In December 2011, around seven months before he died, Gore Vidal turned to his good friend Scotty Bowers as the two relaxed in Vidal’s home in the Hollywood hills. “You suppose we could find Bob and bring him over?” the frail, nostalgic Vidal asked. “Bob” was Bob Atkinson, a favorite hustler of Vidal’s that Bowers had first set him up with in 1948. They had long lost touch. Vidal’s mind was becoming ever more untethered.
“Gore liked Bob because he had been in the Navy and he had a cock as big as a baby’s arm,” says Bowers, who recorded his life as a trick, then pimp, to Hollywood’s rich and famous in “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.” “Scotty was the closest person to Gore in the last four years of his life who wasn’t a servant,” says Vidal’s good friend and former editor, Matt Tyrnauer.
Some have questioned the veracity of Bowers’ stories. But the biographer William J. Mann, who spoke to Bowers when researching his 2006 book, “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn,” said, “I found him forthright and honest and not interested in personal fame or gain,” turning down at that stage Mann’s offer to write about him or introduce him to a literary agent. “Several people I respect vouched for Scotty’s essential truthfulness and reliability as a source,” Mann states, including the journalist and author Dominick Dunne and film director John Schlesinger — as well as Vidal. A film about Bowers, directed by Tyrnauer, is in production.
Bowers’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 lives of celebrities.
Bowers reveals he had sex with Walter Pidgeon, Cole Porter (“He could easily 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,” Bowers writes, while Vivien Leigh “had orgasm after orgasm” with him, each one noisier than the last.” “Penetrative sex was out” with Noël 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.”
In this rollercoaster of scandalous revelation there are only four decorous, entirely sex-free sentences about Vidal, praising him as “one of the nicest, brightest men” Bowers has known. Vidal himself supplied a laudatory cover quote for the book, testifying to Bowers’s veracity: “I have known Scotty Bowers for the better part of a century. I’m so pleased that he has finally decided to tell his story to the world…Scotty doesn’t lie — the stars sometimes do — and he knows everybody.” At Bowers’s book launch, in what would be his last public appearance, Vidal told guests that he’d never “caught Bowers in a lie” in the many years he had known him in a town “where you can meet a thousand liars every day.” Presumably, then, he would sanction as fact Bowers’s revelations to me that Vidal not only had sex with him, but also “many” hustlers Bowers arranged for him, as well as Hollywood stars Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton.
Vidal’s long friendship with Bowers, who was approaching ninety at the time of this writing, was one of the most consistent of his life: he feuded and broke up with a number of close friends, especially as dementia exerted its grip in the last few years. “There’s no one who can say they were friends that long because Gore didn’t keep friends that long. I never had a cross word with Gore,” says Bowers. “He was very opinionated, I was very easy going.”
They met after the end of World War II. A friend of Vidal’s had told him about Bowers’s gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, and Bowers had been told Vidal might be coming in. “That’s how word got around in those days,” says Bowers. “If you had money, you couldn’t advertise as well as this. You take a queen, tell him a secret and swear him to secrecy, and you just got the word all over town.”
The first time he met Vidal, Bowers recalls him driving in one evening just after eight-o’clock at the wheel of a two-tone ‘47 Chevrolet. He said, “I’m Gore” to Bowers and hung out for around an hour, looking at the trade on display. “Wherever you looked there was someone,” says Bowers. Vidal said, “I can see this is going to be a fun place, I’m going to be here often.” For twenty dollars Bowers fixed his clients up with hustlers: “If a guy wanted to buy you a car or give you more money, that was his business. I never took a cut.”
Bowers and Vidal connected well: Vidal had been in the Army, Bowers in the Marine Corps, which probably made Vidal more open with him than others. Vidal was two years older than Bowers. On that first night Bowers was working till midnight, so sent Vidal “off with someone else he liked, a clean-cut all-American looking guy, his type.” A couple of days later he returned and said, “That was great, do you have someone else?” Bowers introduced him to Bob Atkinson, and Vidal saw him “quite often.” “Gore had a medium sized cock, seven inches, he looked circumcised but wasn’t,” Bowers recalls. “He was basically a top [he liked to penetrate, rather than be penetrated], but with Bob he allowed himself to be fucked. 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 to people.”
