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"Experiencing Gore, Encountering Bill." Excerpts from the William F. Buckley Jr.-Gore Vidal Sex Letters

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Excerpts from EXPERIENCING GORE, ENCOUNTERING BILL: The Decades-Long Affair Between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr as Revealed in their Correspondence, Photographs, and Interviews With Those Who Knew Them

A friend of Vidal's recorded in his diary that Vidal, after an afternoon of drinking at La Rondinaia, was asked about his best celebrity fuck. “Howard [Austen, Vidal's partner] started to laugh and jabbed him in the ribs, at which he became annoyed and in his most indignant patrician manner, pronounced, “Howard thinks it’s Bill Buckley. He’s wrong.” Howard rolled his eyes. I asked him about it later and he said, “He thinks I don’t know about it, but they carried on for years, after those debates. For all I know they might still be corresponding.”

The correspondence 

The relationship began during the pair's infamous debates on ABC in 1968, in which Vidal was selected to represent the liberal and Buckley the conservative perspective. According to accounts by both participants, the relationship had already begun before Buckley's infamous near-violent outburst after being called a "crypto-fascist" by Vidal during the ninth debate. 

This suggestion was borne out by Vidal's friend. "I once asked him, you know, when he said that, were you two--" the friend recounted, "and he looked directly at me and said, what did it look like? To me, that's a yes. Watch those debates and tell me there wasn't something else going on there."

In one debate Vidal refers to the National Review as the "magazine whose name will not pass my lips" and Buckley cuts in "We know you let nothing sully your lips" and Vidal chuckles, then retorts, "You'll eat it first." 

Recently unearthed writings suggest that this exchange indeed reflected a relationship that had become sexual. 

From a missing chapter of Vidal's 1994 memoir, Palimpsest

I had long suspected the kind of thing that Buckley was really amenable to, and his halting, gawkish proposition, after the second debate (or was it the third?), when it did come, was unsurprising. Although he did not particularly attract me I determined to venture forth with him and see whether there was any truth to the promise of his dialectic. No sooner were we alone than he dropped to his knees. Thus did I begin to have some inkling of how he entertained the far right. It seemed that this blow-job was his area of expertise, and he went to it with a will. I well recall his somewhat rodent-like mien, his sounds of self-satisfaction. I suffered this for some time, moved by his rather transparent readiness to take whatever I would deign to give, before putting a stop to it.

He was a less unpleasant specimen than advertised; there was a coppery tuft of hair below the swell of his buttocks. I fingered it. He seemed delighted at this discovery, and treated me to the sort of vocal appreciation he generally reserved for the policies of Ronald Reagan. I palmed the smooth curve of his nether cheek; he gazed trustfully at me over his shoulder, batting his limpid blue eyes. The subsequent evening I took no small delight in watching him squirm uncomfortably in his chair as I dismantled his arguments piece by piece. It would not be the only occasion on which I left him gasping at a loss for words. I suspect his experience had been largely with trade; once begun, it seemed no great mystery to either of us what was bound to ensue. 

We later took a somewhat sordid hotel of the kind that will be found in beach towns; our first encounter had been in my trailer, our next, in his, but our (for want of a more precise word) desires soon outstripped the opportunities provided by these spaces. He was a willing and enthusiastic participant, indeed an obstreperous and demanding one, in vices that would no doubt startle the subscription base of the National Review -- though not too much. The window had shades that would not quite be closed. Bill raised his head from the pillow to look up at me; off to our right the light impinging on the slats gave both of us and the room stripes. He stared at me a moment - I see this part very clearly now, sun-browned forehead streaked with sweat, half covered with the mess of his dirt-gold hair -- then he sighed as his head dropped back onto the pillow. He will deny the encounter. I for my part merely wish I could state that it had ended there. But we kept it up for the remainder of the debates, then later-- cover the children's ears! -- in the offices of the National Review, and even for some time after that, a length of time that staggers the mind. I cannot recollect whether I ever deliberately pleased him at all, though he seemed satisfied regardless (perhaps this, then, was a species of the trickle-down economics of which Reagan sang so plangently?) 

