In life, the Washington writer and critic was known for the epic fights he picked with other public intellectuals. With his death, he started a new one—a nasty battle among his own family over his $30-million estate.
Gore Vidal took fiendish delight in his feuds.
Pulverizing his adversaries with invective, he relished raising his middle finger to political luminaries, particularly the Kennedys: Joseph P. (“a crook”), John F. (“an opportunist”), Robert F. (“a self-righteous little prick”), and Edward M. (“all the charm of three hundred pounds of condemned veal”).
He eviscerated anyone challenging his position as a preeminent American novelist: Truman Capote (He has “a peculiar interior decorator’s way . . . of constructing a Saks Fifth Avenue window and calling it a novel”), Norman Mailer (“There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man . . . has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons . . . . ”), John Updike (“He is forever stuck in a psychic Shillington-Ipswich-New York world where everything outside his familiar round is unreal”). When the British actress Claire Bloom said she was going to marry Philip Roth after her second divorce, Vidal told her: “You already have had Portnoy’s complaint. Do not involve yourself with Portnoy.”
Vidal savaged the conservative writer William F. Buckley as a “pro- or crypto-Nazi” on national television, and Buckley responded by calling him “a queer.” The vitriol continued in dueling Esquire articles by each, eventually triggering a lawsuit by Buckley that lasted three years and, according to Nina Straight, Vidal’s half sister, cost Vidal $1 million in legal fees before Buckley dropped the matter. “I know because I loaned Gore the money,” she said over a recent dinner at La Chaumière in Georgetown.
Given his penchant for dissent, Vidal—who died in 2012—would be smacking his lips to know that, between his death and this fall, there has been a bitter fight over his will pitting distant relatives against one another. Of supreme delight would be the cast of characters: the WASPiest of American society, the whitest of white-shoe law firms, and the country’s most elite institution of higher education.
Swinging in one corner were Nina Gore Auchincloss Straight and her son Burr Steers. In the other was their cousin Andrew Auchincloss, trustee of the Gore Vidal estate. Cashing in on the donnybrook were high-octane US law firms: Browne George Ross; Loeb & Loeb; Reed & Reed; and Sheppard Mullin. Sitting ringside and watching—with more than a little self-interest—was Harvard University.
At issue was an estate that Nina Straight says is worth more than $30 million—a figure that doesn’t include continued royalties from Vidal’s stupendous oeuvre: 25 novels, 26 nonfiction works, 14 screenplays, eight stage plays. And Harvard gets it all. According to his last amended will, Vidal made the university his sole heir—even though he never attended the school.
The amendment shocked Vidal’s family and friends, and the lawsuits started flying a few months after his cantankerous heart stopped beating on July 31, 2012. More than three years later, the contretemps was still not resolved. Among the more bizarre consequences of the feud is the final resting place: Although Vidal arranged to be buried here in Washington, the town of his youth, his remains have yet to find their way to his grave.
Vidal was 86 when he died and in pitiable health from years of heavy drinking.
Family members say his decline started in 2003 after the death of his partner, Howard Austen. They’d been together 53 years.
“It was the only marriage in our family to have lasted,” says Nina Straight with an irrepressible laugh. “My two marriages added together didn’t last that long. Neither did Jackie’s, nor Lee’s three marriages—although Princess Lee got a title out of one and Jackie got gobs of money out of both of hers.”
Straight, who runs with Establishment Washington, is speaking of the Bouvier sisters, of course, with whom she and her late brother share some rather complicated old WASP ancestry. The former First Lady, the onetime Polish princess, Vidal, and Straight herself all belong to the House of Auchincloss, with its solid roots in American society. In 1942, when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s and Lee Radziwill’s mother married the Washington stockbroker and Standard Oil heir Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr., he was just a year divorced from socialite Nina Gore, mother of Nina Straight and Gore Vidal by different fathers.
Straight’s and her son Steers’s antagonist, Andrew Auchincloss, trustee of Vidal’s estate, descends from the same family tree. He’s the son of late New York lawyer/novelist Louis Auchincloss, who was a good friend of Vidal’s (and among the few writers ever to win his praise). Andrew tried to explain the convoluted family connections in a deposition with Burr Steers’s attorney: “Our grandfathers were first cousins, meaning that their fathers were brothers; and so his mother and my father were second cousins, and that makes [Burr] and me third cousins.”
