Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal
Jay Parini

In November 2013, a little over a year after Gore Vidal died, observers were surprised to discover that the writer had left his entire estate to Harvard University, cutting out friends, relatives, and devoted servants. As a result of a 2011 change to his will, some $37 million, as well as all future royalties from his books, would go to a school neither he nor anyone in his family attended. While the institution appreciated the real estate, Vidal’s papers, and his priceless library and art, the sister of Vidal’s longtime partner, Howard Austen, grumbled to the New York Times that surely there was limited scholarly interest in Austen’s belt buckle or the collage her brother made of their father’s old driver’s licenses, both of which were included in the bequest. Vidal’s own half-sister promptly sued.

The famously combative—and litigious—Vidal would likely have delighted in the controversy. His fights, both legal and verbal, with William Buckley, Truman Capote, and Normal Mailer were the stuff of legend. He was deliberately provocative, baiting enemies, settling scores, and, not incidentally, generating interest in his own work. In Empire of Self, the first posthumous biography of Vidal, Jay Parini takes a long view of Vidal’s eccentricities, shedding new light on the legacy-building efforts of one of the twentieth century’s great public intellectuals.

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Vidal wrote prolifically: he authored twenty-six novels and twenty-six works of nonfiction, eight plays and fourteen screenplays. He’d start to write the next novel just as the last was sent out for typing. The diversity and sheer volume of these works meant critics sometimes did not know whether to take him seriously. Philip Roth, probably alluding to celebrity stylist Vidal Sassoon, dismissed him as “a society hairdresser who has written a book or two.”

Vidal himself worried he’d be thought of as a lightweight, a dilettante. His varied interests, forays into politics, and constant moves made the impression hard to avoid. There he is flying a plane as a boy to demonstrate the safety of air travel. There he is running for the U.S. House from upstate New York. There he is fighting William Buckley in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. Now he’s running for the U.S. Senate from California. There he is touring visitors around his villa on the Amalfi Coast. There he is in London, Los Angeles, and New York.

Though Vidal famously remarked that “anyone stupid enough to worry about how he’ll be remembered deserves to be forgotten,” Parini reveals that this can’t possibly be how he felt about himself. Why else would he have devoted so much attention to revising his early works?

Vidal worried he’d be thought of as a lightweight, a dilettante—and his antics made that impression hard to avoid.

Writing a book that people will read in the future was a particularly strong fixation for Vidal. His great fear was that he would turn out to be a figure like William Dean Howells, the novelist, literary critic, and playwright who edited the Atlantic Monthly. Though Howells wrote many books and penned the hugely influential The Rise of Silas Lapham in 1885, the reading public has largely forgotten him. Vidal’s assessment, in 1983, was that as “a master of irony,” Howells “would no doubt have found it ironic in the extreme his subsequent reputation as a synonym for middlebrow pusillanimity.” Howells also “lived far too long.” How, Vidal seemed to be wondering, could he make his work last? Parini says he was trying to “outwit the forces that invariably conspire to push away a writer, especially one as prolific, diverse, controversial, and successful. . . . A mortal fear of erasure dogged him to the end.”

But Vidal was often anxious in the presence of academics, particularly the famous ones whose work was sure to endure, Parini reveals. Meeting the brilliant political philosopher Isaiah Berlin at Oxford, Vidal was “intimidated . . .  throughout the evening. He wore a look of sheepish amazement on his face throughout the meal, listening more than talking.” Parini writes of Vidal’s discomfort when he gave a guest lecture at Harvard later in life. One academic praised him that evening as “Our national historian—among novelists.” Economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarked to Vidal after the lecture that he had only bothered to “read one or two of your novels. It’s the essays that interest me.”

Parini, too, seems to have first encountered Vidal’s work through the essays. He was intrigued by the man who had written trenchant political commentaries in Esquire and the New York Review of Books. He sent Vidal a note and finally met him in the mid-eighties; the two became friends. It was an often trying relationship. “They don’t let in wops like you, do they really?” Vidal asked when he learned Parini got a fellowship at Christ Church at Oxford. Once, in London, Vidal introduced Parini to someone as his “dear friend, Jay Boswell.” Despite the jokes at Parini’s expense, they developed a warm bond, and Vidal agreed to help Parini with his project—give him access to his friends and relatives and submit to extensive interviews—with the understanding that the professor, who had written biographies of John Steinbeck and Robert Frost and edited a collection of critical essays about Vidal, would write a book about him when he died.

