More than One-Liners: A New Biography of Gore Vidal

By Mark StoreyOctober 20, 2015

More than One-Liners: A New Biography of Gore Vidal

Empire of Self by Jay Parini

EVEN TOWARD THE END, even as those extraordinary powers of erudition started to leave him, he still had an instinct for the devastating remark. At yet another party, thrown by yet another wealthy friend (this one in 2009), a prominent member of Florida’s society circle pushed through the admiring crowds surrounding a seated Gore Vidal to declare loudly that she considered him “one of the great homosexuals of our time.” His smile evaporated, and he turned away. He raised his voice over the inanity of cocktail party chatter. “Will someone please get this cunt out of my sight?”

In a life running over with the eminently quotable, it’s hardly vintage stuff. This is the same Gore Vidal, after all, who through several decades in the middle of the 20th century was the intellectual darling of American television, a suave presence on chat show couches or a more waspish one in network newsrooms. And this is the same Gore Vidal who could conjure the withering put-down seemingly without effort: hearing that Truman Capote had died and saying that it was a “wise career move”; answering Susan Sontag’s query about whether he’d read her latest novel by making her promise that she would never write another one; or claiming, deadpan, that the Ronald Reagan Library had burned down — “both books were destroyed,” he intoned to his delighted audience, “but the real horror: he had not finished coloring the second.” The UK edition of Jay Parini’s new biography even uses one of Vidal’s most infamously acid lines as its title: “Every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies.” There are many more. Like all great aphorists, he is condemned to be remembered by them.

But his angry aside at that cocktail party in 2009 does hint at the more complex figure behind the rebarbative one-liners. One of the recurring themes of Parini’s book is sex: Vidal had lots of it, much of it bought or anonymous or both, with hundreds of men and very occasionally with women. At just 23 he published what was one of the most daring gay novels of its time in The City and the Pillar (1948). He lived with his partner Howard Austen for over 50 years. And for the portions of the American public who still didn’t know just what the story was with this louche pinko, William F. Buckley Jr. took it upon himself to call Vidal a “queer” live on television. Yet Vidal hated being labeled: heterosexual and homosexual were terms for acts, not categories of people, he insisted. Part of what drew him to the ancient world — a subject in which he read copiously and wrote about frequently — was the sense that for the Romans, and especially for the Greeks, sexual activity was a multifaceted romp, something yet to be codified and pathologized for the sake of bourgeois efficiency. He reveled in the Kinsey reports, would often bring them up in interviews and in conversation, and corresponded briefly with their author. Subsequently, he largely refused to politicise himself as a “gay” man, even when many felt he should have done so during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. He would not, finally, make that most private part of himself another public line drawn in the sand of the culture wars. As Parini’s biography makes clear, however ubiquitous and increasingly caricatured the Vidalian persona became, the man himself remained strangely resistant to summary or easy categorisation. Often held up as a representative Democrat, and sometimes speaking eloquently for the left, he could also be dismissive of government and descended too often (especially in later years) into a kind of conspiracy-driven paranoia. Some could not forgive him when he took a shine to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, speaking about him as if he was late capitalism’s Billy the Kid. Parini acknowledges Vidal’s “contradictory impulses” but lets off too lightly someone who raged so often against the ideological inconsistency of others. Professionally too, Vidal wore many coats: novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, social commentator, public intellectual, actor, politician; he was all of these and more. His many supporters and admirers saw him as a kind of Renaissance man, but his detractors — and there were plenty — saw instead someone who tried to be everything and ended up being nothing much at all.

Gore Vidal was born into a well-established if dysfunctional family, political and enterprising although not, as many assume, especially wealthy. He was part of the generation of young American men that found themselves posted to various parts of the world in the early 1940s, and his time in the Air Corps eventually took him to the Aleutian Islands in the far north Pacific, a desolate but relatively safe place to see out the war. His first novel, Williwaw (1946), drew on these experiences. Success came fast if not exactly easy after that, and he rarely experienced an idle moment for the rest of his life. After a cluster of early novels, including a trio of potboilers under the name Edgar Box, he was drawn to the relative security of writing for TV and films. Lacing his draft of the screenplay for Ben-Hur (1959) with a homoerotic subplot and then trying to hide it from Charlton Heston seems like a characteristic moment of subversive mischief; the shambolic episode in the late ’70s when he attempted to get “Gore Vidal’s Caligula” made is, in a different way, also telling (the finished product, an opium dream of a film where Malcolm McDowell and Peter O’Toole vie for screen time with hardcore pornography, dragged Vidal into bitter litigation). His public profile grew to the extent that he could make a fairly serious run for Congress in 1960, polling (he enjoyed reminding people) more votes than any Democrat had managed in that district of New York for 50 years. It was a failed bid, as was a more speculative attempt at the Senate in the early 1980s, but neither occasion was a disaster in terms of the support he attracted. He also managed to pen a couple of successful Broadway plays early on: Visit to a Small Planet (1957) and The Best Man (1960) were well received and frequently revived and made Vidal a lot of money. And then there’s the long line of novels: nearly 30 in total, among them Myra Breckenridge (1968) — a picaresque of transsexual high camp that scandalised America’s conservative reviewers — and Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), his best achievements according to some, two in a string of historical novels about the United States that came to be called his “Narratives of Empire” series. He also produced hundreds of essays on literature, politics, society — anything that caught his interest. When United States: Essays 19521992 was published in 1993, it weighed in at nearly 1200 pages and won the National Book Award. In the 2000s, Vidal settled into the role of dissenting elder statesman and political pamphleteer, rallying with ever-increasing vitriol (though with diminishing coherence) against what he saw as the evils of the American empire. What else? The famous intimates whose names he loved to drop: Tennessee Williams, Anaїs Nin, Princess Margaret, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon; for a while the Kennedys (though he and Bobby loathed one another) and, as much foe as friend, Norman Mailer. Those explosive debates with Buckley during the 1968 convention season (now themselves the subject of the recent documentary Best of Enemies); appearances on talk shows and game shows; countless interviews; roles in Tim Robbins’s satire Bob Roberts (1992) and, less explicably, in the science fiction film Gattaca (1997). He was yet another person who once had a cameo on The Simpsons. If you’re still looking for evidence of Vidal’s astonishing energy, then consider that much of his later adult life was spent in Italy with Austen (first in Rome, then in Ravello in an extraordinary villa clinging to the cliff edge above the Tyrrhenian sea), so he regularly found himself jetting between Rome, London, New York, and Los Angeles to record and promote all of this. It was, in every sense, a full life.

