Gore Vidal

On a cliff-top high above the Amalfi coast an awning flaps lazily, stirred by a welcome breeze, and then is still once more. It shares the temperament of the aged American bachelor standing under it, on his balcony, pondering the cobalt-blue sea half a mile below. ‘You know,’ Gore Vidal says with a heavy sigh, ‘every morning at ten a tourist boat sails past and I have to listen to a woman telling my life story over a Tannoy.’ Pause. ‘It is followed by another boat which tells the same story in Italian.’
Quite useful, though, should he ever forget who he is. ‘Yes.’ The sigh again, a wan stare into the middle distance. ‘There are such mornings.’
For all the affected world-weariness, it is safe to assume that Gore Vidal is secretly delighted to find himself, at the age of 75, a tourist attraction. He is, after all, a man given to Olympian, if usually wry, displays of condescension and arrogance – ‘There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,’ he once half-joked. For 30 years, he and his companion, Howard Austen, have divided their time between a house in Los Angeles and this place, a five-storey palazzo in Ravello, a place once considered sacred to the god Pan and now a shrine to Gore Vidal; it is a museum in which he is the prize exhibit, a reminder to himself of what he might have been and who he is. The house was built by an English peer in 1925 – ‘the same year [sigh] I was built’ – and is set in terraces of olive trees, grape vines, cedars and cypresses. It is not accessible by car, but approached along a corniche path, through three sets of security gates.
Inside, hanging on the walls, there are dozens of caricatures, photographs and magazine covers featuring Vidal’s saturnine face and what he calls his ‘flaring Gore nostrils’. On the bookshelves in his study there are more than 40 different volumes with his name on the spine – collections of essays, plays and screenplays, 24 novels, and an autobiography. By the window is a hand-carved chessboard, at which he and Howard sit down to play every day. Pass through a hall hung with 17th-century Neapolitan canvases and into a high-ceilinged drawing-room, and the eye takes in tapestries, a Greco-Roman head of Zeus, a flaking Buddha and a first-century mosaic floor mounted as a wallpiece. Among the framed photographs on the table by the door is a serious-looking image of the woman he claims he introduced to dark glasses, his step-sister, Jackie Kennedy – ‘whose boyish beauty and life-enhancing malice were a great joy to me’. There are other pictures, ones that chronicle Vidal’s life as a failed politician but transcendent political observer and gossip: Vidal on the stump with Harry S Truman; Vidal sharing a joke with his friend John F Kennedy; Vidal with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, taken when they came to stay and inscribed with the words: ‘To Gore, with thanks for letting us trespass’.
Though the writer does occasionally hold court here – entertaining a circle of friends that includes Sting, Princess Margaret and Paul Newman – visitors probably do feel as if they are trespassing, because this is where he comes to write, on a chestnut-wood table, in longhand. For the past three months he has been working on an essay about the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man who, in 1995, killed 168 people when he blew up the FBI headquarters in Oklahoma. The two men began a correspondence. Vidal found McVeigh to be intelligent and sympathetic. McVeigh invited Vidal to attend his execution, in one of the seats reserved for his friends and family; in the end Vidal stayed in Ravello.
Il Maestro, as he is known locally, is wearing green linen trousers and a pink gingham shirt, the buttons of which strain against his paunch. He shuffles in from the balcony, eases himself into an armchair, and crosses his legs stiffly, causing the bottom button to give up the struggle. The pleats of skin on his cheekbones smooth out as he raises his eyebrows, a prompt for a question.
Doesn’t it worry him that many Americans find his sympathy with McVeigh offensive and traitorous? ‘Fuck that,’ he says with a mirthless laugh. ‘I know how opinion is manufactured in the United States,’ he adds. He speaks slowly, languidly, with an oaky, vowel-rolling Ivy League accent. ‘The New York Times is for us what Pravda was for the Soviets. McVeigh was part of a much larger conspiracy, but they wouldn’t go after it. They wanted to demonise McVeigh as a madman who killed children. They wanted another lone, crazed Lee Harvey Oswald.’
So why didn’t he go to the execution? Had he caught a diplomatic cold? ‘Well, I tried to go. I was all set to go to the first one: just as I got off the plane there was a stay of execution so I came back. His lawyers had 4,000 documents to go through and I assumed they would allow at least a month for that, but they didn’t – they were so eager to get him off the scene. So I had three days to get from here to there and couldn’t manage it.’ Wouldn’t it have given him nightmares to watch McVeigh die? Long pause. ‘I don’t think old people get these nightmares. Old people are nearer to death themselves. Most of one’s friends are dead.’ He doesn’t suffer from mortal panic, then? ‘It depends on your nature. Those of us who went into the army at 17 expected to be killed. Half the boys I trained with in the infantry were killed in the Battle of the Bulge.’