The few times Bowers had sex with Vidal was “pleasant, not mad love.” Vidal was always “on the ball, not bashful or shy, rather aggressive and pushy,” and was “more or less into a quick trick. He did everything sexually, you sucked his cock, he would suck yours, but he preferred to fuck. Gore and I fucked and rolled around and played with each other’s cocks. He’d grab your cock and, boom, he was young and hot and sex was rather quick.”
Did Vidal have sex with any of Bowers’s other famous friends? “I fixed him up with my friend Tyrone Power, which Gore asked me for as a favor, and he did me a favor and had sex with Charles Laughton,” Bowers reveals. “Charles Laughton was not Gore’s type, but Gore went with me for kicks.” It was a three-way? “Yes, Charles was a dirty old man, but they wanted to meet each other. It was the same with Tyrone Power.” Bowers laughs that he “probably introduced Gore to more famous people than he introduced me to.”
He recalls Jacqueline Kennedy at one party going off to a bedroom with one man: her parting shot to Bowers, “I can’t fucking help myself.” Bowers says: “They always talk about her husband [JFK] fucking people, but she was a regular little tramp, too. She’d fly out here just to see William Holden. So would Grace Kelly. When I fixed up Edward and Wally [the Duke and Duchess of Windsor], I fixed them up with a Beverly Hills hotel bungalow, she was the boss, he was shy and bashful. She told him what to do with guys: ‘Suck his cock, do this, do that.’”
When Vidal and Power got together, Bowers recalls, it was a “sucky-fucky thing. Gore put his cock between Tyrone’s legs and fucked him between his legs. They sucked each other off and played together.” Bowers laughs and adds: “Gore told people I had introduced him to people he wanted to know and that was certainly the case with Tyrone Power. Both Charles and Gore sucked each other off and of course Tyrone liked being pissed on, so we did that. Gore went right along with it.”
Bowers introduced Vidal to Rock Hudson; the men “hit it off” and they “buddy-buddied” together as friends too. “We had three-ways just when Rock was getting started as an actor,” says Bowers. “I met him in 1947 when he was living in Hollywood with a little queen who was a car-hop in a drive-in. They had an Irish Setter dog. Gore did a little bit of everything with Rock. He started necking with him and pretty soon he was playing with his cock. Gore was quite into fucking people between their legs. He did that with Rock. Rock had a steam room and that was across the courtyard as you came in. We went into the steam room. Gore was rubbing Rock and sucking his prick. There were hands here and hands there. We were necking, sucking and fucking: whatever position you wanted to be in you got in. We had three-ways a dozen times and I’m sure they did it on their own a few times. When you fix up two people very often they see each other. Separately they both told me how glad they were I introduced them. I know without a doubt they got together other times on their own and I’m sure, when they did, that Gore fucked Rock.”
Richard Harrison, the former beefcake model and actor who used the same gym as Rock Hudson, recalls: “He would sit in the sauna. His cock was so big it would hang down to the next step. All the old guys would complain about it. But he didn’t use it — he was a bottom.”
Hudson, Power, Laughton and Fred Astaire weren’t the only celebrities Vidal had sex with. The writer John Bowen (a friend of Vidal’s since reviewing “The City and the Pillar” for Oxford University’s Isis magazine under the headline: “Kiss Me, Hotlips, I’m Asbestos”) says Vidal described once having sex with Noël Coward. “Coward said to him, ‘Let’s have a roll in the hay.’ And they did. Gore said it was quite enjoyable, but nothing very new.” Kenneth Tynan in his diaries wrote that Vidal had told him that Coward asked him to bed in Italy.
“When he entered the bedroom Graham Payn (Coward’s partner) was already naked between the sheets. Noël bustled in and stripped; Gore buggered Graham, and Noël masturbated with his prick against Gore’s bottom. Having rapidly come, he rose and dressed within seconds and went off to work, leaving Gore and Graham to share the post-animal tristesse.”
Sean Strub, the founder of Poz magazine and a friend of Vidal’s, saw Vidal become “very emotional” when talking about the actor Dick York, most famous for playing the first Darrin Stephens on 1960s comedy “Bewitched.” York had also a part in Vidal’s play, “Visit to a Small Planet,” originally written for television in 1955. Vidal rhapsodized about how beautiful York was. When Strub told Vidal York had fallen on tough times later in life, Vidal said, “Don’t tell me that,” with tears in his eyes.