The legal battle, at heart, comes down to this: Burr Steers was upset that Vidal changed his trust a year before he died, cutting Steers out of it and unexpectedly leaving real estate to Harvard. Steers alleged that his cousin Andrew Auchincloss engaged in ethical misconduct and breached his duties as trustee of Vidal’s estate.
“The end was awful, just awful,” says Steers, a Hollywood director and screenwriter who began spending more time with his uncle after Vidal and Austen moved from their Amalfi Coast villa to LA. “He was no longer Gore—just a deranged old man, killing himself with booze.”
Austen had been dead eight years, and Vidal was deep “into the throes of alcoholism and dementia,” says Straight. “The only proof you need of that is to see the photograph of him . . . on the New York Post website, showing him practically desiccated and weighing 90 pounds.”
The picture was taken after a visit Vidal made to New York to see The Best Man, his 1960 drama about two politicians vying for the presidential nomination, which was preparing for a Broadway revival. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Vidal was in and out of hospitals, according to Straight, and sliding into a sordid decline of demented hallucinations, heightened by bottles of Macallan Scotch, which he drank morning, noon, and night.
Worried about his increasing dementia, Straight and her son tried to get Vidal to stop drinking. They had no luck. Instead, according to court filings, Vidal responded to their entreaties by stipulating that Steers, who had been close to him for years, could not have any say about his affairs, medical or otherwise. Unbeknownst to Steers and his mother, Vidal had already made the most curious change of all to his trust—by naming Harvard as his sole beneficiary. In the previous version, dated 2003, he had left his home in the Hollywood Hills to his partner, Howard, and if Howard died, to Steers.
While it’s not unusual for people to amend their wills every few years, Vidal never included Harvard in his estate plans until that last amendment. “Gore was so far gone that he could barely sign his name in 2011,” the year of the final amendment, says Straight.
The move prompted Straight to file the first of the Vidal-estate suits, questioning her brother’s competency when he made those changes. “I sued to collect the million dollars Gore owed me from the Buckley lawsuit,” Straight tells me, “but more importantly, I sued to get the Outpost Drive house that Gore had promised to Burr.”
The $4-million mansion is perched in the Hollywood Hills, its rooms lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in a rococo interior that looks frozen in the 1970s, when Vidal bought it for less than $150,000. With the requisite Hollywood pool, the Mediterranean exterior is shrouded by trees. Vidal died in the living room, where a bed had been set up so he could take in the forested view.
“Right after Gore died, Burr asked about the Outpost Drive house,” Straight says. “Andrew Auchincloss said Gore had left Burr nothing. I knew this couldn’t be true because both Gore and Howard told us on many occasions they intended for Burr to inherit the house. That’s when I sued. . . . And wouldn’t you know,” she adds with sarcasm, “13 months into the lawsuit, Andrew suddenly finds the 2003 amendment to Gore’s will in which Gore [left] the Outpost Drive house to Burr. And biggest surprise is that Andrew himself drew up that  amendment and signed it as a witness.
“But does Andrew call Burr with this good news? No—he waits two months and then mails the document stuck in the middle of a bunch of other papers, not to Burr at his home address but to Burr’s business manager at his office address, and he sends it by snail mail. . . . I think Andrew was purposely running out the clock so that Burr would miss the 60-day statute as a disinherited heir to file a claim against the estate for the Outpost Drive house.”
Auchincloss denied Straight’s allegations that he had purposely deprived her son of his inheritance.
Straight’s lawsuit produced a key deposition from Vidal’s business manager, Glen Alpert. Testifying under oath, Alpert stunned everyone when he produced the keys to the Hollywood house and declared, according to court records, that Vidal instructed him: “This is what you are to give to . . . my nephew when I die. Give him all the keys to the house.”
As the fight played out, Burr Steers marched into court. He wanted the 2011 amendment to his uncle’s trust invalidated, arguing that when Vidal signed it he was suffering from “wet brain,” a form of dementia caused by excessive drinking. This past summer, Steers filed a second suit, asking an LA judge to remove Auchincloss as trustee and stating that his actions demonstrated either an attempt to “defraud” Steers or “reckless misconduct.”
