- Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
Deutsch, 432 pp, £17.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 233 98891 2
I recently paid a solemn and respectful visit to Gore Vidal’s grave. It is to be found in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington. You take a few paces down the slope from the graveyard’s centrepiece, which is the lachrymose and androgynous Mourning Figure sculpted by August St Guldens for Henry Adams’s unhappy wife Clover (whose name always puts me in mind of an overworked pit pony). And there in the grass is a stone slab, bearing the names and dates of birth of Vidal and his lifelong companion Howard Austen. The hyphens that come after the years (1925 and 1928 respectively) lie like little marble asps, waiting to keep their dates. Who knows what decided the cemetery authorities to advertise their prospective clients in this way? Elsewhere among the crosses and headstones one may find Upton Sinclair, Nobel laureate and defeated Socialist candidate for the governorship of California, Alice Warfield Mien (mother of Wallis Simpson) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, grande dame of Washington dynastic bitchery. (She had a motto emblazoned on her sofa-cushion in Georgetown: ‘If you can’t think of anything nice to say about anybody, come and sit by me.’) A clutch of Supreme Court Justices, political bosses and Civil War generals completes the roll. And all this seems fitting for Vidal: radical candidate in a California Senate race, collector and generator of gossip from the exile Windsors and the Georgetown ladies, and master in novel-form of the Washington of Henry Adams, John Hay and Teddy Roosevelt.
Or is it so fitting? On second thoughts, is not Vidal a natural for the Protestant cemetery in Rome, hard by Keats and Shelley and Gramsci and Labriola, and sheltered, in serene pagan and Mediterranean style, by the pyramid of Sestius? What is an exile cosmopolitan doing in this Wasp rockery in the District of Columbia? Even before Palimpsest, it was possible for close readers of Vidal’s fiction to make a shrewd guess. The following passage in the confessedly autobiographical Two Sisters, published a quarter of a century ago, supplies one clue. The narrator is set off by a recollection of Henry James, who after fifty years remembered ‘a boy cousin being sketched in the nude at Newport before his life was “cut short, in a cavalry clash, by one of the Confederate bullets of 1863” ’.
Death, summer, youth – this triad contrives to haunt me every day of my life for it was in summer that my generation left school for war, and several dozen that one knew (but strictly speaking, did not love, except perhaps for one) were killed, and so never lived to know what I have known – the Beatles, black power, the Administration of Richard Nixon – all this has taken place in a trivial after-time and has nothing to do with anything that really mattered, with summer and someone hardly remembered, a youth so abruptly translated from vivid, well-loved (if briefly) flesh to a few scraps of bone and cartilage scattered among the volcanic rocks of Iwo Jima. So much was cruelly lost and one still mourns the past, particularly in darkened movie houses, weeping at bad films, or getting drunk alone while watching the Late Show on television as our summer’s war is again refought and one sees sometimes what seems to be a familiar face in the battle scenes – is it Jimmie?
A couple of years ago, Vidal dropped another hint in an article looking back on the Pacific War. He said that he gave way to emotion on hearing, even now, the song that goes:
Missed the Saturday dance
Heard they crowded the floor
Couldn’t face it without you
Don’t get around much any more.
And then, going back almost to the beginning, there was the matter of those initials on the dedication page of The City and the Pillar. This homoerotic drama, Vidal’s second novel, won him attention and execration in about equal measure. The dedicatee was one ‘J.T.’ Just a few feet away from that marble slab in Rock Creek, one can discover a small grey stone with the inscription ‘James Trimble III. 1925-1945. Iwo Jima’. And here the quest is over. Vidal intends to be buried as near as he can be to his first and only love, who played the saxophone and shone on the playing fields and whose anthem for doomed youth is in the refrain of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Any More’: a combination of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the more candid letters of Wilfred Owen. Palimpsest fills in the blanks. For half a century, Gore Vidal has been living selfishly and hedonistically, because all this time he has been living for two.
