Low Blows Against the Empire: The Highbrow Railings of Gore Vidal - Rolling Stone
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Low Blows Against the Empire: The Highbrow Railings of Gore Vidal

America’s most irreverent man of letters

Gore Vidal

American author Gore Vidal talks with television journalist Mike Wallace in the CBS-TV newsroom, New York, New York, April 6th, 1978.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Literature will soon be for the very few, in secular monasteries,” laments Gore Vidal as he rejects a third bottle of Burgundy at a fancy Hollywood steakhouse. “The art of conversation itself is unheard of in America — a depressing, not to mention boring, state of affairs.”

Coming from Vidal, who has been known to skewer half a dozen “book-chat writers,” politicians and fellow novelists in a single subordinate clause, 1 take this to be a barely disguised threat: you’d better speak in sentences or else. Beating a fast retreat, I raise a subject upon which Vidal is happy to expound for hours: Gore Vidal.

He just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, he tells me, and is writing his first Hollywood screenplay (Dress Gray) in sixteen years, dabbling in television for the first time in twenty, and trying to think of a title for his seventeenth novel (he has since settled upon Creation), which is set in the fifth century B.C. and scheduled for publication next winter: Recalling Vidal’s intimations in Burr that George Washington was in love with Alexander Hamilton, I wonder what new historical revelations he has in store for us. “The chief is that one man could have known Zoroaster, the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius,” he says, donning his glasses to study the label of yet another unsatisfactory bottle of wine. “It required several years of hard reading and writing. One of the reasons I’m doing movies again is to unwind.”

Since publishing his first novel, Williwaw, at the age of nineteen, Vidal, now fifty-four, has been one of America’s most prolific and versatile men of letters. As novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and political candidate, Vidal has never been one to duck the gauntlet. His subjects have included a fourth-century apostate emperor, a modern messiah, American politics from the Revolutionary War to the McCarthy Era and, whenever possible, himself.

Each topic has been a vehicle for expression of his keen but jaded vision and often for his private obsessions: American homophobia (first expressed in his novel The City and the Pillar), sexual politics and the demise of the novel, to name a few. He most successfully fused social, sexual and political satire in the outrageous Myra Breckinridge, a perverse, hilarious tale of a male and a female identity struggling for dominance in a single body. In the sequel, Myron, Vidal extended his joke by replacing “obscene” words with surnames of the Supreme Court justices who voted to allow communities to set their own pornographic standards. When it comes to slinging arrows, Vidal does not “burger” around.

But he is perhaps best known as a battler, a brooding, articulate presence that insinuates itself upon countless talk shows — ever witty, always cheerless, alternately obstreperous and charming as he chronicles the last days of the American empire. Moreover, his ongoing feuds with William Buckley, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote have by now taken on legendary proportions. In a Playgirl interview that appeared five years ago, Capote recounted an evening in the Kennedy White House, from which Vidal was allegedly ejected after resting his hand on the bare back of Jackie Kennedy. Vidal sued Capote for libel. In the infamous televised debate between Buckley and Vidal during the Democratic convention in 1968, Vidal called Buckley a “pro-crypto-Nazi,” to which Buckley rejoined, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a pro-crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face.” Buckley and Vidal sued each other for libel.

At his house later that night, Vidal and I settle in his cavernous, Pompeian-red-walled living room with snifters of cognac. He suggests — demands — this format for the interview: I will ask questions to which he first will respond orally, then in writing. This will “save time,” he says, referring to the process of transcribing a taped interview, eliding all the hemming and hawing and half-sentences, then constructing a coherent package. It is also, needless to say, a way for Vidal to sound his most brilliant and clever. Of course, Vidal, who knows all too well how to manipulate the words of others, was given no editorial control. Accordingly, we proceed, well into the night.

I notice, amid a stack of Chinese art books on the coffee table, a Variety review of Caligula, the $17 million hardcore porn extravaganza that ostensibly documents the reign of the mad first-century Roman emperor. Before Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione spliced in what seems like hours of gratuitous sex-Sapphic, anal, masturbatory, oral, even (egad!) heterosexual — this film was titled Gore Vidal’s Caligula. I ask Vidal what happened.

