Getting under the covers with Gore Vidal is a terrifying prospect when thinking about the last time I saw him appear live on television. It was when David Dimbleby interviewed Vidal after Obama’s election in 2008. The elderly Vidal was haughty, argumentative and made no sense. Since he was such a vocal and frequent presence on television throughout his life, Tim Teeman references this incident in the book as the nadir of Vidal’s many public appearances due to his evident mental and physical decline. The appearance was particularly embarrassing in relation to thinking about a time when I’d seen him several years before give a reading at a PEN event in London. After the event people were mingling in the corridor chatting away when Vidal’s long-term partner Howard came bursting through clearing a path with a walking stick and grumbling “Make way! Make way!” as Vidal followed behind him strutting with his nose held high like an imperial statesman while everyone looked upon him with awe. People surrounding him practically bowed in respect. Looking past his status and accomplishments, consider portraits of the tall masculine intellectual stud in his heyday and the prospect of slipping in bed with Vidal is much more enticing. I was ambiguous about wanting to go there, but now that I’ve read this insightful, entertaining and admirable biography I’m glad that I did. In this book Teeman disentangles Vidal’s complicated position on sexuality while constructing a history of his erotic life. In doing so he creates an important portrait of one of recent gay history’s most controversial figures. 'In Bed with Gore Vidal' prompts us to challenge our assumptions and ask vital questions about how we define sexuality on a personal, social and political level.
Teeman makes clear at the beginning: “This is a book with sexuality at its heart; it is neither a general biography nor evaluation of Vidal’s writing career.” Through rigorous research and clear analysis Teeman manages to compile a collage of opinions both about Vidal’s sexuality and what sexuality means for an individual in relation to society. Drawing on an impressive range of resources, Teeman’s references draw upon Vidal’s books, letters between Vidal and his friends, interviews with a huge variety of people Vidal knew intimately, an important unpublished interview the publisher Don Weise conducted with Vidal in 1999, research material for an unfinished biography by Walter Clemons which was largely destroyed and an interview Teeman conducted with Vidal himself a few years prior to his death. Like a review of the last century’s most influential figures names of prominent politicians, writers and Hollywood actors are listed as having not only been acquainted with Vidal but close personal friends: Jackie and JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Margaret, Rudolf Nureyev, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Paul Bowles, Muriel Spark, Anais Nin, Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Rock Hudson, Greta Garbo, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and many others. Naturally all these opinions and viewpoints about Vidal are sometimes in conflict with one another and present a series of contradictions.
Even just by scratching the surface of Vidal’s life a huge variety of questions arise about what the writer did in bed especially when considering Vidal’s ability to “embellish” the facts and present a carefully monitored public persona. Did Vidal really have sexual relations with the long-dead Jimmie Trimble who Vidal always considered his great lost love and masculine ideal? Did he ever have a cock in his mouth or was he only into mutual masturbation? Was Vidal indifferent about the AIDS crisis or deeply moved by it? Was he a great lover of women or was his close relationships with them only platonic? Did he really suck off and fuck Jack Kerouac in the Chelsea Hotel? Did he ever have sex with Howard, his partner of over 50 years, or (as he claimed in interviews) never have sex with him? Can Vidal, with all these questions swirling around him, legitimately claim not to be gay?
By presenting these queries with an even-handed array of references and offering his own diligent clear-sighted commentary Teeman constructs what feels like an accurate reconciliation between how Vidal presented himself as someone who claimed “There is no such thing as a homosexual person” and a man who lived with another man for over fifty years while having countless sexual encounters with male prostitutes. In some ways it all seems to come down to semantics as Teeman notes: “Vidal thought ‘gay’ referred to a sexual act, rather than a sexual identity.” Since Vidal saw sexual identity as always being fluid, people can’t ever be defined as either homosexual or heterosexual in his mind.
There is a niggling sense throughout the book that his position on sexuality is largely founded on Vidal’s own fear of having his public image diminished by being labelled as gay: “He knew his political destiny would be betrayed by his gay sexuality – this taint.” That a public image could be diminished by a queer label was something he learned well after the reception of his ground-breaking novel ‘The City and The Pillar’ upon publication in 1948. On multiple occasions Vidal tried to be elected into government and harboured a longstanding daydream wish to one day become president. With these ambitions for power and overall public approval, it’s not surprising that, as Teeman observes, “his mind never allowed that ‘gay’ could mean firm wrists, men of all kinds having sex with, and loving, one another and being open about it; even realizing the potency of its political appropriation, or something to reveal, rather than hide.” Vidal had his definition and he stuck to it without considering how it might reflect on his personal longstanding relationship with Howard or the way it might be interpreted by society as self-denial.
Vidal always became very disgruntled if anyone tried to fix these labels on him. It’s humorous to think how the author, so deeply concerned about his self image, would have hated that this book exists. Now that Vidal is dead riffling around the sacred bed to discover his dirty underclothes gives the reader a giddy feeling of transgression – like when Colm Tóibín depicted the inner life of the deeply private Henry James in his novel 'The Master'. Such audacity can seemingly only occur after the subject’s passing. Vidal reveals himself as a hypocrite when he affixed the label of homosexual on Henry James even though this is something no one can know for sure. Teeman points out the “irony in Vidal freely casting James as a homosexual and homosexual writer, whereas he strenuously resisted any such definitions being applied to himself.” This is another indication of Vidal’s tremendous arrogance, but also what made him so enthralling to listen to as he was clearly a great gossip. He knew almost everyone worth knowing so could either recite accounts based on experience or spin believable fables to suit his purpose.
This resistance to embrace terms like “homosexual” and “gay” in relation to himself often led to feelings of animosity between the gay community and Vidal – something Vidal was never that bothered about as he felt “There is no fellow feeling particularly.” In addition, as can be seen in many recorded interviews with Vidal, he enjoyed a good scrap and enjoyed stirring heated debate. However, Teeman records how through some clear-intentioned writing, sporadic acts of charity and support for gay activism Vidal backed his claim when he once said to someone “I am on your team. After all, I’ve been there all along.” Maybe he didn’t do everything he could, but he played a part. Perhaps even by standing alone with his radical opinions he progressed ideas in society in ways that aren’t so clear-cut. As Teeman wryly notes: “He was a renegade, not a crusader.” And, after all, this raises one of the questions central to the heart of this book: was Vidal a sexual pioneer creating a level playing field or an old-fashioned relic who was too worried what people would think? There is no clear answer to this question or any of the other many questions raised by the fascinating and frustrating figure of Vidal. The fact that we’re forced to question and challenge our own beliefs and assumptions when considering him is what makes him so interesting to study. For that reason, Tim Teeman has produced a valuable biography and study that takes sex seriously while also providing a fantastically titillating read.