One of a Kind

Gore Vidal Remembered By His Closest Friend, Scotty Bowers

From dancing with Jackie Kennedy to writing ‘Ben-Hur,’ Scotty Bowers shares what Gore Vidal really was like.

Leonard McCombe / Getty Images

The last public appearance Gore Vidal ever made was on Feb. 8, 2012 at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. It was at the book party for my memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Life of the Stars. After that, Gore went in the hospital with pneumonia. He spent a month and a half at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, got out, had an emergency, spent another month and a half at Cedar-Sinai, then he came home, in a coma for most of the rest of his life. He died at 86 Tuesday night.

Gore was such a dear friend. There aren’t many people living who had known Gore as long as I’d known Gore, who stayed friends with Gore for so long. He wasn’t easy to get along with—to have a friend for 64 years without a cross word! I met him right here in Los Angeles. After World War II, he came into my gas station.

I worked at this gas station on Hollywood Boulevard. And Gore would come from time to time, when he was available. To be honest, he came in quite often. He liked to look at all the attractive guys I had there. He would come and hang out in the evening. His type was the all-American guy next door. Sometimes he’d go off with someone and sometimes he didn’t. As I said, we were buddies. I was fixing up probably at least 20 guys or girls at the gas station back then, mostly gay clients, who couldn’t be out in Hollywood. Gore was such good advertisement for me. He would tell all his friends in Europe about the gas station.

He was always writing something, either a play or a movie or a book. He always got the last word in every conversation. Gore talked intelligently. He’d been that way since I first met him so many years ago. I think it was a combination of his grandfather being a senator from Mississippi and his father being a bright guy. His mother was bright too; she lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel and would run around with Clark Cable. Gore had a good education. A lot of people have a chance to go to school, but they fuck it up. Gore read a lot. He read a lot, and he knew a lot.

He used to have a lot of girlfriends back in the day, but for much of his life, Gore lived with a very nice guy by the name of Howard Austen. I’d say they were together for about 45 years. They split their time between Los Angeles and their villa in Italy. Howard died of lung cancer in 2003, and it was very hard for Gore. Howard was a professional singer with a fabulous voice, and Gore had all these tapes of him singing popular show tunes. Gore would want me to come over late at night, so he could play these tapes over and over and over again. He would play this thing 10 or 15 times with tears in his eyes, because he’d miss Howard so much. All of a sudden it was 5 a.m., and there we were, still listening to Howard’s tapes.

Gore liked to sing, too. Suddenly at midnight, he’d ask for a piano player to come over and play his upright piano. I’d often send someone to the house. Gore would be downstairs, singing along to the music. He liked to take a song and add words to it, and the words he added would always match and rhyme with the song. That’s how clever Gore was. I recall that music was always part of his life. I remember Gore being tall and trim, with his shoulders out, his stomach in, his chest out, dancing with Jackie Kennedy at parties around town.

One of his favorite stories was about the time he did Ben-Hur. He always used to say how the studio stole it from him. He was over in Europe, writing it. He’d write a chapter and send it over. By the time he’d written the whole thing, they were already making the picture. But he took them to court with the help of a sharp attorney, and had them finally admit the story was his.

As he got older, his legs and feet swelled up like balloons, so he had to stay in a wheelchair. He was able to get out of the house through the help of his caregiver, Ernie, who watched over Gore like a mother hen over a chicken. Without Ernie, Gore’s last couple years wouldn’t have been happy at all. Gore and Ernie travelled together to Thailand, Portugal, New York, and Cuba, where Gore visited his friend Fidel Castro. When he was back home in Los Angeles, Gore spent a lot of time at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He sat in the polo lounge for two or three hours and then he would sit at the fireplace for two hours, then he would go to the little new bar in the front overlooking the parking lot for another three or four hours. He’d have 10 different drinks. I’m talking about scotch and wine. He’d drink that expensive port at the hotel that cost $25 a shot.

He flew back to Los Angeles from New York especially for my book party. He called from the airport saying, “Should I come directly to the Chateau?” I said, “No, this thing is tomorrow!” He was there the next night, right when it started. He was in good spirits. He was in his wheelchair and he made a touching speech. Believe me, you couldn’t force Gore to do anything—he’s got to want to do it. He was very good at giving speeches, but in recent years, his voice would just fade away. So you had to be close to him to hear it. I wouldn’t have been able to do this book without him. He was one of the people who suggested I write the book and he helped me find an agent.

I will miss everything about Gore. He was a good fox-hole buddy. Believe me, there was only one Gore. He’s never going to be replaced or duplicated, in the way he thought and what he said and how he said it. It wasn’t like he practiced it. He was a one kind of a sweetheart.