Vidal writes: What did not happen? The Dark Lady of the Porno Mags — Bob Guccione — wanted, he said, to do a distinguished movie with a lot of sex. I had already planned to do a serious film about Caligula. So the DL of the PMs thought that we should join forces. A perfect match, really. He knows nothing about the movies, and I know nothing about DLs. Together, in our madness, we picked the worst director in Italy on the ground that he would shoot the script as written. But the director turned out to be an auteur. “Cinema,” he told me, “is light.” I heard that as “like.” “Like what?” I asked. “Luce!” he howled. “Oh,” I said. Meanwhile, a dark cloud, no larger than a Malcolm McDowell, appeared on the horizon-my choice! The little chap wanted the part of Peter O’Toole considerably reduced. I said no.

Auteur and Tinkerbell — as O’Toole called McDowell — went into business together against the creator. O’Toole’s part was heavily cut — a bit of luck for him, as it turned out. When I asked to see the first rushes, I was told by the Italian producer, “But, darling, you will hate them!” To which I said, “If Gore Vidal hates Gore Vidal’s Caligula, who will like it?” This was never answered. I quit the picture. Meanwhile, the director told the press that nothing of my script was left, except my name in the title, and the DL thought this was a splendid arrangement. I threatened legal proceedings to remove the name. Finally, it was agreed that I would get no credit beyond a note that the screenplay was based upon a subject by Gore Vidal. But a fair amount of damage has been done. A novelization was hustled onto the bookstands, pretending that the film was mine. This is all great fun for journalists. And lawyers.

Would you like to direct?
For its own sake, no. But when I saw what happened to The Left Handed Gun, Myra Breckinridge, Caligula — three fascinating scripts, to begin with. . . . But who could ever believe that now?

You once referred to film directors as “hustler-plagiarists.”
Since the coming of talkies, movies have been a writer’s art form … or, I suppose, the awful word medium is better. Until the late Fifties, movies were controlled by producers. Then directors were hailed as auteurs by the French, a race whose gift for getting things wrong is truly breathtaking. To this day, no one has ever been able to explain to the French that back in Hollywood’s classic age, the director was known as “the brother-in-law.” The producer had the power; he assembled the picture.

The writer had the art; he created the story told. Cameraman, editor, etc. — each contributed a skill to the final film. The weak link in almost every film — in every film that starts with a good script, let me say quickly — is the director.

In the theater, and in live — now dead — television, the director is — was — the interpreter of the writer’s work. And that’s that. Since the result is collaborative, there is enough glory, or blame, to spread around.

Films are the reverse. The interpreter is hailed as the auteur, while the true auteur— the writer — is just a credit, like Edith Head. I pointed this out to one of our leading directors, who said, sadly, “It’s a pity you’ve never directed anything.” And I said, “It’s a pity you’ve never created anything.” The usual technique of the hustler-director is to get a good script. Then demand changes that he knows the writer won’t make. Then bring in another writer. And, maybe, another writer. Then muddle the different versions together and take all credit for himself. I watched this happen on The Left Handed Gun. The producer, hired by [Paul] Newman and me, got rid of our original director, Bob Mulligan, for another tyro, Arthur Penn, who then got rid of me — the creator of the piece! — by calling in another writer to botch up the script. During this caper. I was busy putting on the play Visit to a Small Planet, unaware that my movie had been virtually hijacked.

Will Dress Gray, for which you have written the script, be “Un film de Gore Vidal”? “Un film de Lucien Truscott”?
Un film de Herbert Ross. The director. Alas! [Ross later withdrew, and no replacement has yet been found.]

Paul Schrader, who has directed a couple of his own scripts, once told me that screenwriting is just “blueprint outlining.” All you have to do, he said, is create structure, character, theme and some dialogue. The director then imposes the style. Are you saying that style can be rendered by a technician?
All you have to do! I like that. “Listen, Soph, we want an update on Oedipus. Incest is hot now. You see Luna? Well, okay, it’s not all that good, but you can give it a lot more juice. So just lay out the story line. Think up a couple of characters. You know. Situations. But keep it lean. I’ll fill in with auteur art. Like racing cars at that crossroads where the kid kills his dad. I want a three-way pileup. Soph! Don’t worry. You just block it out. I’ll take care of the cars. Dialogue? Who listens to dialogue?”