At the Democratic Convention Paul [Newman] gave me an earful about it when he caught Buckley departing from my trailer in modified chagrin. "What was Buckley doing there, Gore?" he wanted to know. "Doing?" I replied. "He was being done." Newman wasn't amused, and told me I ought to have better taste. I demurred. "I suspect I've just given Bill Buckley the best sex of his life," I told him, "and he'll never be able to speak a word of it to anyone." This, by the by, was confirmed by Buckley himself, during an uncharacteristic moment of candor some years later, as we were reprising the practice. "Don't ever tell anyone this, Gore," he panted -- he sweated more than anyone I had ever had the dubious enjoyment of enjoying -- "but you are the ne plus ultra." (Was his usage correct? I suspect, as usual, it was not.) 

Let history say what it will about William F. Buckley, Jr.; he was certainly a sodomite and fellator par excellence; if he had confined himself to these rather harmless practices and not taken up magazine writing in his inimitable and impenetrable style he might, on net, have supplied pleasure to the world rather than otherwise. 

From an early draft of William F. Buckley, Jr's 1969 essay for Esquire "On Experiencing Gore Vidal." (It would have been included in the section before his description of Vidal's political philosophy although his reasons for excising it will be evident.)

I don’t know what bearing this has on the subject at hand. Perhaps none. Still I set it down to determine the extent to which it colored my own sentiments as we approached the moment of what commenters at the time decried as a distasteful exercise in bitchery. 

Vidal crowed so triumphantly over the conclusion of his first performance that I determined to pay a visit to his trailer to see if we might, like gentlemen, discuss the matter of altering the format. He answered the door rather grandly, brown curls clinging damply to his forehead, still redolent of cream, and beamed at me. “Well, what is it, Mr. Buckley?” he inquired in his somewhat feline tone. 

I asked if I might come in. He answered in the affirmative. He may have made some sally; I don't recollect. 

I don’t remember precisely what conversation ensued. He smelled good. I thought I would ask him what the scent was so as to purchase some for my mother. I told him that I had found our exchange distasteful and that I didn't appreciate his suggestion that I was some sort of neurosis (a word never used again in this sense) who was going to blow the world to pieces if given the opportunity. He accused me of putting words in his mouth. 

“Much better than what you commonly put in your mouth,” I retorted.

At this he turned upon me a look of infinite benevolence and patience. “Sadly transparent,” he said.

I told him I had no very clear idea what he meant. 

“Yes, you do,” he said. I am certain it was he who kissed me. We fell upon his sofa together in a kind of mutual maenadic frenzy. At the time I was conscious only of the desire not to be bested by him. He undid my flies and signaled his approval of my dimensions as his hand began its ministrations. Determined that I should not be the passive participant in this encounter, I did likewise, though I think I gave no sign of approbation. He was constructed along somewhat above average lines, if what I had glimpsed at Yale in more innocent contexts was anything to measure by; perhaps Freud might be able to construe something from this fact. 

“That's much better, isn't it-- ah-- Bill?” he exclaimed. 

I responded in somewhat more Anglo-Saxon terms; he shut me up. I shall draw the curtain upon what ensued. 

No, I think I had better not. I was, to my own chagrin, quite close to giving him the satisfaction of being the first to arrive, and I had no wish to see this knowledge reflected on his smug visage for the next nine nights. A counter-sally of some sort was in order; boldly, I assayed. He manifested a certain surprise at my willingness to assume such an attitude, followed by an equally grating smugness as his long patrician fingers gripped my hair.

It required little effort on my part to push him to the brink and I think he glimpsed my self-satisfaction at placing him so plainly at my mercy. 

“Very — ah — good, Bill,” he muttered, in an abstracted tone, head lolling back, eyes falling shut. He had long eyelashes like a Venus Fly Trap. 

When I had dispensed with him he resumed his previous ministrations with an exploratory boldness I had not foreseen, one hand foraying towards a region he has been manifestly captivated by in his published writings. It was not this that caused me to reach completion, though by his smug look I could tell that should he ever recount this encounter he would not hesitate to number me among his so-inclined conquests. It is this loose and casual relationship with fact that was such a source of consternation to me in the course of our debates. 

We did not resolve the matter of the format on that occasion nor, the following evening, when he manifested himself in my trailer and arched a suggestive eyebrow at me. I suppose I could have responded otherwise than I did. I felt once more that I must not allow him to get the better of me, and I suppose on the second occasion I acquitted myself as well, perhaps with more gusto. 

