Pugilistic, provocative: when was the late Gore Vidal not up for a fight? He and Norman Mailer famously fought – in public, in private. Mailer head-butted Vidal just before the two men appeared on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. ‘You’re a liar and a hypocrite,’ Mailer told Vidal once the programme had begun. Six years later, Mailer knocked Vidal to the floor at a party in New York. ‘Once again words fail Norman Mailer,’ Vidal said, before he got up. ‘He was very kind when I was in a lot of trouble,’ Mailer said of Vidal a decade later as the two headed towards reconciliation, or accommodation. ‘Gore is a most avuncular fellow. Then we broke. If I ever see him again I will smash him. Still, he and I are in some way bound together, like a bad marriage.’
William Buckley, the founding editor of the National Review, stayed an enemy after a famous confrontation at the Democratic Convention in 1968. ‘As far as I’m concerned, the only pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself,’ Vidal told Buckley on live TV. Buckley, seething, replied: ‘Now, listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-fascist or I’ll sock you in your goddam face and you’ll stay plastered.’ The host intervened: ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, let’s not call names.’ Buckley carried on: ‘Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making allusions to Nazism.’ Nevertheless Vidal and Buckley turned up together the next day to appear on the last of convention debates.
Of his many enemies, Richard Nixon was maybe his most substantial, a monster who, he thought, best represented the United States. In his huge essay collection United States, a book of 1300 pages, there are more references to Nixon than anyone else: more than that other enemy, JFK, and more than the writer he most admired, Henry James. One of the best pieces in that book is on the Watergate burglar, one-time CIA agent and prolific writer of bad spy novels, Howard Hunt. Vidal and Truman Capote agreed about almost nothing, but neither could understand why, in the 1940s when neither of them had much money, a Guggenheim award was handed out to a non-entity (and future crook) like Hunt. So when Hunt’s name resurfaced after the Watergate story broke, Vidal went about investigating the Hunt career. ‘The Art and Arts of E. Howard Hunt’ was the result, and here are some of his observations:
On Hunt’s first novel, Limit of Darkness: ‘The actual writing… is not at all bad; it is not at all good either.’
On the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA: ‘A cloak-and-dagger outfit whose clandestine activities probably did not appreciably lengthen the war.’
On Hunt: ‘The hick from western New York who had gone not to Harvard but to Brown, who had not fought in the Second World War but worked behind the lines, who had failed as a serious novelist, found for himself in the CIA a marvellous sort of club where he could rub shoulders with those nobles whose savoir-faire enthralled him. After all, social climbing is one of the most exciting games our classless society has to offer.’
On Hunt’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs: ‘The paradox of the right-wing American who swears by law and order yet never hesitates to break the law for his own benefit.’
On Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin of George Wallace, whose house was allegedly broken into by Hunt; Vidal believed Hunt was trying to plant papers that would implicate the left in the assassination attempt: ‘The absence of any logical motive is now familiar to most Americans, who are quite at home with the batty killer who acts alone in order to be on television, to be forever entwined with the golden legend of the hero he has gunned down. In a nation that worships psychopaths, the Oswald-Bremer-Sirhan-Ray figure is to the general illness what Robin Hood was to a greener, saner world.’