SIDECAR Books: The Resurrection of Gore Vidal

Jay Parini has come out with a new bio America's greatest historical novelist and contrarian -- who was also his good friend.

Gore Vidal with Jay Parini in Key West, 2010; photo courtesy of Doubleday

Towards the end of his life, the granite-hard self-portrait was so polished it lent itself to caricature. Gore Vidal could appear (in cartoon form) and intimidate the hell out of Brian Griffin on Family Guy. There was a brilliant quip on the old Frasier sitcom in which Frasier, surprised to learn that Vidal allegedly endorsed a cruise line, replies in shock, “Gore Vidal? He hates everything.”

Not true. But Vidal belonged to an age when literary masters were formidable personalities. They were expected to turn out not only brilliant books but bon mots as well. And Vidal seldom disappointed.  “A narcissist is anyone better looking than you are,” he once told an interviewer, the left-of-centre novelist who called his own country the United States of Amnesia. “Write what you know will always be excellent advice to those who ought not to write at all,” he opined in another piece.

In public, he was magisterially intelligent, sophisticated and deliciously ruthless in his scorn. Here is Vidal on Truman Capote, who was physically small and known for being outrageously pretentious and effeminate: “I first met Truman at Anais Nin’s apartment. My first impression—as I wasn’t wearing my glasses—was that it was a colourful Ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman.”

He could take on Norman Mailer (who was too often a macho jerk) and win. He feuded with William F. Buckley and drove the ol’ cryto-Nazi—oops, sorry, right-wing demagogue—into a beserker rage. His spat with Christopher Hitchens demoralized liberals who worshipped both men, but it was Vidal who was on their side of the Iraq war. Austere is the word that encapsulates his persona. Cuddly, he wasn’t.

He died in 2012, and the persona has stayed mostly intact… so far. But now a new biography is coming out that chips away at the old stone edifice. And that is probably a good thing. Because Empire of Self is written by Jay Parini, one of Vidal’s closest friends of 30 years and an accomplished prose stylist in his own right. His bestseller, The Last Station, was turned into a film nominated for two Academy Awards.

“My wife said, ‘If you write that biography, you’ll lose your friendship, because he will hate any mirror.’ And Gore hated to see himself in a mirror.”

Parini says the public image was a mask, and that his old friend, the Great Man who penned such brilliant novels as Julian, Burr and Lincoln, was a “much shyer, quieter, affectionate guy, really, and very different from the public Vidal, in fact. I always found it quite a shocking contrast.” He recalls how in the early years of their friendship, they ran into each other in a mall. “I had a couple of little kids, two little boys, and he said, ‘Oh, let me get a blow-up boat for them to play around in my pool. That kind of thing. He was constantly thinking of looking after you, personally. You know, he would call me up and say, ‘How’s your book coming along?’ just like any real friend. There was a lot of back and forth, and he was, generally speaking, quite open and remarkable that way. He could of course be a pain in the ass. He was a difficult guy.”

Difficult, because he was thin-skinned, “amazingly combative,” and possibly for the first time, the lid is ripped off the fact that Vidal was a hardcore alcoholic, especially towards the end of his life. Parini says he “spent years, drinking with Gore.” Could he keep up with him?

“God no, I’d be dead. I’d go out and stay with Gore in Hollywood, in the Hollywood Hills often, and he’d say, ‘We’ll have breakfast at eight.’ And I’d come down to the dining room, and he’d say “Norberto’—that was his manservant— ‘bring me the usual for breakfast,’ and it would be a double scotch. So Gore would drink all day long, and certainly in the last decade he was drinking. He called it mother’s milk. He drank scotch, pretty much a bottle of scotch a day. And miscellaneous bottles of wine and beer.”

It’s no wonder then a portrait of a temperamental master—brilliant but egotistical, kind but with all too human moments of inexplicable malice—should appear after the Great Man’s death. Vidal had actually asked Parini years before to write his biography, but his friend had the good sense to decline—with a little nudge from his spouse. “My wife said, ‘If you write that biography, you’ll lose your friendship, because he will hate any mirror.’ And Gore hated to see himself in a mirror.”

Empire of Self is not a standard biography. There is a touching Introduction in which Parini confesses, “It would be fair to say, in a crude way, that I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son.” Chapters are broken up with vignettes that have almost a soft-focus flashback quality to them, a touch that Vidal, the consummate fan of classic cinema, would have appreciated. Parini has weaved little short stories out of each of them. Some are heartbreaking, like a visit from Rudolf Nureyev when the great dancer was dying of AIDS. Others delightfully hilarious, like this one:

Parini was once frustrated by a novel he was working on, and he asked Vidal if two characters in fiction can talk about the theology of Kierkegaard for 20 to 30 pages.

