In later years…President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Longworth, congratulated me every time we saw each other: “You got out. So wise.”
“Reflections on Glory Reflected,”
– Gore Vidal, in United States: Essays 1952-1992
The day Gore Vidal died rain fell hard on the roof of his old house alongside the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen in Antigua, Guatemala. Braids of thick plaster twisted gracefully around chipped columns, dripping after the downpour that signaled the end of the canicula. Those golden weeks of sun and hummingbirds in the midst of the rainy season were over.
Of tens of thousands of yearly visitors to Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few realize that the late author Gore Vidal lived here during the impressionable first years of his writing career. I lived around the corner from his old house for eleven years, and happened to be visiting a friend in Antigua when news came of the author’s death on July 31. I felt moved to walk over to the old neighborhood through town, alert to “that sharp smell” that Vidal once wrote was the scent of “most Latin towns: green papaya, dust, damp stone and plaster, and something else, unidentifiable, yet insistent, ubiquitous, death sweet.
In 1946, the author, then just twenty-one, took $3000 from the payment for his first novel, Williwaw, and bought a crumbling 16thcentury convent next to the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen.
In such corners of Antigua, a town of some 45,000 about an hour from Guatemala City, amid fine homes, galleries and a popular central parque, ruins from five centuries of earthquakes remain in place, reminders of history and natural forces that are inescapable.
Vidal hired an American architect living in town to turn the abandoned convent into a comfortable home. Foreigners and wealthy Guatemalans still build such places here, colonizing the proud old Central American town anew after each temblor or war, re-using stones first placed by the Spanish conquerors. Walk the streets, be cautious of windows with wrought-iron grilles that jut over sidewalks, keep an eye for any set of high, wooden double doors that may be open. You may see it then, an ancient, uneven wall kept in place mid-garden, or a fountain three hundred years senior to the flagstones that surround it, colonial vestiges considered badges of honor by residents.
Gore Vidal’s old house is not marked by the kind of wooden doors grand enough to admit a carriage, as others are. It looks more modest from the outside, a single story. Simple doors, a window like a porthole, the name of Jesus Christ in a rendition popular after the twelfth century, carved on a stone lintel. More convent than residence, but not unusual-looking among these streets.
Two blocks away is Antigua’s central square, where Vidal surely must have strolled with other townspeople early evenings, when noisy starlings crowd the trees. The Spanish laid out the square in colonial times, when Antigua was capital of the Vice-Regency that stretched from southern Mexico to what is now Costa Rica. Spanish planners reserved one side of the square for each force that ruled daily life: religion, symbolized by a white cathedral atop tall steps; government offices over a porch of arches; armed authority in the ornate Palace of the Captains General that has housed soldiers and police; and commercial shops, today ranging from sellers of books to pineapple juice to flash drives. In the center of the park stone mermaids feed a fountain’s pool with water from their breasts. Look up and you see “volcanoes…like the prongs of a crown,” as Vidal wrote, surrounding the city.
When I used to pass Gore Vidal’s old house in the 1990s, after he had long since moved on to Italy, I liked to imagine the conversations that might once have gone on inside, the history, the hi-jinks. The day the author died in Los Angeles, I had to wait to see the place again until the fierce rain stopped, walking carefully as thunder receded, avoiding small pools in the streets.
Antiguans called that day’s storm a tormenta, a really strong one. The tormentathat broke the caniculaleft the cobblestones steaming before Gore Vidal’s old doorstep, as stones steamed all over town, because they were still warm from days of sun. The mist gave heavy square buildings a sense of weightlessness, as if it they were floating above the ground.
Visitors in the late 1940s say Vidal left one great, ruined pillar lying where it had tumbled two centuries before, so guests had to walk around it to enter his living room. After he sold the house in 1950, a new owner divided the house into two, with separate entrances and addresses, but I have seen no such fallen column in either place.
Anais Nin visited her dear friend Gore in this house, even nursed him through a near-fatal case of hepatitis caught eating from pots in the market. Once I sat in one of its salons during a cocktail party, and pictured her in that very room, dressed fashionably in square-shouldered, post-war style, sitting with legs crossed at the ankles, shoes to die for on those little feet. In my imagination, she was writing in her diary.
While Anais Nin visited, a dashing college student named Dominick Dunne, the same who would become the famous crime author, came to stay for some days with a friend of Vidal’s. Dominick and Anais began an affair – in which rooms? — then ran off to Acapulco together. Meanwhile, host Gore was busy writing a novel, Deep Green, Bright Red, about an imagined U.S.-engineered regime change in a Central American country.
Vidal had come to Guatemala during a revolutionary post-war government that based itself on Franklin Roosevelt’s declared Four Freedoms, an era some locals still call the Ten Years of Spring. A young congressman and writer, Mario Monteforte Toledo, often visited the congenial American when Monteforte came from the capital to see his Maya Indian mistress. Over afternoon pitchers of beer in the patio of Gore Vidal’s old house, Monteforte, who would become one of Guatemala’s most honored novelists, attempted to explain how entwined the U.S. government was with U.S. business interests in Guatemala. That foreign commercial enterprises complained dangerously loud of fewer profits and less control over their work forces under the new government.
Vidal, a patrician Tory, argued that the United States, which had just won the Good War, had no reason to interfere in its democratic neighbor’s politics. Even if new laws cramped business as usual for U.S. corporations such as the United Fruit Company.
Young Vidal had arrived in Guatemala already understanding the concept of oligarchy, because he belonged to that of the United States, cousin to a president, a vice-president, stockbrokers, a news baron, lawyers, “everyone in the United States who matters,” he wrote. I have often wondered if Vidal’s experience while living in the renovated convent knocked the beam from his eyes about the cynicism of some Washington policy, and set an attitude for a lifetime. You need only read him to see he understands the concept of “empire,” because he lived in an outland of the American imperium.
Four years after Deep Green, Bright Redappeared in 1950, a C.I.A. coup replaced the democratically elected Guatemalan president, installing a line of friendly generals that ruled for decades. The day Vidal died, I stood on the curb across the wide street and considered the rich life in the author’s house at the beginning of his career: sex, politics, the magical work of writing.
Others followed Vidal in transforming the antique walls of Our Lady of Carmen for personal use. Vendors have turned one section into a warren of tiny shops where tourists are welcome, walls hung with intricate Maya weavings, necklaces of shiny beads, hand-tooled leather belts. On Saturday mornings the crafts spill out the doors to spread for sale on the cobblestone street.
Late on the night the author died, I drove past the house once more, with a friend. This time the street lay empty. Through the car window, with the obfuscating rain falling once more, the remains of the Carmen church looked fearsome. I tried to stare through the new storm. Sacred stone stricken by a shaking earth. Disordered, fluted columns collapsed upon massive broken blocks, angels who once looked from high cornices become fallen, scattered shards. I rolled down the window, wanting to see better. The rain had released scents from gardens hidden behind tall, thick walls on surrounding streets. The fragrance of night-blooming jasmine was overwhelming.
Veteran journalist Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press), winner of the 2012 Northern California Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.