The Prince of Letters, Gore Vidal

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Bob Ellis recalls a man he knew — one of the greatest writers, and minds, of our time, the “Prince of Letters”, Gore Vidal.

Gore Vidal

AFTER it all had ended I wondered why so many of my friends had refused my offer of tickets (thirteen, I think) to Gore Vidal’s one Australian lecture, and I came up with the answer ‘fear of excellence.’ For all of them knew he was not just a Man of Letters but, in our time, a Prince of Letters and that was pretty scary. Screenwriter, dramatist, New Novelist, historian, political philosopher, actor, stump orator and, almost certainly, the deftest essayist in the English language since George Bernard Shaw. One’s ego tends to shrivel in such golden glare; one tends to stay home, watch Foxtel and think of lesser things.

Vidal attempted, for instance, a novel in which one character meets in one lifetime Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, and he brought it off; and a six volume saga of United States history since the War of Independence (involving deep-etched portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Henry Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Woodrow Wilson, Hearst, F.D.R., skilfully mixed with fictional characters) and brought this off too.

His essays on Maugham, Dawn Powell, John Horne Burns, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Mishima, Calvino, Burroughs are classics now; his personal memoirs of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy (his semi-half sister), Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Ronald Reagan (the Acting President) and Truman Capote (‘Truman never told the truth,’ he said, ‘and Tennessee never told a lie’) teeter on the edge of the definitive. His double act with Noam Chomsky about America the Imperial Marauder has altered the way we think of the world.

His Broadway plays Visit To A Small Planet, The Best Man and An Evening with Richard Nixon (science fiction, comedy, political fiction, political documentary) made money. His screenplays The Left-Handed Gun (on Billy the Kid), I Accuse (on Dreyfus), Suddenly Last Summer (a favour to Tennessee) and A Catered Affair (a present for Bette Davis) touch (at the very least) high excellence in that form. His work on the Philco Playhouse helped pioneer (with Paddy Chayevsky, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer) television drama on earth.

His contribution to Ben Hur (a sweaty homoerotic reunion scene) was very effective. His novel Messiah, on a fundamentalist death cult, predated Jim Jones by thirty years. He pioneered the homosexual novel in English (The City and the Pillar, A Thirsty Evil.) He has mastered in his time the anti-Christian Roman emperor novel (Julian), the post-modernist sex-change novel (Myra Breckenridge), the end-of-the-world novel (Kalki), and the Internet Black Farce (Live From Golgotha).

He ran for Congress as a Democrat and in Duchess County in 1960 outscored Jack Kennedy. He appeared effectively in Tom Roberts as a senator like Eugene McCarthy, and in Fellini Roma as himself. He is, by repute (and also demonstrably) the most accomplished conversationalist of his time and his literary feuds have good punchlines. When Norman Mailer, for instance, slugged him in the CBS Green Room he remarked:
‘I at last encountered Norman’s tiny fist. As usual, words failed him.’

It was therefore with some trepidation I co-wrote with Bob Carr the letter that invited him (again) to Australia (he opted out last time after being sent customs forms to fill in) and with some amazement read his acceptance, and with stark fear approached the Harbour wharf where I would meet him. I need not have worried. Though large, florid, stiff in movement, jet-lagged after eight hours in Bangkok airport and unamused by the boat captain’s loud unceasing commentary on the Harbour’s wonders he proved, well…generous and courtly; the memorable eyes of his photographs were large, including, assessing and kindly.

He spoke of Lincoln being lately dug up (again) and ‘looking still pretty much like Lincoln’; of Lincoln’s probable syphilis and Mary Todd Lincoln’s consequent howling madness and death; of the excellence of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson; and the mediocrity of Updike, ‘who stood for everything I detest’; of having met in their decayed old age a few of Proust’s original characters, elderly duchesses in musty hotel rooms, and a conversation with Gide about his lover Oscar Wilde, of which he recalled, now, nothing anymore. He explained with patience to John Bell, who was on the boat, why Coriolanus (which Bell disliked) could be a rewarding role. He recalled meeting Lady Fairfax in Venice and being dizzy with boredom at her conversation (about her son Warwick, the genius) and how, thus goaded, he sourly predicted the boy would be broke in six months (and of course he was).

He didn’t recall having said of Australia in 1974:
‘I have seen the past, and it works: Cleveland Ohio, 1945, I’d put it, and it’s looking great,’

but he was pleased to think he might have.

His voice, an iron-and-violet light baritone, unforced and East Coast mandarin (somewhere between F.D.R. and, say, Lord Olivier’s James Tyrone), was clear and emphatic and bore no gay inflections; he seemed in personality and in body language more like a heterosexual English aristocrat with a young wife. His long liaison with Anais Nin and the plot of Two Sisters (a character called Gore Vidal successively beds, and loves, and loses, a brother and sister, twins) argues at least some variety of response in these matters, one he would argue is common to humankind. I asked if his illegitimate son in that novel had any basis in fact. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was a daughter, but I never discovered finally if she was mine; her mother was, among her other virtues, a dedicated liar.’

Bob Carr, ever the deferential young reporter, shepherded him off the boat (‘This man,’ Gore said, ‘should be your first President’) and I saw him briefly at the opening of Writers’ Week the next night (‘I’ve never been to a Writers’ Festival before,’ he said, ‘and I was uncertain what I should bring. A series of Writers’ Blocks perhaps: labelled Joan Didion 1976-81, and so on’), then I went to his lecture-and-interview at the Town Hall and so supper afterwards with him (and Carr and Schofield and Pounder and Freudenberg and Evan Williams and, by accident, Geoffrey Rush) which added up to one of the better nights in my life.

