Gore Vidal, the man who calls himself America’s official biographer, is, at 70, finally publishing his memoirs, Palimpsest; in a rare personal interview, he talks about his life.
By Christopher Hitchens
Photography Director: Susan White
King Vidal: On the eve of the publication of Palimpsest, Vidal is toned and trimmed at La Costa spa in San Diego, a city he once called “the Vatican of the John birch Society.”
The exquisite little town of Ravello makes an apt setting for Gore Vidal at 70. It is a place with a vivid literary and cultural history: "André Gide set the opening pages of The Immoralist in our piazza," Vidal tells me. "D. H. Lawrence and Frieda spent some time in the town, and Lawrence did part of Lady Chatterley here. All of Bloomsbury seems to have come at some time or another -Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, and Forster, who wrote The Panic during one of his stays." Other points of interest include the Villa Cimbrone, where Duff and Diana Cooper passed their honeymoon, and where Leopold Stokowski and Greta Garbo succeeded in spending some quality time alone.
"It's simple, but it's home," says Vidal as he conducts me through his five-level villa. "We had Sting here to a party last summer, and he was surly all evening. When I later asked him why, he said, 'Because I want your house! All night I was having fantasies of shoving you off the balcony."' Had Sting given way to this fell impulse, he could have sent America's pre-eminent man of letters down a clear thousand-foot drop to the deep azure of the Tyrrhenian Sea. A painter might show Gore's once lissome form arrowing into the waves like Brueghel's Icarus while the majestic cliffs of the Amalfi coastline look impassively on. Even as it is, says Vidal, a local guidebook brackets him with Pompeii as the two local antiquities not to be missed. "And every morning at 11:30 a tour boat stops in the bay and gives my biography in English and Italian over a loudspeaker. I run from room to room" -he mimes putting his hands over his ears- "trying to blot out the horror, the horror, as Marlon would say."
Vidal enjoys but does not exploit the pride that locals take in his presence -and in its confirmation of their standing as a cultural capital. As we stroll through the warm streets with his companion of half a century, the classic New Yorker Howard Austen ("What do I know? I'm from the Bronx"), salutes are offered and returned. Buona sera, Maestro… Signor Howard. "That's the real boss of this place," Vidal murmurs as one restaurant proprietor walks massively past. "He's much richer than Brooke Astor."
Within day-trip distance is another source of strength for him: the astounding classical Greek city of Paestum. Here is an imposing reminder of an ancient world that knew wisdom before monotheism, and that knew hedonism before the blights of guilt and shame had settled on suffering humanity. It's a pleasure to discover that Paestum was once home to the Sybarites, an ultra-urbane and cynical people who became a byword for their aversion to the strenuous and the boring. "Of course, when the Crotonese wiped them out, they even diverted a river to erase all trace of Sybaris," says Vidal about the disappearance of what might be regarded as honorable forerunners. As he showed in his fictional masterpiece Julian (about the last emperor to oppose Christianity), he expects the puritans and moralists to hold most of the cards in a battle with the polymorphous perverse. At Paestum to this day, however, the arresting beauty of the paintings and mosaics is a tribute to the unfettered bisexual nature of our species.
Having covered his ears against the loudspeaker version of his biography, and having been for a long time extremely reluctant to give interviews about anything but his opinions, Vidal has now decided to publish his memoirs. Entitled Palimpsest, they take his life up to 1964. They thus span the boyhood spent with an adored father and a loathed mother, the years with the grandfather Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, the experience of wartime and tragedy, the turbulent affair with Anaïs Nin, the early success as a writer and the swift reversals and disappointments, the flirtation with a political career, and much of the inside story of what he would never dream of calling "Camelot." (His half-sister, Nina Auchincloss Straight, is the stepsister of the late Jackie Kennedy.)
Close readers of Vidal's fiction have long known that during the Second World War he lost someone very dear to him: a young man killed in battle of whom it might be said, as of Christopher Marlowe's Faustus, "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight / And burned is Apollo's laurel bough."
To this youth, or to his initials, is dedicated Vidal's The City and the Pillar, the novel of homosexual life which won him renown as a writer but which, he believes, has also led to his ostracism in many literary circles. Decades later, he is still living for two and mourning for what might have been.
