A Conversation with Gore Vidal

Thomas Powers

25 July 1978 (Tuesday). Dinner at George’s, where Gore Vidal showed up about nine and sat down in a curious hugging crouch in order to hide the fact he has grown fat since the last time we saw him. Otherwise he seems the same in every particular – intelligent, funny and malign in about equal proportion. He lamented the fact no one keeps diaries anymore, implying that all the awful, fascinating detail of life is going to be lost. I suppressed an urge to tell him not to worry – I’d pay him special attention so at least one of his evenings would be recorded. He said he had kept a diary himself for a while when young, but it seemed to be heavy in pensées and complaint.

It was cool on George’s terrace, four storeys up, looking out over Trastevere. He was quick to refill our drinks. I smoked a cigar. Candace was pretty in her yellow dress. Gore talked, imitated, made sexual allusions, mimicked accents, occasionally asked a question, and in general worked hard to be a good, entertaining guest. He’d been just the same way back in 1965 and 1966, gracious, friendly, but perhaps not quite so hungry. I mean that literally. He ate all the hors d’oeuvres, all the bread at dinner, finished his drinks at machine-gun rate, poured himself wine faster than Johnston could keep the carafe filled. I asked him if he felt much different now. ‘Closer to the end,’ he said. ‘I’m dragging my own corpse around’ – pointing to his swelling belly and adding that he had been a good deal fatter yet. Said he still went off the booze three or four weeks – or was it months? – a year, occasionally fasted to get his weight under control. Lost thirty pounds last year (patting his belly) but had half of it back. He has a way of breathing in deeply through his nose, straightening his back, smiling absently into the middle distance as if expecting someone to take his picture. He does it when he’s said something clever and is pleased with himself, not overweening or arrogant but just happy, proud, at peace.

He mimicked Truman Capote describing Jackie Kennedy screwing a big Negro chauffeur while her children whimpered in the back seat – ‘Not a word of it true, mind you; he just can’t help himself; he has to tell lies. Which is why I’m suing him for libel. I don’t like it; I believe in the First Amendment. But there has to be a limit. Some lies are just too big to swallow.’ He didn’t say what the lies were and I don’t know.

He said he hated New York for the greed and envy at Elaine’s, but he talked about Truman Capote and Norman Mailer as he did ten years ago – as rivals and enemies, coming back to them obsessively. Worst of all the New York crowd was Alfred Kazin – ‘Saul Bellow called him the conductor on the gravy train. Wherever they were passing out money, honour, position, awards – there was Kazin. I didn’t read his memoirs. Well – I did read A Walker in the City, but not the last volume. He’s rewriting his own history. Apparently he didn’t even know Edmund Wilson all that well, and I don’t think Wilson much liked him.’

He said he’d read Wilson’s letters straight through, liked them very much, but still didn’t know why Wilson had been fired by the New Republic. Michael Straight was his sister’s husband – can that be right? the chains of relation are sometimes bewildering in Vidal’s world, where literally everybody seems to know everybody – but when Vidal had asked him, Straight simply said: ‘Well, he left, that’s all …’

I suggested he ask Leon Edel, since Edel had access to all the diaries and letters and would probably know the answer. This led inevitably to a much larger subject: had Edel deliberately suppressed important evidence that Henry James was a homosexual, and if so, why? A complicated story.

It happened that Vidal had information on this subject: both Stephen Spender and John Lehmann had been told by Hugh Walpole – in identical words, apparently – of an occasion mentioned by Edel. Walpole, then young, beautiful, and awed by the Master, had offered himself to James. After a moment of hesitation, James shuddered and said: ‘This cannot be.’

Edel’s version echoes the Spender-Lehmann account, until this point, where Spender-Lehmann (but not Edel) add a crucial detail – James’s demurrer was uttered after Walpole and James were both naked and in bed. I pressed Vidal on this point to make sure I had got it straight: Walpole told both Spender and Lehmann, who told Vidal (who was telling me) that Walpole was actually naked and in bed with James before James – apparently thinking in sorrow of his age, bulk and ungainly trunk (as Vidal described Spender-Lehmann’s version of Walpole’s explanation of why James decided it could not be) – made his last renunciation.

Earlier, Vidal said he was not like Capote; he didn’t tell lies. And I don’t think he was lying here. But somehow, despite Vidal’s explicitness, I am not quite sure Spender-Lehmann really did tell Vidal the renunciation took place in bed. Surely a crucial bit of detail. There’s just something pulpy about it. But I am telling you what Vidal told me.

Perhaps it was Vidal’s insistence that James had to be queer. ‘The giveaway is a description of Minnie Temple’s brother naked. He was serving as an artist’s model when James happened by and his description of the late afternoon sun, the beauty of the boy – and he certainly does seem to have been something quite extraordinary – the whole feel and air of it … Well! It just can’t come from anything else. When I read that I knew.’