Vidal wanted Scotty Bowers to introduce him to James Dean, “and I told him Jimmy Dean was a little prick. But I introduced them. Gore thought he wanted to have sex with Jimmy, but after meeting him, he said ‘Fuck him. He’s into his own thing.’” Bowers fixed Vidal up with “dozens of people,” including in Italy men who he knew in Europe: they were, as so many friends recall, “clean-cut, all-American type guys, not rough trade or weird muscleboys, not a bum or someone with long hair.” The playwright, director and screenwriter Arthur Laurents recorded that when he first arrived in Los Angeles, Vidal had told him he’d love it there: the hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard were only $15 before six o’clock, “and that’s when I like to have sex anyway.”
Vidal’s promiscuous post-war sexual life began at a range of New York venues, including the Everard Baths (nicknamed the Ever Hard, where he met his partner Howard Austen in 1950) and the Astor Bar. In Palimpsest, Vidal writes of his excitement at finding the Baths, “where military men often spent the night, unable to fund any other cheap place to stay. This was sex at its rawest and most exciting, and a revelation to me.” Asked whether he ever worried about his sexuality, Vidal replied to one magazine interviewer: “Never. Absolutely never…I did exactly what I wanted to do all the time.”
The Astor was “easily the city’s most exciting place for soldiers, sailors and marines on the prowl for one another,” Vidal said. In its mezzanine Vidal met Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who was intrigued with Vidal’s “lack of sexual guilt.” “I told him that it was probably a matter of class. As far as I can tell, none of my family ever suffered from that sort of guilt, a middle-class disorder from which powerful people seem exempt. We did whatever we wanted to do and thought nothing of it.” Kinsey himself “had gone through sexual stages with males, females, and groups” while writing his reports into sexual behavior, Vidal said later.
Kinsey told Vidal that Vidal wasn’t homosexual, “doubtless because I never sucked cock or got fucked. Even so, I was setting world records for encounters with anonymous youths.” He thought Kinsey agreed with him on the issue of unfixed categories, and asked him, had he not known anything about him, how would Kinsey have encapsulated Vidal? Kinsey said as “a lower middle class Jew, with more heterosexual than homosexual interests.” Vidal writes, referring to Austen, “Curiously, I have lived most of my life with such a person.” Vidal’s biographer Fred Kaplan relates that after “The City and the Pillar” was published (Vidal’s gay-themed novel, one of the first contemporary novels themed around homosexuality), Kinsey gave Vidal a copy of “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” complimenting him on his “work in the field.”
Most of the youths Vidal had sex with in the 1940s with were his own age and “capable of an odd lovingness, odd considering the fact that I did so little to give any of them physical pleasure. But then, even at twenty, I often paid for sex on the ground that it was only fair. Once Truman [Capote, a lifelong enemy] said to me, ‘I hear you’re just the lay lousé.’ ‘At last, Truman, you’ve got it right.’” Vidal said he never had an affair with anyone. “Sex, yes. Friendships, yes. The two combined? No. Jimmie, of course, was something else — me.” For Vidal, his young love Jimmie Trimble was more than a lost love, but the actual missing half of himself or embodiment of it, an integral part of his soul, rather than soul mate.
Vidal certainly relished his own sexual energy. He met Tennessee Williams, who found him sexy (this was not reciprocated), in Rome in 1948, realizing the previous year “he was following me up Fifth Avenue, while I, in turn, was stalking yet another quarry. I recognized him. He wore a blue bow tie with white polka dots. In no mood for literary encounters, I gave him a scowl and he abandoned the chase just north of Rockefeller Center.”
Kaplan recounts their wary, funny opening gambits, Williams venturing he liked hot summer nights in New York when the “superfluous people are off the streets.” They became friends, Vidal calling Williams “the greatest company on earth”; they shared an acid sense of humor and as a mimic Williams was able to impersonate a dying heroine or “addle-headed piece of trade.” The two toured Italy, including going to Ravello where Vidal would later make a home, in a jeep. In Cairo, the men “passed boys back and forth,” Vidal recalled later. The plump son of the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire wooed Vidal “sadly and hopelessly…he looked like a sensitive dentist,” Vidal writes in “Palimpsest.”
Their sexual whirligig was dizzying. Kaplan quotes a letter from Williams in Rome to a friend, boasting, “I have not been to bed with Michelangelo’s David but with any number of his more delicate creations, in fact the abundance and accessibility is downright embarrassing. You can’t walk a block without being accosted by someone you would spend a whole evening trying vainly to make in the New York bars. Of course it usually costs you a thousand lire but that is only two bucks…and there is never any unpleasantness about it even though one does not know a word they are saying.”