I met with Vidal either in restaurant or at the villa, where he showed me his grandfather's Senate chair, the portrait of his mother looking like a drawing-room Medea, and the photographs of his godchild (the offspring of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon). He abhors tape recorders, so at the end of every session I would write down my questions in as obtrusive a form as I could phrase them, and Vidal would reply to them on the tiny manual Olivetti which is his sole concession to word processing. This happy dialogue continued over a number of days, until the great man realized that his stipulations were letting him in for the lion's share of the work. I here reproduce our dialogue, slightly rearranged by topic.
What did you once say when asked if your first physical encounter had been with a boy or a girl?
I said that I was far too polite to ask.
What was the name of the actress with whom you have described having a successful affair? And do tell us a bit about her.
My first round with the other sex started in school days and dancing with school girls of the same class, which mean Marriage. Since every marriage in my family has turned out badly, I decided to forgo the joys of alimony and child custody in favor of rape and rapine. Then came Anaïs Nin, a saucy French pornographer. Then the 50s and I was a busy playwright on live television, a scriptwriter at MGM, and two "hits," as they say, on Broadway. Working with actresses, I realized that one could relax with and enjoy women who didn't want to get married either -people who were just as interested in their careers as I was in mine. No names, other than to say that Diana Lynn was a joy to have known.
Do you wish you had children?
No, I don't wish that I had any when I see what friends have gone through. I do think that at about 40 a man -in my case briefly- sometimes wishes that he could pass on what he has learned to a son; this is doubtless innate. But my son would probably be a computer analyst and I am computer-challenged. Just as well that there is none that I know of.
Were you distressed by Anaïs Nin bitchy reaction to The City and the Pillar? How, in general, have you emancipated yourself from what others think? Have you in fact succeeded in doing so?
I certainly didn't care one way or the other what she thought. After all, she only thought of herself. But, scorekeeper that I am, I was not prepared for 20 or 30 years of cretinous lectures on the joys of heterosexuality apropos books of mine that dealt, say, with the C.I.A.'s crimes in Guatemala [Dark Green: Bright Red]. On the other hand, I did come rather sooner than most lifetime writers to the conclusion that there are never more than a dozen critics in a country worth bothering with.
You were quoted as saying, "I was told by one woman that I made love just like Picasso and I said, 'Oh, I'm a genius, too?' and she said, 'Yes, and a very bad lover. In and out and back to work." Who was that? Did you really say it? And did you succeed in mastering this difficulty, if it is a difficulty?
This is a secondhand, made-up story, and I'd never say "I'm a genius, too." This wide-eyed response is more suitable for Kerouac or for Lorelei Lee. Capote did say to me, "I hear you're the lay louse," and I said, "For once, Truman, you are not lying."
What is your immediate response to hearing the old song that begins, “Missed the Saturday dance / Heard they crowded the floor"?
Bar. Jukebox. Near Lexington, Virginia. I'm an army private. Hot-eyed girls. Nineteen forty-three. Then off to the Pacific. Same song everywhere. Boy I grew up with in Washington was killed at Iwo Jima. He played saxophone. Played same song. So when I hear it now I think of the war, and of half a century ago.
You said that in youth you never missed a trick. Wasn't there at least one who got away? One near miss? One you still brood about? Why not tell us all about it and feel heaps better?
Those who escaped became pillars of salt. Since most were Mormons, you can still see them in Utah.
You once said you were "brought up in the House of Atreus. " Please advise.
Surely readers of pulp-fiction bios of Jackie and Lee will know quite a lot about our lives and the world we were brought up in. Jack Kennedy once likened our family to The Little Foxes. Of course, he had an exaggerated notion of the fineness of his own House of Atreus. One night at Hyannis he denounced all the children and stepchildren of Hughdie Auchincloss, a very nice if pussy-whipped rich man, to Jackie and me, without mentioning us, of course. "So," said Jackie grimly, "go on." "Well, you know what I mean." He looked a bit evasive. I filled in: "If we are all the disasters that you say we are, then the one thing that we have in common is that our mothers married Hughdie for his money and we all knew it and that casts, perhaps, a shadow." Jack stammered through his cigar smoke. "You mean for security," he said. "No," I said, "for money. Big money." Jackie nodded and said, with a radiant smile, "Yes. Big money."
