Is Gore Vidalnovelist, polemicist, political activistdead? Resting on a small hill in the heart of Rock Creek Cemetery, there's a large marble marker that suggests an answer in the affirmative. The black stone looms ominously as you approach, 30 paces south of a statue known to many as Misery. A gray-green curl of goose shit adorns the "G" of the famous author's name, and a thin layer of sun-bleached grass covers most of the marker.
Rambling through the cemetery on a sumptuous April Friday, I find Vidal's grave not far from dearly departed members of the Copp, Lipp, Etz, Gaywood, and Lusk families. Otherwise, I'm alone, communing with those who have nothing left to say. Maybe I should offer a quick encomium: Here lies Gore Vidal, essayist, sensualist, hedonist, a man who...
But then I turn my gaze to a clue that suggests my spontaneous obit may be premature. Vidal's name is not followed by a hyphen, a dash, a time line; only his name and his birth year1925are carved in stone. An expiration date is nowhere to be found. Vidal, who was born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., shares his allotted square of stone with longtime companion Howard R. Auster1929also without a dash.
Vidal's death marker is nearly 6 feet wide and
3 feet long. It's not gaudy by literary standards, but it trumps Upton Sinclair's modest marker, a wine bottle's throw away across the silent cemetery. Nearby, the Caverly brood, buried under oxidized green markers, stand sentry: Susan Holloway, mother of Julia Irving Caverly, 1806-1893; Grace Middleton, daughter of Edward and Julia Irving Caverly, 1871-1877; and so on. Vidal's marble slab is wedged shoulder to back with the upright granite tombstone of James M. Gilloegly"1910-19871st. Lieut. 14th Air Force Hdgs. Staff-China."
To the south of Vidal is a downward slope hosting towering trees and endless graves; to the north is the steeple of St. Paul's Episcopal Church; and to the northwest, maybe 30 yards away, is the Adams Memorial, where Henry Adams commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a tribute to the memory of his wife, who committed suicide in 1885. The spectacle of such fabulously decorated death reminds you of nothing so much as a scene from one of Vidal's historic tomes.
Rock Creek Cemetery secretary Carol Ford says it is not uncommon for the living to purchase engraved markers before they're set to occupy the real estate. "You want to be ready when the time comes," she says.
But before she can start her sales pitch for the perfect plot, I inquire about Vidal's prominent placeholder, co-mingled among the epitaphs of the dead and gone. "He wanted to be buried near someone that he loved years ago," Ford says. "Someone that he wrote about in his books."
Is that someone Howard R. Auster? Maybe James M. Gilloegly? How about one of those intoxicatingly named Caverlys? I ask all three questions with the hushed tones reserved for the dearly departed. She interrupts my whispered inquiries with a simple and direct answer. "James Trimble III," Ford says. "You can see [Trimble's grave] from [Vidal's] site."
The answer to their enduring connection lies in another District landmark, St. Albans School.
"Jimmie Trimble [is] the only person Vidal says he has ever loved," says Harry Kloman, movie critic for InPittsburgh Newsweekly and creator of the largest Gore Vidal site on the Web. "They were classmates and lovers at St. Albans when both were teenagers of around 14 or so....[Vidal] has said in a variety of places that falling in love once in a lifetime is enough for any person, so after Jimmie, he has never done it again. Jimmie died at Iwo Jima."
Gore's 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, is dedicated thus: "For the Memory of J.T."
Vidal, by the way, was unavailable for comment. After all, he is a busy man leading a busy life. CP