Visiting Gore Vidal

In the summer of 1980, at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, precursor of the present festival, I was introduced to Gore Vidal as the editor of the New Edinburgh Review. “And how is Lord Jeffrey?” Vidal asked as he took my hand, referring to the first editor (1803–29) of the Edinburgh Review. “The wide eyes were alive with humour and so was the smiling mouth”, in the words of the memoir by the Austrian aristocrat Cecilia Sternberg, quoted, along with other passages in praise of himself, in Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. I was suitably charmed. Interviewed onstage, he answered questions with the amusing acerbity expected of him. When I included in my report for the TLS a characteristic witticism about Anthony Burgess (also present at the conference) writing for “an imaginary readership”, Vidal wrote a letter without smiling mouth to the Editor to deny that he had said any such thing. “How could I? I am part of Burgess’s audience and although I am often grotesquely imagined, I am not imaginary.”

I was chastened but puzzled. The joke had been repeated by more than one member of a delighted audience. After reading Sympathy for the Devil, I realize that I was not alone in being subject to the master’s morning-after revisionism. It was probably only Vidal’s affection for the TLS, to which at the time he was a regular contributor, that restrained him from instructing his lawyers to settle the potentially damaging calumny. (How could severed relations with Burgess harm him? But he would find a way.) In 2007, as Michael Mewshaw relates, the London Review of Books repeated a libel that had been originally issued in print many years earlier by Truman Capote who alleged that “a drunken Vidal had been bodily heaved from the White House by Bobby Kennedy”. After much expensive wrangling, Capote, a former friend of the wounded party, was obliged to pay damages and apologize, even though Vidal was often paralytically drunk and admitted in Palimpsest that Robert Kennedy “hated” him more than almost anyone. When the LRB repeated the story in the context of a review, Vidal instructed Mewshaw to contact the paper “and threaten that if it didn’t publish a retraction and an apology, he would sue and ruin it financially” – a reckless threat but not an empty one; Vidal knew how much more smoothly the path of libel runs in Britain than in the US. As he tells the story here, Mewshaw sighed but carried out instructions, assuming that Inigo Thomas, the author of the article,

“wouldn’t object to setting the record straight. But I assumed wrong and came to recognize how often Gore must have suffered the same maddening runaround I experienced. If he was cantankerous and confrontational, it might have had something to do with the smugness of the opposition ranged against him. When I rang the London Review of Books, I got bounced from department to department, person to person, each of whom listened with palpable indifference to Vidal’s complaint”.

Eventually, after more muddying of the waters – “I should have made it clear that there are differing versions of Vidal’s evening at the White House”, Thomas first wrote – the magazine printed an apology. Another victim of Vidal’s litigious whimsy was Edmund White, who in 2007 wrote a play, Terre Haute, about the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, with whom Vidal had corresponded. White incorporated a character based on the elder writer under a different name, having gained Vidal’s permission to do so. When the play came to be produced on BBC Radio, according to White, Vidal threatened to sue.

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