If you indeed told Anaïs Nin that you needed your mother to die, why did you still feel this after you had been through war and frostbite and early literary success? And was it a disappointment to you when she finally did die?
There is nothing that Anaïs wrote in her diaries that one should mistake for truth. She also rewrote them constantly, making up new things for new moods, mostly resentful. At 20 I'd been through the war, published two novels, etc., and I was supporting myself. Why would I say such a thing? I did say that when I was a child I wished my mother would die, but then, most people who knew her well felt that way about her, too. She was actively malevolent and on a grand scale. I threw her out of my London flat in 1958 and told her that I would never see her again and didn't. She died 20 years later and I felt nothing at all.
What did Amelia Earhart mean to you?
I loved her. Wished she was my mother. Amelia loved my father. He loved her
too, but, alas, not that way. "More like a kid brother," he'd say. They started three airlines together, with help from Slim Lindbergh. She wrote poetry. I wrote poetry. We'd read our poems to each other at the Army-Navy game (my father had been an all-American quarterback at West Point). She had a beautiful speaking voice. I was 10 when I last saw her, just before the final flight. She gave me a picture of herself and a belt -blue and white checks. Now lost.
"I think no one has ever made enough (or anything) of the fact that I was brought up a Southerner. " So you said in 1976. By all means make something of it.
I was brought up in the then southern city of Washington, D.C., in the house of Mississippi-born Thomas Pryor Gore, who, rather idly, had invented the state of Oklahoma -like God, he had a weird sense of humor- so that he could become a senator at 38 and serve for some 30 years. From my love for grits and redeye gravy to an overdeveloped sense of honor -which I was to symbolize dramatically three times on-screen as Billy the Kid- I have always been an odd man out in a society of self-invented hustlers, literary and otherwise. I also developed an aversion to lying, perhaps the most notable American trait from advertisers to politicians. T. P. Gore was never more noble than when he lost his seat in the Senate in 1920 because he had opposed Wilson's war; his cousin Albert senior was to lose his seat when he opposed the Vietnam War -that was the good side of the southern tradition.
The bad side was-is-racism. They didn't like blacks, Jews, Catholics in about that order. Fags meant Oscar Wilde, whom my grandfather saw at Vicksburg in the 1880s, "wearing a corset," he said with wonder, "and carrying a flower." Happily, like so many of the brighter provincial southerners, he was an atheist and he passed on to me his beautiful absence of faith. As for the minorities ... well, there was no minority he disliked more than he detested the majority. As he once famously said, "If there was any race other than the human race I would go join it." Yes, I am southern.
What is your nicest story about Norman Mailer?
Norman made the greatest curry I've ever had and the secret ingredient was sliced avocado to balance the fiery curry.
Was it not to you that Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote to reveal that D. H. Lawrence had once admitted to a fling with a farmer?
She liked a book of mine called The Judgment of Paris and wrote to tell me so. We never met, but we did exchange several letters and in one of them she remarked that Lawrence had told her that he had once had intercourse with a young farmer, but it had not been, I seem to recall from her version, a success.
Why and how was Martin Amis so gravely mistaken in thinking that you had designs on his rear end?
After Martin came to Ravello to interview me, someone asked me what I thought of him. "Cute as a bug's ear," I said, a southern locution which does not imply lust or admiration but a sardonic comment on one who finds himself more attractive than you do. Unacquainted with the phrase, he had me say that I found him "a cute little thing." The thought of sex with a writer makes me "nauseous," as New Yorkers say. I will say that he writes better than his father, but then so do most people.
If Myra Breckinridge is Tom and her alter ego, Myron, is Huck, as you once asserted, then where does that leave Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher?
Aunt Polly is Letitia Van Allen, who knew total fulfillment when flung by the Myra-raped Rusty down a flight of stairs in her tasteful Malibu Beach home, ending impaled on a shiny newel post that produced Total Orgasm, the grail of your average Aunt Polly. Becky Thatcher was Mary Anne, beloved of pre-raped Rusty, who became so much amorous putty in Myra's powerful hands. Now, as I describe this marvelous text, I realize that Myra/Myron is not the great American novel
so much as it is the only American story.
