the Amalfi Coast and a table set for breakfast, where Gore and Howard were sitting, crashingly hungover. But when they saw us, they perked up immediately.

“Wasn’t that a fantastic evening?” asked Gore.

“I really needed a blowout after the tension of the last few weeks,” agreed Howard.

Considering I had expected Howard to be gone, his appearance as well as their glowing review of the previous night’s shenanigans left me stunned.

We sat down and our breakfast order was taken. Under the table, I absentmindedly slid my hand into my boyfriend’s. The tabletop was glass, and so Howard saw this gesture and immediately swatted his napkin at me.

“Not in front of Maria,” he hissed.

I quickly withdrew my hand, confused, suddenly ashamed, but not sure why. Already following Gore’s advice of the previous evening, I began to analyze what had just happened, and I was filled with sadness—that not just love but tenderness or even touch had no place here, even under the table, in a home two men had shared for more than 30 years.


From the book Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming. © 2021 by Alan Cumming. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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