Fourteen years ago, my then boss, Matt d’Ancona sent me off to interview Gore Vidal. I’ll always be grateful to him for the opportunity. D’Ancona could have gone to meet the great man himself, but he knew I was a fan so he let me go.
Is there anything hopeful in American politics then? I asked Vidal towards the end of our enjoyable but pretty dispiriting evening in Claridge's. I recorded his response as follows:
“‘No,’ says Vidal.Anything good about the American people? ‘Not really.’How do you see the future of America panning out? ‘It panned out already, it’s sinking.’ Can anything be done to save it? ‘I don’t give a f***,’ says Vidal and orders another whisky and soda.
At the time, I remember thinking that Gore’s lack of faith in America and the West was a bit OTT and put on for effect. Today, on the tenth anniversary of his death, I’d like to raise my own whiskey and soda to him and tell him that I now see he was absolutely right.
The American writer Gore Vidal died ten years ago today. In 2008, Mary Wakefield interviewed him for The Spectator.
To kill time, as I wait for Gore Vidal by the reception desk in Claridge’s, I leaf through the pages of his memoirs, looking at the photographs. One in particular takes my fancy: Gore aged three, in the garden of his grandfather’s house in Washington DC — a dapper little chap in shorts and a smart round-collared shirt, tending what seem to be cabbages. He’s glancing up at the camera half-amused, entirely self-possessed. He’s so unusually composed for a toddler, that I squint at the pic up close, peering at his eyes.
‘Are you waiting for me?’ There on my right, at wheelchair height, are the same eyes, 80 years on. Shaken, I nod. ‘Well then,’ says Gore Vidal, ‘let’s get a drink,’ and wheels off in the direction of the bar, trailing a wake of handsome Italian helpers.
Since that snap in the cabbage patch, Gene Luther Gore Vidal (he dropped the first two names ‘for political and aesthetic reasons’) has lived through (as he puts it) three quarters of the 20th century and about one third of the history of the United States of America. But he hasn’t let the drama just drift by: he’s starred in American history, written the script. He’s partied with JFK, slept with Jack Kerouac, had tea with André Gide; he’s skied with Garbo, swum with Nureyev, travelled with Tennessee Williams and whenever the opportunity has arisen put his nemesis, Truman Capote, in his place.
Gore Vidal’s name crops up everywhere throughout the last half-century; he’s like the subject of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’: ‘Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste, I’ve been around for a long, long time...’ Sympathy for the Vidal, maybe — respect, certainly: as well as all the hob-nobbing with superstars, he’s stood for Congress, written 22 novels, five plays, over 200 essays and has become the most outspoken critic of America’s foreign policy, railing against the ongoing corruption of the once-great republic.
And now here he is, sipping whisky and soda: grey-haired but still kempt and handsome, looking at me with pale, candid eyes. It makes me nervous. I’m a Vidal fan. I think Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace should be a set text; his memoir, Palimpsest, is brilliant, but he’s not fond of hacks. ‘I’ll never give another interview to a print journalist,’ he wrote in 1994. Though of course he has (lots), the sentiment behind the vow remains.
I begin with his beginning. Nina Vidal wasn’t an ideal mother was she? ‘No. She was a drunk and a monster,’ Vidal shrugs. ‘But I didn’t take her seriously, I just ignored her. It was the only thing you could do with her unless you wanted to kill her. But — let’s be equitable — I don’t think many women are good mothers, or men good fathers.’ He lifts his glass and toasts Nina’s ghost.
It’s true — Nina does sound a fright: a rager and a boozer who resented her son’s success. But thankfully little Gore spent most of his childhood at Rock Creek Park with T.P. Gore, the blind but brilliant (and first ever) Senator of Oklahoma. ‘My memories of him? Oh, they’re joyous really.’ Vidal’s voice softens. ‘My grandfather loved books, and so did I. I was the only one of his descendants who had any brain, so I read to him endlessly: Voltaire, Gibbon, Shakespeare.’ Did you inherit his political views? ‘No, I didn’t inherit his views. I ground out my own political ideas.’ The bite’s suddenly back in his bark.
Did you ever make up stories for him? ‘I did write him a poem once, when I was very young. I was an extremely bad poet, but at least I knew I was bad, which is more than some of the poets today do. It was about a rose; about death and mortality and so on, the sort of things the Victorian guys liked. It went like this,’ Vidal adopts a theatrical voice and declaims: ‘That rose is dead. That rose is no longer red.’ Pause. ‘There. My grandfather burst into tears every time I read it to him. Very Victorian. Of course in my family, the Gores of Mississippi, something like 18 were dead in one generation of diabetes.’
The Senator cared a lot for young Gore and not much for his daughter, but all three generations shared a tendency to speak their minds. T.P. put his career on the line in 1917 to protest against sending American soldiers to a foreign war (‘I agree with him about that,’ says Vidal). Nina’s version of integrity was an absolute candour about her sex life (too frightening to go into here). Both forms of honesty — principled and personal — were passed on to Vidal, who at 24 published a novel based on a love affair with a schoolfriend, Jimmy, killed at Iwo Jima.
