A great thing about being a graduate student in Los Angeles is that only-in-LA research gigs often come your way. Last year, while I was finishing up my PhD, a UCLA alum contacted my department looking for an assistant to help him do research for a play he was writing on Gore Vidal. I sent him my CV, we spoke on the phone, we met in his office in Beverly Hills, and I got the job. He had always known about Vidal in that way that we all know about Vidal—as public intellectual, sparring partner of William F. Buckley Jr., author of Myra Breckinridge—but he had become particularly interested in him when he found out that their houses abutted one another in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal died in 2012, and my employer had never met him, but he had always wanted to know more.
My job, in short, would be to read about Gore Vidal. It’s the best gig I’ve ever had. I read biographies ranging from the scholarly to the dishy to the salacious, read Vidal’s novels, his essays, his memoirs, and experienced a certain pleasure somewhat unfamiliar to someone who writes about literature for a living: the pleasure of doing deep research without personal consequence. My research on Vidal was not going to impact my career, and I did not have to come up with something smart and original to say about him. I just had to read him, read about him, make lists of his best zingers, enjoy.
My research culminated this March in a trip to Harvard’s Houghton Library, which holds all of Vidal’s papers. I wasn’t looking for anything too particular in the archives. We were hoping I might uncover some cheeky anecdotes in Vidal’s correspondence, or perhaps some overlooked details in the papers from his libel suit against Truman Capote, who had claimed in a Playgirl interview that Vidal had been kicked out of JFK’s White House. (He hadn’t, though by all accounts the night in question was a doozy). And I did find a wealth of delightful mid-century gossip and artifacts: saucy birthday cards to Vidal from his pal Paul Newman speculating about “idle groins” and “taut buttocks,” an invitation to the Kennedy inaugural ball, a letter from Tennessee Williams declaring the film version of Myra Breckinridge “an outrage against human decency,” which, of course, he loved.
Then things started getting really interesting when I started leafing around the paper trail of Gore Vidal’s romantic and sexual life.
I knew a lot about Vidal’s sex life before arriving in Cambridge; Vidal was famously, gloriously promiscuous, and I had been reading about it for months. He had thousands of sexual encounters in his lifetime, and he had very specific tastes, little interest in his partners’ pleasure, and a fondness for paying for “trade.” He had a partner of over 50 years—Howard Austen—whom he claimed he never slept with. He argued that everyone was bisexual, hated all terminology surrounding sexual relationships, and always insisted that sex was a physical act only, and not a marker of identity. He was outrageously sex positive (though I am sure he would have hated this term) and he was resolutely anti-love, with one exception: when he was a boy, he loved another boy. That boy was Jimmie Trimble.
Vidal writes extensively in his 1995 memoir Palimpsest about Jimmie, with whom he had an occasional sexual relationship when both boys were in their teens. He saw himself in Jimmie and Jimmie in himself; it was this twinning that he was attracted to, and claimed that he would never find again in his life. Vidal is explicit and loving in his descriptions of Jimmie. He remembers his blonde curls, his sweat that smelled like honey, his athletic body. Vidal’s language to describe their relationship is elevated, intense, Platonic. Vidal writes that the only time he experienced “wholeness” with another person was when having sex with Jimmie. He claimed, “I have never had an affair with anyone. Sex, yes. Friendships, yes. The two combined? No. Jimmie, of course, was something else—me.”
As for Howard, the man with whom he spent a life: Vidal writes in Palimpsest, “I have now lived half a century with a man, but sex has played no part in the relationship and so where there is no desire or pursuit, there is no wholeness. But there are satisfying lesser states, fragments.”
Vidal later softened toward Howard in his writing, especially after Howard’s death in 2003, and his friends and other writers are quick to note that though Vidal downplayed his relationship with Howard publically, the two men were clearly devoted to each other. Howard would roll his eyes when Vidal started talking about Jimmie, unthreatened, though annoyed by Vidal’s fixation on these early sexual experiences.
Tim Teeman’s In Bed With Gore Vidal, the dishiest of all of the Vidal biographies, chronicles not just Vidal’s version of the Jimmie story, but also his friends’ and relatives’ reactions to it; some called the relationship fact, others were convinced it was a total fiction. But there is no denying the force of Vidal’s young desire. Even if the relationship only ever existed as fantasy, the intensity of Vidal’s conjurings is undeniable and often lovely. Vidal writes of their Arcadia: two boys laughing and masturbating together while camping alongside the Potomac River in 1939, experiencing, together, as one, a “swiftly completed maleness.”