In an undated (but likely late 1940s to early 1950s) location-less letter (signed as many of his missives were by his nickname, “The Bird” or “The Notorious Bird”) Williams writes in a campy spin: “There has been a terrific influx of dikes… They are a jolly bunch… No word from Fritz and Russell who went off together… Poor La Traube! He has the clap now, the only one of us to be stricken, just when he was getting over the crabs. Afflictions, mortal afflictions! Especially those of love, how troublesome they are. I am glad you did not have carnal associations in Cairo, not only because it would have interfered with the glorious work but because I kept thinking, if Gore is not careful he will catch one of those things from the dirty Egyptians. Franco Brusatti just now climbed in my window but has now climbed back out again, I told him I was working… I close now with an affectionate and mildly libidinous kiss on your soft under lip which I never kissed.”
Later, Vidal revealed he had been approached by an academic preparing to write Williams’s biography, who “started out briskly, saying, ‘Everybody assumed you and Tennessee Williams had an affair.’” Vidal told her they hadn’t, adding, “Friends don’t by and large, particularly if they are in the same line of business with each other.”
In “Palimpsest,” Vidal writes that when Williams had a successful play, “it was like my own. When I wrote a successful play, Tennessee would be distraught. The Glorious Bird…would make hissing sounds through that sharp beak, feathers aflutter, beady eyes wide with alarm, nest invaded.” Williams also seems to have been one of the few people, alongside Austen, to call Vidal out on his icy snootiness. Williams once heard that Vidal was upset at Williams’s cavalier treatment of some party guests, and thought he could no longer be introduced to party guests. But Williams wrote to Vidal, assuring him of his biding love and loyalty: “Regardless of your crotchety attitude toward me, mine toward you is fixed as a star, not falling. When nervous, you rattle like a window in a bombardment, but that isn’t often and most of the time you are one of the smoothest and coolest and effortlessly witty people I’ve known…and you are steadily more convincing in the part of a grand seigneur…” Once, while cruising with Williams in Paris and both about to go home alone, Williams noted to Vidal, “That leaves only us.” “Don’t be so macabre,” Vidal replied.
Vidal’s sexual adventuring reached an impressive zenith when he and Austen settled in Rome in the early 1960s so that they could have access to the library at the American Academy, where Vidal researched his bestselling novel “Julian” (1964). In that period, mid-“Dolce Vita,” Rome was embracing the glamorous, bustling café society popularized by Federico Fellini’s classic 1960 film of the same name; Vidal later appeared in Fellini’s 1972 film, “Roma.”
The city “was a very good place to meet really attractive young guys willing to do anything. That was another big point of the Rome move,” says Matt Tyrnauer. “The other city contender had been Athens, which they decided was too ugly. Gore had been humiliated by Bobby Kennedy at the White House, and things were deteriorating in his relationship with Jackie Kennedy. He’d lost his race for Congress in 1960. Capote was literary king of New York and Gore could not abide that.”
Cruising for sex in Rome was “the best it could have been for them,” a longtime friend told me. “It was exactly their speed: up, down and everything.” Vidal and Austen would go to the Pincio [a hill near the center of Rome] where the hustlers gathered back then. They had a Jaguar convertible, which was immediately surrounded by young men, the longtime friend of the couple told me. “Italians are very innocent and sincere to this day and obviously, besides seeing these rich guys, they’d want to talk about the car. Then Gore and Howard would pick which boys they liked. I asked Gore what his line was and he said, ‘I’d try, “You’re the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen” and see how that works.’”
Vidal once asked Sean Strub, “Do you know what the difference is between American boys and Italian boys? Italian boys have dirty feet but clean assholes, while American boys have clean feet but dirty assholes.”
He also repeated to Strub his contention that “he had sex with hustlers in the afternoon, so in the evening he could focus on conversation rather than cruising.”
The couple would take one or two young men to the penthouse at the Via de Torre, 21 Argentina where they lived. The sex, the friend says, was conducted separately. Vidal’s type was “basically a straight masculine guy.” In “Palimpsest,” Vidal says he was only sexually active, that he was never passive. That was certainly the impression he wanted you to have. Although he says he never performed oral sex, he once told a friend of the longtime friend quoted here that he had done it once and “it didn’t work out” and he never did it again. Austen was known to take Polaroids of some of the young men they met in Rome.
In 1961, Vidal said Rome was “a sexual paradise…every evening hundreds of boys converged on the Pincio in order to make arrangements with interested parties.”
