Gore Vidal was not only one of the 20th century’s best known and most prolific writers, he was an avid buyer of books, a habit, he said he acquired from his grandfather, Oklahoma Sen. Thomas P. Gore, “whose houses in Washington kept getting bigger as he acquired more and more books.”
Vidal’s accumulation of books took hold in the 1950s when he and his companion, Howard Austen, stocked the library at Edgewater, the 1820 estate north of New York City that they shared, to its capacity and then some. Fifty years later, writing in his and Howard’s home in Ravello, Italy, for his memoir Point to Point Navigation, Vidal recalled that “Howard and I continued to live on at Edgewater until the 1960s when the books seemed to have moved, all on their own, to Italy and so we moved with them until now; as I write, they are headed for California where I shall finally live in our fourth and final house, whose endless library seems to have been assembled by the sorcerer’s apprentice.”
Gore and Howard did follow their books to Hollywood, where Howard passed away, in 2003. Around that same time, Gore Vidal made arrangements to bequeath his papers, including his books, to Harvard University’s Houghton Library. In order to do this efficiently, however, the first order of business was to have the thousands of books in his Hollywood home cataloged and appraised.
Late in 2010, Vidal commissioned Los Angeles-based library consultant Michael Tuttle to catalog and assess his books. Now, nearly two years later — and two months after Gore Vidal passed away — Tuttle is nearing the end of this process. We asked Mike to pull together some of the titles he found that might be of interest to Mr. Vidal’s readers, fans and scholars of his work. Here is an edited version of our conversation about what he found:
Jon Ponder for GORE VIDAL NOW: So how many books did Gore Vidal own?
MICHAEL TUTTLE: Gore told me he had about eight thousand titles. I think that’s right, and we’ll have a final tally soon. But Gore was not a “collector,” per se. I mean, he did not buy books in order to assemble a great collection. He loved books, clearly, and he has some rare editions, but this is a working library. Most of the books were used for research or simply for reading enjoyment. Many were gifts from fellow writers and his celebrity friends.
GVN: So this project has been different from the work you do for other clients.
MT: Right. Much of my work is done with people who have interests in specific areas: photography, art and architecture. Most are concerned with acquiring first editions and books that are signed and inscribed, as well as books that have an association with a famous person. In the Vidal library, every book has an “association” value. It is a fascinating collection, simply because it was assembled by Gore Vidal.
GVN: In Point to Point Navigation, Mr. Vidal described the house having an “endless library [that] seems to have been assembled by the sorcerer’s apprentice.” What did you think he meant that?
MT: I think what he meant was that there were books stored everywhere. Some — hundreds, I guess — were on display on floor-to-ceiling shelves throughout the house, all neat and organized. But there were also boxes of books stored in the guest house, the basement, attic and garage and other places. And nearly every closet in the bedrooms upstairs was stacked full of books — like the closet in the Music Room downstairs, where Gore posed for the photo. [See above.] So, yes, I’m sure to him it seemed like an endless amount.
GVN: So talk about the work itself. Talk about the process.
MT: My first task was to go through all those books, review what’s there and organize it. The next task was to assess each book and separate out those that had intrinsic or scholarly value. Everything was entered into the database. The covers were photographed or scanned, cleaned and covered.
GVN: What do you mean by “scholarly value” in a book?
MT: Scholars are interested in books Gore used for research, particularly books in which he made notations. For example, we found a half-dozen or so volumes on Aaron Burr in which Gore had made notes. There were also notes in books on a wide array of topics — the Civil War, Billy the Kid, World War II, the 2000 presidential election, Huey Long and so on. He’d also made notes in books by Bob Woodward, Oscar Wilde and Anita Bryant.
GVN: Anita Bryant? See, it’s interesting that Gore Vidal read Anita Bryant’s book. Know thy enemy, I guess. Did you find anything by Truman Capote?
MT: No. And nothing by William F. Buckley — although there is a book by [Buckley’s son] Christopher Buckley inscribed to Gore. There is a book by Christopher Hitchens, undoubtedly sent before their falling-out. And there was a copy of Harlot’s Ghost that Norman Mailer inscribed, “To Gore, This puts you in my debt since your competitive heart will now produce two more novels than you intended. Cheers, Norman, September 1991.”
GVN: I would assume there are lots of books by his friends?
MT: Right. He had several books by his friend Italo Calvino, one of his favorite writers — and books by Louis Auchincloss, who was a friend but also a relative of his mother’s second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss. [There were] other friends’ books — Paul Newman, Christopher Isherwood and Dick Cavett; books by other writers like John Knowles, Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsberg and Anthol Fugard; and by politicians, George McGovern, Dennis Kucinich and Bella Abzug. And then books by celebrities, most with inscriptions — Joan Crawford, Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine, Rudy Vallee, Roddy McDowall. Even Phyllis Diller. But also Noel Coward, Jean Cocteau. And on and on.
GVN: So what would you say is the biggest surprise you found among all these books? Besides the Anita Bryant book.
MT: Just the incredibly wide range of subject matter. High-brow, low-brow, ancient Greek philosophy, American history, scholarly books on sex. He was incredibly curious about everyday life in historical times — how the common person lived in Greece, Rome and medieval Europe. And he read about all the various schools of thought on politics and religion, pop culture … you name. Just an unbelievably wide breadth of interests. It’s a real reflection of who he was.
GVN: So, it’s late September as we speak. How close are you to wrapping up?
MT: Close. On the other hand, we just found more boxes of books in the back of the garage. Maybe that’s what Gore meant when he said it was “endless.”