“When the average American walks, his knuckles graze the ground.” This last line was recently told me by a current studio head. It is the general viewpoint here. But not mine.

So why are you back in the town of hijackers?
I’ve spent the last few winters in the Hollywood Hills. And if you’re here, the temptation to try to outwit the hijackers is very great. Also, television has gotten interesting again…or at least it gives the appearance of wanting to get interesting. How’s that for qualification? Finally, I’m bored. I’ve been away from the theater for seven years, Hollywood films for sixteen years, television for twenty years. It’s nice to do all these things again. In a year or so, after the obligatory hijackings, I’ll go back to Italy — and the sullen, solitary joys of prose.

Had you not turned to television in the Fifties — that so-called golden age — because of financial need, would you have become involved with the medium?

Was it really a “golden age”?
No. But it was very exciting. Seven or eight live network hour dramas a week. All sorts of quite intelligent, live, half-hour dramas, programs like Danger and Suspense. I remember adapting two Faulkner short stories for Suspense. Live performances are always better than film performances, because in a live drama, the actor starts at the beginning and goes to the end, and God help him if he loses his lines or gets run over by the camera. One interesting thing about live TV in the Fifties: the whole country watched us. I remember walking down the street the morning after Visit to a Small Planet had been shown on Philco-Goodyear — and people were talking about the show. “This is what it must’ve been like,” I remember thinking, “when the theater of Dionysus was operating, and all Athens watched the plays.” Then the quiz show was invented, and that was the end of live drama. So it was a golden age as far as opportunity and talent went. As far as what was done… well, the law of averages does obtain, even here.

You once made a statement regarding the political fortunes of Ronald Reagan: “I wouldn’t want a professional actor to be president, because he’s spent his entire life being moved about like a piece of furniture. He’s used to being used.” Isn’t any man who becomes president used to being used?
Not in the same way an actor is. Most politicians in this era are either independently wealthy — this means they automatically represent those interests that have made them wealthy — or they are bought at an early age by the oil, power and light, insurance companies, by big labor, whatever. So although the owners of the country quite consciously use and manipulate the politicians whom they finance, the pols are never used in the same way that a movie actor is used: stand here, stand there, hit your mark. One needs to be passive in order to be a film actor. That’s why so many American actors have so many hang-ups about their masculinity. Why so many take to drink, drugs, tennis.

Reagan’s whole political career has been spent reading little speeches about how welfare chiselers are going to join the country club and play golf. As governor, he was remarkably unbusy — passive, even. On the other hand, back in Sacramento, he had a collection of toy electric trains, which he used to play with virtually by the hour. Reagan may not be all man, but he sure is all boy. Just what the country needs.

I should think you would fear Reagan’s ascendancy for other reasons as well.
Reagan has no chance of being elected president. It is true that the United States is turning into Paraguay, but not at that speed. The campaign will establish two things — if the candidates can be gotten away from their TV spot-commercials and set speeches: Reagan is a shadow on celluloid. Old celluloid. And Kennedy not only has a low IQ but has great difficulty in answering simple questions.

As for important questions, that’s when he … to use his own immortal expression: “panicked.” I refuse to believe that the United States is under so dark a star that either of these clowns will be the president. Better the safe mediocrity of Bush. Of Smith. Of Jones. Of this. Of that. Better the zero of Carter than the minus of Kennedy.

You once said Ted Kennedy would make an “amiable bartender.”
Since I have never known — as opposed to having met — Teddy Kennedy, I have never been affected, much less disaffected. He is frontman for a number of ambitious professional powermongers and I feel sorry for him. He represents their only chance to rise. So they use him. To watch him floundering around in a friendly interview with the likes of Roger Mudd is proof that the poor bastard is out of his depth in the big league. Ordinarily, who gives a damn? If the Kennedys want to buy another term in the White House, why not? It’s fun. They’re fun. But the United States is now in serious trouble. Not since the 1850s have we been in such danger. That’s why I don’t think we can afford the luxury of a Kennedy or a Reagan administration. The other candidates are not much better. But then, any man who can win a contemporary presidential campaign ought not to be president. Wrong temperament.

