1 August 2012
My tribute to the giant of American letters, stately homo and provocateur Gore Vidal, who died this week.
Aspiring writers and stately-homos-in-waiting everywhere should bow their heads in silent reflection this morning, in memory of the death of Gore Vidal, the American writer, politician and famously acidic cultural commentator, who has died at the appropriately forefatherish age of 86.
As a writer, his output was extraordinarily prolific: 25 novels, two memoirs, several volumes of essays, Broadway-produced plays, television dramas, and film screenplays (including Suddenly Last Summer and uncredited work on Ben-Hur). As a gay man (a term he later disavowed), he put homosexual sensibility on the map with early and controversial successes like The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckinridge. As a political and cultural critic, he was invariably perceptive, steely-edged and incisive, though his own political position was often difficult to grasp – I’d describe him as an old-school aristocratic Democrat, with tendencies towards libertarianism and an almost compulsive need to take a contrarian point of view. He was gloriously egotistic, cooly self-assured, apparently unfazed by criticism (when his great arch-rival Norman Mailer headbutted him and knocked him to the ground, he reputedly said “Lost for words again, Norman?”), and he seemed born for a life in the public eye. As his obituary in The New York Times states so aptly, “he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.”
Vidal was one of the first gay-themed authors I read, and although I shrank, as a teenager, from his icy and unsentimental descriptions of the lovelessness and dissatisfaction of closeted gay existence, the fact of Vidal himself – his existence as an openly gay writer before it was fashionable to be so, his apparent lack of self-apology, his penetrating intelligence and his elegantly poised anger against social conservatism and ignorance – was immensely encouraging and galvanising in my struggle to become more open about my sexuality.
A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a series of biographical entries for the Routledge International Encyclopaedia of Queer Culture, including one on Vidal, which was a wonderful opportunity to catch up on his back catalogue. I confess to only skimming through the historical novels, but had great fun with Myra Breckinridge, a trashy, funny and subversive satire on Hollywood featuring a fearless female-to-male transsexual who goes on a crusade to bring sexual perversity to the unwashed and clueless heterosexual masses. The comic centrepiece of the novel, which earned Vidal a no doubt very welcome controversy, features Myra buggering a heterosexual male chauvinist into submission with a strap-on dildo. I may also be one of the few people in existence who enjoyed the trashy (and widely trashed 1970 film version directed by Michael Sarne, starring Raquel Welsh, Mae West and a young and very cute Tom Selleck in his pre-Magnum PI days.
As a public gay figure, Vidal was a uniquely interesting specimen: unambiguously and unapologetically gay, but rejecting terms like “gay” or “queer”, and steadfastly arguing against modern sexual identity politics. His much quoted line, “[t]here is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices”, was misunderstood in the 1960s and 1970s gay liberation front as another example of old-fashioned homophobia, but found more favour in the queer theory movement of the 1990s which embraced sexual fluidity and disavowed essentialist labelling of sexuality.
Though resolutely not a flag-waving gay rights campaigner, Gore cheerfully kicked down the closet door when he felt like it. In Jeffrey Epstein’s wonderful 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, he gives an bitchily delicious and hysterical account of rewriting the screenplay of Ben-Hur to play up the homoerotic attraction between Ben-Hur and Messala, but deliberately neglecting to tell Charlton Heston about the subtext. It was a classic Gore anecdote: understated, acidic, and very possibly untrue (Heston has since denied Gore’s version of events), but a great vignette nonetheless.
Vidal’s perspective was frequently bitchy and ungenerous, especially towards his fellow gays, and he took derisive swipe at many of his fellow gay writers. He had a long and infamous spat with Truman Capote, successfully suing him for libel in 1977 after Capote alleged (in Playgirl magazine, of all places) that Vidal had been evicted from a White House party for drunk and disorderly behaviour. In more recent times, he threatened to sue novelist and playwright Edmund White after the publication of White’s play, a fictionalised account of Vidal’s friendship with McVeigh in which an aging gay writer develops a sexual attraction to an imprisoned terrorist. Nothing is quite so dangerous – or as funny – as a thwarted old queen, something Vidal proved again and again throughout his life. He had very little time for the bustle of modern gay existence, quipping that “camp is nothing but another word for someone who hasn’t got any talent.” While his judgement was often questionable, few could fault his authority or experience, given that he’d spent most of his life out of the closet and writing about it.
His personal life, about which he was both candid and circumspect, was even more of a conundrum for modern day gay libbers who like their gay role models wholesome, upbeat and unambiguously perky. In his memoir Palimpsest, he claimed to have had over a thousand sexual experiences with men and women by his mid-20s, though when asked whether his first sexual partner was a man or a woman, he replied “I was too polite to ask”. Famously saying that “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television”, he claimed that the success and happiness of his 53-year relationship with Howard Auster was largely due to their having never slept together. Another of his eyebrow-raising statements, “It is very easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible when it does”, seems based on the facts of their relationship, although we’ll never know whether Vidal sacrified truth for the sake of another zingy epigram. True or not, it was an extraordinary declaration from a man once who once described as a libertine, and it lays down a curious challenge for a pop culture increasingly obsessed with sex. After years of being told to fight for our rights to have sex with other men, could the path to enlightenment and happiness actually be celibacy? If Vidal is to be believed, it worked for him.
In recent times, Vidal was best known for his essays, which I admired for the elegance and intelligence of his style more than for his arguments, which in latter years veered towards the extreme ends of liberarianism. Vidal’s correspondence with McVeigh and his impassioned criticism of the unjustness of McVeigh’s conviction was one of the more puzzling subjects of his interest, as was his courage – or foolhardy – argument in a 2001 Vanity Fair that America had brought the attacks upon itself by maintaining imperialist foreign policies.
Regardless of his opinions, it was the sheer confidence and elegance of Gore’s writing that continually dazzled. Essay-writing is perhaps of all the literary forms the best medium for attempting to demonstrate one’s intellectual superiority, something Vidal seemed on a mission from birth to do. Jason Epstein, who was Vidal’s longtime editor at Random House, once admitted that he preferred the essays to the novels, and that “he had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist.” Vidal’s confidence in the rightness of his opinions and the infallibility of his right to tell America what he thought it needed to hear continued for most of his life: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” he once quipped, not entirely jokingly.
I’ll most love him for his well-heeled misanthropy and Wildean sense of the narcissism of human existence. My two favourite quotes of his – “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies” and “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail” are perfectly pitched nuggets of Wildean perversity and cynical reminders of the inevitability of our own self-obsession, although not necessarily tropes to live your life by.
The saddest thing about Vidal’s death is the almost shocking realisation that he was going to die at all. Craggily handsome even in old age, authoritative, patrician and perennially fearsome, like one of the patriarchs carved into Mount Rushmore, he seemed to have been around forever – going everywhere and meeting everyone, outliving most of his literary and political contemporaries and showing no signs of stopping, to the extent where it seemed possible that he might actually be immortal. He wasn’t, of course, and his death leaves a giant hole in the cultural landscape. While his work will ensure that he’s remembered (and hopefully still despised in certain quarters), there’s a further sadness as we realise that very few writers, living or dead, will ever make as long or significant a contribution to American letters as he will.
Finally, I’m reminded of Vidal’s famous advice to would-be writers, pitched in his familiar blend of encouragement and provocation: “Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.” Thank goodness for all of us that he did one and not the other, and what a challenge for all of us who live on to aspire to.