‘In 1925, the year I was born, An American Tragedy, Arrowsmith, Manhattan Transfer, and The Great Gatsby were published. A nice welcoming gift. I observed the three wise men from PEN who attended me in my cradle, a bureau drawer in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. I shall be worthy! I proclaimed; shepherds shuddered.’ So writes Gore Vidal in the second of his masterful memoirs Point to Point Navigation.
It has not been unusual for me to be sitting up in the early hours of the morning reading some of Gore Vidal’s copious writings, but today I do it because of the news of his death in Los Angeles at the age of eighty-six. With his passing it seems that the golden generation of twentieth century American writers and thinkers also passes: Heller, Bellow, Mailer, Sontag, Vonnegut jnr. have all recently joined those who did not live so long; Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, McCullers etc. Vidal knew them all, of course. To read his memoirs is to be present at some of the most dazzling moments in American history. His uncle was the commander of the fleet at Pearl Harbour. His father founded what was to become TWA with his lover Amelia Earhart. He was grandson of blind democratic senator Thomas Gore. Step-brother to Jacqueline Bouvier. He was an award-winning novelist, a politician, a Tony-award-winning playwright, an actor, and perhaps the finest essayist of post-war America.
Vidal was a prominent figure in the golden age of American intellectualism; that age set upon the foundations of the Lost Generation and the birth of Hollywoodised celebrity, when glamour met Ivy League education. His position in American upper-class society for the meat of the twentieth century has an almost Zelig-like improbability, like a fictional character in the most fanciful of historical novels. From advising Adlai Stevenson on a run for the White House, to decades of drinking with Auden and Isherwood, to living with Paul Newman, to hanging out with Fellini in Rome, staying with the Tynan’s in London, acting with Susan Sontag, fighting with William F Buckley, long walks with Nureyev. Gore Vidal wrote twenty five novels, hundreds of essays, a handful of plays, memoirs, screenplays and TV shows, and yet it seems, at his death, he barely scratched the surface of his experience, and perhaps not even his talents.
I saw him interviewed at the Hay Festival a number of years ago. He was wheeled on with a blanket over his knees, an old man rolled up to the sunset. He was sharp, showing off his famous wit, if a little hard-of-hearing. In the row behind me Christopher Hitchens stood up and asked a question. Hitchens had once been publicly bequeathed Vidal’s chair as most significant cultural commentator alive. He must have been even more disappointed than the rest of us to witness Hitchens’ fall for Bush. They duelled briefly that day at Hay-on-Wye. Hitchens, I remember, made some comment about Vidal’s stance on war. The Gore family had a pacifistic isolationist philosophy that stretched back to the Civil War. Vidal squinted, bent forward, and said, ‘Who is that? I recognise that voice.’ The large audience laughed. He went on to tell the story of how his uncle was ordered by FDR to not move his fleet from Pearl Harbour no matter what. Just a few days later the Japanese struck. Roosevelt needed the war, Vidal said, but it couldn’t be his war.
Few people had the insight into America that he did because he was one of those figures who was always ‘in the room’. He knew America from its very core. What he had been making of it in recent years, stranded, it seemed, by his own longevity, as his equals – friends and enemies – left him to fight alone – was no secret. As the age of American imperialism begins its slow violent pained decline, there seems to be no-one of Vidal’s ilk, never mind stature, to take his place. As before the golden age of American intellectualism, when a Broadway playwright could argue with Eleanor Roosevelt (did anyone argue with Eleanor Roosevelt?) at a cocktail party, the strands of American culture have been split and they are the weaker for it. Jonathan Franzen wades in on the e-book versus print debate. Vidal would have sucked his teeth in contempt had a journalist dared ask him a question on such a topic. It is tempting to believe that with the passing of Gore Vidal so goes the age of the true American heavyweight.
Vidal’s Selected Essays is a much-thumbed book in my house. Stylistically he is delicious, strident, niggly, certainly not beyond petty squabbles, but broad and engaged and a lover of literature, a lover of culture. A student of Montaigne, he was perhaps always destined to become a great essayist. He was a fine novelist – an important one, even – and, apparently (I have never seen one), an excellent playwright for the age, but to me he will always be the essayist, the critical writer I would have loved to have been had I ever been granted another’s shoes; the man who dismantled John Updike in ‘Rabbit’s Own Burrow’, who sent a scythe through the ideals of American folklore with his essay, ‘Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy’, and who analysed the place of the homosexual in American intellectual society so poignantly in ‘Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.’
He became a cultural commentator – that peculiar breed – a member of the dubious chat-show generation, when anecdotes were about too many martinis with Garbo. He stood tall as all those others fell away, and right up to the end journalists were shouting up from beneath his balcony for acerbic soundbites on current or glamorously recent historical fads.
America, in some parts, is re-evalutating itself. Not that that is having any effect on the driverless train as it heads to the edge of the canyon. But it seems as the left look at the actualities of their heroes, and the right wall up their own in clotted bullshit, Vidal was perhaps one of the most significant voices. He has always been on record as saying he thought JFK was one of the most disastrous presidents American has ever had. It was an opinion that could have rendered him a voice from the edge. But Vidal had always been quite open about his bisexuality, (in 1950 he settled down with Howard Austen, who died in 2003 at their home in Amalfi), so he was well-acquainted with society’s edges and had little regard for them. Vidal was always to be at the centre of any debate he felt worthy of his considerable mind.
He had many feuds throughout his life. Famously one started on a television debate in 1968 with the loathsome William F Buckley Jnr (who went on to write an essay on Vidal where he called him a ‘pusher’ of homosexuality), and also a long-running one with Norman Mailer. Vidal, although holding a great admiration and genuine warmth for the life-force of Mailer, could not get on with his writing. There is something of the imperfect gods bickering on mount Olympus of these stories. Vidal writes about Saul Bellow in his memoir, remembering at the novelist’s passing, ‘He had, by the end, five wives, I think, and since they were so alike I never put any of their names to memory. Each had a tendency to nag him for trivial lapses.’ This was a time when giants walked the earth, and it is feasible that it was Vidal who was, amongst them, touched the least by the trivial lapses.
Gore Vidal, as with all the great writers, must be read; and like all great intellectuals, should be listened to. Below is a small selection of some excellent online footage of Vidal:
The wonderful South Bank Show interview from 2008
One of many fascinating interviews in which Vidal talks about his life
If you can stomach watching William F Buckley here is a taste of the television debate between he and Vidal from the Democratic convention of 1968
Gore Vidal, the ‘Puck of American letters’, on the Charlie Rose show in 1994
The great friends Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer in one of their many public feuds
There will be no better piece of writing published this week to serve as an obituary than Christopher Hitchens’ review of Vidal’s 1995 memoir Palimpsest