Bow. Wow

James Wolcott

  • Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan
    Bloomsbury, 850 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4671 1

‘I love dead, hate living,’ intones Boris Karloff’s monster in Bride of Frankenstein. He’s not alone. ‘I prefer my subjects dead,’ Fred Kaplan confesses in the prelude to his ambitious biography of Gore Vidal. Kaplan, a professor of English in New York whose taxidermies include Henry James, Dickens and Carlyle (they hardly get deader than Carlyle), understands that it’s much easier to get the paperwork done if you don’t have the living-breathing item second-guessing you at every turn or trying to use you as a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s also easier getting friends, former lovers, fellow writers and disgruntled airline attendants to open up once so-and-so is out of the picture. (No one wanted to cross Lillian Hellman while she was still alive and smoking.)

Of course, the primary reason for waiting for the subject’s death transcends tactical considerations. Only after the final curtain can the life be properly framed, its dramatic arc seen in its entirety. Its volatile elements need to settle before the sorting-out process can begin. The cause and circumstances of death, the reaction of the survivors, the nature of the will, the tone of the newspaper obituaries, the survival of diaries or other private papers – absent these and any biography is doomed to be a progress report, an interim statement. (Contemporaries mostly took Hemingway at his macho word and accepted the Life magazine image of him as a bearded king. It took the shock of his suicide to show the thin ice on which his sovereignty stood, and the black depths below.)

Despite the formal and practical advantages of waiting, financially it is better to strike while the body is still warm. Editors and agents are falling out of their East Hampton hammocks signing up biographies of high-profile authors such as Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer (three thus far, along with a memoir by one of his former wives, with other exes waiting in the wings to take their whacks). The irony is that publishers seem more eager to bring out books about golden-oldie authors than books by them, gossip about literary life being thought more marketable than the original horsehide. (Lack of publishing enthusiasm piqued Bellow to bring out some of his recent novellas as paperback originals.) Kaplan’s Gore Vidal captures the flagging winds of literary fashion, as even the bestselling author of Myra Breckinridge and Burr finds himself shunted aside, a lion in winter. Unfortunately, Kaplan’s biography – the second to be authorised by Vidal (the first was stillborn when its author, Walter Clemons, died) – will do little to restore Vidal’s roar in the marketplace or boost his profile, just as the biographies of Mailer have only added to a general fatigue. The American reviews have been so sour and testy that Vidal and his sympathisers have blamed the New York Times for pursuing a vendetta that dates back to its snuff job on Vidal’s gay-themed novel The City and the Pillar in 1948. Vidal’s sly mockery of Michiko Kakutani, the paper’s leading book reviewer, may have goaded them into arthritic action.

Yet the grumpy reaction to this book is partly – largely? – Vidal’s own fault. He has generated a Gore Glut which even the most skilful wave of Kaplan’s wand could not have whisked away. With the deft, evocative strokes of a Japanese brush-artist, Vidal has been dolling up the pages of the New York Review of Books for decades with mini-memoirs about his childhood in Washington DC (his grandfather was a US Senator) and his delight aloft as a boy pilot (his father was a pioneer in aviation and a business partner of Amelia Earhart, who doted on young Gore), his serio-comic encounters with Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt and Orson Welles, and his holidays in the sinister sunlight of Hollywood as a hired hand (there’s still controversy about how much homoeroticism he snuck into the screenplay of Ben-Hur – ‘I suspect that Heston does not know to this day what luridness we managed to contrive around him’): essays which were reprinted in various collections and have finally come to rest in United States: Essays 1952-92, a lap-buster of nearly 1300 pages.

In 1995, Vidal wove his memoirs into a dance of the seven veils called Palimpsest, which, unbound by the boring chronology that constrains the average biographer, superimposed past and present in a Proustian montage. ‘Ravello. Province of Salerno. Italy. Twenty-two years ago, at this table and in this room, I wrote the last sentence of the novel Burr.’ The supporting cast in this séance included Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, André Gide, the Beat poets, the Kennedys and the Sitwells. To follow a triumphant vanity production like Palimpsest with an authorised biography is a bit too-too. It’s as if Vidal were commissioning a monument to fit inside the scaffolding that he’s already built. He wanted a biography to appear in his lifetime and Kaplan did double duty, not only complying with Vidal’s wishes but editing the anthology The Essential Gore Vidal.[*]