Vidal’s first love, Jimmie Trimble, was killed fighting the Japanese at Iwo Jima in 1945. The two met as 12-year-olds at St Albans boarding school in Washington, DC. Vidal likens Jimmie to Rosebud in ‘Citizen Kane’, the secret that explains everything. He also compares their relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclus and describes Jimmie’s sweat as smelling like honey, ‘like that of Alexander the Great’. When he heard the news of Jimmie’s death did he feel suicidal? ‘It confirmed what I suspected would happen to all of us. At the time I was not the least stoic about it. But no, I wasn’t suicidal. And love is a very evasive term. Let us say we identified with each other. I don’t want to put it in romantic terms. It was stranger than that. More like a twinship. That sort of thing is numbing but you must remember I had heard of a dozen other deaths before what happened on 1 March 1945, at four in the morning.’
Did it harden his heart? ‘I have never checked my heart for morbidity of any kind.’ Has he been in love since? ‘I don’t know what the phrase means.’ Pause. ‘That is a question to ask people who really care about themselves. I’m more interested in the present-day crimes of the Supreme Court. In American history.’
I’m not convinced, I say: his memoirs, his novels, all are an exercise in self-analysis. He is, after all, his own best subject. ‘That’s nice to hear but it’s not true. Philip Roth writes about Philip Roth. I write about Lincoln.’
And yet it seems he never did fall in love again. He has a giant picture of Jimmie, aged 17, in his bedroom here and he still has recurring dreams about running through the woods to the Potomac river, where he and Jimmie used to play. By the time he was 25, he had given up hope of finding the other half, the twin, that would make him whole again and so had settled for ‘a thousand brief anonymous adhesions’. Vidal has an ecumenical approach to sex and believes that only acts, not people, can be described as homosexual or heterosexual. When asked by a journalist once whether his first sexual experience was gay or straight, he replied, ‘I was too polite to ask.’ He has written of a woman in his life, an actress with whom, off and on, he has ‘kept loving company’. And, in 1950, he met Howard Austen, a raspy-voiced Jewish boy from the Bronx who was working in a soda store to put himself through New York University. The two have lived together ever since, but, according to Vidal, sex has played no part in their relationship.
Vidal always portrays himself as emotionally remote – ‘There is no warm lovable person inside,’ he says. ‘Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water’ – and yet he and Austen have reserved themselves a plot at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC, yards from the spot where Jimmie is buried. Isn’t this evidence of a sentimental streak? ‘I don’t feel self-pity. I inherited my stoicism from having spent my youth with a blind man, reading to him. By the age of ten my grandfather [TP Gore, an Oklahoma senator] had lost both eyes. You don’t feel very sorry for yourself when that is your role model.’
When Gore Vidal was ten years old his parents divorced, and he went to live with his grandfather. His father, Eugene, was a national sporting hero who became an aviation pioneer, a founder of three civil airlines, including TWA, and a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet. His mother, Nina, remarried the millionaire financier Hugh D Auchincloss, who then left her to marry Janet Lee Bouvier, Jacqueline Bouvier [later Kennedy]’s mother. His father was, he says, charming and serene, but his mother was a ‘perfect monster – a lush Twenties flapper prone to thunderous rages’. He cannot remember a time when he loved her. At seven he began setting fire to things and stealing watches in protest. At 11, he would vomit when he saw her. For the last 20 years of her life he refused to see her. Vidal is something of an autodidact – he never went to college, and has always read books fanatically. His mother didn’t like him reading. Does he see the connection? ‘She would rather have had a Martini than read a book and I must say I would too, now, but not at 10am. No, the most important figure in my life was my grandfather, and my mother was scared to death of him. There was a terrible genial coldness that you sometimes find in masterful politicians. He started to turn to marble before your eyes and I used to enjoy that when he did it with my mother.’
He has, I suggest, been unforgiving in his portraits of her. ‘I don’t think unforgiving. Accurate. I don’t think about her. She was a comic character but she also had enormous charm. She was better-looking than Tallulah Bankhead but they were the same girl. Politicians’ daughters.’ She would answer the door naked? ‘Oh yeah, and receive you on the john. It didn’t embarrass me. I was used to her doing it. She had no self-consciousness.’
Which parent is he more like? ‘I don’t think I am like either, I’d like to think I am more like TP Gore. He was a sharp observer. Great comedian. He always gave good advice. He said, “When someone does you an injury, turn the other cheek, bide your time and one day he will put his head on the block; then you get him.” I wait, too.’
