The Patriotic Heresies of the One and Only Gore Vidal

The summer of 1948, Gore Vidal found himself keeping track of Truman Capote’s lies. “I don’t know why,” he later remarked. “As I was the only one who found them offensive, why should I have cared?” There was the Andre Gide lie, in which the maitre pressed a jeweled ring on young Capote’s finger, and the Albert Camus lie, which featured the adoring writer pursuing Capote with wine and song, and, much later, the Gore Vidal lie, according to which Capote, in an uncharacteristic reversal, fruitlessly wooed a remote and unloving Vidal. “I can’t think what labor of Hercules I thought I had undertaken,” Vidal recalled, “because the instant lie was Truman’s art form, small but, paradoxically authentic. One could watch the process. A famous name would be mentioned. The round pale fetus face would suddenly register a sort of tic, as if a switch had been thrown. ‘Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, I know her intimately!’ ”

Yet as effortlessly as these inventions flowed from Truman Capote (the bane and blessing of his biographer), Vidal’s mocking severity is just as effortless, as irresistible. He kept track of Capote’s lies because they offended his sense of order, and recounts them years later because he can’t suppress his impish narrative urge. Vidal’s career has been a sort of Swiftian exercise in truth-telling--from his early novel of homosexual love, “The City and the Pillar,” to his uncompromising sex writings, now collected by Don Weise in “Sexually Speaking,” to his bestselling revisionist cycle on American history and his incomparable “Myra Breckinridge,” the satirical jeu d’esprit that William Buckley referred to on national television as “pornography.” Like Myra herself--forceful, fiendish, indignant--there is no comparable figure to Vidal in American postwar letters. With luck, Fred Kaplan’s workmanlike biography will serve its first purpose of bringing new readers to a writer in his 70s, but it cannot begin to convey the shock and delight of reading Gore Vidal.

Kaplan is the second to take up the Vidal challenge. The first contestant, journalist Walter Clemons, produced not a single word in nine years. Eventually, Vidal withdrew his support from Clemons, who died of relief, and turned to Kaplan, an acclaimed biographer of Dickens and Carlyle. One has to applaud Kaplan’s bravery. No writer would long to follow Vidal’s sparkling and acute memoir, “Palimpsest,” published just four years ago. What Kaplan does offer is the completeness and accuracy that Vidal intentionally set aside in “Palimpsest.” The reader puts down the biography knowing everything about Vidal but whether he dresses left or right. After the first few chapters, Kaplan’s precision gives way here and there to permit a slight, affectionate sparring with his illustrious subject.

Social critic, novelist and playwright, performer, politician, scourge of the right wing, Vidal is one of the few living Americans famous for being smart--a “cerebrity,” for want of the right term. He was even the youngest child, at 10, to fly a plane in America, a publicity stunt arranged by his father in 1935 to publicize his “Hammond Flivver,” a small aircraft he hoped every family would soon be able to afford. The young Vidal (then still known as “Deenie,” derived from his given name, Eugene) longed to be a movie actor and, having successfully landed the plane, nervously cast what he thought was a “puckish, Rooney-esque grin” at the newsreel camera. Later, in the darkness of the theater, he “shuddered in horror at that demented leer which had cost me stardom.”

The boy pilot’s father, Eugene Vidal, had been a West Point football star and early commercial aviator. In 1933, he was appointed director of aeronautics for the Roosevelt administration. By this time, he was already estranged from his wife, Nina, Regina Marler is the author of “Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Industry” and is editor of “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell.” the glamorous, unstable daughter of Oklahoma Senator T.P. Gore. As a relative recalled, Nina “was frivolous and always wanted to party, and Gene was worn out from working all day.” They fought often, and the best of Gore Vidal’s childhood memories date from the time he spent with his Gore grandparents at their home in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where he read to his blind grandfather by the hour. In long conversations and later in letters, he absorbed the senator’s sour and pragmatic take on American politics and public life, bypassing the glittering idealism of so many other gifted boys.

After the Vidals’ divorce in 1935, Nina quickly accepted the first wealthy man who would have her, Hugh D. Auchincloss, and brought Deenie to live with her in his newly built mansion. Stormy and impetuous at her best, she now began to drink heavily, indulging in violent tantrums. Inconvenienced by her little son, Nina shipped him off to various schools and camps, among them St. Albans, where he met and fell in love with a fellow student, Jimmie Trimble, who was to die at Iwo Jima. His relationship with Trimble, a brother figure, was never to be equaled. Trimble’s death, as Kaplan remarks, provided Vidal “with a lifelong focus for desire and for literary art.” Jimmie kept springing back in fictional form, like the endlessly recycled characters in Vidal’s darkly comic novel “Duluth” (1983), who abide by the law that there are only so many plots and so many characters at any given time. Not until the writing of “Palimpsest” did Vidal come to realize the influence of this lost unity with Jimmy: “It just fell into place. . . . It was the key to everything . . . you only see the pattern afterwards.”

