Gore Vidal an UnAmerican Abroad
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“Lady Clinton nel paradiso di Vidal” announced the Repubblica of July 9, 1994. Hillary was visiting Gore Vidal in Ravello. The America writer made his home for thirty-three years in La Rondinaia on a cliff above the Bay of Salerno where he would nest till illness drove him back to California in 2003. He also kept an apartment in Rome for thirty years from the early 1960s.
As soon as war’s aftermath permitted, Vidal hurried to Italy in 1948. He was twenty-two and a published author. With Tennessee Williams, thirty-seven and famous, he enjoyed an uncluttered Rome where living was cheap. When they met Harold Acton, a clash of Anglo-Saxon patricians ensued. Princely Harold was the Italophile descendant of the noble Acton family and maintained a sniffy British bridgehead in Florence. For Acton, Williams was a Missouri barbarian and Vidal a chirpy schoolboy, neither of whom even spoke Italian. The joke was that the Englishman and the Americans met at a party that all three attended in the hope of reconnoitring handsome young Romans in need of hard-currency big brothers.
In spite of Vidal’s long presence in Italy, not even a tabloid scribbler has dared call him an expat. He was an American, the sort whose nationality was his profession. As a writer he wrote about nothing else. Even when making fiction about ancient Rome, he was measuring it against what he called the American Empire.
Vidal first touched down in Italy in 1939 as a schoolboy but was never at ease with the language. (“I never spoke Italian properly.”) In the last minutes of Federico Fellini’s potpourris, Roma of 1972, Vidal spouted a worldview, supposedly off the cuff, in perfect, unaccented Italian. But he had scripted it himself with care in English before insisting on being dubbed. Vidal, ‘Gorino’, for his friend Fellini, was above all a performer, a good one, and he looked after his image. The second half of the Twentieth, so-called American Century was his stage. He was a gadfly that could also strut like a wounded rooster.
Eugene Louis Vidal, born in 1925, was the grandson of T.P. Gore, a blind US Senator of repute whom he adored and whose name he adopted. The boy’s father was a famous athlete, a friend of Amelia Earhart, and an aeronautics pioneer who served in President Roosevelt’s Commerce Department. Young Vidal liked his busy father but not his mother, Nina, T.P.’s daughter. In fact, Nina, in the role of a drunken termagant, became the villain of the drama that Vidal would spin out for us as his life.
The Italy that Gore would present to his American readers would never be more than a travel writer’s that he used as a stick to beat his countrymen. After a visit to Ravello, Italo Calvino fantasised that it wasn’t Vidal who lived there but his double because Vidal “has never left America even for one second. His passionate and polemical participation in American life is without interruption.”
The magazine Vanity Fair marked Vidal’s death in 2012 with Vidal’s Ravello Redoubt, an article that was another daydream for tourists. Gore-Vidal-and-Italy is better summed up by the 1990 Venice Film Festival. He was chauffeured in a Rolls Royce up the length of the country from Ravello to the Lido where he in an assortment of Cerruti shirts would be President of the Festival Jury. Vidal caused no little hubbub by insisting that the Golden Lion went to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and not to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table.
If the USA had aristocrats as distinct from plutocrats, Vidal would fit the role. He boasted a long friendship with Elizabeth II’s sister Margaret and managed to get on smalltalk terms with former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He had a proprietor’s view of his own country and took his nobility for granted. As we shall see, however, there was a hitch, which explained his sullenness.
The scarcely maternal Nina was an ambitious serial bride and provided Vidal, who had preferred being an only child, with half-sisters and brothers. A step-sister, Jackie Lee Bouvier, would be the First Lady of President John F. Kennedy—“Jack” for Vidal. The extended family was an orgy of celebrity, privilege, and money enlivened by divorce.
At seventeen Vidal finished his formal education at an expensive private school. It was 1942 and the US had entered the Second World War. He began an Army program of special training. But when he got wind that it would be discontinued he used an uncle’s influence to get himself transferred to the Airforce. Vidal was no knee-jerk patriot and knew the boys without the program would be shipped off to risk their lives as infantry in Europe. In his memoir Palimpsest, he tells us that he was unwilling “to die in Roosevelt’s war,” echoing his senator grandfather’s anti-war isolationism.
In military training again, this time in Colorado Springs, he wrote poetry and unleashed his libido. Prevailed on for sex by a local citizen, an “old man of, perhaps, thirty,” he was surprised afterward by the award of a ten dollar bill.
“As a result I, alone in the family, did not condemn Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Onassis, since I, too, had once been a small player in the commodities’ exchange market.”
Vidal’s nonchalance and belief in gender fluidity (aired in his Myrna Breckinridge) shouldn’t obscure the fact that his refusal to hide his homosexual acts (acts there are, he argued, but no homosexuals or heterosexuals) proved to be the crucial decision of his life. The reaction to it may have explained the resentment he could never shake off.