It is via the Jimmy Trimble romance that the madeleine of these memoirs is unwrapped, and it is with that incomplete or uncompleted love that it closes. Along the way, it is the thread of Ariadne in the narrative. Vidal has written often and well about himself and others. In fact, he has written better. The chief enchantment of this book has not to do with the celebrated dust-ups between himself and Mailer, himself and Capote, himself and Tennessee Williams, or himself and William Buckley. Rather, we learn, not without preceding markers but in many ways for the first time, about Vidal’s family and about the Kennedy branch of it. We come to understand how divided a self he is; not just as between love and death but as between literature and politics, America and the world, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane. And we get the goods not just about his sex life, but about his sexual nature.
To get the beastliness out of the way first, then. In his rather sere and melancholy condition, Vidal tells some old stories rather less well than he recounted them the first time. Of a disastrous visit to Cambridge, provoked by an invitation from E.M. Forster that had been meant for Tennessee Williams:
Forster’s look of disappointment was disheartening. But, dutifully, he took me on a tour. We crossed the river to the chapel, which I coldly termed ‘pretty’, thus disheartening him.
Now from an essay (‘On Prettiness’, written for the New Statesman in 1978):
As we approached the celebrated chapel (magnificent, superb, a bit much) I said, “Pretty”. Forster thought that I meant the chapel when, actually, I was referring to a youthful couple in the middle distance. A ruthless moralist, Forster publicised my use of the dread word. Told in Fitzrovia and published in the streets of Dacca, the daughters of the Philistines rejoiced; the daughters of the uncircumcised triumphed.
Of these two versions, the second and earlier is the more spirited and (frightful dangler in the last sentence notwithstanding) the better-written. But in Palimpsest, much of which is set down in a terse, almost shorthand style, we learn that Forster had been cruel as a cat to Christopher Isherwood the night before, that he had sucked up to Williams in a queenly manner and that, in the opinion of ‘The Bird’ (Vidal’s usual term for Tennessee’s person of plumage and flutter), he was an old gentleman ‘with urinestained flies’. Thus the newer version is more instructive and nearer to the nitty, if not indeed the actual gritty. In a letter to Jack Kerouac in April 1952, William Burroughs demanded to know: ‘Is Gore Vidal queer or not?’ Burroughs, who had once been at the same boys’ boarding-school as Vidal, can now slake his curiosity. Or he could have pressed Kerouac himself, as Vidal certainly did almost a year later:
At what might be nicely called loose ends, we rubbed bellies for a while; later he would publish a poem dedicated to me; ‘Didn’t know I was a great come-onner, did you? (come-on-er).’ I was not particularly touched by this belated Valentine, considering that I finally flipped him over on his stomach. Jack raised his head from the pillow to look at me over his left shoulder.
Come, now, this is more like it. And it also supplies part of the answer to Burroughs’s question. Vidal is not a pillow-biter or a mattress-muncher. Nor does he suck. I once heard him declaim: ‘l don’t want penises near me. I have no plans for them.’ It should by now be unnecessary to draw the reader a picture. Is he queer? Or is he on to something in saying that there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts? The memoir also details many encounters with women, usually of the theatre like Diana Lynn, but also of the bar and the café and, in the case of Anaïs Nin, of the world of heterosexual narcissism. None of these matches is rekindled in order to prove any defensive point. Since Jimmie’s death, sex and love have been blissfully decoupled. What might have arrested the development of some has emancipated it in our author. Though, as he commissions researchers to inspect the minutest reminiscence of Jimmie’s short life and hard death, and as he discovers breakdowns and traumas among the boys and girls and even schoolmasters who knew the golden lad in real time, one wonders. In a last letter home from the Pacific, Jimmie asked his mother to send him some Walt Whitman poems. And Vidal wants very much, still, to know who it was that recommended this front-line reading to the hoplite. Is that a proof of an unsentimental carapace?
