"You are quite necessary to me as you know."
-- Gore Vidal
For years I'd wondered about the relationship between Gore Vidal and Anais Nin. She romanticized him in "The Diary of Anais Nin," while he famously trashed her. I wanted to know why, so with my motivation spurred after his death on July 31, 2012 I sought access to Nin's archive. The original materials of her famous, sprawling diary and her "unexpurgated" diaries, including "Henry and June" (and the up-coming installment, "Mirages"), are stored at UCLA's beautiful Westwood campus.
I entered the cool, wood-paneled room that is the Special Collections Library and there, under the watchful eye of librarians, I examined the contents of Nin's files. The portions of her diary that have been published are voluminous, but the raw diary is gargantuan, containing many thousands of pages describing the period between 1914, when she began writing as an eleven year old Spanish girl en route to America by boat, to 1977 when she died in Los Angeles. Deeply immersed in Nin's handwritten pages, searching for clues, I found actual letters from Vidal to Nin and therein uncovered the truth.
Both Nin's diary and Vidal's memoir describe their initial meeting at a lecture in New York City at the end of 1945. She was an exotic creature with a lilting European accent, 42 years old, and still 20 years away from international fame. Vidal was the patrician grandson of a senator, about to become a published novelist, and only twenty years old. His memoir admits he might have "flirted" with Nin and states he went on to become "ensorcelled" by her. Her diary reports he asked for permission to visit that first night when he impressed her with his "manliness," "poise," and "greater worldliness."
Nin's diary entries suggest that six weeks after meeting, the two were behaving like jealous lovers. Vidal, Nin wrote, told her he was happiest with her and asked her to send away her husband, banker Hugh Guiler, so Vidal could have her all to himself. Their intense bond, according to Nin's raw diary, seems to have been colored by mutual attraction that was "undeniable, inescapable," but she wrote that because Vidal was homosexual, the pull between them could never be fulfilled. She encouraged him to undergo psychoanalysis. His response? According to her diary, he said, "Then I would become normal and take you away from Hugo."
Perhaps predictably, Nin's feelings of attraction for the young Vidal eventually cooled. She referred to their constant flirting as "the most painful of all relationships" and began pulling away. But the relationship was not cooling for Vidal who sent Nin increasingly anxious letters -- letters that are included in her raw diary files.
Stunningly, Nin's diary reports Vidal began begging her to marry him, saying, "I built a house for us." But her emotional bond to Vidal had been irretrievably broken after she read her "portrait" in the manuscript of his third novel, "The City and the Pillar." The novel tells the story of a young man named Jim who was obsessed by a homosexual encounter he had in high school. Jim develops a friendship with an older, exotic woman named Maria, but when they fail to fall into bed together Jim is convinced he is most definitely homosexual. Maria goes on to start an affair with another man and this makes Jim profoundly jealous.
Nin felt Vidal's portrait of her was a distorted caricature and this hurt her deeply. She wrote to him, saying:
I want to protect you the human being from the consequences of this incapacity to love, heighten, or transform, this sort of nausea about people, your poor opinion of them, for it will hurt you.
Nin then agonized about the relationship in the pages of her diary, marveling that she'd made friends with Vidal, but blaming the misunderstanding between them on her "romanticism," "sentimentalism," "great sadness," and "loneliness." She remembered Vidal had described his abandonment by his mother and she worried he'd been "crippled" because of it.
At this juncture the relationship was dead for Nin, but it was still burning for Vidal who scrambled to make extensive changes to his novel and assured her in a letter, "It is a very much better book now."
Then Nin met the actor Rupert Pole at a party in New York and they began a serious romance. According to her diary, Vidal's response was this:
He puts on his glasses and acts like a senator, watching my love life [...] with sad resignation, asking me to marry him, to bear his child by "artificial insemination." He says when no one else wants me he will still love me. [...] And the other night during the party he repeated, "Marry me, marry me, marry me. I will lock you up in Guatemala ...."