Knowing, he passed on what he knew to Edel through Louis Auchincloss, a mutual friend. Not only the Spender-Lehmann story but the odd detail in James’s books – the description of Minnie Temple’s brother, the two women kissing in The Bostonians (‘a lesbian novel if there ever was one; it’s perfectly clear’) etc etc. But Edel ignored the literary evidence, bowdlerised his version of the Spender-Lehmann story (even sent word back through Auchincloss that the incident was properly one for a biography of Walpole!) and concluded that James was a kind of sexual neuter, there was no terrible secret, the figure in the carpet meant nothing, his renunciation was deep and permanent, Henry James was not a queer!

Now why did Leon Edel do that? [Vidal wanted to know]. Jewish Puritanism. He refused to admit his hero got into bed with men. It was a kind of conspiracy. James, Walt Whitman, even Proust – they were figures of a different age, spoke in a way which suggests sex to us, lived in a world of healthy, masculine intimacy etc etc, but great writers do not go to bed with boys. Jews are never homosexuals (‘except for those who are’) and Jewish intellectuals will not concede that their heroes might do something they themselves would not do. Vidal was absolutely certain of this: Jewish puritanism had blinded Edel and turned a scholar into a suppressor of evidence. I suggested the problem was one mentioned by David Hackett Fischer, that history is what the evidence says it is. If the evidence is fragmentary, misleading or missing, then the history is just going to be wrong, or at best incomplete.

No, no, no. That was alright as far as it went. But Spender-Lehmann were proof positive, the description of Minnie Temple’s brother left no room for doubt, Henry James got into bed with boys and fucked.

‘Fuck’ is a word Vidal uses a good deal. He can be courtly in his way, but every few minutes – I mean that literally; twenty minutes would be a long stretch without some such word – he feels the impulse and finds the occasion to refer to fucking, and he puts a lot of mouth into the word. He does not shirk its clear enunciation, he puts his teeth right down over his lower lip to put force into the initial and fires it out – ‘fffuck!’

Clearly, he likes to say it. He likes being straightforward, and he likes to offend the proprieties of academia (which he puts right up there next to Jewish puritanism as an enemy of homoeroticism), but mainly he likes thinking about sex and he wants to get it into the conversation. He’s like a fly fisherman, flicking out the bait with steady optimism, convinced by experience of one thing at least – if you don’t flick the bait out, you won’t ever take anything home. So he flicks out a fuck every little while, from pure habit by this time, on the off-chance something will bite. He likes talking, but he likes sex more, and he never strays too far away.

Here’s an example. James led to Edith Wharton, and that reminded Vidal of R.W.B. Lewis’s book, which mentioned that she’d met a smoldering young writer in Italy named Alberto Moravia. So Vidal called Moravia to ask if he remembered Edith Wharton – here Vidal mimics Moravia’s puzzled Italian and his hazy memory of a heavy, dull, unremarkable old woman. That done, I asked if Vidal had read Moravia’s new novel. He said he had not. I asked if he’d read his wife’s novel – History, Elsa Morante. Ahhhh … he did not answer, exactly.

‘A few years ago she had a young lover – a blond Englishman who looked a good deal like the actor James Fox. He drank too much. But very handsome. I was fffucking him at the same time. He’d spend a week with her until he couldn’t stand it any longer and then he’d come back for a week with Howard and me. Eventually, he committed suicide. It had nothing to do with us. Drink and drugs. Did you know him when you were here? A very handsome boy named Edward Weeks [?]. So Morante and I were not exactly friends, but in between fucking this boy we sent each other polite little messages …’

A characteristic Vidal story: violent, unexpected, a bit pugnacious, interesting, and at heart a kind of adjustment of the wheel to bring the conversation back around to sex. After all, if you don’t flick out the bait, you’ll never take anything home …

But the fffs are drawn out too richly to be explained by that alone. Vidal may fuck boys but by God he fffucks and Henry James did too. Vidal is not just convinced that James liked boys. He’s convinced he fucked them. Listening to this point hammered home the third time I thought how much this means to Vidal, and how perfectly his own certitudes seem to mirror those of the Jewish puritans. Perhaps Edel is happier with a James who is repressed, but there is no question Vidal is upset by the very idea of abstinence. James would not restrain himself, any more than Vidal does. No sad longing in the loneliness of middle age. No, no – he was just like Vidal, he flicked out the bait, he took the catch home, he got into bed and he fucked.

The conversation took place in Rome at the flat of George Armstrong, an American journalist. Thomas Powers wrote it up in his diary the following day.