“Both of these lawsuits are as frivolous as the lawsuit by his mother,” Auchincloss’s lawyer, Adam Streisand, said in a press release in June.
As Steers pressed on, his mother, faced with mounting legal fees, decided to drop her suit. (Although she still can’t resist taking a jab at her cousin—“Since when is a loan of $1 million frivolous?” she asks me.) “I told the court . . . I would . . . show that her case was as fictional as some of Mr. Vidal’s most colorful characters. I’m content I’ve done just that,” Streisand said in his statement touting the victory. As he put it in an e-mail to me later, “We demonstrated to the court that the evidence clearly established that Mr. Vidal’s trust . . . reflected his true intentions, at a time when he was of sound mind and under no influence by anyone.” (Requests for comment from Auchincloss were answered by his lawyer.)
Auchincloss and Streisand also scored another victory: The court sided in their favor not to remove Auchincloss as trustee.
But that still left the Hollywood house in play. “I will pay and pay and pay to see to it that Burr gets the property that Gore promised to him,” Nina Straight told me. “If I don’t make the challenge, the house will go to Andrew Auchincloss, who, as trustee, gets to decide what charity the house should go to, and that just cannot be.”
That is the sort of sentiment you could very easily imagine Gore Vidal expressing.
An inveterate snob, Vidal was a first-class name dropper, but unlike most, he knew his droppings. “Princess Margaret once remarked to me . . . .” “The Bird [Tennessee Williams] and I . . . .” “Eleanor [Roosevelt] was in love with Amelia [Earhart], and Amelia was in love with my father.”
As such, he was the go-to source for many journalists working on high-profile subjects. In 1994, while researching The Royals, my biography of the House of Windsor, I wanted to interview him about his “dear friend” Princess Margaret. Our mutual friend Christopher Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, invited me to a dinner party for Vidal, who was in Washington for a visit. My husband and I arrived late, and as we joined the other guests for a drink, Christopher recalled later that Vidal was, to use his term, “gobsmacked.”
“My God,” he quoted Vidal. “Here comes Kitty Kelley, and she’s with Bill Clinton.” (In certain lights, my silver-haired husband did bear a handsome resemblance to the former President.)
At the end of the wine-soaked evening, as we said goodbye to the guest of honor, Christopher tried to broker an interview for me. “Oh, Gore—did Kitty mention she’s working on a book about the British royal family?” he said.
The knee-cracking monarchist eyed me malevolently. Then he lasered Hitchens with evil eyes, and in the millisecond that passed, I flashed on how Vidal had once described himself: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Later, I bravely wrote to Vidal and asked if he’d share recollections about the royal family. “I never chat about friends or good acquaintances to the press,” he replied on his blue-tissue stationery, from his Italian villa in Ravello. He advised me to forget writing about the royal family: “They’ve gone from over-exposed to practically disposed of—Give them a break.” Instead, he suggested: “Why not go after the gorgeous villains—Bush, Perot, Kissinger—They do real harm in a real world.” Years later, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Vidal issued a thinly veiled insult about George W. Bush: “I didn’t join the Texas Air Force,” he said. “This is what lower-class people do.”
While researching The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, I wrote Vidal again and received another reply on blue tissue. With withering scorn, he wrote, “I avoided the Bushes, no difficult thing—they never figured in Auchincloss-Gore etc. lore—I guess they were too busy learning to speak Texan.”
It was vintage Vidal. Although he lived his entire adult life outside Washington, he always found his juiciest targets in America’s politics and politicians and in the errant ways of his hometown.
Vidal moved here with his parents as a child and lived for a while with his grandfather Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, who was blind. At age six, Gore was reading the Congressional Record to the Oklahoma Democrat. The youngster sometimes accompanied his grandfather to the floor of the Senate. He attended Landon School for Boys, Sidwell Friends, and St. Albans, where he fell in love for the first time with one of the school’s star athletes, Jimmie Trimble. Gore claimed the boys first became lovers in his bathroom at Merrywood, the Auchincloss estate in McLean overlooking the Potomac River. (Years later, Vidal boasted that he’d had 1,000 sexual encounters—“brief anonymous adhesions”—by age 25, but he kept Trimble’s portrait framed by his bedside until the day he died.) He went off to prep school, graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943 at 17, then enlisted in the Army, which is when he began to write in earnest.