That there was a third occasion I must note with a degree of chagrin, in a hotel, as well as that he ventured into that undiscovered country or bourne from which no traveler returns. He was almost immediately overcome, as I had suspected he would be, and could not refrain from expressing his approbation in somewhat florid terms. I am not entirely sure that I am proud to be the recipient of such compliments from such an evangelist for the erosion of public morality, but he has made little secret of his experience in this realm and in that respect at least my showing must be deemed an honorable one. (“Whatever you are, be a good one,” didn’t Lincoln say?)

From the published version of Buckley's 1969 essay, "Experiencing Gore Vidal": 

"In the interval between Miami and Chicago, I read Myra Breckinridge. I have thought and thought about it, and resolved finally to describe and evaluate it and its purposes mostly by quoting from reviewers of the novel who cannot be suspected of sexual or cultural home-guardism.... From Myra, a sample -- a bowdlerized sample --: "I touched the end of his spine, a rather proturberant bony tip set between the high curve of buttocks now revealed to me in all their splendor... and splendor is the only word to describe them! Smooth, white, hairless except just beneath the spinal tip where a number of dark coppery hairs began, only to disappear from view. Casually I ran my hand over the smooth slightly damp cheeks. To the touch they were like highly polished marble warmed by the sun of some perfect Mediterranean day. I even allowed my forefinger the indiscretion of fingering the coppery wires not only at the tip of the spine but also the ticker growth at the back of his thighs. Like so many young males, he has a relatively hairless torso with heavily furred legs..." 

Letters between Vidal and Buckley, late 1969 - August 1970

Dear Bill Buckley,

What are we to discern from this essay of yours, besides that you’re a very attentive reader of Myra Breckinridge, evidently going through with bold strokes of the pen (Freudian?) to mark passages of which you disapproved for later consumption? This is pitiful. You write at one point of my “massaging my Weltzschmerz with masturbatory diligence”(sic?) are you sure you haven’t something else in mind? The only masturbatory diligence that massages my weltschmerz, to borrow your quaint and ungainly phrase, is your own in compiling this article. How many times did you shoot off to Myra? I thought it satire; you seem to find it pornography. It is the spectator and not the artist that art truly mirrors, as Wilde (occasionally right, if so mired in paradox he could not see it) had it, or, in the words of the learned judge: obscenity is in the groin of the beholder. I won’t be offended by any number you produce; quite the contrary. Perhaps we could even place a blurb on the inside cover stating that the editor of That Magazine objected to it, strenuously throughout. And I can well imagine the face you made, and the sudden quivering of your curiously smooth thighs, as your indignation shot through you. Had I realized in writing it that it would bring you such great pleasure, I might not — but we must let regret go by. Did you bite your lip to keep the sounds from reaching your ever-diligent staff of Commie-haters and John Birch acolytes, as your fingers clenched on the pen with which you hastily dash off those columns? Or did James Burnham, bent heavily to his work, hearken to that curious strangled gasp of yours, as your darting tongue sought the corner of your mouth? Has he often hearkened thus? Write soon and tell me. The reading public awaits the next installment!

Dear Mr. Vidal,
I think your letter in exceptionally poor taste. James Burnham! I fear that any response will further your indulgence in these sad masturbatory fantasies, but if it can spare the public at large, I will bear the brunt of it. It is at best a dubious honor to feature in such an imagination as yours; one reflects glumly that this has been the unhappy fate of thousands, as heartburn or kidney disease. I certainly never derived any enjoyment from Myra Breckinridge in the offices of the National Review, and I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading it in the presence of James Burnham. Someone else might regard it as touching to be the subject of such silky and sensuous prose (I had little idea you took such great notice of my thighs! Myrabile dictu) but I don’t consider your caricature to be particularly fetching. I suppose you wrote this from where you expatriate yourself for (America laments), only a portion of the year; I am I suppose flattered that the only thought capable of bringing you off in the midst of all that Italian sun is that of me. You said you enjoyed exciting people. Very interesting. I discover you wish you had excited me. More interesting still. Well, Myra is hardly calculated to do that. As a rule your books seldom do, and your conversation even less. Physically you are unobjectionable, if, perhaps, somewhat unbecomingly vain of it. Your book jacket pictures — full lips pursed, eyebrow quirked in suggestion, ostentatiously neat — could be placed with little alteration in the back of the East Village Other; what would one suspect you to be advertising for? I have my suspicions, furtively consulting my own inclinations. But let us leave that to your filthy imagination; here there be dragons!

