IN THE LION’S LAIR
Author Gore Vidal has moved on but his Amalfi Coast home provides many clues to his career, reports Christine Hogan
GETTING to the front gate of the house in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, has taken time and effort. I false-started nearly 25 years earlier when I mistook Rapallo, on the Ligurian coast, for the lair of literary lion Gore Vidal. His hillside fastness is actually more than half a country, and half a day, away to the south.
The season is close to its end when I arrive in Naples decades later, at last on track to Ravello. La Rondinaia, the swallow’s nest, has been Vidal’s home high above the Gulf of Salerno since 1972. It is here he added a particularly patrician, if tardy, American spin to la dolce vita.
And it was here, with companion Howard Austen, that he entertained family connections including Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Louis Auchincloss and friends such as Rudolf Nureyev, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, Australian writer Shirley Hazzard (who usually perched on Capri) and Barbara Epstein, editor of The New York Review of Books . It is here I hope to interview him.
Houses with literary connections are among my treasured memories: lunch with Molly Keane at her house at Ardmore in southern Ireland, afternoon tea with Donna Leon at her apartment in Venice, a visit to the home of Jean Cocteau in Milly-la-Foret.
In Vidal’s case, I want to feel the environment in which he has worked so prolifically. In Ravello, a village of narrow alleys, enough steps to wear out the fittest visitor, and skinny, stucco-fronted houses, he entertained his muse Calliope, writing Palimpsest , the historical novel Burr and his great polemic, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace . But then another setback in the quest for Vidal: at the Hotel Caruso, I ask general manager Giampaolo Ottazzi for La Rondinaia’s home number.
Giampaolo looks mystified. ‘‘ But I think he is gone . . . last week,’’ he says, then throws me a line of hope: ‘‘ But if you would like to visit the house, I will ask Gino if he can arrange it for you.’’
Within minutes, the urbane Gino has organised a visit to La Rondinaia and, after a considerable walk to the other side of town, we are standing outside one of its three gates, waiting for the custodian.
The house was built in the late 19th century for a daughter of Lord Grimthorpe, an English architect and lawyer who owned the enormous Villa Cimbrone, just up the hillside, so it has been famous for more than a century. But it took Vidal and his entourage to write La Rondinaia into the history of modern literature.
Why has he finally left, I ask Gino, while we wait. ‘‘ The access,’’ he replies, ‘‘ is too difficult.’’ Not only would it have been difficult getting here from the village for a man in his 80s with bad knees and who used a wheelchair, but the house’s heavily terraced 2.5ha gardens and marble staircases would have been a challenge.
But such steepness is precisely why the upper classes of the late Roman Empire began to colonise these cliffs for their holiday homes. These natural ramparts were easy to defend against the depredations of the pirates who regularly raided the coastline, and there were sufficiently wide ledges to permit some rather idiosyncratic houses to be built.
Admitted at last, we walk along a heavily planted cypress allee overhung with chestnut trees and carpeted with their shells dotted across the gravel like lost powder puffs. The avenue opens to a blue-tiled pool — added by Vidal in 1984, with a pool house and sauna — which clearly has not been used for some time. Algae is in bloom, autumn leaves scattered across its dusty surface and drowned in its murky depths. Finally the house appears, less of the earth than a confection caught between sea and sky. There is no grand facade to be seen; it sits obliquely to the front gate, yielding itself slowly to visitors.
The guardian leaves us at the front door to explore the house by ourselves. At the bottom of the stairs is a depressing reminder of infirmity: a selection of canes and walking sticks.
Living on a property with an astonishing 20 levels, at least three of them in the main house, would have been a burden for Vidal.
With its six bedrooms, five fireplaces and two studies, La Rondinaia looks a little familiar: this is the house used as a base for Jeff Goldblum’s nutty character Alistair Hennessey in the 2004 film TheLifeAquatic with Steve Zissou .
The first door off the main hallway on the entry level opens into Vidal’s study, which feels as if he has just stepped out for a moment to consult the cook about the evening’s menu. The bookshelves, on three walls, are largely denuded; he has taken the prized members of his library to Los Angeles. There had been 8000 volumes here. The main impression of the study is not the interior but the light streaming in, the open doors to the balconies, and the infinite sea beyond. This is the coast that French writer Andre Gide evocatively described as nearer to the sky than to the shore.
When Vidal lived here, this room was central command. He would sit on a large sofa, parked in front of a long desk flanked by two antique globes of the world. He wrote (by hand or on a typewriter) by the light of a lamp that resembles a classical column.
The desk and the sofa face a fireplace made from the local volcanic stone (Pompeii is just up the road) and decorated with floral tiles. With its vaulted ceiling, common to the local vernacular, this is a glorious room.
The house has been half-stripped, but the little dining room, where he and Austen, who died in 2003, fed guests pasta and wine, looks complete. The chairs in here apparently are from the set of the 1959 epic film Ben-Hur , which Vidal helped script.
Past the study to the right is the formal sitting room, with more doors and a terrace giving out over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Appropriately enough, this view of the seemingly infinite water is almost exactly the one the emperor Tiberius had from the Villa Jovis on the isle of Capri.
Downstairs, the bedrooms of Vidal and Austen look abandoned, as does the study linking them.
In the study, on a table crowded with books, sits a hose fitting. These rooms feel desolate, as though the departed Vidal really is dead, not just in Hollywood to be closer to better medical treatment.
Vidal was reportedly indifferent to the house and his leaving. As he wrote in Palimpsest: ‘‘ Ordinarily, I don’t think much
Naples and the Amalfi Coast are featured in Academy Travel’s Fabulous Bay of Naples tour, led by Estelle Lazar and Robert Veel, October 16-November 1. More: www.academytravel.com.au. Best beds in Ravello are at the Hotel Caruso. The premier suite is No 301, which boasts its own staircase leading to a private pool. Aside from Enrico Caruso, the likes of Greta Garbo, Margot Fonteyn, Humphrey Bogart and Jackie Kennedy Onassis stayed at the hotel when it was the Pensione Belvedere. More: www.hotelcaruso.com.
Toast of the coast: Clockwise from top, Ravello; street scene; Amalfi inlet; La Rondinaia; the writer’s desk; Vidal