The literary critic Richard Poirier, a friend of Vidal’s, told Vidal’s biographer Fred Kaplan that Italian gay life was “very seductive. It was sort of older to younger brother, and in the sixties it still wasn’t that easy for a young Italian guy to sleep with a young woman, a young girl. He may have wanted to get married but didn’t have much money. This sex for money and favors was sort of a common thing to do… And you’d meet very, very sweet boys. The other advantage of it was that you didn’t need to cruise, that is, you knew where these guys were and you got to know them and they’d introduce you to others, so you’d have a whole social life. That was perfect for Gore, and he liked the types, the Italian boys who were available, as I did. In a sense, whenever we went out, we’d be looking at good-looking people… In Rome it was the practice to take the boys back to the apartment. He’d pay them and give them clothes. They were very sweet. A few times I’d be sitting out in the front room with Howard. Gore would come in with someone and introduce him. One time he was passing through with someone I had met before and said to me, ‘Say goodbye to Antonio.’”
In 1999, Vidal told his then-editor Donald Weise that “these things — men with boys — has been going on throughout recorded history.” Ninety percent of men go on to get married and have children, Vidal estimated, though that was “stopping now” with birth control, over-population and a fear of AIDS. “There’s a good deal less heterosexuality, less sex going on. People are scared. Every last one of the boys we knew in Rome are fathers and grandfathers now. But they weren’t just lying there. They were eager participants in a normal activity.” Both Vidal in “The City and the Pillar” and Kinsey were saying “same-sexuality” was normal, Vidal added, then qualified himself. ‘“Normal’ is the incorrect word. ‘Normal sex’ is that which is most done which means masturbation, ‘normality’ is masturbation, so we must use another word which is ‘natural.’ Same-sexuality is as natural as other-sexuality, neither to be preferred to the other unless you want to make a baby in which case do not try it with another boy. It just won’t work for some obscure reason.”
At night in Rome, Vidal and his friends would go to nightclubs like 84 and the Pipistrello, recalls Bernie Woolf who met him in Rome in 1960. “They were laughingly called nightclubs, not gay, but popular with glamorous rich gay people,” says Woolf. Vidal would eat and drink at Harry’s Bar, Tullio’s, Campo dé Fiore, Nino’s (“the best food I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Vidal once said; the T-bone steaks a particular favorite), and the downstairs bar at what was the Flora Hotel. Female prostitutes, and the “fancier” male prostitutes, would parade down the Veneto. The trade Vidal liked was ostensibly straight; his friend George Armstrong would send his sexual partners to Vidal, says Bernie Woolf. “There was definitely traffic there.”
Austen would go to the beach at Ostia and pick people up, adds Woolf. “Gore was an embroiderer of stories: he could sit at a dinner table and make himself the center of the story. He was an entertaining son of a bitch, though. How truthful was Vidal talking to friends about sex? Bernie Woolf remembers most Vidal’s “embroidering of stories. I sat down at many dinner parties to hear him tell a story of something that had happened which I knew hadn’t happened as he described it: he didn’t lie, he just made stories more interesting than they were. You couldn’t believe half of what Gore said. It would change day to day, like the weather. One to one he was absolutely charming, without guile because he knew you knew him. But in a group of people he was ‘on.’”
The writer Judith Harris began a lifelong friendship with Vidal in Rome in 1962. “I was unthreatening to him,” she says. She spoke better Italian than he did and her first husband, Aldo Ajello, a senator, gave Vidal a connection to political power. She recalls the plaque on Vidal’s apartment block, reading “Volere è potere” — “To want is power” — which made Harris smile: it wasn’t Vidal’s, but it encapsulated him. One night she went for supper with Armstrong, her best friend, Vidal and some friends. The men wanted to put on a porn film, but wouldn’t until Harris left, instructing her to take Vidal home and not to stop at a bar as he was already drunk. But Vidal insisted they did, and then shouted, “I could have any boy in here for thirty thousand lire [about twenty dollars].” She told him he wasn’t allowed one that night. Harris remembers Vidal shouting he would never allow himself to be fucked: “He had to be ‘the guy.’”
The author Tom Powers, who first met Vidal in Rome in 1965, recalls that Armstrong had a portrait of Vidal, signed by Vidal, “with something intense and intimate, like ‘Lest we forget.’ Gore and George were really close. Gore was obviously sentimental about certain people.” At a supper of mostly gay men, which Powers attended with his wife Candace, “there was this unbelievable sexual electricity. Gore, who was very handsome then, had a way of focusing on a person with such intensity it made them giddy.”
