“Shoot me from this side,” Gore Vidal always told me, as if despite having produced four or five of his interviews with his friend Dick Cavett, I was too dense to remember which profile he preferred. On each occasion, Vidal looked through me as if we’d never met before. Apparently, I wasn’t his type. Or, more likely, Vidal, an immense snob, considered a mere TV producer of no greater interest than the butler in a friend’s house.
I liked him anyway. And what I remember most about meeting the writer in the flesh is how nervous, even wounded, he seemed. Yet whatever vulnerability he displayed in the green room disappeared on camera where he seemed as confident and omniscient as the narrator of a novel by one of his literary heroes, Henry James.
In 2012, Vidal died and, one hopes, went to heaven, where he would no doubt be condescending to God. Now, three years later, we have Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, Jay Parini’s admiring but unblinkingly honest portrait of the self-mythologizing, self-aggrandizing literary titan and TV celebrity.
Vidal, as every reader—or at least every reader of my generation—knows, was famous as the author of the gender-bending classic comedic novel Myra Breckinridge; highly literate, best-selling novels about American history, including Burr, 1876, and Lincoln; and two splendid memoirs, Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation. Vidal’s hit play, The Best Man, was revived on Broadway as recently as 2012. But he was perhaps equally well-known for his television duels with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley. His most enduring work, though, will likely be his elegant, witty, and often prescient political essays collected in United States: Essays 1952-92.
Parini’s mercifully concise 460-page biography of this writer, public intellectual, and champion name dropper is larded with anecdotes, put-downs, and epigrams by and about an astonishing parade of the rich, brilliant, and famous. As Parini says, “Gore knew everyone.” So we see Vidal hanging out with literary giants (André Gide, George Santayana, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Spender), movie giants (Greta Garbo, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Claire Bloom, Federico Fellini), and political giants (the Kennedys, Eleanor Roosevelt).
Parini, whose novels include The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year and The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville, has also written poetry and biographies of Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Parini was a close friend of Vidal’s and considered him a mentor. Yet Parini has produced a bracingly objective and serious literary biography that is also hugely entertaining. It is also something of a tragic story, and very much the biography Gore Vidal deserved.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Jay Parini: I hope people realize that this book really strips away the mask. I mean, I really peel away the mask. I thought, what the hell, you only live once. You only have one opportunity like this to write a book about somebody you knew that well.
R. K. Fried: Did you feel any conflict between being a friend and being a biographer?
Yes. I always thought that I was walking a bit of a tightrope. And Gore had said to me, “Write whatever you want to write. Make your book. And don’t worry about me, I’ll be dead.”
One of the virtues of your book, I must say, is its manageable length.
I think it’s imperative nowadays for biographers to write concisely. The age of the laundry-list biography should be long over.
Norman Mailer once said, I think incorrectly, that Vidal lacked the wound as a novelist. But reading your biography, it seemed as though he was quite wounded. What do you think was his essential wound?
Gore had the narcissistic hole that can never be filled from a deep sense of disassociation early on when he had no mother’s love. He had no father connection. He had no place in the world. And all he could do was grasp onto the fact that his grandfather—who was remote, blind, and old—was a senator. [Gore’s] father was a farm boy from the Midwest. So Gore didn’t really have these aristocratic roots he liked to claim.
But what was it in his character that made him need to take on those airs?
I think it was a desperate need to feel superior to other people. And he desperately clung to any shred of background that could help promote him.
Vidal liked to claim that he had ice in his veins—and that he was incapable of love. Yet in your book we find that he loved [his lifelong partner] Howard.
He wanted to put a lead shield around himself that said, “Don’t tread on me.” And that was a fear of intimacy. And hence his sexual life was cut off or split off from his emotional life. The sex had to be anonymous. It had to be brief. And almost always paid for. Ninety percent of the sex he had was paid for. Because that made it into a transaction.
It’s very strange the way he used the word “faggot “much the way some African Americans use the N word…
Yes, but I’d say the word he used most [when referring to himself and other homosexuals] was the word “degenerate.” You know, he would ask me about someone and say, “Well, is he a degenerate like me?” To use that phrase for a gay man is a sign of self-devaluation.
Vidal was clearly a genius. And yet a lot of his prejudices didn’t change over the years. So despite his genius he didn’t seem to evolve emotionally.
Yes, he stayed the frightened school boy from first to last. And a genius as well. A frightened school boy who then creates the mask of the worldly man who is afraid of nothing.
It was strange because he lived in a time when there was this huge revolution in gay rights. Yet his views on the subject didn’t seem to evolve much.
He pretty much stayed in about a 1947 mentality. His self was so elaborately constructed, but it was porcelain. He was vulnerable. And if it were to drop it would shatter.
Mailer wrote something about Vidal’s novels that I think is very true: “The difficulty of writing in a narcissistic vein is that one’s heroes are hermetically sealed in upon themselves. Nothing dramatic passes between them and other persons in the novel. It is inevitably the study of lonely decomposition.” Do you think that’s true about Vidal’s fiction?
I think that’s true and I think Gore’s books are all acts of solo talking. They are all monologues. And the voice is disembodied in some way. Even Myra. “I am Myra Breckenridge whom no man can conquer.” Whether it’s the voice of Burr or the voice of Lincoln, that’s just Gore talking. It’s Gore’s tone. And it’s always the arch tone. So Gore has the one voice, but he puts different clothes or costumes on the character, but it’s just Gore.
I think his greatest talent was for the essays, which are just fantastic.
I think Gore will be remembered for the essays. That’s where the greatness is the voice. And when the essayistic voice penetrates the novels, they become really interesting novels. But he’s not a real novelist like E.M. Forster, [who could] really tell a story and create dramatic tension and follow a theme.