Why does Moby Dick stink? Why is it revered?
I wouldn't say it is all that bad, but it is not very good, either, unless one wants to know a great deal about whales. It is revered because it is very much in the American manner -pompous, humorless, self-important, and ill-written. There are some interesting annotations in Melville's copies of Shakespeare where you can see him aiming at magnificence and falling with a splash into the old-man-and-the-sea shallows.
Your Eugene in Messiah has a “cold spot" in his nature. Eugene is also your original Christian name. Is a cold spot a useful thing to possess?
I don't remember much about my books. To write is to erase from memory. I do remember that I decided to make Eugene impotent in order not to have to worry about the obligatory love life that would have cluttered up a book about the invention of a modern religion. Later, with some delicacy, Mailer asked me if I had been going through a bad patch at the time I was writing.
You said that you would like to have written [Christopher Isherwood's] Prater Violet. Is there any other book you wish you had authored?
Prater Violet? Well, I liked it better then than now. Of my generation, there is Jack Knowles's A Separate Peace, about our school days at Exeter before the war, a haunting book in which I appear as a most disagreeable character. Doctor Faustus was a revelation, too, on the grand scale. In general I was never much influenced by American writers (James, Wharton, Twain to one side, my own discoveries). I suppose this is due to my not having gone to college, where such minor writers (of so great an empire as ours) as Hawthorne and Melville were blown up all out of proportion. If there is, inadvertently, a funnier novel than Pierre, or the Ambiguities I've not read it. Instead I read the Satyricon, on my own, and became free.
You said that Jack Kennedy was the most committed and expert gossip you ever knew. Please enlarge.
A devotee of sex, he was equally interested in what others were up to. A gossip columnist of the day -very rightwing- Dorothy Kilgallen, was writing terrible things about Jack. I commiserated with him once. He shrugged, "What are you going to do with a woman who's in love with Johnny Ray?" A famous urning -or Uranus-style bonding- of the period. Jack knew everything.
And what was that about the evening after he was shot?
The day after Jack was shot I was at Arthur Schlesinger's with a number of shell-shocked Kennedy loyalists. From the next room, a phone rang. Arthur went to answer it. Returned, very grim and pale. "These goddamned liberals! That was Mary McCarthy, worried that Oswald won't have a fair trial in Dallas!" Mary was prescient, to riot in understatement.
And who did kill J.F.K.?
Everyone should experience at least one episode of love, poverty, and war. Is this a good maxim?
Love and war are useful, as I know. Poverty? Well, I saved $10,000-$80,000 in today's money -while in the army; my first book was bought when I was 19. I never experienced poverty, but I spent several years with practically no income in the early 50s and no means of making a living other than by writing books, which the daily New York Times, Time, and Newsweek refused to review because of The City and the Pillar. I then decided to learn a craft that would make me money -plays for live television. Craft -and cunning- saved me. For 10 years I wrote movies and plays for the stage as well as television; then, having made enough money to live on, modestly, for the rest of my life, I went back to the novel.
Is Christianity a Jewish heresy? And does monotheism lead of itself to sexual despotism?
Christianity was acknowledged "officially" as a Jewish heresy by Archbishop Temple some 50 years ago. Judaism in turn seems to be a Zoroastrian heresy (with Egyptian additions) as demonstrated in Creation. I dislike all forms of monotheism because the notion of one arbitrary god-creator inevitably becomes totalitarian in earthly politics -one ruler, one Pope, one factory boss, one father as head of family, etc .... This leads to all sorts of evil, as Freud grasped. Yet he could not rid himself of patriarchalism, even though, rather wistfully, he was a classics buff. He kept pulling in polytheistic celebrities like Oedipus, who, whatever the cause of his asthma, did not want to fuck his mom, since he didn't know who she was when he married her or who Dad was when he killed him at Trivium. Oedipus did not have an "Oedipus complex." I've never seen the need for any gods-singular or plural.
What have been your measures to ward off boredom, anomie, and suicide?
As there is always something I'd like to know that I don't know -some book to read- I'm never bored or anomic. As for suicide, I would commit murder first. You see, I'm all I have.