“What are they saying about me?” his phone calls to Parini often began. The lawsuits, decades-long feuds, the hatred of academia, and the heavy drinking—a double scotch for breakfast was not uncommon—may have been efforts to deal with what Parini calls some “personality deformation.”

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Vidal’s essays are stylish, thoughtful, and opinionated. They are also often outrageous. He once said only half-jokingly that “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” His conviction that he had all the solutions may explain why he recycled themes and even phrases extensively in his work. (Among these are: “we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarized republic,” “there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo– or heterosexual acts,” and “there is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”) He needed to make sure everyone knew exactly what he was trying to say.

Even when he went too far his points were well supported and well argued, if insensitive and even misguided. “Outrage and wit blend to produce a new, delicious and deadly substance, like sulfuric Champagne or a napalm martini,” wrote one critic of his 1981 essay, “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.” This was the controversial piece, published in The Nation after the New York Review of Books rejected it, that argued for a political alliance between Jews and gays since they shared comparable histories of discrimination.

Vidal could be astoundingly progressive for a man of his generation. “Since heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why on earth would anybody want to imitate it?” he once said when asked about his support for gay marriage. He once proposed cutting the Pentagon budget by 25 percent and advocated legalizing all drugs. He endorsed Ralph Nader for president in 1971. In 2004, he endorsed Dennis Kucinich.

But his politics were confusing and inconsistent. He first ran for a seat in the House as a relatively conventional Democrat in 1960, visiting dairy farms and talking about milk prices and elementary schools, but by the time he ran for the Senate in 1982 he was fully in radical leftist mode, proposing a massive hike to corporate taxes, which was “preferable to loading the weight of running an empire on the backs of the poor.” His true allegiance was difficult for observers to discern. As Parini puts it, Vidal was,

A kind of Tory populist. He often sided with the poor and dispossessed, and could summon a proper rage on their behalf, but he had no wish to mingle with them, preferring suites with five-star hotels and good restaurants. He was an anti-Roosevelt Democrat, with a quasi-socialist tinge. The American republic had not lived up to his expectations, and this upset him deeply. His essays and historical novels represent a search for national origin, a decades-long exploration of the disaster (as he saw it) that followed when the drive toward empire began, as far back as the Louisianan Purchase in 1802.

The average voter could hardly have found such a figure relatable. This may not have bothered Vidal, despite his desire for popularity: his campaigns were often quixotic, more research for his books than actual bids for office. While the publicist he hired for the Senate race described Vidal as “quite serious and earnest,” he was running in the primary against California’s incumbent governor, Jerry Brown, and had no chance of winning. (He won 15 percent of the primary vote, compared to Brown’s 50 percent.)

Vidal was also adept at spinning the details of his own career to emphasize points he wanted to make and burnish his reputation. He contended, for instance, that the New York Times’s homophobia had obstructed his early career when the paper refused to review one of his first novels, The City and the Pillar. According to Vidal, the spurning led to the “seven lean years” when his new books didn’t sell. But Parini points out Vidal’s novels got a lot of reviews in the 1950s in other publications. The reviews just weren’t encouraging, because the books weren’t very good.

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Vidal could be kind, in his own way. When Rudolf Nureyev, emaciated by AIDS, visited him in the early ’90s, someone remarked that it was a tragedy to see him in such a state. Not at all, Vidal replied: “The tragedy would have been had he never danced, had he never taken to the air.”

But his egotism was very real, and it may help to explain his odd, perhaps cruel, final bequest. While Vidal seemed to have some real affection for Harvard—many of his characters went to college there, Empire points out, and as he got older the school often came up in conversation as an “interesting and admirable place”—he may simply have been angling to secure his literary reputation. A diary Vidal kept in the 1940s, right after he wrote The City and the Pillar, is sealed until 2062—a bid, perhaps, against being forgotten. “My best guess,” Parini concludes of the Harvard donation, “is that he wished to associate himself with a great name.”