Low Blows Against the Empire: The Highbrow Railings of Gore Vidal
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.
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