Isn't it time you made nice with young Cousin Albert? If not, why not? Is it true that you have never met him?
A few years ago, I attended Gore Day, an annual affair in Mississippi. He was due to join us but canceled out when he learned that his atheist cousin would be there. He told the cousinage that he had a fund-raiser, which annoyed all of them. I can't say I like the company he keeps, from Marty Peretz-Israel's uncrowned queen-to the late Armand Hammer. On the other hand, his father is a noble soul. Do I want to meet Junior? I've met far too many vice presidents as it is.
You once wrote that you found the figures of the right in American history to be the most appealing. You have written sympathetically about Hamilton and even Goldwater. Can today's right claim any descent? And is William F. Buckley on the right or somewhere else?
Buckley is simply out of sight, not to mention out of mind. But very often the American left and right coincide, particularly in their dislike of intrusive government. My view of Janet Reno, of Waco fame, is that of the militiamen. But where they turn to mindless murder to avenge murder by government, I'd go to the courts. The left wants to repair our broken country and so does the Paleolithic right -read Bill Kauffman's America First. Hamilton is hard to like but impossible not to admire. For one thing he understood finance, something the noble Virginians, pursuing happiness among their slave cabins, did not. We need new categories.
What made you guess that George Washington was in love with Alexander Hamilton?
The amount of shit George would put up with from Alex -Alex would keep him waiting, scold him, disobey him -even as a young military aide in the Revolution. No one will ever know if there was a relationship, although it was generally agreed that Alex would fuck a snake, as we used to say in the army, to advance himself. I think it more likely that as Washington was childless he found in this brilliant, handsome boy the son without whom he could not have governed the new republic.
Did you tell Anaïs Nin that you would like to be president of the United States and that's why you had to be discreet about your affair with her?
Yes, I said something like that, but the readers of Palimpsest will learn the ins and outs of my early career and what Senator Gore and I were cooking up in order to set me firmly n the yellow brick road -not taken.
Do you ever feel guilty about teasing Charlton Heston-especially suggesting a gay theme in Ben Hur?
Poor old Chuck. I remember when he and Steven Boyd were reading for [William] Wyler, [Efrem] Zimbalist [Jr.], and me in an office at Cinecitta -the first scene. Chuck suddenly started acting. It was frightening. Particularly when he began to toss his great head like Francis X. Bushman in the silent Ben Hur. When the boys left us, there was a worried silence. Then I said, "Chuck hasn't much charm has he?" Wyler moaned softly and said, "No. And you can direct your ass off and you still can't give him any."
Any fond reminiscence of Bob Guccione and the Caligula fiasco?
Guccione came here and I took him to dinner with Princess Margaret, who was staying. He wore full makeup and an open shirt with a gold chain from which hung gold ornaments. She squinted at his chest to see what the ornaments were. Then she reached for a miniature cock and balls. "And what," she inquired most graciously and royally, "did you win that for?"
What became of Mick Jagger's plan to make a film of Kalki?
Mick took an option. I wrote a script. Hal Ashby signed a "pay or play" contract. Everything was wonderful as of 1982. Then Hal decided to snort all the cocaine in the world. He was never able to make it to a meeting with Mick or me. Finally died. Project too.
Are the movies too rank for you now?
I sort of like some of today's movies -Zucker brothers, Abrahams- the first Hot Shots is our Laocoon. The Coen brothers have a certain dash and, for rollicking comedy, there is always Stone's JFK.
When you 'did" John McLaughlin on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973, did it ever occur to you that the Reverend would have a second career as a TV star, while you would vanish from the networks?
No, it did not. But it is true that I have been pretty much erased from national television. I remember that when I caught Big John in a whopper on Cavett's program I pointed to him and thundered, "Priest, look to thy immortal soul!" Like God bringing life to Adam, I had created from primal ooze a TV star.
What do you mean by calling yourself a "born scorekeeper"? And what is your favorite score?
The perfect scorekeeper is the one who has the last word. I've always had a perfect indifference to what others think about me and a certain irritable notion that they had better watch out for what I may think of them at day's end when all scores are settled. Yes, it's lonely down here in the Hell of Fame, but there are compensations, the odd perk.