The One That Got Away
Gore Vidal’s Great Love, Baseball Prodigy James Trimble
Vidal fell for a baseball prodigy who was killed in World War II, but now he’ll be buried a few strides from him. By Michael Daly.
Gore Vidal chose to be buried beside his partner of more than half a century—but he picked the cemetery to be just a few strides from the one great love of his life, a golden-haired baseball prodigy who joined the Marines and was killed by a Japanese suicide bomber when he was just 19.
Vidal had known James Trimble only briefly during their earliest teens, when they both attended St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C. Young Vidal devoured books and loved classical music and detested his mother. Young Trimble was a star athlete who loved jazz and adored his mother.
“What I was not, he was, and the other way around,” Vidal later wrote.
Vidal would suggest that what bound these two seeming opposites was that they were both already on the way to becoming what they were so clearly meant to be, he a writer and Trimble a professional athlete.
Vidal would also say, “His sweat smelled like honey, like Alexander the Great.”
When they were 14, Gore was sent off to prep school and the two did not see each other again save for a single encounter at a Christmas holiday dance party, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when they were 17. They trysted in a downstairs men’s-room cubicle and Vidal would remember it as anything but sordid.
“We were whole for what proved to be the last time for the two of us,” Vidal would write “And for me, if not for him, for good.”
Trimble was by then the hottest baseball prospect anybody could remember. The Washington Post reported he had pitched a no-hitter against Woodrow Wilson High School. He struck out 14 batters, much to the consternation of a beauty officially named Woodrow Wilson’s most beautiful blonde, Christine White.
“He wouldn’t let our boys hit the ball,” she would later tell the writer James Roberts in his book, Hardball on the Hill. “It seemed so unfair.”
White and Trimble subsequently met socially, and however Trimble felt about Vidal, it did not stop him from declaring his love for White.
“I want you and baseball,” she would recall him saying.
A future in baseball seemed assured with a letter from the Washington Senators inviting him to try out, saying, “Just bring your glove, shoes, and sweatshirt and we can furnish you with a uniform.” He walked away with a contract giving him $5,000 up front and a full scholarship to Duke if he agreed to play for the Senators afterwards.
At Duke, Trimble applied for the Navy officer-training program and he could only have been astonished when he was disqualified for inadequate vision in one eye. He wanted to join the Marines immediately, but his mother would not sign the necessary papers. He needed no signature once he turned 18 and soon after, he was at boot camp on Parris Island.
The fighting on Guam was all but done when he arrived, and he was able to play baseball between patrols. He lived a dream as he got to pitch against major league ball players who now wore a Marine uniform. He scored 27 victories and suffered just two losses, and made the Third Marine Division All-Star Team.
“Thank God for God, you and baseball in this dark wilderness,” he wrote White.
In February of 1945, Trimble shipped out with the invasion force for Iwo Jima. He wrote his mother as he steamed toward one of the war’s fiercest battles.
“Mom, will you get some flowers for Chris, Easter lilies if possible?” he asked.
Trimble was in the third wave and landed to see torn bodies everywhere. He volunteered to be part of an eight-man squad that set out to silence some enemy mortars. His squad was dug in for the night when their position was overrun. Trimble was bayoneted in the right shoulder and wounded by two grenades before a Japanese soldier with explosives strapped to his chest jumped on him in a macabre embrace and killed them both.
The Marine commander, Gen. Graves Erskine, is said to have fought back tears on learning of Trimble’s death. Erskine ordered the diamond back on Guam named Trimble Field in his star pitcher’s memory, which it remains to this day.
Vidal did not learn of the tragedy until months later, when he chanced into a former classmate who said “Jimmie Trimble’s dead.” Vidal would learn that Trimble was buried on the battlefield, but later exhumed and shipped home to be interred near his home.
“In a box at Rock Creek Cemetery,” Vidal noted in his autobiography.
Fifty-three years after he first met Trimble, Vial had lunch with his great love’s mother, Ruth Trimble Sewell, in a Washington hotel. She wanted to speak to him about the dedication “To J.T.” in his novel “The City and the Pillar,” a story of the love between two young men.
“Kind friends wrote me from all over to say how upset I must be,” she told Vidal by his account, then adding “Perhaps, I overreacted.”
The mother stunned Vidal when she suggested that she had split with her second husband because he was gay and that he might have molested Trimble—in her words, “liked him rather too much.”
Vidal was not surprised to learn that Trimble had become involved with a woman.
“Jimmie overflowed with animal energy, not to mention magnetism for both sexes,” Vidal later wrote.
Vidal was surprised when he heard the name Christine White. She had gone on to become an actress, doing street theater with her close buddy, James Dean, starring on Broadway in A Hat Full of Rain, and then into the movies and on television. He knew her name because she had a knack for beating his friend, Joanne Woodward, out of parts. The night of Woodward’s 1958 Academy Award, Vidal had sent her a telegram saying, “Where is Chris White tonight?”
Now Vidal was told that White also had scored a dream part as Trimble’s girl back home. The mother showed him a letter Trimble had written as he sailed to his death.
“You know the old ring with diamonds set halfway around? Well, mom, if (it won’t) anything does happen, would you give it to Chris for me? Kind of a memorial.”
Vidal only felt a pang of jealousy when the mother told him that Trimble had written home asking her to send him a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Vidal wondered who had urged Trimble to read it.
“Did he have a lover in the Marines?” Vidal asked himself. “Am I jealous of a ghost, two ghosts?”
Vidal convinced himself he was not really jealous after all, that what he and Trimble had was between only them.
“I was to be the surviving half of what had once been whole,” Vidal wrote. “He was the unfinished business of my life…I not only never again encountered the other half, but by the time I was 25, I had given up all pursuit.”
Five years after Trimble’s death, Vidal met a man named Howard Austen. They lived together for more than half a century, platonic right up until Austen’s death in 2003.
“Where there is no desire or pursuit, there is no wholeness, but there are satisfactory lesser states, fragments,” Vidal wrote.
Perhaps Vidal did not like the word gay and did not approve of gay marriage and sometimes said he had no use for love because that was all too general. The only words that described that part of life for him were Jimmie Trimble. To speak of orientation was to make it to general and to make it too general was to make it about anything but his Jimmie.
By his bed, Vidal kept a reproduction of a painting that Trimble’s mother hung over her mantelpiece, a portrait of her son in 1937, when he was 11 years old, two years from when he became Vidal’s one great love, just eight years from dying in war, but still a child, holding a toy sailboat.
Now, Vidal will be buried beside Austen in a grave whose tombstone already bears his name. Only a few strides across the grass is Section 1, Grave 36-1, the resting place of the golden-haired baseball prodigy whose sweat smelled like honey.
“I never wanted to grow old with him,” Vidal once wrote. “I just wanted to grow up with him.”