Carter’s a perfect example of the danger of allowing a good campaigner to administer the country. He seems not to realize that if a president favors high interest rates on Monday, he cannot renounce them on Tuesday to please a labor union audience. A candidate can do this, but not a president.

Do you like John Anderson’s politics?
I was one of several hundred “limousine liberals” who greeted Anderson when he came out here after the Iowa caucuses. I even gave him money. After all, our politics is now the politics of the negative. Beside Carter and Reagan he looks like Lincoln. Beside Lincoln he looks like Anderson.

There’s been talk of a third-party run by Anderson, with the possible endorsement of the Citizens party.
I assume he’ll go the third-party route. I assume he’ll get a lot of votes. He could even throw the election into the House of Representatives — and they would choose Carter. I like Barry Commoner and the Citizens party, but I doubt if they’d nominate Anderson. Theirs is the politics of purity.

And Jerry Brown’s seems the politics of obscurity.
Brown is the most interesting of the lot. He understands the world we’re living in. And what he says makes more sense to those brought up on Star Trek than it does to admirers of the late John Wayne. But Brown can wait. The future — if there is one — belongs to Star Trek. We lost the Alamo long ago.

But doesn’t it unnerve you that America will one day be ruled by a Trekkie?
Is a Trekkie worse than Criminal Johnson, Criminal Nixon? Worse than … what was it De Gaulle called Jack [Kennedy]? A hairdresser, combing his way, superficially, through problems.

Will you be involved with the 1980 elections?
I doubt it. I don’t vote any longer. I disapprove of the system. It is not representative, to put the matter in the nicest way. As now set up, the best one can hope for in a president is that he not be entirely insane. The system no longer works — and everyone knows that it doesn’t. The first republic began with the Revolution and ended with the adoption of the Constitution. The second republic ended when Lincoln placed the union above the states: he was our Bismarck, and he launched us on our imperial course. We are now living in the last days of the third republic. The empire is cracking up. The economy is in deep trouble. Our institutions are hollow, and so perceived to be by even the most TV-bedazzled consumer. I look now to the fourth republic, and I would not in the least mind having a hand in its birth.

Do you look forward to the fourth republic with optimism?
It is hard to be optimistic about something that will be born in a state of crisis and panic. But the survivors may inherit a better system than we ever knew.

How much would you charge as a consultant?
My fees are always modest. I am willing to settle for the post of Lord Protector of the Republic.

Let’s update the state of the union. The legislation of sexual mores might be a good place to start. In 1948, your third book, The City and the Pillar, created a major fuss because of its homosexual subject matter. Twenty years later, you wrote Myra Breckinridge, a far more graphic and purposely offensive satire of human sexuality. What has changed in two decades to convince the New York Times, among other self-appointed arbiters of taste, that “homosexual” and “dirty” novels can be disseminated in our society?
Well, the New York Times did run ads for Myra. That’s a change. In 1948 it refused to take any advertising for The City and the Pillar or that year’s other dirty book, the Kinsey report. We can say that it has advanced somewhat in the last thirty years because of a desire to attract those affluent consumers who read Newsday. So homosexuality, etc., cannot be considered, openly at least, as entirely abominable by the Times. But I don’t see much basic change in the way people perceive sex or anything else. Certain things are now discussed more in the press, in magazines like Cosmopolitan. But eighty percent of the population have not the slightest idea what the other twenty percent are reading.

