During his long life, it was said that Gore Vidal’s literary and cultural appeal stemmed from one singular feat: that he pisses from a very great height. Vidal’s rarefied, mingent corpus was disorienting and too snobbish for some, but for grown-ups, it’s a delight. Jay Parini wrote that the experience of reading Vidal’s prose was “to be lifted so high, so easily by an eagle of our time.”
For decades, Vidal was the patrician observer of the republic, acidly chronicling its culture and its decline with icy delight. (“Joyce Carol Oates,” was Vidal’s response to the question of what were the most dispiriting words in the English language.) Toward the end of his life—a life that kept him toiling much longer than his dead rivals and, sadly, longer than Vidal desired—his decline was brutal. “I’ll outlive you all,” he was known to say to his employees, lovers, and enemies alike. That statement was proven both true in many cases and punishing by the time Vidal shuffled off his mortal coil in 2012.
In his final years, Vidal was paranoid and nasty. He was simultaneously diabetic and emaciated, and half-mad from a wet brain brought on by relentless drinking. A friend of Vidal’s told biographer Tim Teeman, “In the middle of a discussion about policy he’d suddenly shout, ‘your mother was a Polack!’ and suddenly you’re emotionally down on the floor trying to strangle him.” By the end, Vidal had alienated nearly all his closest friends and still managed to keep the acrimony roiling after his death.
During the last tumultuous decade of his life, Vidal changed his will and trust and left everything he owned—including his vast literary estate, his Hollywood mansion with its gilt-edged furnishing and malachite bric-a-brac—to Harvard University. He’d never attended Harvard, and this noble bulwark of WASP privilege never found him fit enough for an honorary degree—though the University did gift Vidal a crimson letterman jacket after he gave a speech on campus. (A lesson to all on-the-make foundations and nonprofits everywhere: swag pays!)
Then again, Vidal did have a soft spot for entropy and diminution.
The reasons offered for the switch vary. Some friends claim that Vidal always admired the venerable institution and nursed a secret sense of inferiority steeped in his own failure to matriculate at an undergraduate school. Others claimed that he was too demented in the end to have any clear conception of what he was doing.
Matt Tyrnauer, his editor at Vanity Fair, told the the New York Times he didn’t understand why someone like Vidal, who was “not only passionately anti-academics but also so committed to the good fight,” would give his entire estate “to an institution rolling in money.” (Harvard’s current endowment is more than $30 billion.) Tyrnauer added, “Why didn’t he leave a sum to the ACLU, or any number of liberal causes or something subversive?”
Years of terrible fighting and swollen lawsuits from angry in-laws followed Vidal’s unlikely bequest. Things got so bad that at one point Vidal’s ashes languished in the trunk of a nephew’s rental car when they were overdue for interment at an elite Washington, D.C., cemetery.
Now that the lawsuits have settled, with Harvard keeping practically everything—Vidal’s entire literary legacy including royalties on his 25 novels, 26 nonfiction books, screenplays, TV scripts. But the stuff Harvard didn’t want was put up for auction this month in a seedy industrial enclave of Los Angeles County—a town called Commerce, to be precise.
In the days before the auction, Vidal’s goods were put on display for interested buyers. The afternoon I arrived, a nearby structure had burst into flames, sending gray plumes into the sky, giving the bleak industrial setting a small extra dose of dread. I was reminded of a passage from one of Vidal’s essays about his time as a MGM scriptwriter.
“Los Angeles had been on fire for three days . . . I found Dorothy [Parker] standing in front of her house, gazing at the smoky sky; in one hand she held a drink, in the other a comb, which absently she was passing through her short straight hair. As I came toward her, she gave me a secret smile. ‘I am combing,’ she whispered, ‘Los Angeles out of my hair.’”
Vidal argued that the literary greats who came to the California desert for easy money writing studio screenplays never really got the soot from those tawdry times out of their hair. And here, among the writer’s effects, the tawdriness continued, even in death.
A catered spread offered some sliced donuts and instant coffee. The Vidal belongings that Harvard had relegated to the auction house were packed into two showrooms and were summarily picked over by estate-sale regulars. Between a porcelain umbrella stand and a pair of Moorish bone-inlaid mirrors, a group of nouveau-riche Russians warily inspected a Georgian oak welsh dresser. A Chinese couple bickered in Mandarin over a carved Italian Rococo revival walnut arm chair. And a few children dragged to the auction by their WASP parents flopped down in agonized boredom on a Louis XVI Giltwood salon sofa. The overall décor was neo classical with some delicate touches—no chintz but lots of chinoiserie.
Considering that Vidal got more, let’s say, punchy about foreigners in his old age, who could imagine what Vidal’s reaction would be to a bunch of first-generation immigrants clucking and squatting over his things? In one later interview he gave Johann Hari in The Independent about America’s future, Vidal said:
The Empire will collapse militarily in Afghanistan; the nation will collapse internally when Obama is broken “by the madhouse” and the Chinese call in the country’s debts. A ruined United States will then be “the Yellow Man’s Burden,” and “they’ll have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport.”
Then again, Vidal did have a soft spot for entropy and diminution. Famous for saying a part of him dies every time a friend succeeds, Vidal tended to relish any report of things going sideways.
When Martin Amis visited Vidal in Italy for an interview in 1982, he remarked on this very quality. After they had transacted their literary business, Vidal demanded that Amis hand over some good gossip. Amis complied, “And, as I did my best with tales of professional failure, neurosis, marital collapse, a new intensity began to invade his features. In a curious way, despite his ameliorist image, you feel he wishes everything were worse than it is.”
So perhaps a couple recently transplanted from Beijing would win on a low-ball offer on a pair of Grecian urns and drive back to Arcadia never knowing what Myra Breckinridge is or who William F. Buckley Jr. was or why anybody would give a fuck. Maybe this whole scene—the nearby factory fire, the new money immigrants, the Krispy Kreme catering, and the indifferent auction-house display of the pocket watches and sofas of the great eagle of letters—would really rouse the old wag’s gin-soaked muse back to life.