He certainly does. Gore Vidal is as well known for his feuds as he is for his writing. Among others, he has done battle with Bobby Kennedy, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer (on one occasion Mailer head-butted Vidal, on another Vidal bit Mailer’s hand). His reputation as an acid-tongued provocateur was made during a televised debate in 1968: Vidal called the journalist William F Buckley a crypto-Nazi, to which Buckley shouted in reply, much to Vidal’s mocking pleasure, ‘Listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face.’
Are these feuds his lifeblood? ‘Of which there have been practically none. Mostly they come from journalists and writers. I used to keep the company of writers when I was young but I try not to now because in this age… [sigh]… everything is about, oh, prizes and reviews and fellowships, all of which bore me. You must remember I have had to deal with a lot of freaks. Imagine being a contemporary of Truman Capote. He was a pathological liar. The bigger the lie the darker the pair of sunglasses he would wear. The Gores are an extremely combative family, with the exception of cousin Albert [Al Gore, the presidential candidate] – sadly, he was the only one who did not inherit the family love of a fight. People who engage in feuds tend to take everything personally. If someone attacks me, I shall attack them back.’
Like many arch-teasers, Gore Vidal doesn’t like to be teased back. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in New York in 1960, and for the Senate in California in 1982. Absurdly, he claimed he could have won California had it not been for a homophobic article Auberon Waugh wrote for the Spectator. ‘Teased is not a synonym for insulted,’ Vidal says. ‘But I never took Auberon Waugh seriously, aside from… did I kick his ass in the Spectator?’ Sort of, having been given the right of reply. He uses the word ‘insulted’: given the insults he has dished out over the years, isn’t that a bit rich? ‘Give me one line that you regard as vicious. Just one…’
He has a point. Vidal might have described Ronald Reagan as ‘a triumph of the embalmer’s art’, but that was pretty playful stuff. Most of the epigrams for which he is known have offended not because they were genuinely insulting but because they were annoyingly well-timed. When the novelist Richard Adams accused Vidal on television of being meretricious, he retorted: ‘Mere-tricious to you and a Happy New Year’. On being asked what would have happened if Khrushchev, rather than Kennedy, had been assassinated in 1963, he said: ‘I think I can safely say that Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs Khrushchev.’
I settle for something he said on hearing that Truman Capote had died – ‘a good career move’. Whatever Capote’s own last words might have been, they were certainly overshadowed by that. Vidal smiles. ‘Well, first he was dead, so he didn’t care. And it was a good career move because he had been dying in public for a long time, collapsing with drugs and so on. Besides, it was a private comment.’
Has Vidal considered his own last words? ‘We all have last words but we don’t know what they are. How about: “To be continued…”’ Doesn’t quite square with his atheism, though. He smiles and mouths the word ‘no’. But he has thought about his own exit. ‘All of you will go with me because I’m a solipsist. I’ve just imagined you. When I go, all will be blank.’ Maybe he thinks there’s immortality in books? ‘I would doubt it now. Do you see anybody reading anything in the near future? The book is almost irrelevant. Poetry has the best chance. Fiction, I’m not so sure. I see the essay as probably the last necessary form of prose. I can imagine Montaigne outlasting Shakespeare, who will become too difficult.’
It is hard to judge whether Gore Vidal’s own books will stand the test of time. As a novelist he is respected but not revered. A sequence of seven historical novels, which began with Washington DC (1967) and ended with The Golden Age (2000) – a chronicle of American public life from the Revolution to the present viewed from the perspective of one family – has earned him the unofficial title of the nation’s biographer. But none could be said to be required reading in the way that novels by John Updike, Saul Bellow, even his old sparring partners Mailer and Capote, are. He is philosophical about this: ‘For those who haven’t read the books,’ he says, ‘I am known best for my hair preparations.’
Has he thought about gaining immortality through having children, a condition many aspire to? ‘Aspire and perspire,’ he says without missing a beat. ‘They have my sympathy. We are programmed to replicate in order for the species to survive. But what happens when there is no more planet and no more human race? The arrangement of atoms that makes up you and me will one day be disarranged.’
In the early Fifties, it is said, Vidal had an affair with a waitress at Key West – she became pregnant and had an abortion. If this is true, does he now brood upon what might have been?
‘Ask me about the euro.’
Hypothetically then, would the thought of his genes continuing not be a comfort in old age? ‘You mean having someone to challenge my heirs and assigns?’
