Review | Every Time A Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal, by Jay Parini
A friend and fan unpicks the complicated life of one of one of America’s finest writers
Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal
Lonely, alcoholic, incontinent, arthritic, confined to a wheelchair in the Hollywood Hills and listening tearfully to tapes of his dead partner, Howard Austen, croon Sinatra tunes is how it ends for Gore Vidal in Jay Parini’s revealing new biography. What a sad last act for the former boy wonder who, at the age of 25, had already published five novels including The City and The Pillar (1948), a best-selling landmark in the history of gay literature. It takes some unravelling for Parini, a friend and fan, to get us from Point A to Point B.
Vidal had an unruly childhood. Born Eugene Vidal, he adopted his maternal grandfather’s surname as his first, an homage to Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. The senator’s flamboyant daughter, Nina, was his mother. Her marriage to Vidal’s father, a South Dakota farm boy and football star, was brief, and she soon embarked on a life of parties, affairs, and wealthy husbands. She “loved athletes, famous men, and booze, not necessarily in that order,” her son remarked. They rarely spoke. “She didn’t see me,” he complained. “I wished I didn’t see her.”
In Parini’s opinion, Nina’s early defection caused Vidal’s crippling narcissism. Her neglect led to his need to “inflate himself”. Vidal might well take issue with that theory, much as he once distanced himself from the word homosexual. It’s an adjective that describes a sexual act, he insisted, and not a person. Though he was a tireless cruiser who favoured cleancut youths, he refused to think of himself as gay; instead he was a “degenerate”, a term he used ironically, who “messed around” with guys. He took pride in being a top, more “manly” than a submissive role. The sex he preferred was furtive, often anonymous.
In spite of his early success, Vidal encountered an unfortunate literary truth. The good reviews don’t always translate into bank notes, so he turned to TV and the movies to fund an increasingly lavish lifestyle. His scripts earned him a small fortune and a slew of movie star pals like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (Vidal was a world class name dropper, a tendency Parini shares). He bought an estate on the Hudson River, the first in a series of grand properties that culminated with a villa in Ravello, Italy known as La Rondinaia or “swallow’s nest” for its perch on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Salerno.
Parini makes a case for Vidal’s fiction, citing in particular the late historical novels that began with Burr, but it’s the essays that matter. There’s no one who writes so incisively or intelligently about the “United States of Amnesia” now. Vidal pulled it off with brio and wit, gleefully tackling the power brokers. He stood witness to his country’s moral laxity. “The world, in his view, had fallen away from a beautiful moment at the inception of the American republic, when – briefly – the ideals of life and liberty seemed to prevail,” writes Parini. Talk shows still courted writers back then, and Vidal made the most of it. “Never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television,” he quipped. He sparred with Mailer and Capote on The Dick Cavett Show, and jousted with William Buckley, the Republican arch conservative, in several explosive debates during the 1968 presidential conventions. (A new documentary, Best of Enemies, focuses on the debates.) When he accused his opponent of being a crypto-Nazi, Buckley called him a queer and threatened to punch him – heady stuff for prime time. It only added to Vidal’s fame.
Vidal travelled widely and once, disgusted with the US, considered a move to Ireland. He had Irish ancestry on both sides, liked the tax angle, and looked into buying some property, dirt cheap at the time, in Dublin or Cork. “He had this fantasy of being some kind of Irish gentleman,” Howard Austen, sounding exasperated, told Parini. “I think he was reading Trollope . . . I said, ‘No way!’ I wouldn’t set foot in Ireland!”
Meanwhile, the list of Vidal’s celebrity chums grew longer – Princess Margaret, Claire Bloom, Leonard Bernstein. He nicknamed his coterie “the Swirl”.
At his core, Vidal remained a devoted writer, brave and fearless. Mailer, his ostensible antagonist – they actually had a lot in common – praised him in private for handling homosexual themes “modestly, soberly, and with instinctive good taste”. His United States: Essays 1952-1992, a 1,300-page tome that should have come, notes Parini, with “a retractable handle and little wheels”, won the National Book Award for criticism in 1993. His acceptance speech was predictably tart. “As you have already, I am sure, picked the wrong novelist and the wrong poet,” one line went, “I am not so vain to think you got it right this time, either.” Shades of Oscar Wilde.
Parini’s book has a curious provenance. Initially Vidal, always controlling, invited Walter Clemons, a sympathetic reviewer, to write his biography, but Clemons never finished it. The project fell next to Fred Kaplan, who delivered a long, stolid work that displeased its subject. Vidal lobbied Parini to write another version, but Parini had his own obligations to fulfil. He suspected his mentor would drive him crazy, too, so he held off until Vidal exited stage left before seeing Every Time into print. His stated aim was to portray the “angel and monster alike”.
To a fair degree he succeeded. Parini was fond of Vidal, so his tone is gently affectionate. He’s content to relate the facts without digging too deeply. He could’ve done more with such sources as Anthony Burgess and Graham Greene; they’re given short shrift. The book was written at intervals over decades, and it feels sketchy in places. But the diaries Parini kept offer valuable observations and insights, as well as some splendid set pieces – a liquid lunch in Amalfi with Bernstein, for instance, who shouts at the garrulous Gore, “I’m the fucking guest here! And I can’t get a word in edgewise!”
For all his fame, Vidal died alone in Hollywood at age 86. He’d salted away a $37 million estate, but he didn’t leave a dime to his closest relatives or the devoted Filipino cook/ nurse who cared for him during his last years. He donated the money to Harvard instead, presumably for the prestige. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. He seems never to have been beholden to anyone, except perhaps Howard Austen. He fashioned an empire of self, as Parini puts it, and from that there was no escape.
Bill Barich’s many books include Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California and The Sporting Life. Laughing in the Hills: A Season at the Race Track will be reissued in October