Gore Vidal, wannabe aristocrat and proud degenerate

Lewis Jones reviews Jay Parini’s Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal Jay Parini

Little, Brown, pp.464, £25, ISBN: 9781408704639

History for Gore Vidal was a vehicle to be ridden in triumph, perhaps as in an out-take from Ben-Hur, which he worked on during one of his stints as a Hollywood hack, camping up the script to annoy Charlton Heston. Not only did he ride the Vehicle of History, but as its amanuensis and avatar, born and raised to the purple, in his mind he somehow was History, and of his many achievements the greatest was to persuade others to share that belief. His career presents the realised fantasy of the charismatic narcissist, which is to be taken at one’s own estimation. The American writer and academic Jay Parini, who was a friend of his from the 1980s, remembers him saying, ‘I might have been president’, but the presidency would not have been enough. Much in demand as a godfather, he once lamented, ‘Always a godfather, never a god.’

Parini calls his biography ‘a frank yet fond look at a man I admired, even loved’. Though broken up by embarrassing ‘vignettes’ of their times together (‘ “Maestro,” I say, kissing Gore on each cheek…’), his narrative is otherwise conventionally chronological.

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal ‘had a profound sense of his aristocratic lineage’, but as his first biographer, Fred Kaplan, pointed out to his fury, his lineage was not remotely aristocratic. His father, Eugene L. Vidal (‘Big Gene’ to our hero’s ‘Little Gene’ — how he must have hated that!), was ‘a farm boy’ who attended West Point, became a professional footballer and went into aviation, helping to found the Ludington Line (eventually absorbed into TWA), where he hired and bedded Amelia Earhart, of whom, as of so many historical figures, Vidal had anecdotal memories.

His mother was Nina Gore, daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, a lawyer from Mississippi who became a senator for Oklahoma. Like her husband she had affairs, and in the year of their divorce (1935, when Little Gene was ten) she married ‘Hughdie’ Auchincloss, an heir to Standard Oil, whose stepdaughter, Jacqueline Bouvier, would supply Vidal with his grossly exaggerated connection with the Kennedys.

Parini echoes Vidal’s account in Palimpsest, his first volume of memoirs, of how he was brought up by his maternal grand-parents at their house in Washington, where he read Herodotus, Gibbon and Henry Adams. At St Albans, a local prep school, he fell in love with a boy called Jimmie Trimble, who was killed at Iwo Jima and became his lifelong erotic obsession. In The City and the Pillar (1948) Trimble features as the straight love object, killed at the end by the Vidal character for resisting his advances. Years later Vidal gave the story a new ending, in which he rapes him instead of killing him, which was nice of him.

Vidal deplored the term ‘gay’, preferring ‘degenerate’ and viewing himself as ‘a heterosexual man who liked to “mess around” with men’. Parini says he ‘never acted like a gay man’, though Howard Austen, his partner for more than half a century, recalled that whenever they were in England and the National Anthem was played, ‘Gore would stand up and wave’. But for all his queenly ways he resisted classification to the end. When a grande dame greeted him at a literary festival in Florida in 2009 with ‘Mr Vidal, I consider you one of the great homosexuals of our time,’ he said to Parini, ‘Will someone please get this cunt out of my sight?’

In 1940, as a pupil at Hughdie’s old school, Phillips Exeter Academy, Vidal adopted the oratorical position he would deploy for the rest of his life, declaring, in a speech attacking FDR: ‘This nation has at last come under the regime that has been foretold by our forefathers as the Armageddon of American democracy and freedom.’

Senator Gore had opposed US involvement in the Great War, and as an ardent America Firster his grandson took the same line on the second world war. Nevertheless, until invalided out, he served as first mate aboard a transport ship in the Aleutian Islands, which gave him the material for his first novel, Williwaw (1946).

He turned out fiction at a furious rate, sometimes under suggestive pseudonyms such as Edgar Box and Katherine Everard, but it was with his 14th novel, Julian (1964), that he found his metier as the Voice of History, in which role he went on to write his monumentally tedious Chronicles of Empire, charting American history from 1775 to 2000.

Devoted fanboy he may be, but even Parini is obliged to acknowledge that Vidal’s oeuvre is wildly uneven, and that ultimately he ‘was more a creature of publicity than literature’. Given the sheer volume of publicity he generated, as much by his feuds, opinions and ‘private’ life as by his work, this book feels rather belated and superfluous.

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Show comments
  • AJH1968

    I liked Burr and Julian, but I did not care much for the Author.

    • kevinlynch1005

      His arrogance was amusing to the detached reader, though ultimately unpleasant, even from that perspective. I was particularly amused when he found out, to his great horror, that he wasn’t 100% WASP; there was some Fenian/Popish ‘dilution’ along the way (I use those terms deliberately). Oh, how appalled he would doubtless have been etc etc. The fact that he saw his sexuality in terms of degeneracy kind of said it all. Brilliant, but ultimately abjectly insecure and, indeed, self-loathing. Still, a character, as they say…

      • jeffersonian

        Excellent comment.

      • Sanctimony

        Some might consider that Polish / Fenian origins might bestow a a sense of pride and entitlement … After all the Irish have given us so much literary quality: Joyce, Beckett, Wilde,Yeats etc… and the Poles also have a cultural, aristocratic and scientific legacy that must exceed much of what Gore Vidal has bequeathed us in his rancid, vituperative and embittered ramblings….

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          ‘rancid, vituperative and embittered ramblings…’ I can’t believe that you’ve read his essays, if that’s what you think. The only other post-war 20th century American critic who could have written a 40 page appreciation of Henry James (to take one example) was the great Edmund White. Vidal deliberately created a waspish (in both senses) TV persona, but there have been few American men of letters with his insight into literature.