What’s interesting – almost touching – is how determined Vidal is to establish and fortify his legacy before the vultures dip. Given that so much of his fiction ends in fiery extinction (‘when time stops and the fiery beast falls upon itself to begin again as dust-filled wind’ – from the novel Two Sisters), given that he has a stoical outlook which views man as a bundle of atoms destined to disperse into the void, given that he sees writing as a noble exercise in futility in the age of idiot mass distraction (he’s bid literature so many adieus his lips are chapped) – given all these givens, one would have thought he had made his peace with his words and famous name leaving a faint trace. Compared to such beating pulsars as Mailer or Bellow, he seemed resigned to the indifferent clockwork of the cosmos (perhaps the best anecdote in Kaplan’s book is when Bellow asks if he can introduce his son to Vidal, explaining that ‘I want him to meet someone really cynical!’). But here he is, primping for posterity, enlisting Kaplan’s awkward assistance in trying to secure his place in the literary pantheon and stage-manage his exit. He even invites his biographer to accompany him and his longtime companion Howard Austen as they stroll through Washington’s Rock Creek Park Cemetery to pick out burial plots. Kaplan accepts, crafting his own angle. If Vidal expires before he completes his book, he reasons, he can use this tour as material. ‘It is one of the rewards for having foregone my preference that my subject be dead.’ Kaplan is being ironic in that academic-twinkly way that can really grate.

All the tricky devices at his disposal can’t compensate for the fact that Kaplan entered this project hopelessly outclassed and outfoxed. How does any biographer compete with an autobiographer and professional raconteur who has already dished out his life in such leafy, elegant detail? How does he breathe fresh life into such twice-told tales as Vidal’s breaks with the Kennedys, Anaïs Nin and his own mother? There are a few embarrassing moments in which Kaplan tries to channel Vidal and Set the Scene with own lyric touches that echo the master’s prose. One chapter begins: ‘Dogs running on the beach and barking in the sunlight. Sand. Water.’ (Bow. Wow.) But for the most part Kaplan meets the challenge of Vidal’s cagey wit by bearing down even harder, giving him the full Leon Edel-Matthew Bruccoli filing-cabinet treatment. For years Vidal has made fun of ‘scholar-squirrels’ – myopic trivia buffs who comb the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald hoping to find the one itty-bitty piece of factual lint no one else has – and here comes Kaplan, gathering nuts in May. Passage after passage is devoted to travel and lodging arrangements. When Vidal takes a swing through Italy, we’re told every town on his itinerary. It isn’t enough that Vidal should fly to Rome, we have to know that he flew via Switzerland. ‘The previous December, Howard and Gore had flown eastward from Rome on Singapore Airlines, at what seemed a bargain first-class rate, around the world.’ (That ‘seemed’ sounds suspicious. Did Howard and Gore mistakenly pay full fare?) Kaplan also keeps tabs on Vidal’s ground transport. ‘From Gulfport he took the bus back to New Orleans, from which at the end of February he went by bus back to Houston, presumably to pursue the now totally unremembered romantic object.’

Such haziness on Vidal’s part is understandable, given how many forgotten lads have slipped through his lukewarm embrace. The photographs in Kaplan’s book remind you of a time when male writers looked fetching in swimming trunks and frisked like seals. In Palimpsest, Vidal informs us that he notched more than a thousand sexual liaisons by the time he was 25. To Vidal’s irritation (‘What, that you don’t already know, he asked, would you learn from of a list of the boys I had fucked?’), Kaplan insists on taking his own inventory, monitoring Vidal’s sex life like a meat inspector. ‘Apparently, though, Gore had little difficulty making up for his Egyptian abstemiousness. In a short while he had all the usual one-incident pick-ups, most of them French trade, and at least one affair in which the affections if not the heart were touched.’ ‘At parties, at bars, in New York or wherever he travelled, there was the expectation of erotic excitement, of one-night or even fifteen-minute pick-ups, none likely to have any emotional content. As he had told John Lehmann, “I freely admit to having no romantic notions about trade.”’ ‘Their residence in Paris in spring 1965 made clear to both Howard and Gore how much more they preferred Rome. Nightlife and cruising were easier, more casual there, and there were the “beautiful Italian boys”.’ Near the end of Gore Vidal, Vidal, fed up with Kaplan’s literal-minded sleuthing, finally lets fly. ‘Goddamn it, I think you’ll never get it through your head that these sexual things aren’t what my life’s about and that you’ll never understand how we deal with these things in my world.’ Kaplan, frustrated by Vidal’s refusal of emotional access, tells him ‘immediately, and with equal expressiveness, that he was wrong’. Vidal, wrong? Never!

