Liza Foreman went to the Amalfi Coast in search of answers about Gore Vidal's sex life and encountered many colorful locals on her quest. Some mysteries, she found, are best left unanswered.
RAVELLO, Italy – After five glasses of champagne during New York City Fashion Week last February, I was given an assignment that made the bawdiest fashion antic seem tame by comparison: I was to spend six weeks on the Amalfi Coast finding out who the late Gore Vidal slept with.
Tim Teeman needed some research for his book In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master. Tim and I attended University of Aberdeen in Scotland together and began writing for the campus paper at the same time.
Between drinks, the conversation turned to Minori, a small village on the coast where I would need to do research. It is not a well-known place, but I have been vacationing there for years at the apartment of a friend.
Minori sits directly beneath the better-known jetset destination of Ravello, where Mr. Vidal kept a house for more than 30 years. His home, La Rondinaia, clings to the cliffs which rise above the water like a solitary lighthouse, surrounded by terraces that spill down the hillside like a waterfall and lush gardens reaching to a nunnery up above.
Although it is a private, luxurious spot, there was a rumor, started by Mr. Vidal himself, that he may have kept a lover's den in Minori.
Not much goes unnoticed around there. But that does not mean people will talk.
The town is miniscule, tucked between a small beach, speckled with bright fishermen's boats and a hilly mountainous terrain, lined with crumbling homes reached by climbing thousands of steps which connect the lemon groves and villages on this breathtaking coast. Minori's most significant attributes are an award-winning cake shop, Sal De Riso, where I would eat chocolate cake for breakfast and file my stories, and Palazzo Vingius, a Roman villa located between small streets.
A friend spent her childhood here. "Gore imagined the whole thing, created his own mythology, inspired by E.M. Forster who wrote about Minori," she told me. "Do you know how Catholic it is?"
She emailed the name of two gay painters who had lived there, and I found a man online who said he had worked for Mr. Vidal. Although the man professed to knowing nothing about his love life during a long Skype conversation, he did recall drinking several bottles of whisky into the early hours one night, listening to Mr. Vidal's encyclopedic knowledge of Iraq. "He was like a president," he said. He painted a picture of a man who spent all day reading, writing, and drinking. Names came in and out of conversation: housemaids, drivers, friends.
I arrived in mid-March on a rain-drenched night. It felt like London in deepest winter. Waves crashed to shore; the town felt deserted. I entered Pizzeria Altamaria, a restaurant on the waterfront, and was greeted by a waiter I know. The new Pope was being sworn in. Customers sat glued to the television.
I am used to traipsing up 300 steps to reach my friend's apartment, usually with a suitcase stuffed with computers and dresses for the Cannes Film Festival. The trick is to avoid the donkeys carting lemons down from the surrounding groves in this spectacular terrain. Sometimes a worker would carry the case up. If not, I made multiple trips, armfuls of clothing at a time. This time, a young man on the path gamely sprinted skywards with my bags, his girlfriend looking out at the pretty lights down below.
The panoramic view of the coast from the balcony made the trek worth it. I could see La Rondinaia, shrouded in darkness, standing apart from the twinkling lights that climb up the hillside from Minori to the grand hotels perched on the Ravello rocks. Renovation plans to convert La Rondinaia into an upscale vacation home continue at a snail's pace.
Research began early the next morning at Café Europa, my favorite spot in Piazza Umberto I. Between tea and toast, I asked the locals what they knew about Gore Vidal. Here's the difference between Ravello, 1000 steps above this small town, and Minori: They asked to see a photo of him.
Ravello has been a beloved spot for high-profile types — actors, politicians, and literary figures — but in Minori, the locals go about their business running shops and conducting village life, growing visibly older by the year.
I called on one of the painters. Blame it on my Italian, but he understood that someone was coming to do a profile on his life.
I needed a translator. I was directed to a local business where they spoke fluent English and were willing to help. (At one point, many villagers had migrated to England, and some still have a thicker London accent than I do.) I made fast friends that morning, without whom I would not have gotten very far. They called the painter and gave it to him straight. A journalist is here. She wants to know if you knew Gore Vidal, who he was friendly with, and what he did in Minori.
The innocent kindness of an old man set me on my way that morning. He mentioned a few of Mr. Vidal's friends and acquaintances. One was called over to meet me. He was all ears. I described the nature of the project, and he was on his way. I will find out for you, he said. We are all like reporters here, and we love to gossip. Give me a few days.
So I did what I always do here. I climbed the steps to Ravello, passing the cemetery, resting under the arches of the small church, wandering through narrow alleyways, past the field where the dragonflies light up the path at night, snapping photos of mountains in shadows, before arriving for a swim at a local hotel.
Although I had crashed the pool at Hotel Graal many times, it was the dead of winter, so I tried a new tactic. I asked the owner's permission. "Pay me to swim in my pool?" he said. "If you can swim in it, it is free."
"I can swim in anything," I assured him and sauntered outside.
It would be the first pool to defeat me. I got in up to my waist and got out shivering as the hotel owner and his friend took photographs on their phones. I stood there freezing in a towel and explained that the real reason I was there was to find out about Gore Vidal's love life.
As I froze in the late-winter air, taking in the most beautiful sight I know, the mountains descending in ripples like green sand dunes down to the pale waters, an angel must have looked down up me because the hotelier phoned a friend who knew Gore Vidal.
That friend subsequently shared stories about Mr. Vidal chatting with locals at the bar San Domingo and about how he had been a literary friend to so many people in Ravello. Everyone adored him.
The next morning in the Europa, I struck up a conversation with an American woman, the only other foreigner visiting in that unseasonably cold March. We walked to her apartment amid the lemon groves and met her husband. They became intrigued by the project and began looking up anything and everything about Mr. Vidal.