It wasn’t until the 1948 publication of his third novel, The City and the Pillar, that Vidal established himself as a literary force. The book presented gay men as strong and masculine. Its main character, Jim, a star prep-school football player who discovers he’s gay, was as handsome and athletic as Jimmie Trimble. (Vidal dedicated the book to “J.T.”) The novel was considered so shocking that the New York Times wouldn’t review it, or any of his books for the next six years. Vidal started writing plays and became a screenwriter. He also penned potboilers under a pseudonym.
As much as The City and the Pillar did to crush stereotypes of homosexuals, Vidal remained prickly about being described as gay and for years felt ostracized. After his mother reportedly referred to him and his partner as “my pansy son and his Jew boyfriend,” Gore never saw her again. “She was the worst person in the world,” he said many years after she died.
By 1974, he had acquired enough fame and fortune to relax a bit about his homosexuality. “I am proud to say that I am most disliked because for twenty-six years I have been in open rebellion against the heterosexual dictatorship in the United States,” he told the Paris Review. “Fortunately, I have lived long enough to see the dictatorship start to collapse. I now hope to live long enough to see a sexual democracy in America. I deserve at least a statue in Dupont Circle—along with Dr. Kinsey.”
Over the length of his career, Vidal published hundreds of essays and won a National Book Award for the 1,295-page United States: Essays 1952–1992. He was an early political pundit of sorts, in particular sparring with William F. Buckley Jr. in daily debates on live TV during the presidential nominating conventions of 1968, which drew millions of viewers. (A new documentary about the confrontations, Best of Enemies, dusts off the footage after 47 years.)
But there was one thing that eluded Vidal: public office. In 1960, he ran for the House of Representatives from New York, and 22 years later he ran in the Democratic primary for US Senate in California. He lost both times, possibly because he lacked the temperament for pleasing people. Including, it seems, his would-be heirs.
Without Vidal around to explain himself, his friends and relatives are struggling to understand why he bequeathed his pot of gold to the Crimson.
“Doesn’t make sense,” says Burr Steers. “Gore hated Harvard’s neocons.”
“It’s crazy, just crazy,” says Nina Straight.
“Gore didn’t care about Harvard,” Boaty Boatwright, a talent agent and close friend, told the Times.
Actually, many times over the years, Vidal claimed to have been “accepted at Harvard” but opted for the Army instead. “What was the point of going into another institution when I had already written my first novel?” he told Fag Rag magazine.
Yet his record at Exeter doesn’t support his claim; he received a D on his senior math course, barely passed French, and didn’t win any academic prizes. Vidal was a terrible candidate for the Ivy League, and in fact he never attended college, let alone one of caliber.
His connection to Harvard started in 1991, when he delivered the William E. Massey Sr. Lecture series at the university. His friend Jay Parini, the writer (and author of a new book about Vidal), recalled Vidal being awestruck during a visit to the Harvard Faculty Club. “John Kenneth Galbraith [the Harvard economist] and others had lunch with us one day,” Parini told the Harvard Crimson, “and Gore later said to me: ‘That’s what conversation must sound like on Mount Olympus.’ ”
As bedazzled as Vidal was by Harvard, the university was not impressed by him, at least not enough to bestow an honorary degree. But he apparently received an athletic jacket, which he proudly wore to a book event at the University of Southern California. “I didn’t go to Harvard,” he told the audience that day, “but . . . I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”
Vidal occasionally made film cameos, including for Bob Roberts (1992), Gattaca (1997), and With Honors (1994), in which he played the Harvard professor. Sample dialogue from the film:
Joe Pesci as a homeless man: “Which door do I leave from?”
Vidal: “At Harvard we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.”
Pesci: “Which door do I leave from, asshole?”
Some surmise that Vidal’s grand bequest to Harvard stems from his lifelong feeling of inferiority at not having a college degree. He “clung to those upper-class tropes,” Matt Tyrnauer, his editor at Vanity Fair, told the Times, “so Harvard, being the most prestigious of universities, was the place to put his legacy.”
The school already owned Vidal’s literary legacy. Originally, he had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research. But in 2002, he transferred the cache along with the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. The collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and reels—nearly 230 cubic feet of novel drafts, theatrical plays, TV scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, speeches, and correspondence.