You have addressed often and publicly your own bisexual nature. Do you see any sign that the stigmas and taboos attached to homosexuality and bisexuality are being erased?
I have never discussed my own nature. I echo Freud — who is not always wrong — that human nature is essentially bisexual. Or potentially. Or latently. Or whatever word you want to use. Later, Kinsey demonstrated that while one minority is entirely hetero, another’s entirely homo — and between the two extremes, there is a wide range of behavior, which varies according to one’s age, class, opportunity and appearance. This last is something so un-American that I have never heard it alluded to publicly. Yet it is demonstratively true that a good-looking male is bound to have had some homosexual experiences along the way because a great many boys and men will want to have sex with him. It’s equally true that an ill-favored male isn’t apt to be so tempted in youth, and so he finds it impossible — later on — to believe that he could ever have been party to such an abomination. Because physically attractive people are more in demand than others, they are more apt to be seduced. This is a truth one dare not mention at the risk of being called elitist, sexist, just plain vicious. Psychiatrists are particularly unstrung by this fact of our condition. But they aren’t exactly disinterested. Look at them.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a good friend of yours. Did you ever discuss homosexuality with her, or have any idea she was having an affair — platonic or other — with Lorena Hickok?
I always assumed that Eleanor was a lesbian. She certainly disliked sex. And would say so, grimly. I do remember, years ago, hearing a man going on about his lesbian cousin Eleanor. I was shocked then. Later, it seemed quite understandable. Remember her beginnings. Ugly duckling. Unhappy childhood. Beloved drunken father and … Did you ever read a novel called Olivia by Olivia? It was written by the sister of Lytton Strachey, and described a French school where there were intense love affairs between the teacher and the girls: quite a beautiful novel, in its way. Well, Eleanor attended that school. On the other hand, for the prurient minded, my guess, for what it’s worth, is that she did not engage in sexual relations with any of the ladies whom she loved. She was far too puritan. I also remember a mysterious falling-out she had at Hyde Park with a lady — not, I think, Hickok — and it was all because Eleanor had learned something that shocked her. Something sexual, I think. Anyway, Eleanor Roosevelt was the noblest person I’ve ever met.

In your novel, Two Sisters, you wrote: “We are at hopeless odds, the two sexes, and ought not to live with one another except for what pleasure can be obtained on those occasions when egg layer meets cock robin in some neutral nesting place.” Are men and women really that incompatible?
Nicely expressed. I don’t think men and women — or men and men or any combination — are particularly well adapted to long-range sexual relations. Men are designed to spray it around. Women are designed to nurture an egg for nine months. The physiological difference between the two is bound to make a psychic difference. Fortunately, the vibrator can now lengthen — as it were — heterosexual relations.

With oneself, maybe. A vibrator is just a surrogate partner. Are you saying that a homosexual relationship stands a better chance of survival than a hetero one?
No. I only meant that since most men can’t keep it up long enough to fulfill woman’s God-given — and soon to be Constitutioned — right to orgasm, the vibrator can take over while the man takes a leak.

On your lecture tours, you have often shocked the “unconverted” by advocating the legalization of drugs, prostitution, gambling. The end result, you say, would be a reduction in addiction and elimination of the criminal underworld. How would this happen?
Legalize drugs. Sell them at cost. Heroin, available through a doctor’s prescription … with a nice cross and bones on the label, and the comforting news that although heroin will kill you, the world is so overpopulated that your loss will be a definite plus. Certainly, no society has the right to make someone live if he wants to die, fuck girls if he wants to fuck boys, drink milk if he wants to drink vodka.

Crime would be eliminated by legalizing drugs and prostitution. There would be no playground pushers. Why? Because there would be no profits.

Sounds reasonable. Why hasn’t it happened?
Unhappily, in this twice-born land, politicians get a lot of mileage out of sin, and the police passionately love victimless crimes because they can extort money from prostitutes — not to mention the odd blow job. And drugs are as much a solace and joy for the police as they are for those they hassle.

You’ve said that the only way to reverse environmental problems and population growth is to issue some sort of authoritarian edict from on high. Yet you’re also a vehement defender of personal liberties. How do you square these two notions in the face of race-threatening problems?
Americans are essentially a slavish people. They are told that they can’t pay for sex or buy sex … without running the risk of having their names read on the radio by the mayor of New York. They never question the government’s right to tell them what to eat, drink, smoke, fuck. Naturally, they cheat. But they never question their master’s right to regulate their lives. I’m sure they could be convinced that a government that controls most aspects of their lives — or would like to — might also have the right to limit the number of new citizens that are added to the country. A domestic immigration policy is needed. How would it work? Hard to say. But something like it will happen, and since planning is un-American, the thing will be upon us one day, and it will be unjust and onerous. Just the way we like it, in fact.

