The City and the Pillar (1948)

Gore Vidal (Carl Van Vechten / Public domain)

Author: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal was a larger-than-life inhabitant of the twentieth century. He was a novelist, playwright, and a screenwriter. He also occasionally acted. He was in Federico Fellini’s Roma and in the movie Gattaca. He never expected any of these careers. He imagined himself as a politician. However, the publication of The City and the Pillar in 1948, one of the first mainstream novels to honestly address male homosexuality, perhaps shaped the course of his life and career. 

Vidal was born in 1925 to an elite family. His father was an aviation expert who worked for the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and his mother was a Washington socialite who married and then divorced Hugh Auchincloss, who would later marry the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. 

According to Vidal, his father was in a love triangle with Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. He alleges that Roosevelt loved Earhart, but Earhart loved Vidal’s father. Vidal’s father was an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy who later founded three different airline companies. 

Because Vidal did not get along well with his mother, his grandfather, a blind U.S. senator for the state of Oklahoma, raised him. Vidal graduated from the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, yet he never went to university. Instead, he enlisted in the army. 

His years in the military inspired his early writing, and he was a successful novelist by his twenties. He later ran for national political office twice, but he lost both campaigns. Regardless, he was a known television personality, notably for his explosive feuds with writer Norman Mailer, conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr., and Truman Capote. 

Despite being very forthcoming about his numerous sexual contacts with men, Vidal resisted being labeled gay. However, the singer Howard Auster was his life companion for fifty-three years, until Auster died. Auster and Vidal had a platonic relationship that was loving and emotionally affectionate, even though they did not have sex with each other. They had an open relationship in which both men separately had sex with younger men. Vidal referred to these young men as “trade.” Masculine men particularly appealed to Vidal. Those close to Vidal believed that he liked to separate sex from emotions so that he could refer to himself as bisexual, even though his family and friends believed he was gay. According to Vidal, only acts, not people, were gay. 

Although there are reports that he was once engaged to the actress Joanne Woodward, Vidal and Woodward have denied that they were an item. Indeed, Vidal’s desire for men is well established. Even so, many believe that Vidal was not comfortable with the stigma of being labeled gay. He was not a gay rights activist or an HIV activist, to the chagrin of his gay nephew, artist Hugh Auchincloss Steers, who died of AIDS. Despite his discomfort with being called gay, Vidal maintained friendships with famous gay men such as ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, Christopher Isherwood, and Tennessee Williams. Why could Vidal not fully embrace the queer community? Perhaps Vidal did not want to be considered powerless. Perhaps power and money were important to him.

Regardless of his personal identification, Vidal was brave. His third novel, The City and the Pillar, was a huge risk, and it created quite a stir for its frank depiction of homosexuality. It continues to make waves for its commentary on masculinity, especially within a gay context. Jimmie Trimble, to whom Vidal dedicated the book, is the inspiration for the book. Trimble was Vidal’s former schoolmate who died as a Marine in the battle of Iwo Jima. Trimble may have been Vidal’s one true love. Vidal kept pictures of Trimble in his house, and he stared at them before going to bed at night. 

Vidal often did not shy from controversy. The City and the Pillar succeeded commercially, even though the New York Times refused to advertise it, and no major U.S. newspaper or magazine would review it. Vidal continued to court controversy with his publication of Myra Breckinridge, a novel about a sociopathic transgender person who tries to become a star in Hollywood. Much later, Vidal publicly defended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and the two men were pen pals until McVeigh’s death by execution. Vidal was a fierce critic of national security policy in the United States, and he controversially claimed that the George W. Bush administration colluded with the 9/11 terrorists. 

Vidal died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-six. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to Auster.

The City and the Pillar 

Jim Willard is the protagonist of the novel, set during the 1930s and 1940s. At the beginning of the novel, Jim is a teenager, and by the end of the novel he is in his twenties. Jim is athletic, masculine, and good-looking. In his high school in a small town in Virginia, Jim is a tennis champion. Jim has a crush on Bob Ford, who is also very good-looking yet not as athletic as Jim. After Bob graduates, he invites Jim to his cabin in the woods, where their wrestling leads to kissing and sexual contact. After their tryst, Bob feels ashamed, but Jim is euphoric. 

Shortly thereafter, Bob joins the Merchant Marines and sets sail while Jim finishes his last year of high school. After Jim graduates, he joins the Merchant Marines in search of Bob, who has not responded to Jim’s letters. In pursuit of Bob, Jim travels to various places with the Merchant Marines. Jim finally ends up in Seattle where a fellow sailor sets it upon himself to find a girl who will take Jim’s virginity. When Jim and this fellow sailor finally arrive at the apartment of two young women, the sailor promptly has sex with one of the women. Jim realizes that he is disgusted by womanly bodies and he flees the apartment. As Jim leaves, the sailor yells, “Let the queer go! I got enough for two.” Jim hates being called queer.

After that night, Jim decides to quit the Merchant Marines and go to Hollywood. He works at a garage for a while, and then he becomes a tennis instructor at the Garden Hotel in Beverly Hills. Jim lives at the hotel with the hotel employees, including several gay bellhops who are aspiring actors. The bellhops lust after Jim, and Jim enjoys this attention. However, Jim maintains that he is straight, partly because the femininity of the gay bellhops disgusts him. 

