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“We Started Drinking at Six”: Sparring and Slurring With Gore Vidal

“You Brits are more prone to affection in sex,” he said, reaching for the sake bottle.

“You make that sound like a bad thing,” I replied.

The subject was closed. Gore was finished.

Later, with yet more sake sloshed into our glasses, Gore launched into another elaborate and racy story. Things were getting pretty woozy by now, but I seem to recall this one was about a youthful Prince Philip and the coterie of European aristocrats on whose kindness he had depended. Howard interrupted with another wisecrack that made us all howl, and the next thing we knew Gore was up and out of his seat, staggering against the kitchen door frame as he exited stage right. A big, huge baby in a big, theatrical huff. He did not return.

Everyone was a little embarrassed, and Howard seemed genuinely worried, but then someone suggested a nightcap, and the promise of alcohol numbed his anxiety.

When the other guests had left to drive home to their villa, I told Howard to go to bed and that I would clean up. “Well, it can’t be too bad, he must quite like me, we have been together for 52 years,” he said, his ever-present cigarette wobbling in his mouth as he spoke. I thought it both sad and strangely sweet to be that insecure, after all that time. And with that, Howard bade us good night.

As we climbed the stairs to the Princess Margaret room, I heard voices coming from the study, where Gore had retreated and Howard had now joined him. They were bickering. Through the open door I saw Gore hunched over in a chair, balancing a tumbler of whisky on his knee. He glanced up and our eyes met.

“Good night, children,” he said sadly.

As we reached the bedroom door, I could hear their argument continue. I sat down on the top step and listened. Suddenly I was taken back to my childhood home, and the many times I sat on our stairs attuned to the raised voices of my parents, my stomach clenched in anguish, wondering if it was anything I had said or done that had sparked this latest conflict.

“You weren’t using your brain, Howard, you didn’t know what you were doing, you were so drunk,” growled Gore, who at this point was barely intelligible himself.

“This is not working, Gore, it’s not working, period. I have got to get out of here.” I heard Howard leave and start down the stairs to their bedrooms below.

Oh, good, I remember thinking, he only means he has to get out of that room.

But then, after a few seconds came Howard’s final, departing cry: “I am putting the lights out now, Gore, and don’t worry, in the morning I will be so out of here.”

Oh my God, I thought. They are splitting up! I was present on the very night a 52-year relationship ended, and all because I was late, and they got so drunk before dinner! I am partly to blame for Howard and Gore breaking up! (Please note I had been drinking heavily myself.)

In the morning, my boyfriend and I crept downstairs, fearful of the carnage we might find. At first, we couldn’t find anyone at all, but then a little Italian lady appeared and ushered us out to a terrace overlooking the Amalfi Coast and a table set for breakfast, where Gore and Howard were sitting, crashingly hungover. But when they saw us, they perked up immediately.

“Wasn’t that a fantastic evening?” asked Gore.

“I really needed a blowout after the tension of the last few weeks,” agreed Howard.

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