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Howard Austen: Gore Vidal's Partner in All but Name

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Charley Gallay/Getty Images for MOCA
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for MOCA

The thing that remains in many people's minds if they have heard of Howard Austen, Gore Vidal's partner of 53 years, is Vidal's contention that the key to their relationship was not having sex. Vidal also claimed that he didn't believe in gay people, just gay sexual acts. And so, speaking about Austen as a partner or husband was out of his ken completely. And yet Austen kept the Vidal train on the tracks, meaning that the Master could write and bestride the world's cultural stage. He was a dedicated spouse and one of the few people who could prick the balloon of Vidal's pomposity.

Vidal first encountered Austen at one of New York's gayest locations of its time. Vidal, then 25, met Austen, then 21, on Labor Day 1950 at the Everard Baths, a well-known sex venue. Of meeting at the baths, Austen told Vidal's biographer, Fred Kaplan, "I saw Gore ... and he was really something. Good-looking. Somehow our eyes struck. ... Then we started talking and ended up in bed. And it was just a total disaster." However, "[t]here was an enormous attraction, but it wasn't physical. ... It was a kind of relief. I felt like I had met a soul mate."

Austen, a then-recent graduate of New York University, was from a working-class Jewish family living in Pelham Park in the Bronx. His sister Arlyne Reingold recalls Austen singing "New York, New York" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

By 10 Austen was having sex with the super's son, who was around 20 years old. "I really did the seducing," he told Fred Kaplan. "I was really very aggressive about it."

"Howard was a rebel, very bright," says Reingold. "My father wanted him to stay in the Bronx. Howard wanted to sow his oats."

The party line, repeated by Vidal to Judy Balaban in her 2013 Vanity Fair article about Vidal's friendships with women, was that "[a]ll the faggot fan magazines wanted to know how these two famous fags stayed together all those years. ... So I told them. We never had sex. I had sex and he had sex, but it was never together." This was all for "self-preservation," said Vidal. Another more basic truth -- lived out by many couples -- is that sex can tail off, or cease to be so important.

Nobody seemed to take his "no sex" answer seriously, Vidal told Don Weise, who edited his essay collection Sexually Speaking, in the late 1990s. Weise replied, "Because it sounds like a joke."

"I've always made a point: Never have sex with a friend," Vidal said. "You can always get somebody for sex. You're not going to make many friends in life in any case, and having sex with them wrecks it."

Dennis Altman, a longtime friend of Vidal's and author of Gore Vidal's America, says, "Adopting that detachment made it easy to separate sex out. It was a Victorian view, almost, a high-society relationship: on the surface respectability, then sexual adventure on the side."

Letters from Austen from the early years of the relationship reveal flirtation, warmth and intimacy. Austen often signed the letters with the affectionate moniker that Vidal gave him: "Tinker." In 1950 Austen wrote to Vidal, who was away, "I feel terribly restless. All my manhood is going to waste in dirty socks and underwear." On March 1, 1951, Austen wrote, "I miss you so much. A month is so little in a lifetime, but so much in a time of love...." On Dec. 3, 1951, Austen wrote, "I am missing you so terribly much. ... I love you, Tinkerbell."

Later letters express the sexless domesticity not of friends but of partners. In 1965 Austen wrote to Vidal, "Please take care. I don't know what I would do without you."

Vidal's good friend Elinor Pruder recalls the couple fighting in her apartment in the late 1950s: "Howard suddenly left. Gore panicked. 'Where is he? Where did he go? We must find him. Elinor, you don't realize, I need Howard.'"

Nina Straight remembers that the "only time" she saw her half-brother upset was when, "sometime in the '50s or '60s," Vidal lost a tiny picture of Austen that he carried in his wallet, a photo "of Howard as a little boy with bangs and Mary Jane shoes." Straight recalls, "He was really upset and saying, 'He's the only good person I've ever known' -- 'good' meaning simple, guileless -- and he loved the image of that little boy, the innocent dedication and purity."

The actress Susan Sarandon, a friend of Vidal's for many years, recalls that together the men seemed "like an old married couple," adding, "Howard took care of real life." She, her then-partner Tim Robbins and their children spent a lot of time at La Rondinaia, Vidal and Austen's home on the Amalfi coast that Vidal purchased in 1972. "[Howard] spoke better Italian than Gore, took care of the house," she says. Out at dinner, after a few drinks, Vidal would say, "Go ahead, Howard, sing," Sarandon recalls. "He would sing, a cappella, something bluesy. Gore would gaze at him proudly and lovingly."

Vidal had a very close, loving relationship with his in-laws. Austen's mother would make Vidal chicken blintzes and stuffed cabbage "and bring them to him all over the world," Arlyne Reingold says. "Gore would joke with them, putting on an exaggerated Jewish accent, and say things like, 'Oy gevalt.'"

"Gore was a really cold fish," says his friend and former editor Matt Tyrnauer. "Howard was much warmer. If Gore started to attack, he'd say, 'Don't worry, baby, it's the gin talking,' or, 'Shut up, Gore, you're wrong,' if Gore was crossing a line or getting aggressive. If Gore was banging on about the Bill of Rights, Howard would break in with, 'Gore, how big do you think [Porfirio] Rubirosa's penis was?'" referring to the 1950s Dominican diplomat and international playboy. Vidal, recalls Tyrnauer, gave a serious answer: "Probably eight inches, I imagine. The mythical nine is barely possible."

Austen "worshipped Gore, and Gore needed to be worshipped, and Gore couldn't live without Howard in a practical sense, and I think Howard used that power to keep it together," says Tyrnauer. "I think neither of them was interested in romantic love. Howard complemented Gore perfectly. He was the sorbet course to Gore's mutton." Austen was also the recipient of Vidal's rough drafts. "He would try out a personal attack or essay or passage in a novel and put it to Howard. When Howard died, the filter was gone. A lot of people were hit by missiles that Howard would have intercepted."

Scotty Bowers, Vidal's longtime friend, famous as a pimp for many Hollywood stars of the 1950s and '60s, says that Austen would go out cruising, pick up guys and share them with Vidal. "It wasn't just prostitutes but also young men who were available," he says.

Austen told Fred Kaplan, "Who could ask for anything more? I got the company of Gore. ... I know people are puzzled by how it works.... What do you say? 'Hi, I'm Howard Austen, I'm associated with Gore Vidal, but we don't sleep together?' You assume when two men are living together that [they do]. It was a corner that they put me into that I just had to accept. Even today. ... If it were true, I would not be ashamed of it. People have done a lot worse than Gore Vidal, even though he's fat."

The novelist Edmund White says, "I think it was cruel of Gore to say that he and Howard didn't have sex. That's like denying in any real sense he's your partner."

Burr Steers, Vidal's nephew, says, "They were as close as any married couple. It was a really tight relationship. They were connected in a fundamental way. Howard took the piss out of him. He really protected Gore. Gore lost a big chunk of himself when Howard died [in 2003]. He couldn't really function as a person on his own."

Vidal cried as he listened to Austen's songs on CD. To his friends, he would cry about how much he missed Austen. One told me that they doubted whether Vidal had ever told Austen that he loved him.

In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master, by Tim Teeman, is published by Riverdale Avenue Books/Magnus.