A Critical Eye : In the hands of Gore Vidal, a pen is a sword. And he points it at the high and mighty who have crossed his path--and a public lured by TV.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gore Vidal is having one of those tree-in-the-forest kinds of days. If he wrote a book and there was no one around to read it, would it make a sound?

"Reading, with the power of television, has really been a lost art," he muses, languishing on a divan at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "There are far more good writers in America than we have good readers. I want to give the Nobel Prize for the best reader in the world, and perhaps a regional one. The best reader in Southern California. They'll hand out a golden lamp, a reading lamp."

Ah, the elusive audience, Vidal's own particular Holy Grail. In a new memoir of his early life, "Palimpsest" (Random House), the prolific and pugnacious author, screenwriter, playwright and political candidate bemoans the wandering eye of "the sort of honor that I do lust for, the attention of the great audience."

Even if it's true that much of today's great audience would rather surf channels than turn pages, Vidal has always wooed the masses where they roam, in the mass media, especially TV. Vidal is the rare literary lion equally at home with Edith Sitwell and Mike Douglas. But for all his chumminess with his beloved great audience, he sniffs in "Palimpsest": "To be commercial is to do well that which should not be done at all."

That makes a certain Vidalian sense, coming from a man who has lusted after the presidency--and argued for abolishing it. Who spent decades trouncing policy-makers for failing to adequately fund education--and skipped college himself. Who was raised as a little aristocrat--and spent a lifetime bellowing at the halls of power.

Indeed, maturity--Vidal just turned 70--has done little to dilute his acid wit. And if Norman Mailer, who once took a swing at Vidal, told him, "I thought you were the devil," "Palimpsest" makes no claims for his sainthood. The gossipy memoir is ripe with tart observations of the high and mighty who have populated his life.

Of the rivalrous Truman Capote, whom Vidal sued for libel over Capote's talent for giving "the astonishing interview," he writes that, from the start, Capote had "decided that I was to be the competition. He was 21; I, 20. But, as he confided to the press, 'that Gore Vidal is 25 if he's a day.' "

"Capote lied in order to damage other people," Vidal says later. "It was very important because life had damaged him."

Charlton Heston, launched to stardom by the Vidal-written "Ben Hur," wasn't the filmmakers' first choice, Vidal writes. Heston ran second to Paul Newman, who had sworn "never to act in a cocktail dress again" after "The Silver Chalice." "Chuck had all the charm of a wooden Indian," Vidal snips in the book.

Wallis Simpson, who had "square ugly hands covered with large jewels," lamented her marriage to the hapless Duke of Windsor the morning after the wedding. She told Vidal: "I woke up and there was David standing beside the bed with this innocent smile, saying, 'And now what do we do?' My heart sank. Here was someone whose every day had been arranged for him all his life and now I was the one who was going to take the place of the entire British government, trying to think up things for him to do."

And, of course, there was Jackie Kennedy, a faux relative whose mother married Vidal's wealthy ex-stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss. Vidal reports that she lost her virginity to a friend of his in a Paris lift, but spurned him in favor of JFK because "he has money and you don't."

Vidal also writes about such neglected topics as Jackie's favored douching techniques and asserts that her first marriage was loveless, that her first husband a warmonger, and that the Kennedy she really loved was Bobby. Not only does he puncture the Myth of Jackie, Vidal lifts the curtain to show the wizard who created it.

"She was Jack's invention, her public persona," Vidal says. "He said, 'Don't talk. Don't give interviews, and don't write letters.' And she followed his advice and then became this great blank icon that you could write anything on you wanted to."

As she lay dying of lymphoma, he writes, "Do I feel anything at all? No, nothing beyond a certain glumness. . . . Selfish and self-aggrandizing beyond the usual, Jackie was still a slyly humorous presence when she was in my life," a chapter that ended when his rift with Bobby evolved into banishment by all the Kennedys. Not that Vidal held that against her. "The clan works as one," he says coolly.

When he met Hillary Clinton years later and applauded her campaign for universal health insurance, Vidal dryly compared her active First Ladyship to that of his Chauncey Gardner-like relative.

"Isn't that an irony," he says, "someone who did nothing for anyone else if she could help it and someone who's really trying to do something for every American, one is beloved and the other is despised?"

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If Vidal is merciless in unmasking others, he is equally brazen when writing about himself. He writes frankly about his sexual peccadilloes and those of his friends.

Of his close friend Tennessee Williams, Vidal recalls his "aversion to having sex with other writers, or indeed, with intellectuals of any kind. 'It is most disturbing to think that the head beside you on the pillow might be thinking, too,' " Williams would say.

Needless to say, Vidal and Williams' great friendship was precisely that. And when an academic and would-be biographer of Williams wrote Vidal to ask if they'd had an affair, "I told her that although it was not my habit to comment on private matters, it had been my experience in real life that it was unusual for colleagues to go to bed with each other. Of course, I added tolerantly, to show that nothing human could be alien to me, I did understand that it was well-known for tenured lady professors to go to bed with each other, and I was certainly not about to cast a cold eye upon their Sapphic revels."

Vidal's preferences made Williams seem discriminating. He was the Wilt Chamberlain of the literary world, racking up 1,000 conquests by age 25. That monumental number is even more startling when you consider that sex with Vidal was strictly one-sided--when he was young, he sometimes accepted money for it; when he was older, he paid for his pleasures. As for his companion of 40 years, Howard Austen, Vidal says the arrangement has been possible only because they don't have sex.