Jimmie was Vidal’s Platonic ideal and he could remain so forever, because Jimmie was killed at Iwo Jima in 1945 at the age of 19.
The Gore Vidal collection at Harvard is substantial; it includes 394 cartons of material that take up 367 linear feet. The library also holds a 1-carton archive of James Trimble III, which I requested during my visit along with the Vidal materials. Just a few minutes with the Trimble archive made it clear that it was not complied by Vidal, or by anyone who knew Vidal or Jimmie, but by an outsider, whom I will call Roger. Roger, I surmised as I leafed through documents, read Palimpsest, and then decided to find out everything he could about Jimmie Trimble’s life. Roger was not a professional researcher or an academic, but just a guy who wanted to know more about Vidal’s boyhood love.
Roger spent years tracking down the fragments of Jimmie’s life. He met and recorded conversations with Jimmie’s remaining family members, war buddies, school headmasters, girlfriends. Roger collected his army records, assembled battles maps of Iwo Jima, acquired copies of Jimmie’s high school yearbook and newspaper clippings about his professional baseball career, which was just getting underway when he enlisted in the army. Roger’s archive includes photocopies of Jimmie’s last letters to his mother from Japan, notes on and from Christine White, Jimmie’s girlfriend at his time of death, an actor who would later become most well-known for playing William Shatner’s wife in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Roger completed his research in the late 1990s, and donated his materials to Harvard in 2012. I can imagine no more thorough account of Jimmie’s life pieced together more than fifty years after his death.
In the 1990s and then again in 2011, Roger wrote several manuscript versions of Jimmie’s life, all included in Harvard’s one Trimble carton, all almost curiously devoid of Gore Vidal, whose book of course spurred Roger’s interest in Jimmie in the first place. It is clear from Roger’s archive of materials that Jimmie’s remaining friends and family members were—and I think I am not overstating this—horrified by what Vidal wrote about his youthful sexual experiences with Jimmie. And Roger, throughout his manuscripts and materials, aligns himself with Jimmie’s friends and family, and against Vidal. In Roger’s words, Vidal created a “false image” of the teenaged Jimmie. In a concluding chapter to one of his manuscripts, Roger writes “Nothing I have found in my research has convinced me Gore Vidal played any significant role in Jimmie’s life. It is possible, as I have proved, to write a book about Trimble without mentioning Vidal’s name.” He ends with an even more damning portrait of Vidal:
In his efforts to bring Jimmie Trimble back to life, Vidal has created a person who barely resembles the one I uncovered. He defends his portrait by saying that he has given Jimmie Trimble immortality by including him in his memoirs. Leaving aside the egoism expressed in this statement, it seems to me that he has not so much given Jimmie immortality as notoriety If Jimmie is to have a second life, he deserves one better than the one bestowed on him by Gore Vidal.
Doth Roger protest too much?
In 1996, Roger contacted Vidal, and asked him if he’d be interested in seeing one of the manuscripts he has assembled on Jimmie. Vidal responded via fax in his typically clipped fashion:
By all means send me yr. biography of JT—And, also, if you care to, why—
Roger wrote back with a very different tone than he uses in his manuscript:
..If your Why means why did I do the research, my response must be that I don’t have a good answer to that question. I didn’t do it for scholastic reasons or for fame and fortune… The best, and briefest, explanation I can offer is so say I’m a hopeless romantic who was deeply moved by your story of lost love.
When he sent the manuscript to Vidal he included the following in a note:
…What it comes down to is that I am writing for an audience of two, me and you. My interest in Jimmie may be inexplicable but, thanks to your memoirs, your interest in him is not. Simply put, my reason for sending you my monograph is that I know you will welcome it.
The Roger who communicates with Vidal is a far cry from the one we see in the manuscript, a far cry from the Roger who damns Vidal for his inaccuracies about the “real” Jimmie. This Roger sees himself as “a hopeless romantic,” an assembler of a love story. This Roger seeks to find a space for himself somewhere between these two young boys, wants to be the one to reunite Vidal with the ghost of the boy who was also once himself. After reading the manuscript, Vidal wrote back to Roger, called his manuscript “ an interesting reconstruction,” and then coldly suggests: “you should work on your spelling. I never suspected there were so many ways to spell Palimpsest.”