          • evelyn Toynton

            I can’t agree about either Vidal or Edmund White. Vidal could barely distinguish between Henry James and Louis Auchincloss, whom he wildly over-praised, comparing him to James for the very superficial reason that Auchincloss too wrote about “society” — never mind that poor plodding Auchincloss could never soar to Jamesian heights or plunge into Jamesian depths of consciousness. As for Edmund White: he can hardly be spoken of in the same breath as Edmund Wilson, so I hope you really meant Wilson. Lesser known figures like Brooke Allen and Bruce Bawer have written much more thoughtful literary criticism than either man you cite.

            Re Vidal’s being a creature of publicity: I am reminded of FR Leavis’s famous remark on the Sitwells as belonging “to the history of publicity rather than of poetry”.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            Thanks for pointing out my slip. I did mean Edmund Wilson.
            Vidal had his blind spots – but he can’t have thought his relative Auchincloss resembled James in all respects, even though he did over-praise him (and Calder Willingham, inter alia). I might have overstated my case about the state of American criticism; but many lit critics have an air of hack writing and plot summarising. Vidal impresses as a reader who has formed a mature viewpoint through decades of thinking about the writer in question. He can make the specialists look quite amateur in this respect.

      • Jeffrey Vernon

        Since GV himself spoke to interviewers about the Anglo-Irish origin of the Gores/Cores, your amusement might have been misplaced. He mocked the pro-British leanings of the Gores who sat in the Irish parliament. As he pointed out himself, some of his ancestors were anxious to dissociate themselves from catholicism given the anti-catholic sentiment of America before Kennedy.

      • AJH1968

        Great comment! I also loved Creation and I am probably in a minority there, and I think he borrowed quite extensively from Gibbon for he’s book Julian. However like MacDonald Fraser he is probably my number one guilty pleasure. Please forgive the tardiness of my reply.

  • sorbit

    ” . . . he ‘was more a creature of publicity . . . ” If his renown wasn’t of eminence it was certainly more than press-agentry.

    • Sanctimony

      His eminence is dubious … but he certainly knew how to mince …

  • Dr. Heath

    A man who lived to offend. Did Gore not consider running for President once in the dim and distant past? If he had, I wonder whether his campaign, one that I can imagine petering out after a week, would have resembled that of The Donald. My favourite Gore Vidal memory, among many cherished examples, is of his appearance on, I think, something like Dick Cavett’s or Mike Douglas’s chat show.

    Dick Cavett/Mike Douglas [?] “Gore. How do you see yourself in the bigger picture of contemporary American literature?”

    Gore Vidal – “I write books for the two percent of the American public who can read without moving their lips.”

    Mike [it may have been Dick, of course] announced an unscheduled commercial break within a second of these words being spoken. Gore, of course, gave every impression of being slighted and, I felt, would have liked time to elaborate on the themes of his own brilliance and the general Dummkopfheit of Americans.

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    • johnhenry

      Vidal was on the losing end of his badinage with William Buckley during ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Republican convention when he called WFB a “crypto-nazi” and Buckley shot back with something like “…look you qu***, stop calling me a ‘crypto-nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered!”

      • dolusbonus

        Your point being what, exactly ?… I realise that Buckley was a Jesuit-educated Catholic and probably heterosexual, but why would he have resorted to calling Vidal a shirtlifter ?

        • johnhenry

          “…why would he have resorted to calling Vidal a shirtlifter?”

          Er, because he was? Or because said shirtlifter had just called WFB something far worse?

  • Sanctimony

    There has never been an American aristocrat…probably the nearest American who deserved to be ennobled was Thomas Jefferson, but he would have had little time for the effete, limp-wristed Vidal….

    A vapid, opinionated old queen, whose most salient comments were usually directed towards another queen of American literature, Truman Capote …

    • E.I.Cronin

      Yes, most of the invective emanated from Vidal. I suspect because deep down he knew Capote was the better writer. Truman had a gift for lyrical writing, sharp observation and an underlying sympathy for his subjects – which Vidal seemed incapable of. You’ve just reminded me to re-visit The Muses are Heard (Porgy and Bess goes to Leningrad in the 50’s) and Ischia, both brilliant essays.

      • Callipygian

        ‘The better writer’… with the worse voice, probably.

        • E.I.Cronin

          Yes he was a funny little man, the only memory I have of his voice is a cameo in a silly comedy – ‘Murder by Death’.

          • Callipygian

            Saw that. It was mildly amusing in a 1970s kind of way.

          • Frank Marker

            You can also catch him on youtube replying to a Dean Martin and pals roasting. He’s very funny.

          • E.I.Cronin

            Thanks Frank will look him up. I never saw either recent film about Capote, but be interested to see a real life clip.

  • justejudexultionis

    Gore was asked ‘was the first person you slept with a man or a woman?’ Gore replied ‘I was too polite to ask’.

    • Callipygian

      What woman in her right mind would copulate with a man like that?!

      • Sanctimony

        Julie Burchill, perhaps… or Janet Street-Porrahhh …

        • Callipygian

          You may be right.

  • Callipygian

    This article makes ‘homosexual’ just another synonym for ‘weird’. But perhaps that’s apt enough.

  • Kurt Reeves

    Vidal would love that we’re still talking about him…albeit mostly negatively. I also have a feeling that there’s a tinge of envy in every negative comment about Vidal, if only because of the fame and adoration he had which he didn’t necessarily earn. You can’t deny he was a master of public relations and self promotion; an American celebrity.

  • Hegelman

    ” Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies”

    He is very different from me. If even an enemy let alone a friend succeeds in producing a good book I would be delighted. I have never understood professional jealousy in writing. I am only mad if someone makes a splash with a bad book.