Sympathy for the Devil

Michael Mewshaw
On Meeting Gore Vidal in Rome

The air was hot and sodden with humidity, and although it was October, a summer thunderstorm felt imminent. We caught a bus crammed with commuters and careened downhill to Trastevere through the evening rush hour—one of the four traffic jams that Roman drivers endure each day. Cars stalled us on Ponte Garibaldi. I didn’t mind. The bridge offered mesmeric views of the Tiber and of the dome of St. Peter’s, gleaming like a bishop’s miter off to our left.

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The delay also gave me a chance to collect myself and calm my wife, Linda. We were about to meet Gore Vidal, renowned for his acerbic wit and cutting remarks about those who didn’t measure up to his exacting standards. Having watched him on television mete out discipline to the likes of William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, I preferred not to imagine the mincemeat he might make of an American couple in Rome for a year with their six-month-old son.

A mutual friend had passed along Vidal’s number and urged me to call him. Over a staticky phone line I recognized the frosty patrician voice that had launched a thousand insults and sparked countless literary feuds. Vidal didn’t so much invite us as summon us to his apartment for drinks.

We jumped off the bus at Largo Argentina, a fenced-in square of excavated ruins; fluted columns and cypress and pine trees sprouted from brick rubble. It was one of those precincts of Rome where some ancient buried secret appeared to have burst through the surface of the modern city for the purpose of reminding people that there is no end to the history, no easy explanation of the mystery, of the place. And no explanation of its citizens either. Dozens of old black-shawled crones had arrived for the evening shift, bearing bowls of pasta to feed the mangy cats skulking through the ruins. The resemblance of these women to priestesses propitiating deities made me think we would have been wise to bring Vidal a gift.

At the corner of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via di Torre Argentina, the gray-and-mustard-colored Palazzo Origo, shabby despite its august name, had shops on the ground floor, including one of the largest bookstores in the city, a branch of the Feltrinelli chain. On higher floors, the palazzo housed offices, a language school, and private apartments. Gore Vidal occupied the penthouse. When I pressed the intercom at the building’s entrance, a crackling voice told us to take the elevator “all the way to the top.” But the elevator, a cage about as big as the holding pen in a county jail, wasn’t functioning, and Linda and I had to climb flights of stairs whose grimy iron railings and scalloped steps called to mind a Piranesi prison sketch. The hall smelled of garbage and cooking oil, and behind one door a man was shrieking. Perhaps he had been driven mad by the babble of televisions.

Vidal called out to us that kids from the language school must have vandalized the elevator again. At least the screaming madman was locked up today. He said he sometimes had to whip the poor fellow back into his apartment with a dog leash.

On the sixth and final floor—l’ultimo piano, as Italians call it—we entered a high-ceilinged salone where a fluffy Australian terrier leaped from an armchair and yapped at our heels as we advanced onto a terrace that looked to be the size of a tennis court. While we paused to catch our breath, Vidal asked what we wanted to drink, then shouted for a servant to bring two scotch and sodas.

Sipping a glass of white wine, he identified a couple of the church domes that bubbled above Rome’s skyline.

“That’s Sant’Andrea della Valle,” he said, “the setting for Tosca, act 1. And there’s St. Ivo, with the corkscrew lantern on top.”

Flocks of starlings wheeled overhead—circumflexes of black beating against storm clouds. A gusty wind harped through potted palms and a vine-laced trellis. Vidal stepped over to the terrace railing, and Linda and I followed him and glanced down at Largo Argentina. Cars and buses swerved around the ruined temples like scavengers scuttling past meatless bones. The racket of their horns and squealing tires was deafening; a haze of exhaust fumes stung my eyes and throat.

Undeterred by the noise and pollution, Vidal instructed us—he was, I would learn, a relentless lecturer—that Largo Argentina had been one of Mussolini’s extravagant urban renewal projects. In a devious effort to demonstrate that fascism had recaptured the grandeur of the classical city, Il Duce had had marble slabs dragged from other archaeological sites and deposited here for dramatic effect.

In profile, Vidal’s face might have been a cameo carved on an ancient medallion—high forehead, aquiline nose, and slightly swollen, slightly insolent mouth. A bit under six feet tall, he had an upright, almost military bearing and wore a blue blazer and gray gabardine trousers, an outfit I would see him in so often I came to regard it as his uniform. At the age of fifty—he had celebrated this milestone on October 3, 1975—his midsection had given in to gravity and showed a bit of loose flesh. Despite a reputation for vanity, he was self-deprecating about his appearance and joked that he used to be the handsomest man in Rome. “Now I’m just another ruin.”

When it started to rain, we returned to the salone, a hodgepodge of styles and eras, personal memorabilia and motifs. Gilt-framed mirrors reflected an antique marble bust, a stone lion, Indian wood carvings, an Aubusson tapestry picturing three Dutchmen slaying a wolf, and photographs of Princess Margaret, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, and Tennessee Williams. A polite visitor might have regarded the decor as a display of one man’s eclectic tastes. A connoisseur might have judged that the collector couldn’t make up his mind.