“Of course, you can do that,” Vidal told him. “Even forty pages. But only if your characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there’s a bomb under the seat.”

Throughout his life, Vidal projected the image that he was an aloof bisexual, that say, lover John might be comforting one day, lover Jane the next. It’s almost disappointing when Parini blows this myth apart, revealing that it must have been either a bizarre self-delusion or a key piece of the Great Man’s persona. Even Vidal’s domestic partner of more than 50 years, Howard Austen refused to keep up the ruse. “It was an idea he held on to dearly,” he told Parini. “I didn’t want to argue about it. What did I know? But if he’s straight or even bisexual, I’m Genghis Khan.”

Still, Vidal should actually go down in history as one of the greatest advocates for LGBT rights and sexual freedom. His novel, The City and the Pillar, let middle class America know that homosexuals were in the midst, carrying on perfectly normal lives. “And who in 1948 was publishing a gay novel in the mainstream press?” asks Parini. “Nobody. Gore was wildly open and ahead of his time.”

I put it to him that Vidal, however, was quite willing to be a leader in the cause for gay rights, but on his own terms. “That’s fair to say,” replies Parini. “Gore really didn’t want to be reduced to a sexuality. He said, ‘Look, sex is something I do, and generally speaking I do it with men, but it’s of very little interest to anybody but me and the men I might be sleeping with. And I want people to talk about me as an artist and a political commentator.’”

“Well, he was not beyond saying things like: ‘I, of course, invented all of this, you know. Transgender, c’est moi!’ 

In Vidal’s essay, “Sex is Politics,”—note the date, it was published in 1979—he wrote, “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people. The sexual acts are entirely normal; if they were not, no one would perform them.”

The voice of Parini’s subject is never far away in Empire of Self, the author having patiently interviewed his friend multiple times over the years—so much so that Vidal came to rely on his future biographer, saying, “I hope you’re writing this down!” But a pantheon of other literary lights appears in the pages, too: Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Alberto Moravio… You wonder what new gems and insights Parini could have charmed out of say, Vidal’s pal, Christopher Isherwood, or even Tennessee Williams, whose friendship with Vidal soured in the playwright’s last years.

Read a classic Atlantic interview with Vidal from 2009

I asked Parini what he thought Vidal’s legacy would be. “First of all, he’s one of the great American essayists,” he answered. “He’s up there with H.L. Mencken and people like that. He’s a great American essayist and critic. He writes political essays, literary essays on a superb scale, and also memoirs. I mean I think Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation are quite remarkable memoirs… And then as a novelist, two things. First of all his historical novels are extremely innovative. I mean he really did pioneer the biographical novel in a post-war era. Those are commanding books that have a huge influence on other writers.

Anais Nin with a young, post-war Vidal; photo courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University

“And finally, things like Myra Breckinridge was a very interesting post-modern take on sexuality, and Gore was understanding trans-sexuality way before anybody was thinking about it.”

We can only wonder what Vidal would have made of the new vocabulary: transgender, cisgender, etc.  “Well, he was not beyond saying things like: ‘I, of course, invented all of this, you know. Transgender, c’est moi!’ He would. He was very witty.”

And a shameless name-dropper. But there were so many famous names he legitimately knew well, from meeting Amelia Earhart as a boy to being friends with Paul Newman, Orson Welles and John F. Kennedy. “Gore really knew everybody,” says Parini, “and his acquaintanceships spanned Washington, politicians, it spanned Hollywood movie stars—he was himself a successful Broadway playwright… And then finally Europe.  He knew British politicians, he knew British writers, he knew Italian writers. He knew people around the world. Gore had a remarkable breadth of acquaintanceship.” It gave him a remarkably fresh and international perspective in his novels and his essays.

“Gore used to laugh and say most American novelists think the great subject in the world is divorce in suburbia,” recalls Parini. “And here’s Gore writing about the decline of the Roman Empire. He’s writing about vast international subjects.”

God, Gore and the movies

He also may have paid Parini one of his highest compliments. “When we sat once and watched together my film, The Last Station, Gore said well you’re damned lucky, he said very few writers of real quality have had a decent film made out of one of their books. Gore said he never succeeded in having one good film made from one of his books.”

Vidal at 85; photo courtesy of Doubleday

It was worse than that. His classic sexual farce, Myra Breckinridge, was a horrible bomb starring the miscast, Raquel Welch, and Caligula, produced by Bob Guccione, turned into such a pornographic, ridiculous mess that Vidal had his name removed from the credits. A young Helen Mirren would star in Caligula, and an older, seasoned Mirren would get Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her role in The Last Station.

