The clock is finally running out on Gore Vidal. He got lucky (if you want to call it that) when Best of Enemies, a documentary about his televised skirmishes with William F. Buckley Jr., was released a few months before the publication of Jay Parini’s Empire of Self, the second full-length biography of the author of . . . what? Myra Breckinridge? Live from Golgotha? Scarcely anyone now reads or remembers any of Vidal’s novels, nor were they well thought of in his lifetime, a fact of which he was well aware, having read the innumerable reviews that declared him to be better at essays. That irked him no end — nobody writes 29 novels to have them ignored — and the fact that he eventually found within himself the ability to churn out everything-you-know-is-wrong historical novels that sold by the truckload to the booboisie can have soothed his pain only to a limited degree. It did, however, make him rich, thus allowing him to spend his dotage explaining at endless and enervating length why capitalism was a crime, democracy a delusion, and Timothy McVeigh a victim.
To be sure, Vidal did also manage to write one good play, The Best Man, but none of the other plays and screenplays with which he paid his rent in the Fifties and Sixties amounted to much more than potboiling. As for his seven middlebrow historical novels, Andrew Ferguson said the last word about them when he declared that their author “filled more readers’ heads with more historical crapola than anyone since Parson Weems.” The essays, too, are fast approaching their sell-by date, fueled as they are by a narcissistic nastiness that sold magazines (what will that awful Gore say next?) but loses its zest when enshrined in book form. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to quote from memory anything that Vidal ever wrote, though two of his quips, “Never miss a chance to have sex or be on television” and “It is not enough to succeed — others must fail,” retain their currency. Alas, he stole the second from Iris Murdoch, and the first is not nearly so clever as he supposed, though he lived by it for as long as he could.
So why bother with Empire of Self, whose author is so unabashedly proud of his friendship with Vidal (“I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son”) as to make the reader blush? Because Parini has a good story to tell and tells it with surprising honesty, making tactful excuses for his subject’s myriad failings but never trying to paper them over altogether. He is, in fact, so honest as to have done something I would have thought impossible: He made me feel sorry for Gore Vidal.
Though the young Vidal carried himself like a prep-school trust-fund boy, he was in truth a Mr. Nobody from Nowhere who was raised in the vicinity of his mother’s husbands’ money but had none of his own. His only claim to distinction was his maternal grandfather, a now-obscure senator from Oklahoma with whom he spent much time as a boy, in the process acquiring immortal longings that he first thought of assuaging, logically enough, by going into politics. Instead he joined the Army, coming home from World War II with barely enough experience to write his first novel, Williwaw, a not-bad exercise in naturalism that put the 20-year-old debutant at the head of the promising-young-wartime-writers class for five minutes or so.
Vidal subsequently did all he could to make a bigger splash, publishing seven more novels between 1947 and 1954. Prose fiction, however, was not to be his métier: He stabbed at a grab-bag of styles without giving the impression that he was giving of himself. “Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water,” he said. It was, up to a point, true. But Vidal’s cautious chilliness also had much to do with the fact that he had once given extravagantly of himself in print — to no avail.
In The City and the Pillar, his third novel, he told the story of Jim Willard, a young man who falls in love with Bob Ford, his best friend, in high school, realizes in the process that he prefers men to women, and embarks on a protracted tour d’horizon of the gay netherworld that leads him by installments back to his friend, who by now is happily married but with whom Jim has remained obsessed. When he tries to renew their youthful romance, Bob replies, “Let go of me, you queer.” Enraged by the rejection, Jim strangles him.
Vidal later admitted that The City and the Pillar was based on a similar friendship of his own, explaining that the Biblical reference in the title was intended as a warning against “the romantic fallacy. From too much looking back, [Jim] was destroyed, an unsophisticated Humbert Humbert trying to re-create an idyll that never truly existed except in his own imagination.” It was a mistake that Vidal himself was never again to make. Even though he entered into a permanent domestic relationship with another man, Howard Austen, two years after The City and the Pillar was published, he thereafter preferred to troll compulsively for an unceasing parade of nameless sexual companions, bragging that he had slept with Austen only once, on the night they met. “You’re never going to understand me and you’re never going to understand our style of life!” he yelled at his first biographer, Fred Kaplan. “Everything to you is that damned bourgeois marriage model!”
Perhaps — but to read The City and the Pillar now is to be left in no doubt that the author once felt somewhat otherwise. Parini argues plausibly that Vidal, far from being at ease with his homosexuality, had longed to be rid of it, in part so that he could ascend more easily the ladder of celebrity. He claimed forever after that all human beings were naturally bisexual, meaning that he was, too, though no one who knew him at all well agreed. And since he presumably realized that he was stuck with himself as he was, he decided to be honest to a fault: The City and the Pillar is nothing if not forthright. Much of it reads like an apologia, and the climactic explosion of murderous violence (changed by Vidal to anal rape when he revised the novel in 1965) is foreshadowed by this exchange between two other characters:
“But do you have the nerve to tell the world about yourself?”
Paul sighed and looked at his hands. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”
“So what can we do, if we’re all too frightened?”
“Live with dignity, I suppose. And try to learn to love one another, as they say.”
That is not, to put it mildly, the Gore Vidal of later years. One might almost call him — yes — earnest.
Not surprisingly, Vidal was devastated by the failure of so self-revealing a book to establish him as a major author. Small wonder that he so publicly despised Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and all the other up-and-coming American novelists who were winning the fame (and, in Capote’s case, the acceptance) that he coveted. So he kept his feelings out of his later novels, abandoning the genre altogether between 1954 and 1964 to make money with big- and small-screen hackwork. In 1960, he wrote The Best Man, a smart, knowing play about presidential politics that ran for 520 performances on Broadway. By then he had cultivated a witty, camp-free public manner that made him a popular TV guest, and he appeared on everything from What’s My Line? to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. In 1960, Dorothy Kilgallen introduced him to the What’s My Line? audience as the author of The Best Man; four years later, she introduced him as the author of the film version of The Best Man. No mention was made on either occasion of The City and the Pillar, much less any of his other novels. It was as if they had never been written.
In due course Vidal became sufficiently respectable to be engaged for a series of joint TV appearances with Buckley, whom he debated as part of ABC’s coverage of the 1968 presidential conventions. Knowing there was nothing to be gained by playing it straight, he goaded his opponent by calling him a “crypto-Nazi” on camera (strong stuff for a bigoted nativist whose own anti-Semitism grew more overt as he grew older). The furious Buckley responded by calling him a “queer” and threatening to hit him. Instead of offering in return to strangle Buckley, Vidal grinned ecstatically, conscious that he had won the round by keeping his cool. “Well, I guess we gave them their money’s worth tonight!” he chortled as Buckley stalked out of the studio.
By then, Vidal had largely figured out how to live the way he affected to want, and he finished the job when he published Burr in 1973 and rang the gong of middlebrow popularity at long last. From then on, he counted his money, scratched cattily at his betters in The New York Review of Books, and continued to appear on TV until decades of drinking left his brain so soggy that no one would book him anymore. Few suspected that he had longed for more out of life — but the author of Empire of Self knows better. When Howard Austen was dying, he asked Vidal to kiss him. According to Parini, “Gore kissed him on the lips, the first time that had happened in half a century.” Vidal, by contrast, spent his last hours watching videotapes of himself on TV. That may not be the saddest story I have ever heard, but it’ll do until the real thing comes along.
– Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, will be produced in January by Chicago’s Court Theatre and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.