Instead of joining Vidal in Guatemala, Nin embarked on a tour of the United States with Pole, thereby solidifying the relationship that would last the rest of her life. She evidently wrote a letter to Vidal from the road, a missive describing her "spiritual marriage" to Pole. By all appearances this letter devastated Vidal's hopes for a future with her, because at this point in my search I discovered concrete proof of his offers to Nin.
In a file for the year 1947, tucked in the diary's handwritten pages, is a remarkable letter from Vidal. In it, Vidal responded to Nin's news of her fulfillment with Pole by composing a letter of his own, one written on fragile stationery in his distinctive handwriting:
Your sad Denver letter received and discounted. I was bitterly disappointed that you did not come down. You are quite necessary to me as you know. As for your fear that you would keep me from having a complete relationship, have no fear; I am quite alone here. [...] I have adjusted myself to the fact that I shall never have a satisfying homosexual relationship. I am attracted to youth, to beauty, and separately, unphysically, to you, to the spiritual emotional rapport we have had. I need that more than the other. I cannot, and this is strange, do without women. I like to think that it is not necessarily the mother in women that I want. [...] I should like it if you can come down here and spend July or earlier whenever you're recovered. Now to speak of you. Are you trying to tell me (perhaps you have told me) that the Pole affair is everything you want and need? If that's so you should live with him. I wouldn't like it but I want you always to do, to be what you know, instinctively, is right. After all you have no real ties; Hugo is a shadow and I will accept it. Why don't you make this life for yourself? Surely the boy isn't a fool enough not to want to, to insist on having children, etc.
Cherie, here is my idea. I am offering the house for sale. If I can get 15,000, and I believe I can, I shall sell it. There is not enough stimulus in this place. I shall then go with you to Europe in January after City and Pillar is published. We can get a small place near Antibes or wherever there are interesting people and cheap living. I think we could do this very possibly. I want you to be independent and free of America, Hugo, all the mess. We can live there. Should I find a relationship, or should you, we would have to make some sort of adjustment but we have done that before and I am no longer worried. We can be tranquil if not complete. I must continue my search for boys and you must continue your slightly different one. But financially we can be fairly well off and independent. If I don't sell the house I shall lease it for 2 or more thousand and go anyway with you. If I get a Hollywood job then there will be a great deal of money. Think about this for I am serious. You must leave America or, if you stay, live with Pole.
Write me. I think of you as always.
Nin never accepted Vidal's offer of a sexless partnership and their once-vivid closeness dissolved into hostility: Gore Vidal's. Nin became bewildered by his growing resentment and her diary reports she asked him, "Why do you splatter venom on me?"
The reason was most likely his mother. Vidal had been abandoned by the woman when he was a boy and some believe her continued hurtful treatment of him further broke his heart. Anais Nin was a most glamorous replacement for a faithless mother: maternal, beautiful, infinitely interested - but doomed to repeat Vidal's abandonment for a second agonizing time.
Forty years later, nearly twenty years after Nin's death, Vidal wrote a memoir he called Palimpsest, a sizable portion of which was devoted to the assassination of her character. It accuses her of being a "chickenhawk" whose "hope" to have an affair with him turned into "a chagrin d'amour" that eventually became a "fureur," leaving the impression Nin had loved Vidal unrequitedly, was disappointed when he ultimately rejected her, and then was furious, bitter, and malicious. Vidal's chapter on Nin begins with this prevarication:
One of her biographers says that I, at twenty, proposed marriage to the lady, aged forty-three. She was, the biographer invents, to be my "front." Needless to say, I never wanted to marry anyone, certainly not someone who was to me, in my ageist youth, a very old woman.
Interestingly, a "palimpsest" is "a manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing" - and perhaps this was a hint. Vidal turned his feelings for Nin neatly on their head, projecting his own sense of bitterness and bequeathing it to her. Why else would he have devoted an entire chapter of his memoir to a woman he had supposedly rejected?
Sifting through sixty-six year old letters in a basement room at UCLA, I discovered that Gore Vidal lied. It seems he loved Anais Nin deeply, so deeply he never got over her. His caustic wit masked his vulnerability and long after Nin's death he was still thinking of her, still writing of her, still stung by her inability to fill the void in his heart.