At various other points in the story, also, he makes himself out to be slightly more emotion-proof than I would guess he really is. The depiction of family life is amusing, often side-holdingly so, but must have been extremely gruelling at the time. To fear one’s mother, a drink-sodden bag of malice and conspiracy, may have accelerated the growing-up process and been useful in the dispelling of illusion, but still ... Here is an account of mama’s supposed mariage blanc to the rich footler Hugh (‘Hughdie’) Auchinloss:
I should note that the only advantage for a child in having an alcoholic parent is that you acquire, prematurely, quite a bit of valuable data. Apparently, there was going to be Sex whether Nina liked it or not. She did not like it. But then no woman could have liked Hughdie’s importunate fumblings. He ejaculated normally but without that precedent erection which women require as, if nothing else, totemic symbol of a man’s true love, not to mention a homely source of hedonistic friction. Since Hughdie wanted children, Nina was obliged, in some fashion that she, on several occasions in her admittedly never-long-empty cups, vividly described to me and I would promptly erase from memory. I think she inserted – with a spoon? – what she called ‘the bugs’ in order to create my demi-siblings.
Here is Hamlet contemplating ‘the nasty sty’ but without an ounce of feeling for either mother or stepfather. (His unaffected liking for his father, an innovator in the age of aerospace and an ornament of FDR’s Government, is one of the charms of the book.) But who would not have preferred to flee the home of fetid sex, booze and old money and embrace the clean limbs of Jimmie? The memoir is partly diaristic and at intervals loops back to the writing desk at Ravello and to the present day. As often as not, this is to update us on a recent lunch with Jimmie’s mother, with a letter from a long-lost trench mate on Iwo Jima, or with further bulletins from research into Jimmie’s girlfriends and boyfriends. The love supplies a refuge from the everyday now, as indeed it must have done then.
From his grandfather, the sightless Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma (common ancestor with the current Vice-President, whom Vidal refuses to meet because of his connection to Martin Peretz’s plaything, the New Republic), the boy became steeped in American political lore and in the unending battle between ‘We the People’ and the robber barons and malefactors of great wealth. Engaged as a reader to the blind old man, he also became an omnivorous consumer of books and lover of libraries. Here again, there is a sentimental ambivalence which is registered rather than resolved. Vidal knows that much American populist talk, with its loud affectation about the common man, is bullshit. He even back-chatted the old Senator about it: ‘ “When I was young, cheese and crackers was one word to me,” he used to say, emphasising his poverty. Bored with this repetition, I am said to have responded, at the age of six or so: “Well, ice cream and cake are one word to me.” ’ Not only is this a precociously Wildean remark and just the sort of thing that one writes a memoir in order to record, but it was a perfectly apt rejoinder to a wearisome pose. Yet not much later, Vidal writes approvingly that ‘for Gore and the other populists, the imperialism of the two Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson – Polk, too, earlier – was a terrible distraction from our destiny, which was the perfection of our own unusual if not, in the end, particularly “exceptional” society.’ The let-down at the end of that sentence is one that I wish he would pursue. He expounds at length his view of war and foreign entanglement as a racket run by the Morgans and Rockefellers, and recounts with some relish his student campaigns for ‘America First’ in the run-up to the Second World War. Yet when he writes about his years in Guatemala in the Fifties (setting for Dark Green, Bright Red), he admits to great shock at the discovery of what American intervention in the southern hemisphere had really been like. Now, Williams Jennings Bryan and Colonel Lindbergh had not been opposed to the Monroe Doctrine or to the American empire: they had been opposed to American engagement in Europe. Moreover, the sort of ‘America First’ isolationists who managed to be for war in China and Nicaragua but not in defence of the Spanish Republic or Czechoslovakia were exactly the kind of people who would have had The City and the Pillar burned by the public hangman. Vidal, most cosmopolitan and internationalist of American novelists, is in bizarre company when he views Europe as the polluter of American native innocence.
It is more honest to say, as he does, that the whole Second World War was not worth Jimmie’s life. This is oddly reminiscent of his friend Isherwood’s view that one could not risk harming a lover (admittedly a lover who would have been serving in the Wehrmacht) for any grand strategic consideration. But Williwaw is actually a rather fine novel of the American wartime and, though one agrees with Vidal’s retrospective opinion that it is written in somewhat carpentered prose, it remains a source of pride to him to this day, and was at the time a healthy source of rivalry between himself, Norman Mailer and James Jones. There is no reason for him not to try and have this both ways, like so much else. But that would mean noticing that he was trying to do so.