There is little evidence today of Vidal’s legendary vanity – ‘a narcissist,’ he once countered, ‘is someone better looking than you’ – and his carelessly shaven face is grizzled with patches of white hair. As a young man he was considered something of a dish: Harold Acton found him ‘aggressively handsome’, and the novelist Elaine Dundy said, ‘Just the sight of Gore had the effect of instantly cleansing my palate like some tart lemon sorbet.’ Does he look at photographs of himself as an epicene youth and weep for his lost beauty? ‘No. I was never my own type, so I see no great loss. I was hardly epicene. That was Evelyn and Auberon Waugh.’
He shows me a photograph of himself shaking hands with a grinning Jack Kennedy. ‘He’s probably saying to me [he bares his teeth and adopts a Kennedy voice], “Find out who that girl is in the yellow dress over there.” He could talk while smiling, you know.’ It’s a funny impersonation, doubtless a party piece. In terms of Kennedy’s place in history, does Vidal think it was almost a kindness that he was assassinated before his promiscuity and drug dependence were exposed? ‘It is the United States of Amnesia. No one is remembered. I should think half the people don’t know who he is now.’
According to Vidal, Kennedy liked to have sex in the bath with the woman on top, because he had a bad back. Once, with an actress, he suddenly pushed her backwards until her head was under the water, causing a seizure for her and an orgasm for him. ‘She hates him still.’ I tell Vidal I shall never be able to look at a picture of Kennedy again without thinking of that story. ‘He was promiscuous, it’s true. There was a different woman every day. He was pretty candid with his friends. The artist Bill Walton was a great friend of his – as indeed was I – and Bill and I did worry about him the first year, we were worried someone was going to shoot him. Not Lee Harvey Oswald but an angry husband while Jack was escaping down a drainpipe. Jack said to Bill, “They can’t print any of this while I’m alive. And when I’m dead I don’t care.” He didn’t expect to live long and there was speculation among his friends that he wouldn’t get through the first term because his health was so bad. He was on so much medication, especially cortisone which affects your judgement.’
Has he been following the Senator Condit case? A nod. What is it with these politicians? Why can’t they keep it in their trousers? ‘I think that is true of most males who have the opportunity. My father thought otherwise. He found politicians sexless. The difference now is that the press feel they have every right to know about private lives.’ Don’t they? ‘Of course not. What has sex got to do with the administration of the country?’
Well, if you have an impulsive leader who is incapable of controlling his sexual appetites and is unfaithful to his wife, the logic goes, how can you trust him to act responsibly and truthfully toward the country? ‘So there goes Julius Caesar, right? I guess he was a bad leader. Closer to home, yours not mine, Lloyd George wasn’t too bad.’
Is a sexual appetite a prerequisite for good leadership, then? ‘It’s irrelevant. It’s as if you’ve got someone who has a tendency to overeat. It has nothing to do with anything, except in peculiar countries like England and the US where there is so much hysteria roiling around. Have you ever had the slightest interest in the sex life of any politician of your time?’
‘How morbid.’
The Monica Lewinsky affair was the most riveting political drama to have unfolded in the past ten years.
‘I assure you it wasn’t, and I spent quite a lot of time attacking Mr Starr for the sting operation he pulled on Mr Clinton. Perjury in a civil suit means nothing. The whole system was poisoned in the process, ending with the crash of the Republic last fall. The electoral system has got to change or we may see a Pentagon committee governing – preferable, I suppose, to the Supreme Court.’
He must be very, very proud to have George W Bush as his president. He laughs. ‘I wouldn’t wish my country that much ill,’ he says. ‘That he’s ridiculous is humiliating for the United States. But things are stirring. There is even talk that Bush may not serve out his term. It has become a lawless country. The constitution has broken down. We have no enemies except those we elect and select and direct toward the nearest nuclear bombs. They need an enemy to provoke, a diversion. This is the mentality of these tenth-rate people who are now in politics because corporate America likes them. They are malleable. They give them contracts to build missile shields that will never work. It’s deeply corrupt. The un-bright Bush was born into a system he takes for granted. His father was equally corrupt. At least with Kissinger, the world-killer, you had a very brilliant man who knew how to tiptoe in and out of a room. These people just fall on their faces.’
Writers, Vidal believes, must tell the truth, or try to, and politicians must never give the game away. As a writer he has been consigned to the fringes of power; he was never the one in the White House making the decisions about the Cuban missile crisis, or Vietnam, or the oil crisis. Does he think he didn’t realise his potential? ‘Every now and then. It crossed my mind two days ago: my grandfather’s last secretary sent me some letters. One was about Senator Gore’s plan to establish me in New Mexico, get my name on the ballot and have a conventional political career. When I published The City and the Pillar [a novel about homosexuality] that was the end of it. I had made a choice. I haven’t regretted it. Writers can actually influence history if they don’t confine themselves – as many journalists do – to [writing about] private lives.’