Ten short years of obscurity separated Vidal’s newsreel debut as a boy aviator and the appearance of his first novel, “Williwaw” (1946), a war story hailed by critics as “clever, hard-boiled, full of punch.” It would be many years before Vidal realized that the naturalism of “Williwaw” and his other early novels went against his grain as a writer. On a school trip to Rome just before the outbreak of war, he had stood in the Forum among the crumbling bits of marble and felt an epiphany, a moment “in which his eyes superimposed on the glittering debris the living reality of what had been, as if it were all alive again, as if the informed imagination could make visually real what had been dead for centuries.” Kaplan manages to capture the elusive process of a mind--a frame of mind--being formed, Vidal’s imagination “taking as its visual and verbal model the overlayered archaeological levels of Roman history.” Realism could not encompass the world as Vidal experienced it.

The skilled and occasionally malicious translation of real-life figures into fiction played into this characteristic trope of doubleness and served Vidal well. He dispatched his mother in “The Season of Comfort” (1949) and both his demanding friend Anais Nin and the ghost of Jimmie Trimble (but not for long) in “The City and the Pillar” (1948), his scandalous bestseller about love between men. Critical response to “The City” was almost uniformly hostile. New York Times critic Orville Prescott, who had admired “Williwaw,” vowed never again to review a book by Gore Vidal. For about 10 years, Vidal suffered the wrath and neglect of major reviewers. Ever since, he has complained about this unwarranted rejection, this blighting of the bud of his emerging talent. Kaplan takes Vidal at his word that he had no idea that a homosexual theme would damage his reputation so severely. But this was, in fact, the pivotal moment in Vidal’s career, dropping that typescript off at Dutton’s, and it is difficult to believe that the canny grandson of T.P. Gore did not know that he was alienating himself from the bookish brotherhood. In one move, Vidal overturned every advantage he’d been given: his early publishing success, his verbal facility, his well-placed family, even his roguish good looks. The publication of “The City and the Pillar” thrust him from Arcadia, forcing him to struggle--and sparking, in bitterness, the wintry Vidalian tone.

The commercial success of this breakthrough novel was not to be repeated for many years. Disappointed, Vidal turned to Hollywood, where he spent much of the next two decades writing, with mixed results, for television and film. His political satire “The Best Man” (1960) opened on Broadway just as he announced his candidacy in the 29th Congressional District of New York, a Republican stronghold. After his defeat, he moved to Rome and in the mid-1960s began his great cycle on American history with the novel “Washington, D.C.” (1967). His relationship with the New York Review of Books dates from this period, and he published numerous critical and political essays--his best work, many would argue--in its pages. He also turned his hand to the surreal satiric novels that he would like to be remembered by, especially the rude, transgressive “Myra Breckinridge,” which he dashed off in one month in the spring of 1967, inspired by an opening line that came to him unbidden, in a voice he had never heard before: “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.”

Earlier this year, Kaplan also gave his meticulous attention to “The Essential Gore Vidal"--a thoughtfully edited volume that includes all of “Myra Breckinridge” and “The Best Man” as well as many essays in full. Readers with heart conditions will want to fortify themselves with these elegant and bracing essays before plunging into “Myra.” Several of these pieces, such as his position paper “The Birds and the Bees,” also appear in Vidal’s “Sexually Speaking,” although it should be understood that Vidal’s sex writings, like the most inventive of his novels, are essentially political. In 1949, Vidal made an intensive study of Plato’s “Symposium,” which helped him refine his view that there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual, only homo- or hetero- acts. In keeping with this, he has never declared himself gay or bisexual. (“Women were sometimes tempting, but my early exposure to the Marriages of My Family proved to be a reliable, unbreakable prophylactic.”) Although the essays in “Sexually Speaking” are a joy, there is some repetition, as Vidal has found himself obliged to reiterate his startlingly novel arguments over the last 30 years. As he once told a friend, “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

All three new books touch on his much-publicized feuds. In the biography, Kaplan cautiously reconstructs Vidal’s quarrels with Buckley, who threw the Q-word at him in a television debate; with Norman Mailer, who physically assaulted him at a New York party, to the delight of guests; and with Capote, whose flamboyance, typified by the enormous scarf he took to wearing in the late 1940s, inspired Vidal’s sharpest barbs. “I can’t read him,” he told one interviewer, “because I’m diabetic.” In the 1981 essay

“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” Vidal wearily concluded that if Capote “had not existed in his present form, another would have been run up on the old sewing machine because that sort of persona must be, for a whole nation, the stereotype of what a fag is.”

In the end, Kaplan’s scrupulously balanced account of Vidal’s public battles suggests that he lacks the stomach for Vidal’s brand of debate. In other and more troubling ways, Kaplan has written about Vidal--a function, perhaps, of his producing this book while his subject is still alive to read it. There is a sense too in which the biography enters an uneasy competition with Vidal’s candid and spirited autobiographical writings. Kaplan avoids quoting from “Palimpsest,” for instance, especially in the early chapters, where Vidal’s prose would have scented these pages like night-blooming jasmine. And he considerably softens Vidal’s dislike of his mother. It clearly pains Kaplan to describe how Vidal eventually dismissed Nina from his life--one tantrum too many--after she insulted his partner, Howard Austen.

The most intimate, rewarding section of this book is near its end, when biography blends into memoir and Kaplan describes with feeling his meetings with Vidal, their little jokes, their spats and reconciliations. In a friendship, Kaplan finds his natural subject. Whatever his biography’s limitations, it leads us back, with insight, to the works of this audacious American master.