At a sideboard, Vidal poured himself a refill of white wine, and as a Sri Lankan houseboy served Linda and me our scotch, Gore delivered a discourse on drinking. No amount of wine, he swore, was as bad for you as hard liquor. “That’s the killer—hard stuff.” This pronunciamento was followed by one about sex. “Think how many American men kill themselves with two or three highballs before dinner, then wine with a heavy meal. Then they jump right into bed and have sex. My father had a heart attack in middle age. It didn’t kill him, but he was never the same again. The trick is to arrange for sex in the afternoon and save the booze and food for afterward.”

As the storm intensified, the terrace shutters banged back and forth. Gore didn’t bother to close them. “That’s it,” he said with finality. “Summer’s over.”

He settled into an armchair, the dog nestled next to him, and Vidal caressed his high-strung pet. The scene seemed out of sync. He had, after all, famously remarked, “I am exactly as I appear. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find ice water.” Yet here Gore was sweet-talking a nervous dog named Rat.

A short, stocky, freckle-faced man dashed into the salone and slammed the doors against the rain. “I don’t guess it occurred to you,” he said bristling at Gore. “Where’s hashish?”

My first thought was that he meant to roll a joint. But when Gore said, “He’s in the kitchen,” I realized they were talking about the houseboy. For decades, the help chez Vidal changed on a regular basis but was always referred to as Hashish or LBP, short for Little Brown Person. With not the slightest nod to political correctness, Gore salted his conversation with references to nig-nogs, fags, and kikes. It wasn’t just that he was a product of his era and upbringing; he seemed to delight in saying the unsayable.

He introduced Howard Austen, his companion of twenty years. Like Gore, Howard wore a blue blazer, but with blue jeans faded at the knees. Ginger-haired and fizzing with energy, he had about him the grit and spunk of New York City, the kind of cockiness that served notice that you’d better take him on his own terms or not at all. In his mid-forties, he still came across as a scrappy street kid, undaunted by Vidal’s Olympian aplomb. “What the hell?” he said. “Do you know you have a hole in your shoe?”

Gore examined his sole. “Well, it was good enough for Adlai Stevenson.”

Howard muttered that Gore just didn’t give a damn—a lament I would hear him repeat many times over the years. While he fixed himself a drink, a skinny, bedraggled woman arrived shaking a soaked umbrella. Dowdy, ill-fitting clothes added to the impression of a lady down on her luck. But Gore said Dorothy James was in Italy working on an Al Pacino film, Bobby Deerfield.

“A bit part,” she demurred. “If it wasn’t for Gore, I’d never have gotten it. I’ve had health problems, and he helped with my doctor bills.”

He waved off her gratitude with an indolent whisk of the hand. Though not immune to compliments about his books, he had no interest in gratitude or praise for his charity.

“Don’t listen to her. Dorothy was in Brigadoon and Kismet.”

“Not that you’d know that from the credits.”

Gore shrugged and delivered a signature line, borrowed from Oscar Wilde: “No good deed goes long unpunished.”

While Dorothy James, Linda, and Howard fell into conversation, Gore asked me what we were doing in Rome, and when I said I was on sabbatical from the University of Texas, based at the American Academy, he mentioned that he had researched his novel Julian in the academy library. This led to a discussion of his work habits. “I write in the morning at a table, longhand on yellow legal pads, just like Nixon, when I’m doing fiction. Typewritten when I’m working on an essay or film script.”

He stayed at it three or four hours a day, he stressed, and never let houseguests or his social life disrupt his schedule. It nettled him that he had a reputation as a writer who went to too many parties, wasted too much time in Hollywood, and hobnobbed with too many celebrities. In a career of more than thirty years, he had produced a dozen novels, five plays, several collections of essays, and a series of mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box. His historical novels, in particular, were time-consuming enterprises dependent upon years of research, all of which he did himself. He wasn’t one of those wealthy bestselling authors, he wanted me to know, who hired legions of assistants to do his donkey work.

“Before I start a new novel,” he said, “I go into training. I check into a spa, give up alcohol, and fast for a few days to clear my head. I’m no romantic. To write what I do, I have to be able to think. If you know anything about literary history, you know Henry James and Edith Wharton led far more active social lives than I do, and it never harmed their writing.” Then, perhaps to tweak my nose, he joked that a steady diet of dinner parties couldn’t possibly dry up one’s juices as quickly as teaching creative writing.

Michael Mewshaw’s more-than-four-decade career spans fiction, nonfiction, literary criticism, and investigative journalism. He is the author of, among other titles, the nonfiction works Life for Death, Short Circuit, and Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa; the novel Year of the Gun; and the memoirs Do I Owe You Something? and If You Could See Me Now. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews, and literary profiles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Newsweek, Harper’s, Granta, and many other international outlets. During the winter he lives in Key West, Florida, with his wife, Linda, and he spends the rest of the year traveling in Europe and Africa.