Powers recalls another supper at Armstrong’s where Vidal “ate all the hors d’oeuvres, all the bread at dinner, finished his drinks at machine gun rate, poured himself wine faster than his carafe could be filled. I asked him if he felt much different now. ‘Closer to the end,’ he said. ‘I’m dragging my own corpse around’ – pointing to his swelling belly and adding that he had been a good deal fatter yet. He said he still went off the booze three or four weeks — or was it months? — a year, occasionally fasted to get his weight under control. He lost thirty pounds last year, he said patting his belly, but had half of it back. He has a way of breathing in deeply through his nose, straightening his back, smiling absently into the middle distance as if expecting someone to take his picture. He does it when he’s said something clever and is pleased with himself, not overweening or arrogant but just happy, proud, at peace.”
Italy was “great for Gore,” says Harris. “Rome was very much a gay capital and Naples had a tradition of gay aristocrats settling there. Gore felt accepted there.” He would spend six months there — any longer and he’d have had to have paid full Italian taxes — then the next six months in the US.
The theater director David Schweizer visited Vidal and Austen in Rome in 1971, three years after Vidal had published his scandalous bestseller “Myra Breckinridge” and the year after his autobiographical novel, “Two Sisters,” came out. Schweizer was a twenty-year-old Yale student and the lover of Tennessee Williams, who he had met on spring break in Key West. “He became infatuated with me, I was perfectly happy to let the relationship happen,” Schweizer tells me. “I thought he was fascinating.” At the party they met at, Schweizer recalls Williams’s mother sitting “wrapped up by some queen in a feather boa and looking like a snowbird.” Williams’s chat-up line to Schweizer was, “Have you been here all evening? I don’t know how I could have missed you, I won’t the next time.” Thinking that being “eyeballed by Tennessee Williams” would be a story to take back to Yale, Schweizer slipped a poem under his door about what it was like to be in his home, and when Williams saw him at an outdoor party later he invited Schweizer to join his party for supper.
“I stayed with him for about a week until I went back to school,” Schweizer recalls. “He was kind of a romantic, he wasn’t real evolved (sexually). I was a lot more evolved at twenty than he was at sixty after his lifetime of having sex.” But Williams swam every day and was “no physical wreck.” He invited Schweizer on a European trip, taking in readings at poetry festivals; Schweizer found people surprised he “had a brain” and wasn’t just some pretty boy-toy. In Rome, Schweizer “could tell the stakes were getting higher” when Williams “pimped me out” to Rudolph Nureyev. “Tennessee retired from the ring briefly and wanted to hear all about it. Nureyev and I had sex: there was a tragic neediness and loneliness about him.”
Williams said they were to “spend a certain amount of time with Gore and that awful Howard.” Austen had a “dry, undercutting humor” that Schewizer didn’t find charming. Schweizer recalls the taxi bumping along the teeming streets to Vidal’s house. Vidal had recently written the film adaptation of Williams’s “horrible” play “Last of the Mobile Hot Shots.” In the taxi, Schweizer recalls, Williams “was babbling, ‘I don’t know if I have the strength for Gore. You know he’s so full of himself. Baby, you know he can’t write — he could never write.’”
Williams’s jittery mood, says Schweizer, was partly down to the intense memories Rome evoked for him of spending time there with his great love, Frank Merlo, who died of lung cancer in 1963. Williams’s relationship with Vidal was rooted in deep affection, despite occasional squalls and rivalries. “Palimpsest” features some delicious scenes, such as Vidal turning up alone in Cambridge to visit a gloomy E.M. Forster, without Williams (“I do not choose to lunch with old gentlemen with urine-stained flies”), much to Forster’s disappointment.
When Schweizer met Vidal for the first time at his home, “My first impression of Gore was standing at the top of his stairs, peering down. I’m a small, compact man and my impression of him was of a giant. He seemed so tall: big chest, long legs, so handsome and so deft. Dazzling.” Schweizer first properly spoke to Vidal at a supper at an outdoor restaurant, where the sex chatter was “who was a top or bottom, a little cock or big cock. Gore took a liking to me, it wasn’t sexual. I was so used to everyone coming on to me sexually and he did not. He was intrigued why someone as smart as me would drag around Europe with Tennessee. ‘How are you faring with the Bird?’ ‘How’s it going with the Bird?’ ‘Watch your step.’” Schweizer asked why. “Just…he can turn,” said Vidal. “I don’t think you’re protected. Protect yourself.”