It is Kaplan who is on the wrong track, failing to comprehend how necessary it is for some people to compartmentalise, to keep work and recreation, business and friendship, in separate holds. For them, extracurricular activities provide the safety valve – the steam release – which makes the intense, extended concentration that writing demands possible. Despite his priapism, prodigious drinking and gluttony (his ballooning waistline practically becomes a separate character in this book – see the index entry for ‘physical appearance’), Vidal has secured his talent in a leak-proof container and protected it from the violent ups and downs to which flesh is heir. He may not have the ‘heart’ of writers aching to be loved (Thomas Wolfe howling to the heavens), but his cool eye has proved an invaluable instrument. From his precocious debut with the war novel Williwaw, in 1946, up to the present moment, his focus has been keen, individual and unwavering. A thoroughbred workhorse, he keeps his sentences well-groomed no matter what the format. A stickler for language, he’s no snob when it comes to the launch-vehicles for his copy: along with the historical novels for which he is best known (Julian, Burr, Lincoln), Vidal has written television plays, Broadway comedies, mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box, speculative fantasies such as Messiah and Kalki, campy romps such as Myra Breckinridge and Duluth, political dramas (The Best Man, An Evening with Richard Nixon), and TV travelogues (Vidal in Venice). With the exception of John Updike, no American novelist of the postwar period has shown as much disinterested devotion to criticism as a regular practice (as opposed to an easy way to keep your name in print between books). He introduced Calvino to American readers, diagnosed the influence of French theory on metafiction in ‘American Fiction’ (where he got off memorable shots at John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, among others), gave the now unfashionable Somerset Maugham and William Dean Howells their dues, and resurrected the novels of Dawn Powell from neglect.

Confronted with reams of words which speak so forthrightly for themselves, Kaplan resorts to academic robot-talk, wading into a minor comic escapade like Vidal’s novel Myron (the sequel to Myra Breckinridge) with lead boots: ‘Like Myra Breckinridge, Myron … focused on issues of sexuality, gender, politics and culture, and it especially dramatised the relationship between the divided mind of the culture and the divided psyche of the individual, an attempt by the author to create a novel that reflected his own hard-earned but still not totally secure sense of a unified and autonomous identity.’ Clobbering themes together to make a Statement isn’t how playful minds like Vidal’s function, and it’s difficult to imagine he has ever fancied his identity as anything but autonomous.

The shatterproof Plexiglass of Vidal’s persona has survived more than forty years of public exposure (including two unsuccessful runs for political office) with barely a scratch or drawn moustache. His literary ascent coincided with the advent of television in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, he and TV were a splendid debutant couple. Vidal – handsome, fluent, on loan from some higher cultural sphere – was the perfect cool smoothie for a cool medium. He spoke as if he had the world at his fingertips at a time when the television airwaves were flattered by a few well oiled syllables. (Today, writers are relegated to the ‘death slot’ on celebrity talkshows.) The liveliest stretch of Kaplan’s biography arrives when the political and cultural wars of the 1960s erupt across the airwaves, inciting writers to drop the civilities and engage in sneering mouth-to-mouth combat. As commentators for ABC News at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the police went on a headbanging rampage against hippies and Yippies amid clouds of tear-gas, Vidal and his conservative rival William F. Buckley Jr blew their own fuses and made television history. When Vidal called Buckley a ‘crypto-Nazi’ (he meant to say ‘crypto-fascist’ but words for once failed him), Buckley responded: ‘Now, listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face and you’ll stay plastered.’ Yipes; the technicians in the control booth nearly popped their headphones. As Kaplan records, Buckley’s angry use of the word ‘queer’ was so jolting and unprecedented that ABC cancelled the time-delayed West Coast feed of the telecast and used static to obscure the offending word on its archival tape. Like spit on the sidewalk, this spat would have evaporated had Buckley not decided to revive the incident in the pages of Esquire, semi-absolving himself of fag-bashing before offering Vidal an apology as warm and sincere as a dead-fish handshake. Unmoved, Vidal composed a withering rebuttal, exposing some allegedly anti-semitic hijinks by the Buckley clan, and Buckley whistled for his lawyers. Years of litigation followed as the case turned into a tar baby to which everyone was stuck.

