That Gore Vidal had a monstrous ego is proverbial; that he liked to make fun of that fact, and anything else, is more so. “Never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television,” he liked to say, and he meant it. In his salad days, especially, he was a connoisseur of a kind of bloodless, indefatigable cruising, and other than (perhaps) Norman Mailer, no American writer made such a fetish of his own celebrity. Jay Parini, an old friend of Vidal and now his latest biographer, remembers entering the great man’s study in Ravello, Italy, and being struck by an entire wall of framed magazine covers featuring Gore Vidal. “When I come into this room in the morning to work,” Vidal explained, “I like to be reminded of who I am.”
In some respects Vidal, who died in 2012 at the age of 86, was a relic from an age of rarefied celebrity that is gone forever: the writer-hero who consorted with the Kennedys and pursued a political career in his own right; the sage whose controversial opinions were constantly in demand; perhaps our best essayist of the last 50 years, one of our best historical novelists, an outrageous satirist, and an unabashed hack who made a mint writing left-handed screenplays and pseudonymous potboilers. Such a massive cultural figure deserves a first-rate biography, surely, and yet: What particular aspect of Vidal’s polymathic output is most likely to endure?
As shadows lengthen now across the greensward—as Vidal put it, by way of P.G. Wodehouse—how many discerning essay readers remain among us, and of those happy few how many would consider Vidal’s novels to be worthy of comparable notice? Not enough to suit Vidal, safe to say, who was haunted by a fear of the “Great Eraser” that had all but obliterated the reputation of his idol, William Dean Howells, the great realist author once known as “the Dean of American Letters.” On the other hand, this would seem to be Vidal’s moment: Apart from this latest biography and at least two controversial memoirs (Sympathy for the Devil, by Michael Mewshaw, and In Bed With Gore Vidal, by Tim Teeman), he’s been the subject of two major documentaries in the last three years, The United States of Amnesia and Best of Enemies—the second of which, especially, would seem to suggest that Vidal will be best remembered as the man who shattered, on national television, the tic-ridden but otherwise serene composure of his ideological opposite, William F. Buckley Jr.
Vidal was a man of infinite irony, but on some bedrock level his ambitions were deadly serious and sometimes noble. That he was expected to do great things was never in doubt. As a boy he was the constant companion of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma whose staunch isolationism would have an enduring and somewhat curious influence on Vidal. His father, Gene, an Olympic decathlete and pioneering aviator, taught his son how to fly a plane and served as an affable counterbalance to the boy’s wayward mother, Nina, a self-absorbed alcoholic whom Vidal would later, reductively, claim to hate. As fate would have it, Vidal’s own grotesque dotage—as his protective facade of cool, elegant irony began to dissolve in liquor—left him resembling his mother more than ever.
His long, brilliant career arguably began as a desperate effort to stand on his own feet and be shut of Nina forever. Rather than join his Phillips Exeter classmates at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, Vidal began writing a novel at age 19, Williwaw (1946), based on his World War II experience as first mate of an Army supply ship in the Aleutians. Within two years he became famous, after a fashion, when he published his third novel, The City and the Pillar, a succès de scandale with a gay protagonist. The arch-philistine New York Times reviewer, Orville Prescott, was allegedly so offended that he made sure Vidal’s books were henceforth not to be mentioned in the daily edition. Ever resourceful, Vidal wrote a number of mystery novels under such pseudonyms as Edgar Box and Katherine Everard (named after a gay bathhouse), before finding a more lucrative calling as a television scriptwriter. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he remarked of this era, echoing Milton’s Satan, though the motto of the Wise Hack (as Vidal called a composite of his more seasoned screenwriting colleagues in his essay, “The Ashes of Hollywood”) was more to the point: “Shit has its own integrity.”
Vidal was at his best and worst as a political pundit and sometime candidate. In 1960, as the hospitable (and louche) proprietor of a Greek Revival mansion in Dutchess County, New York, he ran for Congress on a platform of taxing the wealthy, and, to his lifelong gratification, outpolled his friend Jack Kennedy in that strongly Republican district. In 1982, he ran for the U. S. Senate in California. On the surface these campaigns would seem quixotic at best, but Vidal was earnest in his ambitions and piqued at the people’s failure to choose the best man. “There is not one human problem that could not be solved,” he declared, “if people would simply do as I advise.” What he advised ranged from the well-considered (especially in his more temperate essays) to the far-fetched and downright crackpot. He obsessed over the “national security state,” which had transformed the republic, he believed, into a militaristic empire both morally and financially bankrupt. Fair enough. Nor was he alone in promoting the dubious claim that FDR had allowed the bombing of Pearl Harbor to proceed as a pretext for pushing the country into war. But as Vidal grew more paranoid, alcoholic, and shrill—not to say desperate for attention—he defended Timothy McVeigh as “a noble boy,” and almost predictably (by then) insinuated that President Bush had colluded in the September 11 attacks. Parini, for the most part, is careful to place such excesses into context, rightly emphasizing that a more lucid, objective side of Vidal “was able to lift his discourse above the petty” and write such astute historical epics as Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), perhaps the best of his Narratives of Empire, the seven novels that chronicle our nation’s descent into its present decadence.
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