In Bed with Gore Vidal
and a Full Service happy hooker
By Drew Rowsome
There is the need for a serious, scholarly analysis of Gore Vidal's contributions to literature and politics, fortunately Tim Teeman's In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master is not that book.
Gossipy, sex-obsessed and utterly riveting, In Bed with Gore Vidal attempts to get to the bottom (pun intended) of the three crucial questions of Vidal's history:
1) The veracity of Vidal's frequent and adamant assertions that, "There is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people. Those sexual acts are entirely natural; if they were not, no one would perform them."
This statement was often interpreted as, and possibly deliberately designed to, create the impression that Vidal was bisexual instead of gay. Teeman chronicles alleged affairs with Anais Nin, Claire Bloom and even Joanne Woodward but also an endless parade of rent boys, celebrity male conquests and friends who are more than dubious of Vidal being anything other than boy crazy. Even Vidal's marriage proposal to Woodward is described by both of them as a ploy concocted to convince Paul Newman, who they both desired, to pop the question to Woodward.
2) The true status of Vidal's 53 year relationship with Howard Austen. Even though the pair met while cruising the Everard Baths, Vidal emphatically stated that the relationship lasted because the pair never had sex. The duo certainly had a lot of sex with others - Teeman chronicles orgies and the duo's individual preferential tastes in trade - and even if it was just an emotional bond, it was one that left Vidal devastated and adrift when Austen died.
3) Was Vidal's youthful romance with golden boy Jimmie Trimble really the pinnacle and denouement of Vidal's love life?
Was there ever even a sexual relationship?
Was the romance all in Vidal's head in order to justify his emotional coldness and narcissism? Vidal told Nin that, "I like casual relationships. When you are involved, you get hurt," and claimed to many that Trimble, who was killed during the battle of Iwo Jima, was the only time he had ever dared to open his heart. Vidal is, by his instructions, interred next to Austen but as close to Trimble's gravesite as Vidal was able to purchase plots.
Is Teeman able to come to authoritative conclusions about any of these burning questions? Not at all but that doesn't in any way destroy the great fun to be had trying to puzzle it out. Teeman has interviewed scores of Vidal's friends and enemies, and the results are contradictory and catty. Vidal spread so much deliberate obfuscation, both in his fiction and his life, that we'll never know the truth. But we can revel in the gossipy tidbits that Teeman uncovers:
Vidal loved to speculate on sexual orientation and penis size;
in revenge for being banned from JFK's White House for being gay, Vidal quoted Rudolf Nureyev on Bobby Kennedy, "We did share a young soldier once. An American soldier;"
Vidal pimped for Princess Margaret, "He sent her out on a boat with a young Italian guy with a big cock and she came back very satisfied;"
Vidal frequented a hustler bar restaurant in LA, "It was fabulous, a fantasy. You came in via a descending staircase with mirrors behind, so you could be seen from all sides. Everyone would see the legs, then the basket, then the face - and if all that was disappointing they would turn back to their food;"
and there are many more anecdotes and delightful evocations of an era now past.
In Bed with Gore Vidal is not all trash and flash. Teeman makes sure to situate Vidal's work and persona in the firmament of gay history - as much as that would, apparently, have appalled Vidal. Teeman also provides the reader with samples of Vidal's wit and non-fiction writing, including a wonderful passage that contradicts - or reinforces - Teeman's book's very reason for existence.
"Now, part of the pleasure one gets from reading novels is the inevitable moment when the hero beds the heroine or, in certain advanced and decadent works, the hero beds another hero in an infernal glow of impropriety. The mechanical side of the operation is of intense interest to everyone. Partly, of course, because so few of us get entirely what we want when it comes to this sort of thing and, too, there is something remarkably exciting about the sex lives of fictional characters . . . one feels far more clearly engaged than one does in life where the whole thing is often confused and clumsy. Also, there is a formidable amount of voyeurism in us all and literature, even better than pornographic pictures, provides us at its best with an excitation occasionally more poignant than the real thing."