Solipsism — the theory that the self can be aware of nothing but its own experiences — informs many of your essays. I think you see this trend as being destructive of various art forms, particularly of the novel. Why?
When the mind comprehends its binary limits, the mind can begin to sense that there are alternative states of being quite unlike anything that the mind can ever, directly, comprehend. This is the most anyone can do, and it’s not much. One can see a connection between this fact of our condition and the current university novel, which sets out to make a word structure from which all imitations of life are supposed to be eliminated. Since this can’t be done, these novels are worthless as literature. They cannot be read. On the other hand, they can be taught, the object of the exercise. This is decadence.

But you also seem guilty of blurring the lines that delineate fiction from autobiography. I’m thinking of Two Sisters, which is subtitled A Novel in the Form of a Memoir.
On the dust jacket. Inside it is called A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. Or the other way around. Can’t remember which. I was much influenced, in youth, by Santayana’s Last Puritan. He had the same sort of subtitle. Eventually, every artist paints himself into a picture. I suppose the wisest artist paints himself out again.

Anaïs Nin wrote in one of her diaries that you have a good understanding of your psychological makeup. Have you ever undergone psychoanalysis?
No. The whole point of being a writer is to search out your own depths and, hardest job of all, shallows. A lifetime of doing this is quite enough, as Freud would have agreed. But he was modest. He believed in the supremacy of the artist … or at least of art. Too many of Freud’s heirs put therapy ahead of art. They elevate themselves, whenever possible. But this is normal. The Proust scholar usually ends by feeling superior to Proust.

Are you a litigious sort? You have had a couple of lawsuits, with Capote and Buckley.
Buckley sued me for libel. I sued Capote for libel. Those two lawsuits are the limit of my experience as litigant or litigatee.

Don’t you consider it a little degrading to have to resort to the courts to arbitrate a name-calling squabble?
If that were the reason, yes. But it’s not. I am a puritan moralist. I hate lying. I think writers who lie are betraying not only human comity but the art we practice … which is to tell the truth as we know it. But I thought that, through a suit, I could make an important point … convince our writers and editors that you cannot say anything you want to about a living person. But this is the Age of Liz Smith. And truth is not pro bono publico. Since envy is the dominant American emotion, everything is reduced to the personal, to the petty. A suit must be the result of personal hatred, or malice, or envy, or ill faith. You cannot win in this time and place. But time does pass. So do places.

Are you a man of routines? Does your daily life follow a regular pattern?
I usually work every day until what I am writing is written. The rest of the time I read. I have almost no social life in Italy, which I like. I go out a bit more in these parts, without joy.

But you’re a genial sort. You enjoy conversation. Why do you shun a social life?
Wherever you live, you only see five people. The rest are decorative, amusing, boring, whatever. They aren’t really necessary. Also, one of the problems of being well known for a long time is that you find yourself doing impressions of yourself. This is disturbing, particularly when others are impersonating you better than you are. The oddest thing about fame — that is, being on TV a lot — is that you know what the back of your head looks like. This is disconcerting. Sometimes, I dream of myself, walking away from me.

Which do you fear more: the aging process — the slow death of critical consciousness — or death itself?
Death is nothing — and nothing is unimaginable. So I don’t brood on not existing. As an atheist, I think that what began, arbitrarily, on October 3rd, 1925, will end, quite as arbitrarily, on a date to me thus far unknown. And what comes after death will no doubt resemble what came before. Dying is not a barrel of monkeys, and so, like everyone else, one hopes to be surprised by terminus. The gradual death of the mind is probably a lot more agreeable than one might think. After all, as you lose your marbles, you don’t know that you haven’t still got the full complement. So you are apt to think yourself cute as a bug’s ear long after all the others have tiptoed from the room.

Can you ever imagine, for lack of a better word, a “mellow” Gore Vidal?
No, I am made for battle.

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