Dear Bill,
What a strange muddle your letter is! You cannot stand the implication that I inspired any excitement on your part; you rave about my lips — “physically you are unobjectionable!” Don’t hold back, now— you suggest quite innocently another scenario you know to be perfectly lewd — it is of a piece with all your published writings, dashed off one-handedly with great sound and fury, signifying: what? Simply this: that Bill Buckley would like to continue this little exercise, please and thank you, and may he have another? He may. I am not ungenerous. (I noted, by the by, your limp little pun.) I shall continue upon your suggested theme until the bell rings. (All this talk of the writing of themes puts me to mind of boarding school. There, we narrowly missed one another; thank heaven for small mercies. What would I have done with Wee Willie Buckley, the upperclassmen, gawky in his school tie with the beginnings of stubble and long thin bony legs, ass nonexistent, the year before his greatly exaggerated army service and toiling in the still more egregious trenches of (angels and ministers of grace defend us!) Yale. Were you any more difficult to make then than now? I suspect you always managed to affect surprise.) To return to your matter of advertisements; I have always found paying for sex to be the simplest approach. What should I pay you for, and how much? Remember, Bill, supply and demand.

Dear Gore,
I would have suspected you a Keynesian? “We must pay men to make holes and pay men to fill them.” I will have you know I was an equestrian in high school; you would have had no complaints in that department. What were you? Precocious only in your perversion, I suspect, too willing to grapple with any schoolmate at loose ends. Very well between parties who understand one another, but your habit of dedicating books to them afterwards seems another matter. (Imagine my poor mother’s face at seeing To WFB in the frontispiece Of The City and the Pillar!) It is hardly a consummation to be wished, devoutly or otherwise. Though perhaps then you weren’t too grand for certain pursuits you profess to be too grand for now. Were you ever a virgin? For it not to be so is impossible (litotes, note!) yet I can’t imagine your first time; you boast of your lack of guilt or inhibition, but surely you must have stifled some blush of surprise the first time someone laid hands (or mouth) on your sex. I know that on subsequent occasions you have affected an easiness about it all but I would like to have seen you before you remembered not to be surprised. Perhaps — what did you call him?— young Will Buckley could have made you surprised. I suspect he could have, tall, with a charming and precocious smile and sun-flecked gold hair. You’d have been thrilled.

Dear Bill,
O vanity! Sun-flecked gold hair! A charming and precocious smile! Your masturbatory diligence is indeed profound. How proficient were you, in those days? The veil begins to be lifted; the scales drop from the traveler’s eyes; a shout goes up from the tents of the uncircumcised. You are characteristically both prudish and indiscreet. From your incoherent scribble we deduce: you wish to have been blown by the young author of Williwaw. The desire of many. What could you have done to merit it? Have you any pictures of this remarkable young Adonis that I may judge for myself his effect? Perhaps astride the unfortunate horse?

Dear Gore,
Merely as a matter of testamentary integrity I am enclosing the following. Let me know if it is conducive to tumescence. The horse’s name was Pickles.  

Dear Bill,
Pickles looks rather glum. (“Why the long face?”) You could have done without the trophy. I see that my appraisal of your bony legs has been borne out by facts. You look, as usual, too pleased with yourself. I suspect, of the two, Pickles is the wiser. Wee Willie Buckley has a look of (studied?) innocence to him, though, as usual, he can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. He seems unconscious of his charm; the most taxing of all poses. The jodhpurs are execrable and lend no credence to your bold asseverations.
What are you smiling at? It cannot be the horse. You look pleased by some private joke; probably something misheard. And why are you standing next to the equine? All in all I think I would prefer to see you mounted.

Dear Gore,
This is simply to say I think your puns odious and I won’t admit them. Why don’t you send me a picture yourself as penance? If no decent pictures exist (an event I fear is likelier than the alternative, considering the subject) send an indecent one.

