• April 17, 2014

Gore Vidal's Mistakes Were Mine

Fact-checking the vitriolic writer's historical novels called for meticulous care—but the work was great fun

Gore Vidal's Mistakes Were Mine 1

Remo Casilli, Camera Press, Redux

Gore Vidal on the balcony of his house in Ravello, Italy, in 2001.

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Remo Casilli, Camera Press, Redux

Gore Vidal on the balcony of his house in Ravello, Italy, in 2001.

I started working for Gore Vidal in 1983, when I was in my first job in journalism, as a fact checker at The Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic was running an excerpt of Lincoln, Vidal's novel to be published the following year, and I happened to be the checker on the excerpt. I found so many mistakes—serious ones, like Civil War battles Vidal said were won by the Union that were in fact won by the Confederacy—that he hired me to check the whole book. The writer, who died Tuesday at 86, hoped to head off the scholarly historians who he knew would criticize the premise of his book.

I had 30 days; it was in December, or maybe January 1984. I went home every night and worked in the kitchen of my apartment in Cambridge, Mass., and all day on the weekends, checking every factual detail in the 600-plus pages. I had piles of historical books checked out of libraries, presumably by the critics who would later rip into Vidal if I let him get a battle wrong, which was why he was paying me.

I didn't particularly like the book, about a less-than-heroic Abraham Lincoln who thought the way to deal with the slaves he would emancipate might be to ship them to Costa Rica. Many characters seemed thin, and some of the dialogue felt false. But the work was satisfying, and you couldn't beat the freelance wage. (I was making about $16,000 a year at The Atlantic.) I don't actually remember how much it was­—$35 an hour? Forty-five? I billed Lester Kaufman, Vidal's accountant in Hollywood. Even in those flush, pre-e-book days, publishers rarely hired fact checkers; the writer paid me himself.

The work was fun. I didn't mind that in the Afterword, Vidal thanked Professor David Herbert Donald of Harvard's history department for his "patient reading—and correction—of the manuscript. Any further errors, if they exist, are mine, not his." It's not something I am proud of, for the critics did light into him, but in fact, the errors are mine.

Over the years he hired me for other projects. I would answer the phone and he would say, in a firm, deep voice that I recognized at once: "Gore Vidal." Period. No pleasantries; he got right to the point. Can you check the manuscript for Empire in 30 days? Look for articles about Nina Auchincloss (his mother) in Time; what year did she marry the Army Air Corps officer Robert Olds? When did she buy the house on N Street? Did she sell it and buy the house on O Street, or was it the other way around? When did General Olds die?

By 1987, I had moved to Washington, D.C., and he sent me to find books or articles in the Library of Congress—it was wonderful to work in the reading room there. Once, when he was in town, he asked me to deliver something to his hotel, the Willard (of course he would stay at the Willard; it figures prominently in Lincoln), and I thought I might meet him, but he wasn't in. I left whatever it was he wanted at reception.

He was not usually in D.C., so I would send him what I had found. His address was Gore Vidal, c/o Bar San Domingo, Piazza Centrale, 84010 Ravello, Italy; I pictured the barman hopping on his Vespa and running my package up to him at his palatial cliffside home. Or I would call, and Howard Austen, his companion, would answer and say, "He's down at the pool; I'll just get him." Vidal would come to the phone and deal with whatever I told him perfunctorily, displaying an incredible memory for political and cultural details, especially from his own books. "It's in Myra Breckinridge, Page 73."

Occasionally there would be some amusing or vitriolic remark about America or politics, none of which I ever wrote down. Because when you are working for someone, even someone famous, you don't think, "I should write this down because one day he will die and I will want to write about working for him." You just do what you are told.

When I first came to Washington I worked for Joseph P. Kennedy II, Bobby Kennedy's oldest son, who was briefly a congressman from Massachusetts. "Pity what happened to that gene pool," Vidal said when I told him who my new boss was. In my memory, he added that the generation of Joe's parents, JFK, RFK, and Ted, wasn't that bright either, but several Vidal appreciations have said that he loved the Kennedys, and there are 76 entries for them in the index of his memoir Palimpsest, so I could be wrong.

The most interesting project Vidal gave me involved James Trimble, the lover he met when he was only 12 or 13 at a Washington private school, St. Albans. In Trimble, Vidal wrote in Palimpsest, "I saw my other half." Trimble died at Iwo Jima in 1945. As happens with lovers who die young, no one else ever matched that perfection in Vidal's mind, the obituaries say, and although Vidal lived for more than 50 years with Howard Austen, and will soon be buried next to him in Washington, it was only Trimble, he wrote, who made him whole.

Blond, blue-eyed, athletic, and a skillful pitcher who had been recruited before the war by the Washington Senators, Trimble seemed to make an impression on everyone he met. Vidal wanted me to find U.S. Marines who knew Trimble at Iwo Jima and who could tell him how Trimble died. This research was for Palimpsest, in 1993 or 94, pre-Internet: I placed an ad in Leatherneck, a magazine for Marines, and found a man named Donald Mates who not only knew Jim Trimble but was in the same foxhole the night he was killed by a Japanese suicide bomber wearing a mine strapped to his body. Mates sent me a copy of a letter he had written not long after that night, March 1, 1945, that described Trimble's death in detail, including the sentence, "It took a bayonet, two grenades, and a Jap suicide attack to kill James Trimble III."

I never read all of Palimpsest, although I've had a copy for a long time, and though I searched the index and read the parts about Trimble, I can't find that line. I do find details about the night of Trimble's death, attributed only to "a witness." Perhaps Vidal spared the details because he thought Trimble's mother might read the book—he met her and talked to her a lot, and their conversations are prominent in the memoir. I talked to her as well; she was 92 and living in a tower complex for the elderly high above the Columbia Country Club, in suburban Washington, but although I remember her as spry and charming, I have no idea what it was that Vidal, then writing the book in Ravello, wanted me to find out.

In 2000, two years after I came to The Chronicle, our freelance relationship came to an end. I had two young boys and a demanding job. I didn't have time for freelance work, and although I would miss the out-of-the-blue phone calls, I didn't think about Vidal much for many years. I read that he had left Ravello for Hollywood when Austen became ill, and thought that was sad. How could Hollywood ever compare? No more barman on the Vespa.

I did meet Vidal once. In 1992 I read that he would be in Washington promoting Live From Golgotha, so I went to a book signing on Capitol Hill. I bought a copy and got in line. When I reached him he looked very tired. He asked me my name, and I introduced myself. He paused for a moment and then said, "Oh. The Heidi." Not knowing what else to say, I asked him how he was. He replied that he was sick and tired of signing books, signed mine, and I moved on. In my copy he wrote, "Heidi from Gore Vidal."

Heidi Landecker is an assistant managing editor of The Chronicle.

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