Editor’s Note: The following essay by Florence King is reprinted from the December 31, 1995, issue of National Review. King reviews Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest: A Memoir. It is reprinted now to mark her recent passing.
Giving one’s memoirs a title that has to be explained must be a status symbol among the leftist literati. First there was Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento; now comes Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest. Miss Hellman’s title at least sounded pretty, but Maître Vidal’s sounds like an arcane sexual practice involving an inflated condom that explodes like the Hindenburg in the tradesmen’s entrance of some hired Apollo, sending ecstasy and other things washing over Maître Vidal.
But no. A palimpsest is a special kind of paper that can be written on and wiped clean again, like a slate; or paper that has been written on twice, the original writing having been rubbed out. Maître Vidal adapts the word to the task of remembering and recording one’s life in the face of memory’s familiar tricks.
He likens the process to the writer’s task of revision in which one deletes something here, adds something there, or scratches out and starts all over again. But revision also includes pulling discrete material together into a logically ordered narrative, and this he doesn’t always do.
A case in point is his account of Hillary Clinton’s visit to his Italian villa last year. The local papers treated it as a pilgrimage (“Lady Clinton nel paradiso di Vidal“), so he takes pains to resurrect the moment with all due pomp. After describing himself waiting seigneurially at the gates, he fashions a solemn interior monologue suitable for the occasion.
The Clintons are now under attack because they would improve a society that is a heaven for, perhaps, one-tenth of the people and a hell, of varying degrees, for the rest. I doubt if he will survive his first term. He will experience either the bullet or a sudden resignation, and then cousin Albert, the Cromwell of Washington’s Fairfax Hotel, will be Lord Protector.
That is Mrs. Clinton’s cue, but instead of bringing her on and finishing the story, he suddenly flashes back to his childhood and does a palimpsest. The next sentence reads: “The only reason I was born was that rats had chewed on Mother’s douche bag, or so she told me.”
The floodgates of Maître Vidal’s memory open wide, as they must to accommodate the multitudes that pass through. Returning from World War II, he patronized New York’s Everard bathhouse, which offered “sex at its rawest and most exciting. . . . Newly invented penicillin had removed fears of venereal disease, and we were enjoying perhaps the freest sexuality that Americans would ever know. Most of the boys knew that they would soon be home for good, and married, and that this was a last chance to do what they were designed to do with each other.”
At 23 he wrote The City and the Pillar, America’s first openly homosexual novel. It was published in 1948, the same year that Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Vidal was interviewed by Kinsey, who used the lobby of the Astor Hotel as an office so that he could catch the patrons of the gay Astor Bar. “I like to think,” writes Vidal, “that it was by observing the easy trafficking at the Astor that he figured out what was obvious to most of us, though as yet undreamed of by American society at large: perfectly ‘normal’ young men, placed outside the usual round of family and work, will run riot with each other.”
Kinsey was intrigued by Vidal’s lack of sexual guilt. “I told him that it was probably a matter of class . . . guilt [was] a middle-class disorder from which power people seem exempt.”
Vidal is the grandson of Senator Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma and the stepson of Hugh D. Auchincloss. These credentials combined with his early literary success gave him an entrée into the highest social and intellectual circles on two continents, enabling him to become the contradiction that he remains today: a misanthrope who knows everybody.
Let the name-dropping begin. In Europe he met Eddie Bismarck, the chancellor’s grandson, who said of him, “He’s brilliant, but in a way more like us” — that is, at home in aristocratic salons, instead of plagued by self-doubt like the middle-class Tennessee Williams. Through the Bismarcks he met the Windsors. “I got the duchess in a reminiscent mood,” he boasts, claiming she told him: “I never wanted to get married. This was all his idea.”
Princess Margaret has stayed at his villa and he has stayed at Windsor, where the two of them saved a swarm of bees from drowning in the pool and Margaret shouted, “Go forth and make honey!” She also confided, “Queen Mary hated us. We were royal and she was not.” Alas, Maître Vidal doesn’t pay enough attention to poor Margaret, who told a mutual friend, “He never rings up! Kick him in the shins for me, and then give him a big kiss.”
On the literary side he met Gide, realizing “my lifelong dream of shaking the hand that had shaken the hand of Oscar Wilde.” (All right, you little devils, stop thinking what I’m thinking.) Describing his audience with the frail, ethereal Santayana in his cell at a convent, he quotes from another memoirist, Frederick Prokosch, to prove that Prokosch was lying when he claimed to have met Santayana: Only the unerring Vidal ear can render the subtle intonations of the great philosopher’s speech and bring him to life on the page. (He quotes from numerous other memoirists to prove things of this sort.)
He hated Truman Capote (“the round pale fetus face”) for his addiction to vicious gossip, but he dishes up plenty of vicious gossip himself, especially about his Auchincloss stepsister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Like a loutish frat rat he says she lost her virginity to a friend of his in a stalled elevator. He tells a particularly ghoulish story about her last days: “From the family, I hear that the cancer had gone to her brain and that she had had a hole drilled in her skull so that radium — or whatever — could be put in.”
He is drawn to the dark. Visiting a male brothel in Paris that was founded by Proust to satisfy his voyeurism (the holes are still in the walls), he relishes a morbid anecdote: “Proust had once become ecstatic when he watched a rat bite a youth’s hand — or was it the other way around?”
Naturally he knew Greta Garbo, who provides him with the most outlandish story in the book.
But she was very funny about her visit to the White House. Early on, Jackie had told me, “One of the few nice things about being here is we can get to meet everyone we’ve ever wanted to meet.” So, inevitably, Garbo came to dinner. “The President took me into his bedroom. So romantic. Then he gave me a whale’s tooth and we went back to Mrs. Jah-kee, who said, ‘He never gave me a whale’s tooth.’”
Can this be? Why is there no mention of it in all those Kennedy books? Could Garbo possibly have visited the White House without its being discovered? No matter how many threats and bribes were made, it would have come out, wouldn’t it? Or did I miss the whole thing during my years in the Gobi Desert?
But I digress, as Maître Palimpsest would say. He digresses often, never missing a chance to take a swipe at those out of his favor: “lumpen-imperialists of the far right like Buckley Jr.”; “Jesus-Christers” (Christians); and Charlton Heston: “all the charm of a wooden Indian.” That’s a middle-class cliché but not his only one. Seated next to Jack Kerouac, with whom he had a one-night stand, he confesses, “I feel the heat from his body.”
He practices his own form of political correctness. In the past he rejected “homosexual” as a noun and termed himself a “homosexualist.” Now he prefers “same-sexualist” and shows his disdain for “straight” and “gay” by putting them in quotation marks. His preferred adjective is “homoerotic.”
His only interests were and are “reading, writing, and anonymous sex,” though turning 70 has broadened his horizons to include his blood pressure and his blood-sugar count. He records them in the book along with a list of his medicines, leaving the reader with a picture of a worn-out Regency buck taking the waters at a German spa.
— Florence King’s National Review columns are collected in STET, Damnit! The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. This review originally appeared in the December 31, 1995, issue of National Review.