In a way that is not perhaps quite dissimilar, Vidal returns again and again to his contempt for the life of the American professional politician. He saw it up close when young. He saw it up close in the Kennedy era. He has the lugubrious example of young cousin Al always before him. Yet he knows he could have been a player, and he still likes to tell of the advice that he gave to Jerry Brown as late as the 1992 Democratic primaries. It could of course be a luxury to be in this position. How wonderful to have been able to compose this paragraph, for example, about that hideous Palace of Culture that still squats – appropriately next to the Watergate building – on the banks of the Potomac: ‘The Kennedy Centre, a real-estate metaphor for the arts in America’.
As a member of the Advisory Council on the Arts (my advice had been, Don’t build the centre), I was at the groundbreaking. The Kennedys were all on display. Hughdie and Janet, too. President Johnson wore a white camel’s hair coat and a suit of rich green never before seen on a first magistrate, or perhaps anywhere else on earth. He shovelled the dirt with casual contempt, more Kennedy gravedigger than keeper of the flame.
Vidal ran, not on the Kennedy ticket but with the somewhat sluggish Kennedy tide, for Congress in a reactionary district of upstate New York in 1960. With some rather feline help from Eleanor Roosevelt – who never trusted JFK – he came marvellously close to winning. Pressed to try again, or even to try for the Senate, he declined. In 1964, the year of the donkey par excellence, his mediocre Democrat successor was lifted into the seat by the LBJ surge. Can Vidal really say with complete composure that he is delighted not to have been that man? Clues in the text, and in other texts, suggest not. He could have been the perfect inside/outside Washington Congressman, who was needed by his own party managers more than he needed them. (Not for nothing was he a friend of Tom Driberg, whose own non-political needs also made him the perfect division-of-labour cruising companion.) Vidal has spoken elsewhere of never missing a sexual trick, and of not having to decline in years while brooding over the lost chance of this one and that one. I suspect that he still wishes he had given the rough trade of Congress a fair shake.
But in general, what a blessed life. Right places at right times. Sound bets made on the writing possibilities offered by Broadway and Hollywood, in both of which he shone while shining was still possible in those dark mills. Then, having succumbed to boredom but having proved that he could make his own way, off to Rome to write Julian. And a good companion, Howard Austen, of whom he says (twice) that the secret of their domestic felicity is – and has ever been – a strict ‘No Sex’ rule. (On the gravestone in Rock Creek Cemetery, Howard is incised as ‘Howard Auster’, the New York Jewish name that stopped him getting a job in advertising until Vidal proposed a one-letter amendment. How nice that such a deft piece of editing should have made such a difference, and how nice also that it is restored to the original when the lapidary question comes up. ‘They say I’m anti-semitic,’ Vidal once intoned with sweet mockery in Howard’s presence. ‘Every morning I breakfast with someone who looks more every day like – like Golda Meir!’)
