The late Gore Vidal was many things: author, screenwriter, and would-be President of the United States, commemorated for his intimidating eloquence and his volatile temper. He was also gay, often claiming he’d had sex with 1,000 men before the age of 25.
But among the many things Vidal wouldn’t stand for was to ever be called gay by anyone else, to the point that he spent years suing William F. Buckley over it. He never openly identified with LGBT activism and was noted for his gratuitous use of anti-gay slurs. It was just one of the Byzantine contradictions of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing figures.
Author and journalist Tim Teeman met Vidal in the twilight of Vidal’s life in 2009. The sometimes tense interview and the aging Vidal’s beguiling allusions to his past sexual escapades eventually yielded a book, “In Bed with Gore Vidal,” on sale November 5, in which Teeman tries to crack the eternally tough nut of Vidal’s sexual paradoxes.
We sat Teeman down and asked him to address the five biggest mysteries of Vidal’s Casanova years.
429Magazine: So, Gore Vidal was gay, right? Or was he?
Tim Teeman: Gore said that there’s no such thing as gay people, just gay acts. These days we’re so obsessed with identity politics it’s a little difficult to unpack that. Really, he was arguing for radical sexual freedom, but not everyone understood it. People thought of Gore as bisexual, and in theory he was because he believed in the defunctness of sexual categories, but really his bisexuality was something of a myth. This book is a sexual biography, but it’s not just about sex: It’s about where sex meets public life and work and activism.
429Mag: Then why did he hate being called gay?
Teeman: In some ways he was an old-school closet case: He didn’t want to say the word because he was frightened of it. In his day that word meant flaming, lisping queers, and he didn’t see himself as like them. Most importantly, it meant being marginalized and powerless, and more than anything Gore wanted power.
He wanted to bestride the world, and he felt that letting people put that word ‘gay’ onto him would reduce him somehow, which is how men of that generation usually felt. I wouldn’t say he was self-loathing, but there were elements of self-loathing about him. He was a complex, contradictory mixture.
429Mag: Okay, but why was he so angry about it? Why did he go around calling everyone faggots?
Teeman: Because he was Gore Vidal and he ran by his own rules. Contradictions were his nature. I mean, here was a man who always said he hated sexual gossip, but he was the biggest gossip in the world. It saddened me as a gay man to hear him call another gay man a fag, in the same terms and with the same virulence as a homophobe would. Why do you think no one wrote this book while he was still alive?
There was a generation of gay writers who came after him who said, ‘Yes, I’m gay, so what?’ and he simply didn’t get that. When someone like [playwright]Edmund White imputed a gay identity onto Gore Vidal his response was a big red alarm. And I imagine in the back of his mind he was curious and thinking, ‘Here’s a gay man who just says it and does it and never had a problem,’ and Gore on some level always had a problem with being gay and saying so. And the book is really about identifying, what was Gore’s gay problem?
429Mag: But everyone knew about it anyway. How did he even get away with that in his day and age?
Teeman: He benefited in a funny way from being part of a closeted era. He was having a very active gay sex life, and although there were scandal rags in those days they weren’t about outing celebrities. Because the public just had no desire to hear about that kind of thing; it simply wasn’t something you talked about, even in that context. So there was muteness around the subject, even about open secrets, and that benefited him. Although he did always contend that intimations about his sex life spoiled his chances at running for office.
429Mag: So why put the “gay label” on him now?
Teeman: It’s all about 2003, when his partner of 53 years died. They had hustlers in the bedroom with them all through that relationship and Gore never really acknowledged Howard as the true love of his life. He even repeatedly claimed he and Howard never had sex, which wasn’t true. But once Howard was gone Gore fell apart. I think that means something very important about Gore. He became a diminished figure, and you can see in his last ten years that that relationship with that one man really was the fulcrum of Gore’s life.
I just want to be clear that the point of this book is not to diminish Gore. It’s not an Oz moment where you rip down the curtain and see that he’s just a guy pulling levers after all. Gore was one of the most fearsome, inspiring subjects I’ve ever had, and I want the book to be respectful. Gay people should celebrate Gore for the many ways he benefited the community. He would have hated this book, of course, but he’d have been marvelous in how he hated it. I love hearing his voice in my mind when I read it. Because what a voice.