Gore Vidal Turns Off The Lights on the American Dream

Posted by in interviews

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Mark Simpson speaks to the mother of Myra Breckinridge, and scourge of imper­i­al­ism, mono­the­ism - and monosexuality

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2009)

I”m hear­ing the last liv­ing Great American Man of Letters. He says some­thing else I don’t hear and I ask him to repeat it. Suddenly this 83 year old legend is very loud and very scary indeed: ‘ISQUIET” A EUPHEMISM FOR DEAD?!’ he thun­ders in a voice much more Biblical than his old foe the late Charlton Heston was ever able to muster. But then, Mr Vidal is amongst other things, an Old Testament prophet — albeit a Godless, ‘pinko’ one with a very mis­chiev­ous sense of humour.

***

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever pos­sess.’ So announces the open­ing sen­tence of the 1968 sen­sa­tional best-seller Myra Breckinridge about a hil­ari­ous, dev­ast­at­ing, but always eleg­ant trans­sexual, by the hil­ari­ous, dev­ast­at­ing, but always eleg­ant Gore Vidal. Myra, a (slightly psychotic) devotee of High Hollywood, hell-bent on reven­ging her­self on American mach­ismo, con­tin­ues her manifesto:

Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield I held off the entire élite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who pos­sess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest war­ri­ors, my beauty blind­ing them, as it does all men, unman­ning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whim­per by beau­teous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter pro­file if the key light is no more than five feet high dur­ing the close shot.’

From the right angle, and in the right light of hind­sight, Gore Vidal resembles his most fam­ous off­spring. Clad only in his wit — and an armour-plated ego — Mr Vidal has, dur­ing his long and pro­lific career as a nov­el­ist, play­wright, screen­writer, essay­ist, (failed) politi­cian, com­ment­ator, movie spe­cial guest-star, (glee­ful) gad­fly, and America’s (highly unau­thor­ised) bio­grapher, taken on The Land of the Free’s finest lit­er­ary and polit­ical war­ri­ors, who had no word for ‘why’ or ‘because’, but plenty for ‘fag­got’ and ‘pinko’.

Vidal broke the balls — and out­las­ted — tire­somely macho brawl­ers like Norman Mailer: he com­pared The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of men­strual flow”. Later, when he was knocked to the ground by Mailer, he retor­ted, still on the floor: ‘Words fail Norman Mailer yet again’.

And also right wing bruis­ers like William F. Buckley Jnr., whom he fam­ously pro­voked into threat­en­ing him and shout­ing ‘you queer!’ on live national TV in 1968. ‘RIP WFB — In Hell’ was Gore’s very Christian obit­u­ary notice last year. Like that other thorn in the side of America, Castro, Vidal has sur­vived almost all his foes.

In his spare time, pier­cing, poin­ted Gore has taken on the Cold War, the American Empire, what he calls the ‘Republican-Democrat’ Party, mono­the­ism, and, even more sac­red to America (and, for that mat­ter, the UK), mono­sexu­al­ity. He him­self has had rela­tion­ships with both men and women (and what women! He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward). He main­tains, like the incur­able blas­phemer he is, that ‘homo­sexual’ and ‘het­ero­sexual’ are adject­ives not nouns, acts not iden­tit­ies. Most recently, his impress­ively unne­ces­sary punk­ing of the ven­er­able, extra­vag­antly charm­ing BBC presenter David Dimbleby on live TV on Election Night - ‘I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE!’ he barked in his best Lady Bracknell —  has become an unlikely YouTube hit.

As he once said: ‘Style is know­ing who you are, what you want to say, and not giv­ing a damn.’ Or was that Myra? Either way, Mr Vidal is more of a man than many of his adversar­ies sadly mis­took them­selves for — and, per­haps, more woman than any of them could ever hope to possess.

Maybe that’s why, twenty years ago when I was a cal­low youth, I sent Mr Vidal a fan let­ter. I also included, as you do, a top­less shot: back then, I had Hollywood tits. And who bet­ter to appre­ci­ate them than Gore Vidal, MGM’s last con­tract writer? Fortunately for both of us, response was there none.

I put my tits away, and took to writ­ing. But I was prob­ably still writ­ing fan notes to Vidal, even when I scribbled, as I did from time to time, nasty, Oedipal things about him. Re-reading Myra Breckinridge I can see that too much of my own work is just foot­notes to this forty-year-old novel which more or less inven­ted met­ro­sexu­al­ity dec­ades before the word was coined, strapped it on and rammed it where the sun don’t shine. (Described at the time on the dust-jacket as a ‘novel of far-out sexu­al­ity’ it now seems, well, all the way in).

But now I’m actu­ally speak­ing to Mr Vidal. I feel like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future where he meets his teen mother at High School (save my ‘mother’ is gen­er­ally agreed to be no pussy­cat). Am I going to dis­ap­pear into an embar­rass­ing time-paradox? ‘Please for­give my nervous­ness,’ I stut­ter. ‘I’m a Big Fan — though I sup­pose those words prob­ably strike ter­ror into your heart…’.

Without miss­ing a beat comes the lac­onic reply, in that meas­ured, unmis­tak­able voice: ‘They clearly strike ter­ror into yours.’

Later, I hand him another line when I gush, not entirely base­lessly: ‘To someone like me, you almost seem like the embod­i­ment of the Twentieth Century!’

On arth­ritic days I know I’m the Twentieth Century’.