There are some excellent phrases, though Vidal prefers to think of himself as ‘making sentences’. He says that he tortured his mother ‘with heartless kindness’. Seeing Henry Kissinger in the Sistine Chapel at an American Academy soirée, and noticing his gaping at the Hell section of The Last Judgment, he observes: ‘Look, he’s apartment-hunting.’ Campaigning in 1960, he comes up against the titanic subsidies paid to the farm interest and quips about ‘socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor’, which I think pre-empts Milton Friedman as author of that essential line about the way we live now. There is also a pregnant observation borrowed by Vidal from his post-war visits to the monkish cell of George Santayana. He judges the author of Egotism in German Philosophy to have been an opponent of fanaticism rather than an anti-semite, and cites his critique of Fichte’s and Hegel’s propaganda (about German destiny) as ‘the heir of Judaism’. In the continuing quarrel between Vidal and the Podhoretz school of New York neo-conservative Zionism, I have heard Vidal defended as someone who doesn’t dislike organised Jewry an sich but who a. blames the Zionists for keeping the militarist and interventionist home fires burning and b. blames Judaism for leading to monotheism and the militant Pauline theology of heterosexual and repressive ‘family values’. So here is a new take, which by no means invalidates the earlier ones (especially when you reflect on what family did to, and for, Vidal). Podhoretz, I always thought, made his fatal mistake when he accused Vidal not of being anti-semitic but of being anti-American. The blood of the clan was thereby aroused. Vidal, chronicler of the Civil War and the birth of America, was just not going to take this from someone who once said that the battlefields of Gettysburg and Bull Run were as remote to him ‘as the Wars of the Roses’. If you don’t want tribalism, in other words, don’t incite it. Rather in the way that he doesn’t care about his bad reviews, while remembering every last one of them, Vidal maintains indifference to the charge of anti-semitism and includes a learned piece of genealogy which strongly suggests that he is, by virtue of his ancient surname, not unconnected with converso or marrano lineage. Could be. The fact is that Vidal is and was one of the few ‘gentiles’ – ghastly term – to have written for Partisan Review, Commentary and the Nation in their heroic periods (when he also made his most surprising friend – Saul Bellow), and would be better off protesting not at all about such a cheap and politicised slander.
The finest and most revealing passages in Palimpsest, those which best synthesise the public and the personal, are the ones which treat of the Kennedy court. It’s a test of character whether one repudiates Camelot or not, and Vidal passes this test with all pennons flying. (He even admits, with a moue of distaste, to having helped deceive Richard Rovere as early as 1960 about Kennedy suffering, as he obviously did, from the disabling ravages of Addison’s disease.) For this and other services to power and family and deceit, the triptych under review, he is properly contrite. His description of a vacation spent in the Kennedy compound at Hyannis, at the time of the bogus crisis over Berlin, is a real document of tawdriness and vulgarity and opportunism. Jack and Bobby argue about which of them first hilariously called James Baldwin ‘Martin Luther Queen’. Portentous and shallow power-worship pervades the scene, and it becomes appallingly clear that JFK himself can only be interested or excited by risky and violent and gamey solutions to the boredom and impotence which he is already feeling. Young ‘Bobby’ appears in the character of an envious thug, anxious to please and eager to show that he is no faggot (an impression which Rudolf Nureyev elsewhere slyly revises). Written from notes made at the time, this is a seriously revealing chapter. As for the hugely overrated ‘Jackie’ (step-sister of Vidal’s half-sister), she appears as a spoiled and mercenary minx:
I have often wondered what would have become of Jackie had Nina stayed with Hughdie. Jackie would certainly have married money. That is to be taken for granted. But she would never have got Jack. One shudders to think that there would never have been a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis if Hughdie could have had a satisfactory erection.
The business of ‘making sentences’, as Vidal likes to put it, is intimately connected to the pronouncing of sentences. Both faculties get their outing here. Vidal’s sentence on himself is that he will only be whole when he is in some way reunited with Jimmie, His sentence on the culture is that it has mistaken showbiz for diversion, and has abandoned literature and the novel for the vacuously meretricious. He fears that he himself has been forgotten, dismissed even from TV and exiled from an academy that rewards only the arid practice of ‘theory’. (He should make more of not having gone to university, an unusual distinction in the now-totally ‘credentialled’ America. For one thing, he has always followed the practice of I.A. Richards in reading literature without any canonical crib.) A faint self-pity disfigures the closing staves of the book, which are much preoccupied with the possibility of a last career in ‘the films’: ‘I arrive back in Ravello. Three offers to act, but the agent is firm: “The parts are too small.” ’ Experience might have taught him that there are no small parts, only small players. This palimpsest, however much scored out and scribbled over, and however much a keening for the golden gone to dust, is nonetheless a record of the transmutation, of the base into the gold, that is the raw stuff of literature – and our slight and sardonic hope.