I was in my 40s, living in Paris, when I tried my hand at writing a novel. For a long time I figured that one day the most important of reportorial assets, my legs, would go, and I'd have to find work I could do without leaving the house--preeferably a house in the South of France, or Big Sur, or Ravello, where Gore Vidal lives above the Gulf of Salerno in Italy.
My fiction career ended, more or less, after I had created a world crisis that could only be solved by a quick meeting of the President of the United States and the Premier of the Soviet Union. Using a compass, I picked a spot for the meeting equidistant from Washington and Moscow: Reykyavik, Iceland. Six months later, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held a quickie summit in that very place. The reach of my imagination, it seemed, was no greater than the routine efforts of energetic underlings in the White House and the Kremlin.
I consoled myself by rationalizing: If only I had begun earlier, say at age 19--the age Vidal was when he wrote his first novel, "Williwaw," in 1946--before I was constipated by too much journalism, too many rules about responsibility and reality. I was too old to go back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. (Editor's note: See Page 11.)
Vidal has been able to do that, with great success and devoted readers, in every which way, in long books and short sentences based on American history. "Hollywood," the latest in this series, according to the jacket copy, "swells into a panoramic adventure in which America's politics and fantasies are inextricably entwined. Mingling fictional and actual characters, shifting from Washington to California and back. . . ."
The result, not the best of Vidal's work by a long shot, reminded me again of one of the oldest axioms of nonfiction campaigning: Only 10% of what candidates do works, but no one knows which 10%.
Even if 90% of "Hollywood" is true, I don't know which 90% that is. The only thing I'm absolutely sure of is that the Georgetown address given for young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is not in Georgetown. I walked over that way to check.
No big deal in our wondrous era of docu-drama and re-created news. Many, most or almost all of my fellow Americans seem totally unconcerned about the merging of fact and fantasy--all seem to merit a fair hearing. On Long Island this summer I happened to step into great turmoil about Department of Defense plans to discontinue production of a Navy fighter plane, the F-14 Tomcat. The plane is manufactured on the island, by Grumman Aircraft, which claimed 5,000 local jobs would be lost. One of the arguments being used to make more Tomcats was that they performed so well against Soviet fighters in the movie "Top Gun."
Twice I found myself saying: "You know, that didn't happen. Those weren't real Russians. It was just a movie."
That is what Vidal writes about in "Hollywood," focusing on the years just before, during and after World War I, the years of the rising of the film business in the orange groves of Los Angeles. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding are his characters, along with D. W. Griffiths, Will Hays and Douglas Fairbanks.
Vidal's tries to show that Washington and Hollywood are both part of an American continuum or, as he sees it, an American decadence that inexorably led to an actor in the White House. I agree generally with the thesis that politicians and entertainers are pretty much in the same line of disbelief-suspending work. But I think Ronald Reagan--this book attacks Reagan in its descriptions of Harding and his works--was something of an aberration that will be hard to duplicate.
The better example of mutual attraction was told to me once by a man who makes political commercials, Bob Squier. He once introduced one of his clients, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, to actor Paul Newman. "I never saw either of them so excited," Squier remembered. "Then I realized these two guys wanted to be each other."
Vidal, too, seems to have spent a lot of time thinking about being someone else or doing something else. His biography at the back of this volume emphasizes his failed politial ambitions, actually giving vote totals of a run for Congress 30 years ago. Then he has played, often impressively, at playwrighting and screenwriting, at commentary and journalism. Whatever effect all that has had on his fiction,"Hollywood" is hardly a novel of great imagination. A good fact-checker who knew Vidal's political views could turn this into real nonfiction.
Luckily, Vidal has a jaded view of American politics, which, despite a talky plot, does sometimes give a polished edge to his perceptions of Washington:
"The President (Wilson) was vindictive not only in the large, necessary things but in the insignificant ones as well. To Caroline, this was perfect proof of his greatness, since every major political figure that she had known was equally dedicated to disinterested revenge."
"The Colonel (Roosevelt) . . . had what all good politicians had, the gift of intimacy with strangers."
" 'If I didn't know everybody in public life, I'd say I wasn't big enough for the job, wasn't worthy.' Harding stood up. 'But I do know everybody, so . . . why not?' "
Good stuff, I think, but nothing really new. There seems to be more energy in the Hollywood sections of "Hollywood." One of Wilson's assistants goes West to supervise the propaganda content of films during the war and says: "The audience for the movies is the largest there is for anything in the world. So if we can influence what Hollywood produces, we can control everything. Hollywood is the key to just about everything."
I was reminded of that a couple of months ago, back in Paris. Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney, was there, too, to cut a ribbon or something for the new Disney World outside the city. Communist union members showed up in Mickey and Donald masks and threw a few eggs and tomatoes at him. "I'll be damned," I thought. "The Communists have finally figured out who the real enemy is."
Vidal long ago figured that out. Perhaps too long ago. "Hollywood" is an alert to the dangers of swirling tides of fact and fiction, truth and fantasy, politics and entertainment. But the warning is too late. "Hollywood" is another example of what Vidal is attacking.
"Look at the fix they're in. Twelve million of them live here in a country that's fighting to make the world safe for democracy, and most of them can't vote or have the same rights as white people' . . . .
'Maybe they don't want them.' Emma was not of an imaginative or, indeed, generous nature, thought Caroline who was not generous either but sufficiently imaginative to be able to understand what others felt. . . .
Much of Washington's charm for her had been its Africanness both in climate and population. Racial equality had not meant much of anything to her or, she thought, to most Negroes, who ignored the white world as the white world ignored them, or so it seemed to her, each race living in separate if contiguous universes in two separate but simultaneous Washingtons.
'No. They want the same rights. Particularly now they've been in the Army, fighting for democracy. . . .'
'Such a meaningless word.' Although Caroline's teeth were set on edge by all political rhetoric, the reverent intoning of the national nonsense-word democracy most irritated her. The much-admired Harvard professor, George Santayana, now retired and withdrawn to Europe, had noted the curiously American faculty for absolute belief in the absolutely untrue as well as the curiously American inability to detect a contradiction because, as he had written, an 'incapacity for education, when united with great inner vitality, is one root of idealism.' That was it--American idealism, the most unbearable aspect of these people. For the first time in years, Caroline wanted to escape, go back to France, or on to Timbuctoo, anywhere that these canting folk were not. --Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s.