If Vidal has approached his romantic life with a certain detachment, he seems to bring that to the rest of his life as well, judging from the fairly unintrospective "Palimpsest" (which means "paper, parchment, etc., prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate").

Calling the book a "crowded cocktail party," Richard Stengel clucked in Time magazine: "While there is a great deal of pleasurable ogling to be had, Vidal's book is the sort of grand, teeming affair that leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied, as though you are not quite sure why he invited you in the first place."

For his part, Vidal chalks up his distance to old-fashioned politesse.

"I'm pretty marginal, don't you think?" he says. "It's not me , me , me at the center. You were brought up, you didn't talk about how much money you had or who you f-----. You don't name names. You still don't. And I'm dealing with the dead here. I'm dealing with the long ago past, by and large."

In fact, as recently as 1992, the year he began his memoir, Vidal was--natch--telling Time magazine that he would never write his memoirs: "If I tried, it would be like a bad MGM movie--or worse, a good one."

He says that, finally, with the Capotes and Anais Nins of the world telling their biographers about him and getting it wrong, "I shall write about me too. Set them straight."

At other times, he has said he didn't interest himself as a subject, far less at any rate than classical history ("Julian"), American history ("Lincoln") or the flights of fancy ("Myra Breckenridge") that spawned his 33 books. One novel, however, was in fact semi-autobiographical, "The City and the Pillar," his 1948 work.

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The newly reissued novel, about an all-American boy's passion, was inspired by the author's youthful love for schoolmate Jimmie Trimble. Trimble died in World War II, and Vidal says he didn't realize until writing "Palimpsest" how deep and singular that love was.

"It was the road to Damascus," he says. "It was a sudden illumination. I realized that was it. This was a completion of myself, and I realized after that, it only happens once, if ever, in a lifetime."

Vidal's literary revelation that boys next door could pine for each other made quite a sound in its day. "The City and the Pillar" hit the bestseller lists but, Vidal says, its unseemly subject led the New York Times to trash or ignore his next five books.

In a sense, "Palimpsest" is a nonfiction equivalent. It frankly discusses his gay affairs, in tune with a recent trend in out-of-the-closet memoirs by men of prominence, such as Williams and critic Edmund White. Among them, Vidal has arguably dived deepest into the mainstream. The man who carries the distinction of sitting on Johnny Carson's couch more than any other author explicitly describes his encounter with Jack Kerouac at New York's Chelsea Hotel 40 years ago.

"At the nearby Chelsea Hotel, each signed his real name," he begins. "Grandly, I told the bemused clerk that this register would become famous. . . . Lust to one side, we both thought, even then (this was before 'On the Road'), that we owed it to literary history to couple. . . ."

This time, rather than rankle the straight world, Vidal says "Palimpsest" has "caused quite a furor, I'm told, in the [quote] gay unquote communities. Some were very upset about what I'd written. Some are very delighted.

"There are people who think because I say I don't do this [engage in certain sex acts] that I despise them for doing it. I don't at all. Everybody does anything he wants to. But people are very complex. And in the end, bisexuality is what it's all about. People get freaked out by the very notion and stay generally in a country of the heterosexual dictatorship, as [Christopher] Isherwood called the United States."

Not one to be pigeonholed, Vidal reveals his broken engagement to Joanne Woodward in 1958, which prodded Paul Newman to leave his first wife for her. Vidal acknowledges that he was never destined to be the happy bridegroom.

"Nothing would ever have come of it for the simple reason, 'Was it your mother who put you off women?' No, she put me off marriage. Every marriage in my family had been a disaster. I wouldn't inflict that on Joanne or anybody that I liked."

Was his engagement to Woodward a sham designed to call Newman's hand?

"It was complex," he says carefully. "We don't dodge. Some things are so complex that to simplify them is to falsify them."

He is, on the other hand, horrified by Nin's claim that he asked her to marry him.

"At age 20? And she's 42? My mother's age? I mean, what on earth was that about?"

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These days, Vidal ponders the world from his idyllic Villa Rondinaia, which clings to a wind-swept cliff in Ravello, Italy. He entertains the occasional TV crew from Brazil and Mexico, lately one from the BBC, which filmed a documentary that recently aired on A&E.;

"They all want the trip to Italy, so I'm probably the most televised author on Earth," he says.

How fortuitous, since he's still a fan of the great audience. Even though he never won election to the political stage, including California's (he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982),Vidal has recently played the statesman--honorable and otherwise--in movies. He was a liberal senator in "Bob Roberts" and a Kissinger-like figure at Harvard in "With Honors." In his next film, "The Shadow Conspiracy" with Charlie Sheen due out in April, he plays a corrupt Southern congressman. And he's writing a screenplay about the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers case for Castle Rock.

In fact, if Vidal were starting his quest now instead of 50 years ago, he says Hollywood would have been his main muse.

"The bright people talk about the bright movies, Woody Allen and so on. And the rest of them talk about the toy movies, the Exterminators and whatever they're called. That's the lingua franca of the whole world."

As it is, Vidal will have to make do with the anachronistic legacy of the novelist, with occasional forays into film, as the nation veers toward the audio-visual millennium.

"Norman Mailer said, trying to look on the bright side, 'Well, at least, Gore, you and I in the future will be cults.'

"I said, 'Norman, you may be satisfied with being a cult, but I am a major religion.' "

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