Several years later, and apparently undeterred, Roger found out that both he and Vidal were in Sydney, Australia, and managed to set up a meeting with him to talk more about Jimmie. Roger went into the meeting excitedly, nervously. His notes and emails make it clear that he wanted something from Vidal: affirmation, closeness, recognition, gratitude, a trip to Vidal’s home in Italy. But he is disappointed. Roger describes the meeting like this:
The whole conversation followed this pattern: did [Jimmie] read “Leaves of Grass” on Guam? Yes, I replied, he wrote about receiving the book in one letter and about reading one poem a night in another. Did he have a “lover” on Guam? No, I said…
He neither encouraged me nor discouraged me. He thanked me for nothing; neither the research I had done, the words I had written, not for showing him the photographs. He asked for nothing and I offered nothing—except that I would stay in touch. Gore Vidal is known to be very charming… but he showed me none of that… Even after thinking over the encounter, I’m still not sure what to make of the enigma who is Gore Vidal.
“He thanked me for nothing”: Roger’s words have been echoing in my mind since I first read them. Roger, who did so much, and wanted so much, and who received so very little. Roger, who makes clear in his manuscripts that Jimmie had a full life, and wasn’t simply a creation of Vidal’s, Roger who gives voice and credence to the gay panic of Jimmie’s relatives and friends, Roger, who speculates in his road trip journal about Jimmie’s attractiveness, Roger, who believes in love, who loves a good love story, who has dedicated who-knows-how-many-hours to doing research for a man who never asked for it in the first place: it is Roger whom I find myself thinking about now, the public and private Roger, the Roger who coolly dismissed Vidal in his writing, and then found himself at his feet.
I think of that wonderful moment in Mrs. Dalloway, when the narrator, focalized through Clarissa, tells us:
For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms, which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down them and said, “This is what I have made of it! This!”
I think of Roger in a glitzy hotel room, facing an ornery, ungenerous Vidal. Roger, like Clarissa: holding out his life, which has recently been Jimmie’s life, asking to be affirmed, hearing nothing in return.
Vidal didn’t owe Roger anything, of course. I can only imagine the absurdities and real risks that come with being public figure, and especially a public figure who, late in life, decides to reveal and celebrate young queer desire. I can only imagine the uncanny feeling that must accompany a fax offering me the life of a lost love, a life that I had been excluded from, and then being asked to affirm that life and its author.
But I know what it means, what it feels like to be a Roger, perching on someone else’s life and work, trying to integrate them into your own.
What Roger has done is so painfully familiar to me: the fixating, collecting, assembling, equivocating, ordering, making, loving, overstepping, offering. I do it under the auspices of my academic career, Roger did it under the auspices of the hopeless romantic: is there any difference at all?
A few months have gone by since I went to Cambridge. My employer has moved on from his Gore Vidal project; he tells me he has put the play aside and is now working on an action movie screenplay. I am not sure if anything will ever come out of my research besides the paychecks. I think of Roger, wondering if he’s the kind of guy who is always working on some kind of project, hunting something down, taking down notes, assembling. I wonder if and suppose that Roger is gay. I wonder if he saw himself in Vidal, or saw himself in Jimmie, if he feels differently about their relationship now, if he wishes that he had settled on a version of Jimmie’s life, even privately, that allowed for Vidal’s presence. I wonder if he thinks he’s created something authentic. But I don’t wonder at the satisfaction he got in assembling a 1-carton archive of a beautiful young man; I know the satisfaction of research well.
I am on a precipice, today. I am leaving Los Angeles, my home of nine years, for a job teaching at a small college in Maine. I am leaving behind a seven-year relationship, so many friends, a city I have made and have loved for a job that will allow me to teach and to research, to write. I am leaving to continue a life that supports my need to know, to discover, to cathect, to offer, to be part of a community of people who share and value these same things. I can be a Roger, and can call it my career.
I cannot give Roger anything that he wanted, but I can affirm his love and tell him that I see it in my own. I see it in my work and my classes and my difficult choices, in my decisions to surround myself, as he has, with words and ghosts. I affirm the love of a man who loved the idea of two boys who once shared an afternoon by the Potomac, and I also affirm Vidal, who loved the idea—the fantasy, the truth—just as much.
Jacquelyn Ardam usually writes about alphabet books.