It’s been a week since the death of writer Gore Vidal at his home in Hollywood, and his family is still trying to decide a date for his burial here in Washington at Rock Creek Cemetery. His body is in a mortuary in Los Angeles. This is according to his longtime personal chef and household manager, Norberto Nierras, who says he was with Vidal when he died.
“He died at 6 o’clock in the evening. The doctor had been here at 3 and had given him some exercises to do,” said Nierras in a lengthy phone conversation from Vidal’s home, where he is keeping a 24-hour-a-day watch. Nierras says Vidal’s last words were, “Stop it!”
“That’s what he said to the nurse when she was making him stretch his leg: ‘Stop it!’ Those were his last words.” The last friend to visit him earlier in the day, says Nierras, was Patricia Rice, who plays piano in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Nierras says he worked for Vidal for more than 11 years, overseeing the author’s Hollywood home, which Vidal shared with his partner, Howard Austen, until Austen’s death in 2003. Austen is buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in a plot that will be shared with Vidal.
“He was kind to me,” Nierras says. “I mean, he was a normal boss. He left me to do what I do. He trusted me. Even the food preparations; I didn’t have to consult him about the menu I would do each day.” What did Vidal most like from his personal chef’s repertoire? “He liked my soufflés, especially cheese soufflé and spinach soufflé. He liked dessert, but he was diabetic. He always asked me for chocolate ice cream. He would say, ‘Maybe just a small bite?’” Nierras says he found a sugar-free chocolate ice cream that solved the problem. “He did like it.”
Vidal died from pneumonia at the age of 86. He had been essentially bedridden since March, according to Nierras, after a trip to New York to work on a revival of his 1960 play, The Best Man, which is scheduled to run on Broadway until next month. Nierras and a nurse made the trip with Vidal. “It was winter. When we returned, he got sick.” Nierras says Vidal was hospitalized for a time, and then in a wheelchair, and then in his bed, which he had moved from the upstairs at the house down to a room off the kitchen.
Nierras says Vidal’s home is filled with books, and that he read up until a few months ago. The last book Vidal read was The Wizard of Oz.
“I have locked his books up in his library,” he says. “He has more than a thousand. There are books in all of the [three] bedrooms. In all these rooms the walls have shelves, and they are filled with books.”
Nierras says Vidal did not think he was dying, though over the course of his illness he did talk about his burial. “He ate dinner alone, and I would stand and talk with him. He said he wanted his remains to be next to Mr. Austen. He never said why he chose to be buried in Washington, but . . . he wanted a quiet cemetery.”
Some reports have speculated, and some friends have suggested, that Vidal chose Rock Creek Cemetery to be near the grave of his St. Albans High School crush, Jimmy Trimble, who was killed at Iwo Jima. Vidal grew up in Washington, living at Merrywood in McLean for a while, in a blended family (his mother married Hugh Auchincloss, who was the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis).
Nierras says Vidal liked to talk about Washington and had special, distinct memories. “He loved the seafood at Cannon’s, because they had shad roe. He talked about how much he loved shad roe, and also the soft-shell crabs.” Nierras knew of what Vidal spoke because he worked in Washington for a Georgetown couple for four years before he moved to the West Coast.
Did their dinnertime conversations ever drift to politics? “Yes, about the government. He didn’t like the government. He talked about [President] Obama. He endorsed Obama and then he felt sorry for the endorsement. He was a bit disappointed in Obama. He didn’t like [Mitt] Romney, because he [Vidal] was very Democratic,” says Nierras.
Nierras says Vidal continued to write up until about two years ago. Then he stopped. He read and he watched television—CNN and MSNBC.
Nierras is 66 years old. “I’m hanging in here for now,” he says of his job. “The executor has asked me to stay for a while, 24 hours. I have two persons working with me. One is my son. I have never asked the family what they are going to do with this house.”
Nierras says Vidal’s death was sad. “But he had been in bed for the last four months of his life, and it was not anymore easy for him.”