All the same, the gift is perplexing. As Tyrnauer told the Times: “But why give [his entire estate] to an institution rolling in money, when Gore was not only passionately anti-academics but also so committed to the good fight? Why didn’t he leave a sum to the ACLU, or any number of liberal causes or something subversive?”
The point is well taken, considering that Harvard’s endowment in 2014 was worth more than $36 billion. The university, for its part, has no comment.
Vidal made his last trip to Washington in 2006, at age 81.
He attended a book party hosted by Nina Straight and Deborah Gore Dean—an antiques dealer who shares his name but is no relation beyond what she calls “kissin’ cousin”—to celebrate the publication of his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation.
Holding court from a wheelchair, he was surrounded by friends and fans and one foe: Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’s support for the Iraq War had ripped relations with his former friend and mentor Vidal, who didn’t speak to him all evening. For Vidal watered his garden of grudges, even to the grave. When William F. Buckley Jr. died in 2008, Vidal wrote: “RIP WFB—in hell.” He called Buckley “a world-class liar” and “a hysterical queen” and maligned Buckley’s son, Christopher, as “creepy” and “brain-dead,” for no other reason, one supposes, than Christopher Buckley was the son of his sworn enemy, a former employee of George H.W. Bush, and an admiring friend of Christopher Hitchens.
Washington is still waiting for Vidal to return and be laid to rest. As of this writing, the space he reserved for himself in Rock Creek Cemetery, not far from his beloved grandfather’s home, lies empty. Three years after his death, Vidal’s ashes still haven’t been interred under the marble slab he purchased so he could lie alongside senators and ambassadors and Supreme Court justices.
In Vidal’s case, pedigree isn’t the problem. “Gore’s estate lawyers haven’t paid the money owed for his plot, so the cemetery won’t take him yet,” says Nina Straight. “For a while, his ashes were in the trunk of Burr’s rental car, but I think Burr’s moved him, and Gore’s now in the hall closet of Burr’s house in LA.”
Not true, says Andrew Auchincloss’s lawyer, Adam Streisand: “Mr. Auchincloss allowed the ashes to be released to Burr before all the litigation, with the understanding that Burr would comply with Mr. Vidal’s wishes. Burr has refused and failed to do so.”
False, says Burr Steers: “The caretaker of Gore’s house notified me that Angeleno Mortuary had called several times because Gore’s ashes had never been picked up. The estate had not made arrangements, so I picked them up. I intended to deliver them to Rock Creek Cemetery in April 2014. . . . However, when I called and spoke to Diane Gouin [director of sales and customer services], she said there was an outstanding amount due—not substantial as I recall, but it had to be paid before the cemetery would take receipt of my uncle’s ashes. . . . I reminded the estate trustee in September 2014 that I had the ashes and was awaiting his direction for disposition. I have never heard back from him.”
Diane Gouin at Rock Creek tells me, “We’d love to have Gore Vidal with us, because many people have been calling.” At one point, interment was expected. “We dug the hole, but no one showed up.”
Then she explains the fees: “The cost is $900 for opening and closing, $495 for a concrete liner, and depending on whether they choose to put days, months, and years for birth and death, it’s $250 for the first five characters and $10 for every character after.”
So, for less than $2,000, a man with an estate worth $30 million could not be laid to rest.
As this article was being edited, the contentious parties within the House of Auchincloss settled their differences.
“To the satisfaction of all parties,” Burr Steers said in an e-mail to me breaking the news. Because of a confidentiality agreement, neither plaintiffs nor defendants will discuss the settlement terms or say who would pay the outstanding bill to Rock Creek Cemetery so the maestro of malice could rest in peace. But one source familiar with the litigation says Steers lost the house because of a technicality—the 60-day statute for filing claims to an estate: “Burr was five days late in filing his claim, and 60 days is the law in California. . . . You can say that isn’t fair and I would agree, but that’s the law.”
Says Straight: “Estate lawyers are greedy and grasping, and they know better than all of us how to play their vile game.” She and her son maintain that they aren’t bitter about not being remembered in Gore Vidal’s will. Still, they might be getting the last lick anyway.
As Vidal wrote in his second memoir: “[S]hould I capture my family upon the page, the result is like a bad movie—or worse, a good one. . . . We require no less than a Saint-Simon. Unfortunately, we have received no more than a Kitty Kelley.”
This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.