He would probably have been hopeless as a politician anyway, because he has a dangerous addiction to revelation. ‘Like Portillo, eh?’ He pronounces it the Spanish way, Por-tee-o. ‘No, I like to think I have depths of insincerity as yet unplumbed.’ Was it homophobia that did for Portillo? ‘Maybe. Maybe it’s just that old thin-lipped Conservatives don’t like full Iberian lips.’
Norman Mailer once described Gore Vidal as being shameless in intellectual arguments. ‘He is absolutely without character and moral foundation,’ he said. Does Vidal think he is a good man? ‘I never think in those terms. “Useful”, I would like to say.’ Is he happy? ‘Oh yes, very serene.’ He doesn’t suffer, as one has been led to believe, from bouts of melancholy? ‘You do as you get older. It’s the medicine we have to take. Five pills a day. [He suffers from diabetes.] They are mood-altering. Doctors have no idea how one pill is affecting the other pill. I’ll give you a little tip, never trust one doctor.’
In the palazzo on the promontory overlooking the coast, five hours have passed. The evening air now carries the scent of lavender as well as the sound of cicadas and the peal of bells from a nearby monastery. Howard has appeared in his dressing-gown to say hello and disappeared again. An offer to use the swimming-pool – ‘We have no need of bathing suits here, it is very private’ – has been made. A full bottle of scotch, VAT 69, has been brought out, two glasses have been poured with a shaky hand, two more, and two more, and now it stands empty. With the tape recorder off, another side of Gore Vidal has been seen: less imperious and self-regarding, more bohemian and mischievous.
Sitting in a cool steady light, he has told me about how he once tried opium but it made him nauseous; how he enjoys pornography, but only as fiction (he wrote the screenplay for Caligula, then, when he saw Tinto Brass’s film, demanded to have his name taken off the credits); how he used to go cruising with Tennessee Williams and Tom Driberg and once had a fling with Jack Kerouac, but only for the sake of literary history; how he held his own against the Mitford sisters amid the ‘savage dialogues’ at Chips Channon’s dinner-parties.
In many ways Gore Vidal is everything you hope he will be: the garrulous, supercilious gadfly. His manner is Augustan, his tone amused, his pursuit of urbanity strenuous. His conversation crackles with sardonic humour, as you would expect from the man who once said, ‘Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television,’ and, most famously, ‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.’ But I can’t decide whether he is at ease with himself. I suspect not. He has, he says, met everybody, but not really known anybody. There seems to be a gnawing discontent to him, or at least a restlessness. Perhaps it is to do with his, as he once put it, not having caught his own attention.
The actress Susan Sarandon, a friend, believes he was ‘devastated’ not to be elected either to Congress or the Senate because, if he stands for anything, it is a belief in the purity of the Republic. The disquiet may also be because he still feels like an outsider – this is perhaps why he is so drawn to Timothy McVeigh. In a way Vidal has become everything he despised in his youth: a snob, a puritan and the epitome of the settled ‘family’ man. He will tell you shocking stories about JFK in the bath, but then add loftily that what people get up to in their private lives, his included, is no one else’s business.
I ask about his feud with Charlton Heston. Vidal claims to have re-written an early scene of Ben-Hur to give it a gay subtext, one that would explain the stormy relationship between Ben-Hur (Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd). Boyd was in on the subtext, but William Wyler, the director, told Vidal not to say a word to Chuck or he’d ‘fall apart’. When Heston heard this story for the first time in 1996 he took the bait and growled: ‘It irritates the hell out of me.’ He called Vidal ‘a tart, embittered man’.
I interviewed Heston shortly afterwards. ‘Poor Gore,’ he told me, ‘I think he must have had a passion for me. Perhaps that was the subtext.’ When I mention this to Vidal, his face clouds over. ‘Such an unattractive man,’ he hisses. A lot of teeth, I agree, but surely the barrel chest, the oiled muscles, the height – 6ft 3in – qualified him as a pin-up. ‘He wasn’t that tall,’ Gore says with a peeved expression. ‘We are about the same height.’ We change the subject, but later return to it. Vidal picks a photograph off a table by the door. It shows a beaming, towering Heston, his arm around a shorter, more brooding Vidal. ‘Now,’ he says triumphantly, ‘tell me, who is in love with whom in this picture?’