The Buckley-Vidal fracas was a tune-up match for the legendary broadcast of the Dick Cavett Show in 1971 in which Norman Mailer, furious at a review by Vidal in the New York Review of Books that linked him and Henry Miller to Charles Manson (‘The Miller-Mailer-Manson man, or M3 for short, has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed’), decided to take his gripe to the source. It was evident that there would be more than a frank exchange of ideas when Mailer head-butted Vidal in the green room and Vidal punched him in the stomach. It was rumoured at the time that Vidal had recently had a facelift which Mailer’s head-conk threatened to undo. Lesser men would have fled, but as Vidal is fond of saying, there are two things to which one always says yes: sex and appearing on TV. The show itself turned into absurdist theatre as Mailer turned his fuming wrath not only on Vidal but on the diminuitive Cavett and the New Yorker’s even tinier Janet Flanner, who had known Hemingway and thus was no stranger to macho posturing, but who was nevertheless aghast. Although Vidal’s conflation of Mailer and Henry Miller with Charles Manson was a low blow, Mailer’s cryptic verbal shorthand cut the audience out of the loop and made the natives restless. Vidal won the evening by not losing his temper or, quaint word, manners. Years passed before these two literary lions tussled again, this time at a party thrown by Lally Weymouth, an altercation Vidal later dubbed ‘the night of the small fists’. When not fending off Mailer, Vidal found himself trading insults with Truman Capote, a verbal slapfight which – like the one with Buckley – degenerated into an ugly legal tango.

Apropos, the one occasion I met Vidal was in a television studio where the wife of the talkshow host David Susskind, attempting to launch a separate career, was presiding over her own prospective talkshow. Taking part in the pilot were Vidal, the movie critic Pauline Kael, the actor Ed Asner (TV’s Lou Grant), and myself. Before the taping, Vidal and I chatted about the then-hot slander suit involving Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. ‘When you get to a certain age,’ Vidal said almost wistfully, ‘a juicy lawsuit is sometimes the only thing that gets you up in the morning.’ We watched on the monitor as Asner repeatedly wondered aloud if the microphone attached to his sweater was picking up his stomach rumbles. It was one of life’s little moments.

It’s unhappy now, twenty some years later, seeing Vidal still making the promotional rounds on The Late Show with David Letterman or Late Night with Conan O’Brien, defensively folding his arms across his chest and making self-deprecating jokes about his weight to an audience of young yahoos who never knew the slim him and have the attention span of fleas. The portly, senatorial Vidal who does cameo appearances in cinematic claptrap such as Bob Roberts and With Honours (where his character was upstaged by a wise bum played by Joe Pesci – faux Hollywood populism at its worst) is a stationary ham with none of the Zorro slash of the duellist in days of yore.

The later chapters of Kaplan’s biography make for wan reading, as Vidal is deprived not only of a dynamic connection to a responsive, literate audience but of the supportive feedback every writer needs from his immediates. He breaks with his longtime friend, editor and fellow foodie Jason Epstein, with whom he binged on eating tours through the finest restaurants in France, over Epstein’s half-hearted-to-frankly-hostile responses to his more far-out fiction – e.g. the soap-opera satire Duluth (which Kaplan rightly considers underrated) and Live from Golgotha. Although, like most rational minds, Epstein prefers Vidal the essayist to Vidal the novelist, he was curiously reluctant to back United States at Random House. Another editor was assigned to the book, which subsequently won the National Book Award for criticism. Awards, though nice, don’t compensate for the wound to one’s pride of being nudged out of the spotlight. Vidal’s most recent novel, The Smithsonian Institution, was released with small fanfare and a jacket kitschy enough to suggest goo. Its reviewers seemed baffled and mildly apathetic. Their attentions have shifted elsewhere.

Before Vidal is mothballed in the geriatric ward of fading matinee idols, consider this. He may be an obscure fogey to young TV viewers and an unknown quantity in college lit. courses (where his novels are considered too commercial for the syllabuses), but his political espousals have never been more in vogue on the activist front. His constant drumbeats against American imperialism, the corruption of the democratic process (‘The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world’), the permanent war machine, and the ecological destruction wreaked by multinationals have instructed and helped motivate those tattered insurgents mobilising against globalisation. (One of his pamphlets appears in the same series as several titles by the greatest voice of no! in thunder, Noam Chomsky.) His radicalism, which seemed to many like cushy armchair socialism with the requisite cocked eyebrow of Bloomsbury snobbery, has now achieved street credibility. The protesters who gummed up the works at the WTO meeting in Seattle are Vidal’s ideological children, or grandchildren. Whether they know it or not, they’re on his wavelength. From his observation post in Ravello, where he has lived since 1972, Vidal must take a certain satisfaction in knowing that decades of admonishing his countrymen have not been in vain. Somewhere someone was listening. He has become, in his own fashion, a Founding Father. As for his fiction, well, it will just have to fend for itself, like everybody else’s.

[*] Little Brown, 988 pp., £15, 10 February, 0 316 85412 3.