Faced with it, and faced with ordering it into a biography that teases out some meaningful pathways through this expanse of experience, Parini has quite a task on his hands. His own friendship with Vidal is central, and he tells us up front that this is “a man I admired, even loved.” That love pushes parts of the book closer to memoir than traditional biography, occasionally with good effect: “Gore looked at me with eyes like cut glass, full of tears,” Parini remembers in the moving final pages. “He had wet cheeks as well. This last image of him stays with me.” Austen died in 2003, and describing from close quarters Vidal’s heartbroken decline and fall lends Parini’s account a certain poignant power. (Vidal was another member of that busy club of writers who found their compelling ruin in booze.) The old affection sometimes clouds the critical judgement, though: “Gore couldn’t write a genuinely bad sentence”? Well, he could, and did. Nevertheless, there’s a concerted effort at even-handedness, confronting head-on if not always with interrogative persistence what Vidal himself once called “the angel and the monster alike.” Parini is good at managing the myriad strains of Vidal’s life, being critical when it’s called for but also helping to flesh out the vulnerabilities and qualities of a man whom it’s easy to misrepresent.

There are some problems along the way, however. Parini has an unfortunate habit of repeating certain details or anecdotes — we don’t need to be told twice in the space of two pages that the pseudoreligion at the heart of Vidal’s novel Messiah (1954) anticipates the Jonestown cult of the late ’70s — and asides that seek to amplify particular historical moments sometimes only distract with their irrelevant noise. Then there’s the problem of Vidal himself, who, not least in his two memoirs Palimpsest (1995) and Point to Point Navigation (2006), was already the greatest teller of his own myth: the lifelong obsession with his high school love, Jimmie Trimble, who died at Iwo Jima; the intoxicating proximity to the rich and powerful; a self-declared Cicero of the American Republic. This mythmaking is partly what drew people to him, of course, why his houses in the United States and Italy became so frequently raucous and inebriated with the famous and the beautiful. At these times he approaches a Gatsbyesque archetype — magnetic, charismatic, but never holding still quite long enough to come into focus. Parini tries to grab on, but there’s a sense that Vidal finally evades him.

“Will anyone remember Gore Vidal in years to come?” Parini asks at the end, rather plaintively, having spent 400 pages presumably trying to make sure that they will. But it’s a troubling question for Vidal’s biographer, because one can’t avoid the sense that this viper-tongued sage has already become something of a relic. Some of the novels can be found in bigger bookshops, but often only one or two of them. There can’t be many college or university syllabi that include him, and certainly not ones that aim at representative accounts of “canonical” American literature. As Vidal knew, and as Parini rightly points out, part of the problem is that he wrote the wrong kinds of novels: sweeping historical ones when other Americans were describing the contours of middle-class marriages (Vidal mocked Updike for exactly this), or his more fantastical genre mash-ups — Kalki (1978), Duluth (1983), and Live From Golgotha (1992), to name three — that were novels of ideas when anything so sincere was being pushed off the stage by the blockbuster postmodernists. In the era of identity politics, Vidal stuck steadfastly to Big White History. He essentially wrote for no one at all in the 20th-century marketplace: not page-turners for a mass readership, not angry dispatches for the dispossessed of America’s underclasses, and not the theory-addled experimentalism that would have secured him a place in symposia and lecture halls. His books sold well but never seemed to get a foothold in a more permanent cultural sense. His plays have gone the same way, and the topicality of his essays ensure they are already gently ossifying into entertaining historical documents. Vidal remains fundamentally unfashionable. For all that remarkable productivity while he was alive, all that sheer presence, he feels already like a period piece.

And yet. Whenever they appear, good biographies should propel us to rethink reputations that appear to be settled; this might not be that book, but Parini’s able and often deft handling of this overflowing life should propel us, at least, to ponder why Vidal’s absence is also our loss. He was difficult and pompous, and he had a bottomless capacity for grudges. His reputation, both as a writer and an intellectual, seems unlikely to gather momentum now that he’s gone. But charting the full scope of his life, as this book does, we might be encouraged to worry less about his tendency to spread himself thin, his iconoclastic approach to the postwar novel, or his patrician snobbishness, and see again the luminous and necessary antagonist he could be when he was at his best. Vidal fully occupied the American century and had lots to say about what he saw, much of it penetrating and witty and wise. His time and his type have probably gone, but faced with the spectacle of the current electoral cycle, and the sound and fury of the media coverage that accompanies it, we might yet yearn for some of that laconic Vidalian commentary. Perhaps that’s the best we can say about anybody who’s gone: we could do with him now.


Mark Storey is an Assistant Professor in the English department at the University of Warwick.

LARB Contributor

Mark Storey is an Assistant Professor in the English department at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013) and has published essays in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Modernism/modernity, amongst other places. He is currently writing a book about ancient Rome and US imperialism.


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