A literary giant, he was feted by the rich and powerful. But did Gore Vidal hide a monstrous secret?
He was an icon of the liberal Left on both sides of the Atlantic, a man of letters whose acid-tongued wit earned him comparisons with Oscar Wilde, and whose vituperative attacks on conservatism led to him being courted by the Clintons and the Kennedys alike.
Famously imperious, Gore Vidal was once asked by a magazine to interview the then Prime Minister John Major, only to complain that Major should be interviewing him.
But for all his vanity, he could be very funny – when a New York taxi driver once told him to ‘Have a nice day,’ Vidal shot back: ‘No, thank you. I’ve made other plans.’
Vidal boasted that he’d had 1,000 sexual partners by the time he was 25.
In private – surrounded by his coterie of celebrity friends such as Princess Margaret, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn and his step-sister, Jacqueline Kennedy – he loved nothing better than to brag about his rapacious homosexuality.
Now, however, it has emerged that there was one area that the late Vidal spent much of his life — and a small fortune — trying to conceal.
His half-sister and nephew, who were very close to Vidal, have revealed they strongly suspect he was a globe-trotting paedophile who preyed on underage boys.
The startling accusations are contained in a new book about the writer’s private life that also reveals – in the crude language that the outspoken Vidal loved to use – how he worked his way through the gay fraternity of Fifties Hollywood, sleeping with the likes of Rock Hudson, Fred Astaire and Noel Coward.
Speaking to Tim Teeman, author of In Bed With Gore Vidal, Nina Straight suggested her half-brother had committed ‘Jerry Sandusky acts’ – a reference to a recent notorious case in which a U.S. college football coach was found guilty of sexually abusing young boys.
She said the conservative commentator William Buckley – Vidal’s nemesis, who had a long-running public feud with him – had kept a file on his sex secrets.
Vidal believed Buckley possessed ‘incriminating’ evidence proving that he liked to have sex with underage boys, and he was ‘terrified’ it would come out, she told Teeman.
Buckley and Vidal exchanged insults in television debates and in subsequent magazine articles, which led to an expensive legal war with both suing each other for libel.
Ms Straight believes Vidal – who was the first to sue – spent $1 million fighting the battle to keep Buckley from revealing details of his dealings with underage boys.
Ms Straight and her son Burr Steers were very close to Vidal in his last years before he died in 2012 aged 86.
They are contesting the writer’s request in his will for his £23 million estate to be given to Harvard University (which he never attended).
Mr Steers, an actor and film director, said: ‘I know Buckley had a file on him that Gore feared. Buckley had something over him. It would make sense if that material was about him having underage sex.’
And he added, pointedly: ‘Gore spent a lot of time in Bangkok, after all.’
The Thai capital is infamous for child prostitution and Gore would visit every year. Friends say he had sex there with young male prostitutes.
Mr Steers said Gore appeared to condone child abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests: ‘He would say that the young guys involved were hustlers who were sending signals.’
He added that when Vidal’s half-brother, Jamie Auchinloss, was caught with child pornography, ‘Gore would not condemn him’.
In the Seventies, Vidal even spoke out in support of paedophiles who formed a notorious group set up to campaign for legalised sex between adults and children called NAMBLA, the North-American Man/Boy Love Association.
Yesterday, the organisation – which still lobbies to abolish the age of consent – refused to say what connection Gore had with it.
Mr Steers says he ‘doesn’t know for sure’ whether his uncle had sex with underage men and doesn’t want to know – but it is clear he suspects it.
Vidal himself revealed in his memoirs that he was ‘attracted to adolescent males . . . like most men’.
One of his friends admitted he was astonished when Vidal once told him: ‘You know I’m a pederast.’
Was he being serious? Or was he once again trying to shock?
Some friends told Teeman they doubted he had sex with underage boys. They included Scotty Bowers, a notorious Hollywood male prostitute and close friend of the writer.
Some have cast doubt on Bowers’ veracity but Teeman, a British journalist who was for many years U.S. correspondent for The Times, believes that where Vidal’s gay affairs are concerned, Bowers’ account is credible.
He says insiders, including Katharine Hepburn biographer William Mann, writer Dominick Dunne and director John Schlesinger, had attested to his reliability as a source.
Vidal appeared at the launch of Bower’s tell-all memoirs two years ago and said he had ‘never caught Bowers in a lie’.
Bowers told Teeman that he would frequently arrange for other so-called ‘hustlers’ to visit Gore.
Vidal was a Hollywood screenwriter in the Fifties, boasting that he once inserted a gay-love subplot into the film Ben-Hur.
Bowers used his Hollywood connections to introduce him to many of his famous clients and contacts.
Fred Astaire may have married twice and had children, but Vidal told his nephew he seduced the famous dancer and actor in Hollywood.
This was just the start of a succession of star conquests that Vidal’s friends say he chalked up in Tinseltown.
Matinee idol Tyrone Power had affairs with Judy Garland and Lana Turner – as well as Vidal, it turns out.
‘I fixed him up with Tyrone Power which Gore asked me as a favour, and he did me a favour and had sex with [British actor] Charles Laughton,’ said Bowers.
Bowers says he also introduced Vidal to a young Rock Hudson.
And British writer John Bowen, another friend of Vidal, recalled how he described having sex with Noel 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.’
According to Bowers, Vidal was desperate to go to bed with James Dean, but took against him when they met.
Tennessee Williams lusted after Vidal. Although Vidal didn’t reciprocate, they became friends and ‘cruising’ partners, sharing male prostitutes in France, Italy and Egypt.
In London, Vidal picked up male prostitutes in Piccadilly Circus. A friend recounted how Vidal once got into an argument with one of them over how much he should pay.
Vidal called his butler at the Savoy Hotel and had the young man removed, but when he checked out, £100 had been added to the bill for ‘sundries’.
Vidal had an even darker side, his half-sister told Teeman. In 1957, he and a group of men, including the British poet Stephen Spender, beat up a male prostitute under a bridge.
Burr Steers says the incident – which has never been reported – happened in England.
Perhaps this violence was because, in the words of a close friend, Vidal was a ‘self-hating gay’ who always claimed he was capable of being attracted to both sexes.
He boasted of having girlfriends including the British actress Claire Bloom and American erotic author Anais Nin, and even claiming he had a ‘little dalliance’ with actress Debbie Reynolds.
But close friends and family insist the women were a front.
In later life, Vidal would hold court in a grand villa on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, surrounded by a circle of friends that included Sting, Mick and Bianca Jagger, and Sophia Loren.
By his bedside was a picture of a 17-year-old youth who was his first and possibly only true love. He was Gore’s boarding school friend Jimmie Trimble, who died in World War II.
Vidal never fell in love again, he said, settling for ‘a thousand brief anonymous adhesions’.
Whether those ‘adhesions’ included underage boys may be something we will never learn for certain.
In 2012, several years after William Buckley’s death, his son, Christopher, said he had thrown away the file his father kept on Vidal.
‘Into the dumpster it went, and I still remember the sigh of relief upon heaving it in,’ he said.
Gore Vidal’s devoted admirers, anxious to preserve pleasant memories of the man, will no doubt be very relieved, too.