In “Palimpsest,” Vidal remembers why he called Williams the Bird or Glorious Bird: “The image of the bird is everywhere in his work. The bird is flight, poetry, life. The bird is time, death…” His last story, “The Negative,” featuring a poet no longer able to write, poses the question: “Am I a wingless bird?” Schweizer thought Vidal was just “being bitchy but I found him incredibly compelling and so handsome. He was manly and had a deep voice and kept himself very well. I would have snuck out in the afternoon and thrown myself on him in a second.” His attitude towards sex fascinated Schweizer who, even coming out at a “wildly promiscuous” time, still believed in a “romantic taint” to homosexuality. Vidal was far more “clinical, he lined people up and had sex with them every day.”
Vidal invited Schewizer to have tea in the afternoons, where his tone was “brusque, tough love.” “We would talk politics and suddenly Gore would say, ‘Now it’s time for my afternoon…’ and some gorgeous young man would walk in. ‘David, this is Gabriel’, he would introduce us, then say I could stay and talk to Howard or see them later for supper. It was almost like clockwork. They were very high quality trade, extra presentable, their beauty was aristocratic and some were American. Gore insisted it was paid-for sex.” Schweizer asked him why. “That’s the way I want it.” But why, Schweizer persisted. “It becomes only itself. It is what it is,” Vidal replied, meaning, says Schweizer, ‘“It’s a service, it’s an activity, I am pleasured and someone is rewarded.’ It was very important for him to keep it at that level.” Vidal introduced many of his friends to the young men. In a letter to Vidal in 1973, Ned Rorem says he’s planning on publishing a diary from 1970, including a trip to Rome: “It’s all very favorable, but some of it could be construed as compromising (i.e., our young friend Leonardo…).”
So intriguing were Vidal’s contradictions and persona around sex, Schweizer one day asked him to explain his private life and desires. The young men he hired seemed very handsome, Schweizer said to Vidal. “Yes, of course, they have to be,” said Vidal. In “Palimpsest,” Vidal writes that Italian “trade has never had much interest in the character, aspirations, or desires of those to whom they rent their ass.” “Do you ever get involved with any of them?” Schweizer asked him. “No, why would I?” Vidal replied, aghast. “It would be hard for me not to,” said Schweizer. “Oh, you’d better get over that: it doesn’t make any sense,” said Vidal. “Well, it makes sense to me,” said Schweizer. “Well, my way is my way,” said Vidal. “It suits my life and will never be any other way.”
Schweizer asked him what Austen meant to him. “He’s my companion, we’ve never had sex,” said Vidal. “Even when you were both young and cute?” asked Schweizer. “I needed someone I could trust,” Vidal replied simply. Schweizer today admits he found Vidal’s attitude “so perplexing but I liked he was so candid. There was something so vehement and legitimate about him, I accepted what he said. My radar was always up for a slip, a contradiction, a chance to say, ‘You say that, but you just did this…’ but it never happened. I trusted him.”
Vidal’s warning to Schweizer over Tennessee Williams’s behavior certainly proved prescient. Schweizer went back to his and Williams’s lodgings and found a letter on a typewriter written to Williams’s agent about Schweizer, calling him a “viper companion” who was driving Williams crazy and “stifling him.” Schewizer thought Williams meant for him to read it, so Schweizer left a note saying they needed some time apart. Vidal admired that he had left Williams. “There’s nothing else to do,” he told Schweizer. “It might have been a kindness, because he might just have to think about it. It’s very hard to get the Bird to think about anything.” A week and a half later Williams called Schweizer to say “all was forgiven,” though Schweizer wondered what he had to be forgiven for. They flew back to the US and became friends.
Vidal was less sexually inclined than Austen, says Bernie Woolf. “Howard was very promiscuous. He picked up sailors, he worked the streets and picked up trade. George [Armstrong] was a procurer of sorts and very friendly with Gore. He had a million tricks. Rome was a very advantageous place to live: if you were a homosexual of a certain age at that time you could have almost anybody. I don’t mean all the young men were gay, but for a certain amount of lire they were yours. If that was your proclivity and that’s what you wanted to do you were home free. It was just part of growing up for these kids: they felt no compunction about hiring their bodies out.”