He mimicked expertly, and with an exactitude as deft as Mike Carlton’s, Katherine Hepburn, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duchess of Windsor, the Duke of Windsor (‘A P.G. Wodehouse character, utterly harmless, no intelligence at all’), Marlon Brando (who, he said, when acting on stage would have a woman between act one and two, another woman between act two and three, and another after the curtain ‘and that was just the matinee’), Princess Margaret, Ronald Reagan and J.F.K. He explained the facts behind the Dallas murder (a Mob hit by Joe’s old boot-legging partners after Bobby in a hot flush of righteousness began arresting the Holy Family’s former providers). I asked if it was true his close friend Princess Margaret was known at Buckingham Palace parties to sing unasked, ‘I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No’. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that was part of her repertoire.’ He was fond of Princess Margaret, he said, and amazed us by revealing her family was Jewish (via Prince Albert, bastard son of the House of Hanover’s randy tailor).

He hated the word ‘arguably’ and preferred in his writing verbs, not adjectives: verbs advance the story. He improvised, while Hall boggled, a perfect verb-heavy paragraph in the style of Dickens. He upheld his view that Lincoln was the US’s greatest prose writer, but yielded with amusement to Freudenberg’s plea that Ulysses S. Grant get a close second place. He and I did contesting Olivier imitations; I lost.

The night was long and pleasing (and at one point disorderly when Pounder kissed him on both cheeks to his visible dismay) and then prolonged when he invited the Premier and his wife to a further hour of ironic chat and whisky in his hotel. He favoured whisky after midnight and suffered no hangovers, once alarming the throbbing Kenneth Tynan by ‘speaking in perfect f…ing sentences at 7 a.m.’. His memory for names was fading, he said, but he woke each morning to find the mislaid ones all lined up, smiling, at the end of the bed.

He was guilty, he told the Town Hall, of intervention in world history. When casting his play The Best Man (where presidential aspirants such as Richard Nixon and Adlai Stevenson connive and bicker in hotel rooms at convention time) he rejected out of hand one Ronald Reagan, who wanted the Stevenson role because he was too ‘gee willikers’ and ‘gosh all Friday’; too innocent, in short, to be plausible as a presidential candidate. This meant that during the play’s run, from 1960 to 1962, Reagan had nothing to do at all and was tempted therefore into politics.

His likes and dislikes were unpredictable – George C. Scott, not Olivier: Ramona Koval, not David Marr; Jack, not Bobby (Jack was marvellous company, though swinging wildly in personality – pacifist, warmonger – because of the drugs); Henry James and Edith Wharton, not Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and so on. He hated Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (which he offered to adapt for free) because he got the people, his people, East Coast old money and their poorer cousins, so very wrong.

Carr found magnetic his intimacy with legend. His blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, for instance (who pretended to look at speech notes lest his condition become known and prove a political setback) knew Robert Lincoln, son of the president. Vidal knew General Douglas MacArthur, who was
“…superintendent at West Point when I was born. My mother would park her grey Plymouth in his parking space and there was nothing he could do about it because she was the daughter of the powerful Senator Gore. There was an unsmiling bald major in his outer office. His name was Eisenhower.”

In another demi-monde, he once had sex with Jack Kerouac (to Kerouac’s retrospective annoyance) and spent long afternoons immersed with Orson Welles, ‘like two Talmudic scholars’ in successive sea-changing memoirs from Rudy Vallee, his neighbour in the Hollywood hills. And so on.

I saw him once more at a lunch with the Carrs before he flew out and I tried to work him out.

He was, I decided, very like a Shakespeare character —  Jacques, perhaps (I told him so, and he did some lines in character), or Hamlet, with a lemon slice of Iago. He yearns, I think, like that thwarted lieutenant, to have led great armies in time of war. ‘Nineteen-seventy-six,’ he said sadly to Carr, ‘that should have been my year. The presidency.’

He admired, he told me, the rogue survivors of history – Aaron Burr before Alexander Hamilton, Gore before Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt before William Jennings Bryan — and found most martyrs ‘tiresome’. He believes in success, endurance. He felt shamed, I suspect, by his grandfather’s eyeless eminence; after such an example, and such dark victory, mere sexual imprecision was no excuse.

His mind roved easily over centuries and dynasties and came back always to his first love, Washington politics. He mourned the Roosevelts, Eleanor more than Franklin: her he adored more than any other person, as East Coast puritan like himself, concerned with doing good.

He mourned, too, for what the security State and its maintenance had cost the US. ‘I look at Arlington,’ he said to Carr one morning, ‘and the graves spilling out into the surrounding streets. This is the price of having an empire.’ A price, too, in money unspent on public education. ‘The public education used to be good. It produced people with knowledge. Now they just get USA Today and CNN.’

He mourned most the loss of knowledge in the world and its replacement with distractions — clever new toys he called them. He loves the Roosevelt America – literate, communitarian – that probably died at Chappaquiddick. He is, in his heart, he confessed once, an unreconstructed Scandinavian socialist of the dullest, most hopeful, kind. He believes, like his beloved Eleanor, that human good is still possible.

On the pavement I asked him what he thought of Australia. ‘A good place,’ he said. ‘You do look after your needy. That old crippled couple, the Whitlams, for instance, down to their last cup of caviar. And how you care for them.’

He got into the car, very stiffly. I was distressed to see him go.

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