Parini likely had more than luck on his side for the film. “I think I kept a really strong hand in the process and guided the production of the film. I worked with Michael Hoffman who’s a brilliant director and screenwriter… Originally I was working for ten years with Anthony Quinn who was going to play Tolstoy. And Tony Quinn and I did 18 different versions of the screenplay. So I was working on this film for nearly 20 years, and, because I felt it would be the one film of a book of mine that would be important.” The Tolstoy role eventually went to Christopher Plummer.

Parini’s currently at work on a novel about the life of St. Paul. For his biography, Jesus: The Human Face of God, “I did an immense amount of homework, and that got me into the letters of Paul, and that opened up a whole subject for me, and I thought, oh my God, here’s the most significant mind in Western Civilization. The guy who really invented Christianity, and very little is actually known by most people about him. In fact, people who go to church haven’t the faintest idea who Paul was, they know nothing about him. So it’s a huge vast open territory for me to explore, so I’m having fun with that right now.”

It lends a touch of irony to his friendship with Vidal, who was famously contemptuous of Christianity; Julian, after all, is a novel about a short-lived emperor who tried to restore pagan beliefs to the Roman Empire. But Parini says he encouraged him. “I remember saying to him, ‘Gore, I’m thinking of writing a biography of Jesus.’ He said, ‘You must do that’… I mean [Vidal’s novel] Creationshows Gore had a profound interest in spiritual matters and religious philosophy and philosophy.”

And what a pity that Vidal—arguably the most political of America’s novelists—isn’t around to comment on the spectacle of the latest race to the White House. He once wrote, “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” What fun it would be to watch Gore Vidal lash out at Donald Trump.

Parini agrees. “He would be hilarious. He would be so funny.”

Parini on Politics

Like Vidal, Parini doesn’t shy away from the hot cauldron of American politics, and last month, he came out as an unequivocal supporter of another old friend, Democrat Bernie Sanders, in a column for CNN. “As president, he would take his agenda to the country and without flinching. And he might just convince Americans to support legislation that would actually benefit them in the long run and even in the short run.”

Parini, however, doesn’t expect Sanders to clinch the Democratic nomination. He concedes that “it’s obviously hard to beat Hillary Clinton with all the money behind her, but I’d

Jay Parini

love to see Bernie win.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Donald Trump mocked Senator John McCain, suggesting he was only a war hero because he was captured by the Vietnamese. Parini—once an anti-war activist—has an unusual take on such things. “Most people in this country have the dimmest idea of why we were in Vietnam and what that war was all about. I mean we killed a million Vietnamese people. We totally denuded their forests with Agent Orange and left them with chemicals that are still killing people in Vietnam. I mean that was a huge: a war crime for the U.S. to invade South Vietnam and then North Vietnam.

“We forget, we celebrate men like John McCain who get shot down, but just remember, where was he en route to? He was en route with a great bomber to bomb villages near Hanoi, which were defenseless. We’re fighting with big weapons, these people have pickets, hammers and tongs… We invade Iraq and probably it’ll cost us two or three trillion dollars in the end, once we’ve paid for the healthcare for these soldiers. And for what purpose? Nothing. It totally blows open the Middle East and creates ISIS and all these other problems, and Syria, and so forth. What a mess. I mean I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 10 years travelling in the Middle East and talking to people and giving talks, and I’m aware of the incredible idiocy of those who conduct American foreign policy.”

“It’s impossible for her [Clinton] to lose.”

It begs the question then who Parini expects to see win the election. He doesn’t hesitate in answering. “I really, frankly, have never really doubted that it would be Hillary Clinton, our next president. I really do. Because, two reasons. Bernie is going to be great, and I wish he would win… But it’s going to be difficult for him, because Hillary has the inside game. She has the endorsements of most of the establishment figures in the Democratic Party. She also has over 100 million and probably more coming behind her.”

Parini fully expects Clinton also to snap up the women’s vote, as well as secure crucial Hispanic and African-American voters. “And so she’ll win Ohio and she’ll win Virginia, and she doesn’t even need to win Florida but she’ll probably win Florida. So with that she’s got it locked up. It’s impossible for her to lose.”

To Parini, it’ll be a showdown between Clinton and Jeb Bush, or possibly one of two other Republican contenders, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker. Though Clinton is solid candidate with “progressive opinions about virtually everything,” he’d prefer Sanders because “his policies are better” and he “trusts him more.”

In a strange way, Bernie Sanders—with his stands against wealth inequality and his push for demilitarizing American police forces—is a very Canadian candidate.

“Yes, I think he shouldn’t call himself a socialist,” replies Parini. “He should call himself a near Canadian.”


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Transcontinental Media G.P.