Casa Vidal

In his newly restored Hollywood Hills home, essayist, playwright, novelist, and onetime congressional candidate Gore Vidal surrounds himself with a lifetime of mementos and a museum’s worth of art—while contemplating a city that demands invention

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Photographs by Noah Webb
 

 

The 1920s Spanish colonial revivalhigh in the Hollywood Hills has been owned by Gore Vidal—he of the erudite roar only slightly muted by age—for more than four decades. During most of those years Vidal and companion Howard Auster resided in Rome and at La Rondinaia, a cliff-hugging villa in Ravello, Italy, while the L.A. house was turned over to a series of renters. Some, like Nicolas Cage, who put solar panels on the roof, Vidal describes as “very good caretakers.” Others, such as the “lady tenant” who damaged the house and left owing $40,000, garner other descriptors.

The couple moved back in 2003; Auster died later that year. A recent seven-month renovation, which focused on the first floor and back terrace, was completed in time for the writer’s 86th birthday in early October. Now, when Vidal isn’t in New York preparing for the Broadway revival this spring of his 1960 play, The Best Man, he savors the flea market finds, the auction house finery overlooked by eyes less curious, the presents from pals that fill the rooms. Among them is a herd of 17th-century drawings of warhorses that gallop and rear in the entryway, a gift from Count Edward von Bismarck—”Eddie, the grandest dandy,” says Vidal.

Perhaps most precious are the family treasures. In the living room hangs a small piece of colored glass, a Swiss crest showing VIDALL with two ls, dated 1589, what Vidal calls the most valuable glass in the city. On the upstairs landing is a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of actor William Linley, a relative who married the actress Sarah Siddons’s daughter. Next to it is a rendering of a gentleman who, it’s pointed out to Vidal, looks not unlike Abraham Lincoln, the subject of his acclaimed historical novel. “From a certain angle everyone does,” he says. “Don’t lose any sleep over it.”

Peering across the living room’s low sofas, marble tables, bronzed writing awards, and photos of friends (Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins) is a young Prince of Wales, the future Edward VI, son of Henry VIII. The painting gleams from the ministrations of Zoltan Papp, who was also charged with restoring the legion of Italian 18th-century oils, estimated at $15 million and destined for the Huntington—none of which cost Vidal more than $200.

Vidal wheels his chair into the dining room, which, like much of the house, harbors a cool solitude; the thick stucco walls and sturdy windows block out the heat and noise. Several of his favorite pieces reside in this room, including two ornate mirrors hanging near the doorway that were owned by film director Luchino Visconti; one was pulverized during shipping and flawlessly repaired. He lingers briefly by the ram’s-head chairs from the 1959 movie Ben-Hur—Vidal was one of the screenwriters—before declaring his affection for a floor-to-ceiling, elaborately carved 18th-century mirror that barely fits over an equally fantastical table. “It’s a kind of medieval camp, totally Italian, 19th century,” he says of the table. The mirror, on the other hand, once belonged to Mario Praz, “the greatest critic of Anglo-American literature.”

Vidal insists he is not a collector. At the least, he’s an accumulator, and to call his house and possessions a palimpsest, to borrow the title of his 1995 memoir, would be wrong. Rather they form a rich composite. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he has cottoned to the place, making clear that after the opening of his play he’ll return not to L.A. but to the house. As for the city itself, about which Vidal has long been ambivalent? “Of all cities, the one where you can most think yourself into somewhere else is L.A. It’s waiting to be invented. It’s to be made up.”

 

theessentials_masa_tTAKE A SEAT
The copies of ancient Roman chairs (right) that had been crafted for the Ben-Hur set in the mid-1950s traveled with Vidal to his Italian homes, thus sparing them from renter abuse. But the brass strips—plated in silver and gold and mounted on the chairs as decorative elements—had loosened with age. Zoltan Papp of L.A.’s Artisan Restoration Centre reattached them and polished the surfaces by hand. Age had also crystallized the glue joining the legs to the seats; Papp removed the old glue from the affected joints, heated it, and then reapplied the revitalized solution. The seats’ Italian-made fabric, Papp says, came through five decades without a rip or a stain.

MORE ON GORE
Practically from birth Vidal has put into words the American fascination with people in power

1925
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal is born in West Point, New York, where his father teaches aeronautics. He later shortens his name in honor of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma.

1946
Vidal’s first novel, Williwaw, written when he was 19, is published. 

1948
The New York Times
refuses to review Vidal’s third book, The City and the Pillar, because of its depictions of homosexuality. Vidal turns to writing mystery novels to support himself, using the pseudonym Edgar Box.

1958
Under contract to MGM, Vidal helps rewrite Ben-Hur but is not given screen credit.

Vidal announces his candidacy for Congress to represent the 29th District in upstate New York, employing the campaign slogan “You’ll get more with Gore.” He loses the election but makes a strong showing among the largely GOP constituency.

1960
Julian, about 4th-century Rome, tops the Herald Tribune best-seller list, beating out Leon Uris’s Armageddon.

1968
Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.  engage in TV debates at the presidential conventions; during one broadcast, Buckley calls Vidal a “queer.” The two trade barbs in Esquire, leading to Buckley’s filing
a libel suit. Buckley settles for $115,000.

1982
Governor Jerry Brown and Vidal vie to be the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate.

1982
A collection of Vidal’s writing, United States: Essays 1952-1992, wins the National Book Award. Among his other literary successes is Lincoln, which was released in 1984 in a remarkable 200,000-copy first printing.

1998
Vidal puts his L.A. house on the market for $2.1 million, but it fails to sell.

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