Dear Bill,
There!
Don’t show James Burnham.

Dear Mr. Vidal,
I think if I showed these to Burnham the shock would kill him. I shall keep them in reserve in a desk drawer with a false bottom, lest he do something to displease me! I consider the first insufferably coy and the second insufferably — the word is certainly not coy. I am not sure what the word is. I should be clear: I possess more than a sufficient store of words --among them brazen, meretricious, estrous— but I consider them not quite up to the Herculean task in question. Gorgon-esque, perhaps; enough to turn the beholder to stone in an instant.

Dear Bill,
From someone who claims to be above puns this is rather obvious, and that is not touching on your office drawer with its false bottom (if there is to be touching upon drawers and bottoms, let none be false, etc, I will hum the first bars and you can guess at the remainder of the melody). So you liked the pictures, did you? Now you see my prognosticative power; if you were not stemming the imaginative rose in the offices of that unspeakable little magazine before, you will certainly have done so now, arrayed amongst your Nixon paraphernalia and syndication receipts, perhaps with your feet still up on your desk, mouth hanging open as you shuck your pants to reveal the dubious splendor of your buttocks, panting not (as all good subscribers duly expect) for Goldwater, God, and Country but for someone altogether else. Suppose the phone were to ring at such an inopportune moment? I pity the poor soul calling to cancel his subscription who is to be met with your badly-stifled grunts of pleasure. He will return to his dinner table in Peoria a sadly chastened man.

Dear Gore,
You might consider calling — but as you are not a National Review subscriber I would of course not bother picking up. I am unhappily (note the axiomatic word) compelled to note that the goings-on in the sanctum sanctorum of the National Review seem to be a recurring fantasy of yours. It does you some credit; you may be, and sadly often are, in the gutter, but at least you are looking at the stars.
PS Our number is [redacted] if you wish to hear what I am actually doing in place of what you picture. Or you are welcome to drop by at any time you are in the country! I will give you the tour and you may shake James Burnham by the hand and detail to him the part he plays in the recurring phantasmagoria of your lewd imagination. Then I shall lead you to the desk that you will find, I fear, insufficiently sturdy for such ventures as you picture, that you may sigh for another failure of reality to live up to the workings of your febrile mind.

Bill,
Do I dream, or did you just — in your rather diffuse and ungainly prose style — invite me to the offices of the National Review to fuck you over your desk? These are, frankly, the only circumstances in which I can envision paying your Nameless Magazine a visit, and even then I only barely relish the prospect enough to consider it. To be perfectly candid, the idea of having you on that desk had not occurred to me, but it is touching that it occurred to you. No doubt it is this tireless ingenuity that has helped to endear you to the far right. Let me know if it is a serious offer, Bill.

Dear Gore,
As is proper in the case of inquiries directed to me in my capacity as editor of the National Review, the response to your question will appear in my Notes & Asides column in the next issue. Be sure to buy a copy!

From the Notes & Asides column of the National Review, July 28, 1970
Confidential to G — I believe the offer to have been a serious one, and I strongly advise you to take it up. Do not worry about the desk.

Dear Bill,
I did not pay for the issue, but I managed to read your reply. Now I wonder what other assignations are being kept in the pages of your odious little magazine! Very well. I am less and less shocked by the consistently low quality of your output and more impressed that you manage to get anything written at all, you slut (write me with the synonym you would prefer; I have no doubt your thesaurus is amply supplied with them.) I shall be in New York next month; we shall see what ensues.

From “Athwart History Yelling Stop” a self-published 1983 memoir by a former National Review intern.

“Chapter 3: The Burglary”

In the summer of 1970 I was witness to many coruscating instances of WFB’s rapier wit, but none so memorable as on the night that we surprised the burglar in the offices of the National Review. Surprisingly little has been written of this incident, and Buckley himself has never alluded to it in any of his published writing — the great may afford such modesty, but those of us fit only to affix the thong of his sandal must set down what scraps we can!