One of the bellhops invites Jim to a party hosted by Ronald Shaw, a famous closeted actor. Shaw is mean, greedy, and perpetually single. He is extremely attracted to beautiful masculine young men, but these encounters never lead to anything lasting. Naturally, Ronald is drawn to Jim, who reluctantly returns the affection of an older man in his thirties. In truth, only those near his own age really have the power to attract Jim. However, Jim and Ronald share an aversion to feminine men, and Ronald makes Jim his personal, live-in tennis instructor and boyfriend. Meanwhile, the feminine gays salivate at the masculinity of Jim and Ronald. 

As Jim and Ronald have an affair, Jim still holds out hope for reuniting with Bob. Bob doesn’t appear. Instead, Paul Sullivan, a moody writer enters Jim’s life at a dinner party that Ronald hosts. Like Jim and Ronald, Paul likes athletic men. Tragically, Paul tends to be attracted to bisexual men who prefer the safety of family life. Paul and Jim have an affair to Ronald’s great dismay. 

Paul and Jim go together to New Orleans, where they encounter an old of friend of Paul’s named Maria. Maria is a vibrant woman who tends to fascinate gay men, and Jim falls under her spell. Paul notices Jim’s fascination, and he can see that Maria is extremely attracted to Jim. Moreover, he is committed to engineering his own destruction, so Paul attempts to choreograph an affair between Jim and Maria. To this end, Paul drinks all day and goes to bed early, leaving Maria and Jim with plenty of time to spend together alone. Jim kisses Maria, but he does not consummate the affair, as the softness of women’s bodies do not appeal to him. Nonetheless, Paul believes that they had an affair. The three people part ways, and Jim joins the army.

In the army, Jim’s dark side comes into focus. He rebuffs the advances of his sergeant, whom he does not find attractive at all. Nevertheless, Jim is very attracted to another soldier named Ken, who is extremely heterosexual. Observing Ken’s strong heterosexuality, Jim resolves to get Ken so drunk that Jim that can take advantage of him. This plan does not work. As Jim’s frustration with the army mounts, he becomes very sick and later develops rheumatoid arthritis. Due to his arthritis, Jim qualifies for an early discharge with a full pension. A black soldier observes Jim’s good luck, and this soldier remarks that this good luck would never happen to a black soldier. Jim acknowledges the truth of the remark, but he nonetheless does not seem to care too deeply about the lack of justice.

After his recovery, Jim returns to New York and becomes a tennis instructor. By chance, Jim encounters Ronald Shaw on the street, and the two become friends again. Ronald takes Jim to elite parties of gay men in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jim feels extremely bored and out of place among the more effeminate and intellectual gay men in this crowd. In New York at this time there were far more closeted gay men in straight marriages than gay men living openly with each other. Jim much prefers having affairs with the married gay men, who are also more masculine. He also frequents bars where he can find “trade” and the masculine soldiers and sailors. This leads to nothing enduring, and Jim feels quite lonely and without friends.

Paul Sullivan enters into Jim’s life again, but their casual relationship does not last either. As Paul leaves to write a book in Africa, Jim receives a letter from his mother about Bob’s return to Virginia. Jim discovers that Bob has married Sally, a high school classmate, and that he intends to settle down with her in Virginia. Desperately clinging to the hope that Bob is bisexual, Jim devises a plan to have an affair with Bob, even if he doesn’t necessarily intend to break up Bob’s marriage with Sally. 

Upon his return to Virginia, Jim has dinner with Bob and Sally. He reconnects with Bob and feels a genuine rapport with him. Bob likes his work in the Merchant Marines, and he does not really want to work for Sally’s father’s insurance company, as Sally has requested. However, Bob’s feels better about returning to Virginia if Jim is there. Nevertheless, Jim returns to New York, and Bob eventually visits him there. Jim and Bob eat dinner together, and they later get very drunk in Bob’s hotel room. Believing that Bob is asleep, Jim starts groping Bob. Bob awakens, and Jim and Bob get into a physical fight. Jim overpowers Bob and rapes him. Afterward, Bob cries, and Jim leaves the hotel room without any feelings of sorrow. Jim candidly rejects a man who tries to pick him up at a bar, and then he wanders to the docks by the river, wanting to board a ship again. 

This ending recalls Melville’s New York of gay sailors, but it is also extremely tragic. One interpretation is that Vidal criticizes the fixation on masculinity that characterizes Jim’s existence and even Vidal’s own existence. However, an equally probably interpretation is Vidal’s abhorrence to tying affection to sexuality. Jim wreaks havoc because he puts all of his hopes for desire in Bob, one single man. By contrast, Vidal lived his life separating out sex from affection. The ending is problematic, as is Vidal’s demonizing of effeminate men in the book. Nevertheless, Vidal never ceases to provoke and facilitate reflection on the nature of male sexuality. 

References

Balaban, Judy. “Gore Vidal’s Beloved Women: Susan Sarandon, Joan Collins, and Others Remember Their Friend.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 29 Jan. 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/02/gore-vidal-beloved-women-susan-sarandon.

Teeman, Tim. “How Gay Was Gore Vidal?” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 31 July 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/how-gay-was-gore-vidal.

Teeman, Tim. “Inside Gore Vidal’s Cliffside Palace of Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 22 July 2017, www.thedailybeast.com/inside-gore-vidals-cliffside-palace-of-sex-scandal-and-celebrity.

Tyrnauer, Matt. “Gore Vidal’s Years in Italy: ‘A Wonderful Place to Observe the End of the World.’” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 29 Jan. 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/08/gore-vidal-in-ravello-italy-obituary.

Vidal, Gore. The City and the Pillar: a Novel. Vintage International, 2003.

Woo, Elaine. “Gore Vidal Dies at 86; Iconoclastic Author.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 1 Aug. 2012, http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-gore-vidal-20120801-story.html.

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