By this point, I had assembled a list of names that I would work my way through. Gore's friends and acquaintances. More telephone numbers, more missing links.
I spent that evening in the Ravello police station with one of them, a policeman who was said to be his friend. He told me how much he loved Vidal and showed me a beautiful photograph behind a broken glass frame of himself and a much younger, happy-looking looking Gore Vidal.
I had been to La Rondinaia once before and knew one of the new owners, Vincenzo Palumbo, who is also the proprietor of the lovely Hotel Villa Maria in town. I went to pick his brain, and we walked the maze-like alleyways of Ravello, inspecting his organic vegetable garden, until we reached the gate. In the garden, there was a sorry-looking green pool with dead things floating in the water. Building tools filled the hallways.
Mr. Vidal's office stood still in time. His desk and dusty bookshelves were draped in plastic. His bedroom had a view of the coast and was filled with old furniture piled high. Old photographs and belongings were scattered around the home.
The owner had been a good friend of Mr. Vidal's and told me friendly stories. Back at Villa Maria, he shared an album of photographs. Mr. Vidal with Nureyev, with Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Howard Austen, his partner. Politicians. Journalists. I leafed through an old copy of Architectural Digest with pictures of his home as it once stood. Beautiful Italian style.
After a gourmet dinner in the empty dining room, where Mr. Vidal had often entertained, I was driven to Minori by an employee who was all ears. We spiraled down the dark road, through the quiet mountains, hitting the coast road, before I climbed the steps once again. I sat on the terrace, looking out at the beautiful night, sad that La Rondinaia stood empty. Perhaps no one could fill his shoes?
In the following days, I learned more about his life here, the places he frequented, his favorite bars and restaurants, like Da Zaccaria (Via Cristoforo Colombo 9, Amalfi; +39-89-871-807), which sits on the coast road close to Amalfi, overlooking a popular swimming beach in Atrani. My new American friends and I went for a meal. Da Zaccaria's owners were not helpful, but what was sure was that Mr. Vidal was a gourmand. The pasta was melt-in-your mouth homemade; the fish as fresh as the water visible from this shack.
The next morning, one of Mr. Vidal's acquaintances took me to what he said was his favored lido in Amalfi, Lido delle Sirene, tucked behind the harbor. I had heard stories of him picking up men in Amalfi, so this was a good lead. Except the owner had died of a heart attack the week before.
On my last night, I went up to a small town near Ravello in search of someone who was, it seemed, key to the story. I simply walked into a shop and asked where he lived. I was directed to a bar, where the locals stared at what they thought was a lost tourist. I asked for him, and they called the man. I was able to explain in my limited Italian that I was there to interview him about the private life of Mr. Vidal. He was game, but I was leaving the next morning, and would have to find someone to conduct the interview in the month I would be gone. In the end, he declined to be interviewed, although I never found out why. Small towns like to hold onto their secrets.
When I returned a month later, summer had arrived. Research resumed in a sunnier mood. A shopkeeper in Minori befriended me and told me funny anecdotes about Mr. Vidal's employees and about the antics of the naughty gay painters and their local boy toys. It was as if the whole town had become involved in solving the mystery of Gore and Minori. But no one could.
I entertained two women of my own age on the balcony one night, drinking local wine and feasting on wild rice. They had been to school here and recalled their male friends telling stories of a man from Switzerland who would come and pay for sex until the mayor gave him his marching orders. Alas, no Gore.
But it was now warm enough to swim in the sea, and I had made a new discovery. Hotel Botanico San Lazzaro in the next town, Maiori, had an infinity pool and shiatsu massage on the terrace. Heaven.
Then school was out and 18-year-old boys with golden suntans kicked balls into the water. One could see why anyone interested in beautiful men or women would choose to spend time here.
On this second trip, someone remembered someone who had been good friends with Gore and his partner, Howard Austen, in their early years and took me to meet him. This wonderful man recounted time spent with Gore and Howard, living it all again like déjà vu. We spent a week talking. One day, we sailed the coast on a tour of Vidal sights, stopping at favorite small beaches and the Africana Famous Club where Howard liked to party, passing the coastal houses where their friends lived. On other days, we drove on a motorbike, following the coast road and visiting little-known restaurants that they liked.
One night, we went to one of Gore's favorite restaurants in Ravello, Da Salvatore, and listened to funny stories about Gore arriving wearing one sock, already sozzled for lunch.
We returned to Lido delle Sirene and met men who had worked there for decades and often sailed Vidal's boat. We drank tea in front of the newly repainted beach huts in white and blue stripes, hidden from sight.
I learned more about the Gore years, about his time in Rome and Los Angeles, his men, his women, his friends.
Finally I went to Scala, a beautiful slither of a village near Ravello to meet his maid. She was a warm person who loved him so much. She told stories about his life before and after Howard's death. How he would sit alone and cry.
There is no doubt that much remains untold of what happened with Gore Vidal during the Ravello years or even in Minori. Several months later, when I returned home to Los Angeles, I heard a story about Gore in the Polo Lounge with a beautiful young male companion, about a certain television personality who arrived with two black hookers, exchanging niceties. I realized how much more there was to know.
Everyone and anyone in Ravello and Minori tried to learn the truth about Gore Vidal's lover's den, but nobody could find any evidence. Various friends agreed he must have made it up, and said he often talked about it when he was drunk. So the mystery may not have been solved, but what I learned along the way was that life, especially one's love life, should be lived to the full.
FOR YOUR BOOKSHELF
Read what else Tim Teeman discovered while writing In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master