I had left a cherished paper clip on my desk that evening and was returning to claim it. The office was dark, but I could have sworn I heard the sound of laughter, followed by the opening and shutting of a door. I waited; heard nothing more; convinced myself it was just my imagination (as the song goes) running away with me. I slipped my key into the lock and slid the door open, listening. Nothing. I proceeded to my desk, where I retrieved the paper clip and marveled at the stillness of a place so often a beehive of activity, when I became dawningly conscious of a faint thumping noise, as one might hear at a motel in a city with a Democratic mayor. I waited. It stopped, then resumed, this time accompanied by a masculine grunt. I went still. My palms grew damp. I strained to listen. It was, I realized, coming from the Editor’s office. For a moment I stood paralyzed with indecision. Then I realized: a burglar was seeking access to his priceless cache of writings. I decided to cry out.

Then another sound— a cry! My first thought was the kind of thing that simply could not occur in the National Review; my second, that someone was being killed. All became clear. Mr. Buckley, returning late as I had, had been surprised over his desk by some vicious intruder.

“STOP,” I cried (yes, I stood amidst the office of the National Review yelling “Stop!”) “STOP, THIEF!” I was quaking. 

Then, from behind the door, came the reassuring notes of an unmistakable voice. “Don’t worry, Connor.” (He remembered my name.) “The burglar has been subdued. I have seen to it.” 

I think sometimes that I heard a stifled giggle, but as this is impossible I have discarded it.

 “I am glad to hear it, sir,” I said. ”Shall I come in and help?”

“No, Connor,” the Great Lion said. “I don’t think that will be necessary.” I approached the door.

“I can stand guard while you call the police,” I suggested.

Mr. Buckley emerged from his office. He looked as if he had been engaged in subduing a burglar; his tie was crooked and his hair askew, and there was a rather painful looking mark on his neck, almost as if someone had bitten him. Evidently the burglar had not been afraid to fight dirty.

“I think the police have better things to do with their time,” Buckley said. “The mind of this unfortunate man has been preyed upon by leftist agitators but after I remonstrated with him” I took him to mean fisticuffs “he has seen the error of his ways and agreed to a full year’s subscription.”

Such was the power of the proverbial Buckley sock to the goddam jaw! I stood in awe of him.

“I will escort him out,” he continued. “I’d thank you not to make much of this incident, Connor; these things happen from time to time, and I find in the long run it is better to try to reform than to punish. We’ll precede you.”

“Certainly, sir,” I said. “I will go get my paper clip.” 

“Of course, Connor.” 

Mr. Buckley re-entered his office and led a figure out; they were approximately the same height and for a burglar the man was nattily dressed. I did not catch sight of his face. But I can vouch that the subscriber base of the National Review increased by one that night!

 

From the Buckley-Vidal correspondence, 1970-1971 

Dear Gore,

Shall we elect never to allude to that incident again? All in favor?

PS I told you not above the collar.

 

Dear Bill,

No, no, by all means, let’s allude to it continually. Are you aware that all the interns at your infernal magazine — peculiarly ill-favored boys, like Theaetetus but without his redeeming impertinence; they look etiolated, like those sad plants reputed to bloom only by moonlight— are in love with you? Not since Nancy first beheld Ronald have I spied a gaze of such mute adoration; such an effect you have! That one — Oliver? No relation to North, I hope — was even aping your hair, as though you’d elected to look that way. What a dispiriting mirror admiration holds up! What would they not do? And what a disappointment you would prove to them, if they only knew where your inclinations lay in that regard. I will not buy next month’s issue but I will look over it on the news-stands with increased interest, knowing exactly what has transpired on the desk where it is brought forth with pain into the world. Next year on the set of Firing Line!

PS I wasn’t paying attention. Or I thought you wore a larger collar. Pick the excuse best suited to the occasion. Perhaps you will be forced to bring back the ascot.

PPS One of the characters in my new book is starting to bear a certain curious resemblance to you, even the ears. Do not worry; he is quite a minor figure with no bearing on the plot.

 

Dear Gore,

Here I thought us to be consulting your own inclinations! I have no so marked preference in the matter as you seem to believe. You are too quick to ascribe these things to others. 

A better question might be: is there any character in the (dubiously) publishable works of Gore Vidal whom you will not claim to have based upon me? Watch out! I may base a character on you, if you are not careful, and be warned: your vanity will not withstand such a portrait!

Really, the set of Firing Line too? Is there anywhere you don’t want it? This is all very flattering to me but I imagine it must be a bit mortifying for you to admit. Where did you picture, exactly?