The City and the Pillar caused a nationwide scandal. It was, as Bernard Levin put it, ‘The first serious American homosexual novel’, and it rode high on a bestseller list, just behind Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Vidal didn’t write it to cause a fuss, he wrote it to tell the truth. ‘Jimmy was my other half,’ he says. ‘I think boys often feel like that. I think boys fall more madly in love with each other than they ever do with girls.’ Really? ‘Yes, but then they have to mate and so on and conform to the pressures of society. Sometimes they are very happy and sometimes they are not.’ Do you still think of Jimmy as the great love of your life, even more than 60 years after you last saw him? ‘Of course, why shouldn’t I?’ Vidal is surprised. ‘Love is a constant, if it’s there at all. In my life it was not there very much, so where it is I give it the honourable place.’
The City and the Pillar should have killed Vidal’s political prospects. But as he says, ‘politics comes naturally to me’ and in 1960 he ran for Congress in upstate New York and nearly made it, receiving more votes than any Democrat in 50 years. ‘I got 20,000 more in my district than Jack Kennedy,’ he says, with a mischievous, lopsided grin. Did you tease him about it? ‘Yes, he didn’t enjoy it much. I liked Jack, but he wasn’t a serious politician.’ JFK wasn’t serious? ‘No! You people have been conned by his celebrity. Jack only got to be President because his father threw so much money around.’ Vidal should know. He was related to Jackie K in a roundabout way — her mother married Nina Gore’s discarded second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss — so he knew the whole Kennedy family well. But only one member of the clan really got Gore’s goat, and that was Bobby.
The Kennedys are back in the press, I tell him. Teddy’s in hospital, Obama’s being compared to JFK (eye-roll from Vidal, ‘though it is time for a black President’, he says) and Bobby’s on the front cover of Vanity Fair. ‘Bobby?!’ His eyebrows shoot up. ‘Bobby was the biggest son of a bitch who ever came into American politics. You may quote me on that!’ Why? What was wrong with him? ‘Everyone thinks he had this terrific conscience but as far as I can tell, he never thought at all except how to get ahead.’ There’s every indication the feeling was mutual. When chastised for a plan to send blood to the Viet Cong, Bobby’s said to have replied, ‘I didn’t say send blood, I said send Gore.’
But even more than Bobby, what gets Vidal in a rage is what he calls the ‘American Empire’, because the republic is, he says, no more. His fury has unfurled into novels (his Narratives of Empire like Burr and Washington D.C.), essays and TV programmes. For Vidal, the US is now ‘the United States of Amnesia’, a country which has forgotten its constitutional roots in its hunger for pointless expansion. ‘Remember what Jefferson said about war taxes?’ he asks. (I don’t, but I later look it up: ‘Sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not perhaps happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure.’) ‘Well, we have forgotten all that entirely.’ Vidal is on his mettle now: ‘Harry Truman started it, he kept us at war because he wanted to be a great person and they’ve all been at it ever since. We can date from 1950 the gradual erosion of our liberties, all in order to benefit the interests of an elite.’
So there’s no real need for America to have a great army? ‘Of course not! It’s only there to make the ruling class feel good.’ There’s no existential threat to the West? Not Islamism, not Russian nukes? ‘No! Don’t believe a word of it. You’ve got some goddam fool writers in this country who go on about Islamic radicals without understanding Islam at all. You think George W. Bush knows what Islamism is? He’s far too stupid for that. He just wants to feel like a big man and go to war. You know, I’ve been thinking about running for Congress this year — I won’t now because it’s too late — just to have the power of analysing the lies of the administration. That’s all Congress does, is to take a look at the overview of the lies that the executive branch is telling you. I’d send every one of them to prison.’
Is there anything hopeful in American politics then? I ask. ‘No,’ says Vidal. Anything good about the American people? ‘Not really.’ How do you see the future of America panning out? ‘It panned out already, it’s sinking.’ Can anything be done to save it? ‘I don’t give a f***,’ says Vidal and orders another whisky and soda.
Does he sound rude? He’s not really. Gore Vidal can be acerbic, but it’s all more act than attack. In his Two Sisters, his ‘novel in the form of a memoir’, the narrator, V, says: ‘In a sense, the only purpose of life is the creation of a self and what matters is the sum total of all one’s attempts.’ Vidal picks a face to meet the faces that he meets, and he picks a pretty wintry face for the right-wing press, but there’s a heart underneath it all.
After one particularly acid outburst against the British press, he seems concerned that I might have taken it personally, so he picks the cherry out of his whisky and soda and offers it to me, like an olive branch: ‘Here, take this, it’s for you.’ Then he cocks an ear, and listens to ‘Danny Boy’ lurching away in the background and says in a gentler voice: ‘Did you ever see a movie called That Hamilton Woman? They played this tune in the movie. Get it out, you’ll never stop crying. I also recommend The Letter with Bette Davis. You’ll like that.’
As our hour slides by and Vidal grows more mellow, I get the feeling that there is something valedictory about his UK tour. He mentions more than once the plot of land in the Rock Creek Cemetery, where his long-term companion, Howard Auster, was buried a few years ago, and where he plans to be interred too. Last question, I say. ‘You’ve written a fair bit about your dreams in your memoirs. So what do you dream about now? ‘Oh, death mostly,’ says Vidal, calmly. ‘I dream that I know I’m dead, but I’m trying to persuade people that I’m not and they won’t believe me.’ He smiles, shakes my hand, says: ‘You have cold hands!’ Warm heart, I reply. ‘My heart is cold,’ he says. Then shrugs, then blows me a kiss goodbye.