Vidal famously feuded with other novelists, but he seemed to admire Saul Bellow.
Saul Bellow was the one writer who persistently attracted his admiration. He just thought Bellow was the real deal. I think that Bellow was the one person who had an even tighter armor built around himself, and it was ferocious.
How do you explain the intensity of Vidal’s dislike of Truman Capote?
Because Gore hated faggy boys. Because this was the worst version of himself. I mean, obviously, Truman Capote screamed at you, “I’m gay, I’m gay!” And he was a sissy boy type of gay. And Gore liked boys who were all men, that was his phrase. And Gore didn’t ever show any sign of being a traditional gay man. And also he thought Truman represented the worst of the career-seeking climber of social ladders because Gore was that himself, but he did it with subtlety.
But also the large difference between them was that Gore kept working really, really hard. He kept reading and kept learning. I don’t think Capote did that.
Gore was the ultimate autodidact. He was a disciplined writer and intellectual. He kind of invented a version of the modern, or post-modern public intellectual. Gore really invented it: talking on television, debating people, writing political essays.
He said that he never turned down television or sex. But do you think that doing all that TV hurt his literary reputation?
Probably. He knew that, too. He knew that he risked being dismissed as simply a character, an entertainer, which to some degree he was. He squandered a lot of his literary capital on television.
How do you explain the renewed interest in the intellectual figures of his era? There was a Buckley-Vidal film. Someone wrote a book about Mailer and Buckley. Why do you think that is?
I think that whole generation is looking suddenly very interesting to us. We are in the moment of nostalgia for an age when public intellectuals would swing bats in the world. Nowadays public intellectuals are so out of the limelight, they don’t really have a voice. We’re in the age of Trump now, for God’s sake, the opposite of an age of discourse. Political talk is no longer even aspiring to the condition of discourse.
William F. Buckley—was he Vidal’s most enduring hatred?
Yes. He certainly felt sorry for Truman at the end. Certainly he and Mailer reconciled in a fairly genuine way. But Buckley to the end, he felt was his bitter enemy. He did write, you know, “Buckley rest in hell,” after Buckley died. And again they were mirror images of one another. Both of them guys from nowhere who had climbed that greasy pole. Both of them faked mid-Atlantic accents. Listen to the accent that Gore uses in those Buckley-Vidal tapes. He didn’t really talk like that.
Vidal chose to spend much of his life living in Italy. But I was surprised to read that he didn’t really speak Italian. Was that very alienating for him?
I think it only enhanced his isolation. He would claim that it meant that he could focus more intently on America at a distance. That allowed him to think more objectively about the U.S. And there is some truth in that. Three thousand miles was a very useful distance. But he never really connected to Italian life. He was a tourist there, a life-long tourist.
I would think that it would be an unhappy way to live.
Well, because he is a man who is already cut off from the people around him. This literalizes the metaphor.
Vidal obviously was a very unhappy man at the end. But do you think he always was?
Yes, I think he was unhappy all the way through. I think there was such massive self-hatred there, but combining with that bright spirit as well. The hard work and the bright energy and the wit are always counterbalanced by the dark side.
Vidal liked to say he didn’t care what happened to his work after he died. But that wasn’t true, was it?
No, that’s a lie. His whole life was a pitch for posterity.
Do you think he is read now by people under the age of 50 or 60?
I doubt it. But then again who is read from that generation? Do you think John Updike is read? I doubt it. Do you think any novel of Norman Mailer’s is read now? I was teaching a seminar in Middlebury College last year and I asked a group of English majors … I mentioned Mailer. I drew blank stares. Not one person in the room had heard of Norman Mailer.
Would they have known Gore’s work?
No. I said to the class, “How about Capote?” And they said yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman. So that’s what they know.
If you were talking to your students at Middlebury and they agreed to read one thing by Vidal, what would you tell them to read?
I assign the selected essays. And it blows them away repeatedly. And so that’s where Gore is going to survive. I always say a hundred years from now he’ll be known as a kind of figure on the scene, a public intellectual who wrote these scintillating essays. Myra Breckenridge might be looked at by sociologists because it’s a post-sexual, transsexual novel. The fluidity of sexual lives in that book are really very postmodern.
And you could imagine the book being reissued tomorrow and it being very popular.
You could. It’s a transgender novel. That’s a good idea.
What do you think Gore would have thought of your book?
He would have hated it. Because one thing a narcissist doesn’t like is to look in a mirror that is in anyway genuinely reflective of what’s on the other side of it. But if he came to his senses, he would realize I am actually doing him a service here. Because I am presenting a genuine human being who through immense effort did manage to create a space for himself in the larger world. There is very little that he said about politics that doesn’t have some resonance today.
He must have been an incredibly difficult person to know. Why did you put up with him?
I ask myself a thousand times why I put up with it. But early on as a young man I was attracted like a moth to that flame. And I was held in rapture for a long time by it. Then I realized that this was going to become incredibly tedious. But I am by nature a loyal guy, and you know, I was learning from him all the time. And he would read my books and manuscripts and give me great suggestions. He would also talk to me about what he was going to do next. And I would read many of his things in manuscript. So even though he could be prickly and difficult and a true pain in the ass, I was getting so much from the friendship, that I felt it was worth it. And then, when he became completely lonely and an alcoholic, it would have been cruel to abandon Gore. So I just decided to go in the opposite direction and try to help him.
Did you have any sense of betrayal as you removed one mask after another. I mean you were dear friends.
We were very, very close friends. But Gore was alert to the fact that I was a biographer. Gore knew what I was doing. Gore, I think, knew in many ways his greatest work of art was his life, and to have a hopefully sophisticated take on that life with the appropriate respect for him as a human being and as a working artist and public intellectual—I mean, on some level, that’s got to please him.