Fiercely satiric critic and last of old-style celebrity writers

Thu, Aug 2, 2012, 01:00

ASK ANY American with an interest in their country extending beyond immediate personal circumstances and odds on, when anything happened in the US, be it political scandal or routinely shocking, from 9/11 to Michael Jackson’s death, he or she would most likely speculate, “What would Gore Vidal say?”

It’s true; Vidal had become the great commentator on the nation, the president-in-exile. He who should be heeded; his opinions were always intriguing, often funny, and at times – as when he appeared sympathetic to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – downright outrageous. But few could deliver a one-liner as sharp and as ironic, or as pertinent.

On a Vienna Street in November 2007 when news of Norman Mailer’s death broke, I remember thinking, “What will Gore Vidal have to say?” His disdain was legendary, his comic timing impeccable. He was America’s most viciously satiric critic and yet beneath it all, this conceited patrician with the profile of a Roman emperor and a basilisk’s gaze loved his country with a passion worthy of Thomas Jefferson.

Vidal, the last of the old-style celebrity writers, loved US politics and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of US history; his family was a political dynasty. He had been raised in Washington DC and was even born in West Point military academy.

“You don’t get more American than that,” he said to me when I attempted to interview him on a strange day in 1987, the UK publication of Empire. “Um, how about Arlington Cemetery?” I said, instantly regretting such an inane comment.

Vidal, dressed in a smart suit and groomed should any lurking photographer emerge from behind a sofa, pursed his lips, asking in the practised tone of a weary childminder, “Would you like some ice cream?” before adding that he loved Jackie but never much liked Jack.

He did, however, enjoy being with his doomed buddy Tennessee Williams but sneered at Truman Capote and pretty much everyone else – except maybe Frank Sinatra.

It was that kind of encounter during which he told me of himself that he had been “quite beautiful in youth” and praised Italian writer Italo Calvino. Vidal, then living in Italy, was very funny, the great essayist who preferred being described as a novelist and always resented that his third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), an explicit narrative about homosexuality years head of its time and the much later emergence of Edmund White as a mainstream literary homosexual writer, had been underrated.

It is true that Vidal’s historical fiction impressed through its depth of research and even the historian and Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald respected it. But the majestic irony that sustained Vidal’s brilliantly knowing essays and opinion pieces tends to overwhelm his fictional narratives with the exception of Myra Breckinridge (1968).

Chat show hosts loved having Vidal; he guaranteed good television. Print interviewers girded their egos for encounters that could be deflating.

It was Vidal who described Martin Amis as “a cute little thing”. During my crazy Vidal interlude the great man took a call from a researcher in advance of a TV appearance and expressed no interest in being given the questions in advance: “I don’t do matinees; I only do the evening show.”

The suite in London’s Connaught hotel seemed full of opened suitcases and clothes. Yet Howard Austen, Vidal’s companion of 53 years before his death in 2003, wandered about in very small underpants. “Howard’s working out,” reported Vidal as laconically as if commenting on the weather.

The phone kept ringing; Vidal conducting a number of whispered conversations in muted Italian. Finally he said: “It’s my lawyer – we have tax problems.” It may have been intended as a way of explaining Howard’s distracted scampering across the hotel room.

Vidal’s family had some wealth but far more important was its status as American political royalty. Vidal’s father had been a pilot and as a child he had met the aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

Young Gore spent many hours reading to his grandfather Senator TP Gore, who had been blind from the age of 10. Vidal was clever and precocious but uninterested in college. Luckily the second World War gave him an option. He joined the army and the experience inspired his first book, a war novel, Williwaw (1946), published two years before Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Vidal consistently infuriated his volatile, much shorter rival. Mailer simply could not deal with Vidal’s quick wit; few could. He was an American Oscar Wilde crossed with Mark Twain. No matter how many stories circulate about Vidal’s arrogance and his verbal deconstructions of Reagan, Bush and co, he is the 20th-century US cultural critic that one would look to for his account of the collapse of the American empire; the exception, a major career aberration, being the McVeigh episode, which appears to replicate Mailer’s famous engagement with mass murderer Gary Gilmore.

Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest (1995), tells his story, but is equally good on America. His was a giant presence; bombastic, elegant, confident and intelligent. There are many pretenders but there won’t be another Gore Vidal. The gap he has left is enormous in more ways than one.