Gore Vidal at Edgewater
Author: Grant Quertermous, CAHPT Curator & Director of Collections
“I have a recurring dream about Edgewater,” author Gore Vidal wrote in his autobiography, Palimpsest, “and sometimes I wonder if I should have given it up. The dream always starts the same way. I have just bought it back from the man I sold it to.”
That man was, of course, Richard H. Jenrette, to whom Vidal sold the Hudson River Valley estate in 1969 after owning it for nineteen years. In celebration of American author Gore Vidal, we wanted to briefly examine his ownership of Edgewater and how he credited the house with influencing his literary work.
Ava Alice Astor Bouverie (1902-1956), daughter of John Jacob Astor IV and owner of another Dutchess county estate, Marienruh, was responsible for introducing Gore Vidal to Edgewater in 1950. “One winter day Alice drove several of us north along with river road to a deserted house called Edgewater, so named as the lawn ended at river’s edge; three acres of locust trees, willows, and copper beach provided a miniature park.”
Vidal was enchanted by the house and purchased it in 1950. From the attic of Marienruh, Ms. Bouverie provided surplus furniture and carpets that Vidal used to furnish Edgewater. He made the octagon library his writing room and soon set to work, later crediting the room and Edgewater with providing him a burst of creative energy.
“When a writer moves into the house he most wants or needs, the result is often a sudden release of new energy… In my case, there was a burst of energy and imagination of a sort not accessible to me before. Overnight – the result of the octagonal library?” he later recalled.
More than fifty years before Vidal purchased the property, the house and its octagon library served as inspiration for another writer, John Jay Chapman, who with his second wife, Elizabeth Astor Chanler, purchased Edgewater in 1902.
“I learned that John Jay Chapman, a very good if obscure American essayist, had lived at Edgewater,” Vidal later wrote, “and I could feel his presence in the house.”
However, Vidal soon found that in addition to providing creative energy, the house required constant maintenance and costly repairs. “I soon realized that I had acquired a white elephant and would have to go into television and movies to maintain it,” he wrote. To provide the additional income, Vidal accepted a role as a contract screenwriter, first for television and later for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios where he worked on motion picture screenplays.
For Vidal, the purchase of Edgewater was also a return to his birthplace—the Hudson River Valley. Born at the United States Military Academy’s Cadet Hospital where his father was serving as an instructor, Vidal spent his childhood and youth in Washington, D.C. His autobiography is filled with nostalgic recollections of the time he spent at Edgewater. Upon learning that his book Julian, was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, he dove into the Hudson and swam out to the island that is part of the property. He fondly recalled playing croquet on the lawn, throwing dinner parties in the dining room, and making Edgewater a home with his partner, Howard Austen.
Edgewater provided Vidal with a venue to hold court and entertain. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived downriver in Hyde Park, as well as actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were among Vidal’s circle of friends who frequently visited the estate. Writers Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and William Styron were guests along with visiting poets and writers from nearby Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. Edgewater also served as Vidal’s political headquarters in 1959-60, during an unsuccessful run as a Democrat for Congress from the heavily Republican district of Dutchess County.
Vidal’s major contributions to the house during his ownership include a garage, placed beneath the Octagon Library, with its basement entrance and access driveway shielded from the front of the house by a hedgerow.
He also added the first swimming pool, located south of the house. In the late 1990s, Jenrette had this pool filled in and replaced with a new pool constructed at a slightly greater distance from the house with an accompanying pool house.
One constant at Edgewater since the mid-19th century has been the frequently passing passenger and freight trains. The tracks, first laid in 1852 as part of a route from New York City and Albany, are located less than sixty feet from the front door. As Mr. Jenrette recounted in his book, Adventures With Old Houses, Vidal used the roar of the trains to his advantage during dinner parties. Always preferring to dominate dinner table conversations, when he heard a train approaching, Vidal would turn to the guest next to him and say, “Now, tell me about your life.” No sooner had the person began to speak when the train roared by, drowning out their response.
After selling Edgewater, Vidal made his home in Rome and later at La Rondinana, his cliff-side villa on the Amalfi Coast in Ravello. He also maintained a house in the Hollywood Hills, where he lived for the final decade of his life.
Vidal only returned to Edgewater once after the 1969 sale to Jenrette, but as he noted, he continued to dream about the house for the rest of his life. His nearly twenty years of ownership are an important part of the property’s history that Jenrette and William L. Thompson recognized, collecting first editions of all of his works which they displayed in the Octagon Library.
A photograph of Vidal seated at his desk in the Octagon Library is also displayed in the room, allowing him to once again look out over the space that provided him with so much creative inspiration.