After wartime service in the Aleutian Islands, Vidal returned at twenty with a novel, Williwaw, that was published to some praise. Another novel, The City and the Pillar presented man-to-man love as natural and decried only because of society’s perversity. The literary establishment read the book with horror. In 1948 America had yet to recycle the adjective ‘gay’ and could barely manage to utter under its breath the weighty substantive ‘sodomy’. Vidal had reason to feel he was being treated unfairly as a writer when blackballed from the club of national pen-pushers. The chip on his shoulder was soon the size of Mount Rushmore that would never bear his effigy.
Here questions arise. Without Vidal’s being blacklisted by reviewers and become the target of homophobia would he have been a more smiling face in the group photo of top American literati? Or had Nina settled his hash in infancy? Did her making him her rival and withholding sympathy insure that he grew thick, self-defensive armour? Did it make him a cruel competitor?
In his twenties, Vidal had already earned a reputation for frigidity. Anaïs Nin claimed she tried to defrost the ice floe he brought back from the Aleutians. The two of them had been entangled in a lopsided affair, Vidal not old enough to vote and Anaïs a veteran of decades of narcissistic self-scrutiny.
Late in life, in Palimpsest, Vidal, while ridiculing Nin’s writing, reviewed his dalliance with the obsessive diarist. He denied her charge that he had been an unfeeling youth. Owning up to a schoolboy love for a boy dead at nineteen, he insisted the heartbreak had stalled his emotional life. True or not, the “only-true- love” tale sounded contrived, the attempt of a cynic to put on a lovesick Byronic bonnet. Though Vidal was a consummate actor, readers couldn’t imagine him cast as a dedicated widower. His lifetime of jibes deflating the ‘grandes passions’ loomed too large.
Vidal quotes his father with approval saying young Gore cared not at all what people thought of him. Nothing could be less true. Vidal the performer spent a lifetime primping over his public persona. As a child he wanted to be a Hollywood actor and took on the pose. In his twenties he presented himself as a Manhattan wunderkind. Throughout his life he left writerly seclusion regularly for TV encounters where he did his so-clever-spoilsport act. Old age found him flying off for occasional film roles and carefully stage-managing his settling of scores, last touches to the image he wished to leave in the world.
Vidal’s dawdling with the ickier forms of popular art, his chat show appearances and immersion in the intrigues of Broadway theater and backroom Hollywood, his own tepid runs for office and endless pamphleteering were distractions that in no way reduce his status as a serious writer.
His Narratives of Empire series of seven novels from Burr to The Golden Age cut a vivid swathe through American history from the 1700s to 1954. He concluded:
“The original republic was thought out carefully, and openly, in The Federalist Papers: we were not going to have a monarchy and we were not going to have a democracy. And to this day we have had neither. For two hundred years we have had an oligarchical system in which men of property can do well and the others are on their own.”
His politics owe much to T. P. Gore’s opposition to American expansionism and foreign wars. Vidal’s view of his county sees it go wrong with its Mexican War in 1846 that seized Texas and California and trumped that at the century’s end by overrunning Cuba and seizing Porto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines. He observed this American Empire with contempt during his own life until 1985 when he claimed it became a debtor nation and died. “It was seventy-one years old and had been in ill health since 1968.
The eminent critic, Harold Bloom, held that “Vidal’s imagination of American politics is so powerful as to compel awe.” Bloom also thought that the lack of appreciation of Vidal was not only the result of his post-war views of sex. His preferred genre, the historical novel, had gone out of favour with the reading public.
Vidal’s literary production was vast and varied, encompassing everything from TV skits to novels that he called “a crash course in comparative religion.” His bibliography deserves a patient item by item inventory.
He fits into the American literary canon as a latter-day Mark Twain, but more harsh and bitter, in tune with an age when no holds were barred. He was much abroad. He shares Twain’s conviction of being from the true America before the country went wrong. His stance like Twain’s was of a public intellectual who would have scorned that term, who was proud of having avoided a university veneer and who, nevertheless, had an unquenchable thirst for honours. Vidal was a contemporary of the Beat Generation and friend of its luminaries, but took a very different and more classic path. Here we can do no more than suggest the tenor of his personality.
The actor Charles Heston was Vidal’s bugbear, despised for his rightwing politics, for his support of the gun-peddling National Rifle Association and for his portrayals of super-male, patently hollow romantic heroes. Vidal’s rewrite of the screenplay for Ben-Hur (1959) brought out the homosexual subtext of the story. The changes were kept from Heston until the movie appeared. Vidal wanted to embarrass the actor identified with family fare as insipid as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
On page 272 of his memoir, Palimpsest, Vidal prints a shot from the movie of Heston looking heavenward in sweaty ecstasy, and captions it thus:
"Charlton (or ‘Chuck,’ as we called him) Heston acting most powerfully in Ben Hur, for which I wrote a script at Cinecittà in Rome, down the hall from Fellini, who was working on La Dolce Vita. Plainly, there is nothing in the acting line that Chuck cannot do. Note the expression on his face as he holds the gourd with the phallus attached, a weapon of choice in Roman times. The whip in the background is a bit of S&M calculated to delight those audiences that revel in films about our Lord.”