There have been some attempts to up the scandal quotient ofIn Bed with Gore Vidal - though the book is already packed with scandalous revelations, we are, alas, as a species rather numb to the peccadilloes of writers, movie stars and politicians - by singling out a section that speculates that Vidal liked his hustlers on the young side. Apparently he did. That combined with an appearance at a fundraising event for NAMBLA allows one to paint Vidal's appetites as paedophilia. But the evidence is scant and while Vidal's preferences age-wise may have frozen with the memory of Jimmie Trimble and boyish bonking, that is more Corbin Fisher or Dorm Dudes than child abuse.
This ties in neatly with Scotty Bowers' book Full Service, wherein is recounted a lifetime of enthusiastic prostitution that began at 10 years of age. Bowers and Vidal were friends for decades and Bowers may have been Vidal's role model for the concept of fluent bisexuality. Not only did Vidal provide a laudatory quote for the cover of Full Service, but the launch party on February 8, 2012 was the very last public appearance that the dying Vidal could muster the strength to make. Teeman has a near perfect description of Full Service in In Bed with Gore Vidal that is as good, or better, than any review I could create after gleefully diving into Full Service's salacious and delicious pages:
Bower's book is rich in scandalous gossip, casting a direct and unsparing spotlight on a Hollywood of old, where secrecy was all and the stars protected by a ruthlessly powerful studio system, aided by a media that while frothing in gossip rarely if ever trespassed too far into the sex life of celebrities. Bowers reveals that he had sex with Walter Pidgeon, Cole Porter ("He could suck off twenty guys, one after the other. And he always swallowed."), George Cukor (who would "suck dick" with a "quick cold efficiency") and Cary Grant and his partner Randolph Scott ("The three of us got into a lot of sexual mischief together"). Cecil Beaton would carefully tuck away and de-crease the sheet and blankets of a bed before sex; Bowers had threeways with former English King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor ("He sucked me off like a pro") and the woman he abdicated the throne for, Wallis Simpson ("she definitely preferred homosexual sex").
Further, Bowers writes, Spencer Tracy "took hold of my penis and began nibbling on my foreskin," while Vivien Leigh "had orgasm after orgasm" with Bowers, each one noisier than the last. "Penetrative sex was out" with Noel Coward - "it was strictly oral" - while Bowers made "long, slow love" to Edith Piaf "until she dozed off as dawn broke." Charles Laughton liked eating pretty young men's excrement on his sandwiches, while Tyrone Power enjoyed being urinated on; Montgomery Clift was so "fastidious" about the tricks Bowers arranged for him he complained when one trick's penis "was an inch too long."
Bowers also reveals that Vidal had sex with Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton, and that "Gore had a medium sized cock, seven inches, he looked circumcised but he wasn't. He was basically a top, but with Bob [one of the men in Bowers' stable, run out of a Hollywood gas station, of sex workers] he allowed himself to be penetrated. 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 with people." Bowers also tells Teeman, quite explicitly, just what sex with Gore Vidal was like.
Bowers adopts a folksy matter-of-fact tone that makes Full Service a fast and compulsive read. There are a few moments where one has a nagging suspicion that pertinent details - mainly having to deal with Bowers' emotional reactions - are being deliberately left out; there are many moments where one marvels that Bowers hasn't been sued. Tales of Vincent Price and Steve Reeves, customer and co-worker respectively, were revelations to me and it was a delight to read of Bowers being bitch-slapped by Lucille Ball for providing Desi with extra-marital companions. Bowers is now 94 and utterly unrepentant, which is perhaps the most refreshing aspect ofFull Service.
Reading both books back to back was almost an overdose of gossip but once begun, I was in their clutches and raced through. Vidal is correct, "there is a formidable amount of voyeurism in us all and literature, even better than pornographic pictures, provides us at its best with an excitation occasionally more poignant than the real thing."
In Bed with Gore Vidal and Full Service are available at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St. gladdaybookshop.com