Mr Vidal is speak­ing today from his American home of the last forty years in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal in the Hollywood Hills makes sense — it is an LA Eyrie; a place where his back is covered and from which he can spy people com­ing a long way off. His fortress-like house in Ravello, Italy, which he recently sold, was perched atop rocky cliffs, reached only by a steep, dizzy­ing path­way. But Vidal says he chose the Hills because they weren’t vul­gar. ‘Unlike other parts of LA, like Beverly Hills or Bel Air, when I bought this house forty years ago, it did not attract the super rich, wherever they live they build these huge houses. You don’t have many of those up here in the hills.’

Do you sur­vey Los Angeles from your window?’

Heavens, no! There’s no sight uglier than Los Angeles!’

But at night it can be very beautiful.’

Well, almost any­where can be beau­ti­ful at night!’

True. Even a refinery town like Middlesbrough, which just hap­pens to be down the road from my own some­what less glam­or­ous home in the UK. The open­ing aer­ial shot of a future, infernal Los Angeles in Blade Runner were sup­posedly inspired by Middlesbrough at night — the dir­ector Ridley Scott grew up round there.’

Yes, Ridley Scott used to hire my house. I think also dur­ing the mak­ing of that film. I used to hire it out a lot — mostly to Brits.’

You’re regarded very fondly on these shores.’

It’s recip­roc­ated,’ he says, almost warmly. ‘The books were read in the UK at the same time as they were in America. Although more eas­ily for the English since, unlike the New York Times, the London Times was not ded­ic­ated to attack­ing me.’

The New York Times, tak­ing lady­like fright at the matter-of-fact way Vidal’s second novel ‘The City and the Pillar’ dealt with same-sex love in the US Army dur­ing the Second World War (Vidal enlis­ted at the age 17), had an attack of the vapours and banned Gore’s next five nov­els. No minor snub this, since the NYT even more so then than today could make or break you as a writer.

Perhaps the NYT was so shocked because this dis­taste­ful dis­sid­ent was a product of the very heart of the East Coast Élite. A cuckoo in a feathered nest. Born in October 3, 1924 at the US Military Academy in Westpoint, his father an aero­naut­ics pion­eer and air­line tycoon (found­ing what would become TWA and Eastern Airlines), his grand­father was Thomas P. Gore, the most power­ful Senator of the age — and also blind — his mother was an act­ress and social­ite (and a mean drunk). He was christened Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. by the head­mas­ter of St. Albans pre­par­at­ory school, a school for the DC élite which he was to attend. He later took the name ‘Gore’ in hon­our of his grand­father (a lead­ing Isolationist — whose out­look Vidal has remained faith­ful to), whom he spent much of his child­hood read­ing to, and mix­ing with the most power­ful fig­ures in the most power­ful coun­try in the world — just before it was about to become the world.

I’d like to think that Vidal was almost a kind of internal émigré from the East Coast when he arrived in LA in the early 50s as a scriptwriter for MGM. ‘Not really,’ he demurs, ‘I was back and forth between the East and West Coast. I was one of the founders of live drama on tele­vi­sion. I must have done a hun­dred plays dur­ing ’54 to ’57. After the New York Times banned me I had to make a liv­ing, and there it was: I never wanted to be a play­wright but I found out I was one. Theatre work kept me going for many years.’

A num­ber of his plays were made into movies, includ­ing The Best Man (1960), star­ring Henry Fonda as an ideal­istic Presidential Candidate faced with one who will do any­thing to win. It includes a proph­etic speech: ‘One day there will be a Jewish President and then a black President. And when all the minor­it­ies are heard from we’ll do some­thing for the down­trod­den major­ity of this coun­try: the ladies.’ I men­tion to Vidal it’s being re-released on DVD.

Oh, they never tell me,’ he sighs, ‘and I never receive any money from it — it just hap­pens. I mean now I think the rights prob­ably belong to a group of Martian busi­ness­men.’ (Possibly a bit­ter ref­er­ence to another play of his, Visit to a Small Planet, made into a movie star­ring Jerry Lewis in 1960, in which a delin­quent Martian vis­its Earth — the play’s sharp satire of the Washington élite and 1950s American val­ues dis­ap­peared in the film version.)

It’s a busy Oscar Weekend in LA, but will Mr Vidal be attend­ing any of the events? ‘I’ve been invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party but I don’t think I’ll be going along. I haven’t been to the Oscars for years. I really don’t have much interest any more.’

Whatever happened’, I ask, ‘to the uplift­ing pro­pa­ganda for the American Way of Life that Hollywood used to produce?’

Well, there are no longer stu­dios to gen­er­ate that kind of euphoria,’ he replies glumly. ‘Money is all power­ful these days, and calls all the shots — in Hollywood and pretty much everything else in American life. We watched That Hamilton Woman last night, as it was called in America, the 1941 Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton biopic. It really was a spec­tac­u­lar movie, they cer­tainly don’t make them like that any­more. It was the first time that Vivien Leigh and Olivier had appeared together, which caused enorm­ous excite­ment. London was being bombed and they were mak­ing this movie in Hollywood! With Alexander Korda dir­ect­ing and pro­du­cing. A superb romantic film and great act­ing. God…!’ He trails off in an unguarded reverie.

High Hollywood, the period that Vidal grew up with, vis­it­ing the movie theatre almost daily, almost reli­giously, is one of the few things that he could be accused of being sen­ti­mental about. In Screening History (1992) he wrote: ‘It occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.’ In Myra Breckinridge, the heroine declares: ‘…in the dec­ade between 1935 and 1945, no irrel­ev­ant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any pro­found study of those extraordin­ary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.’

No one could ser­i­ously accuse most con­tem­por­ary Hollywood out­put of being amen­able to ‘pro­found study’. High Hollywood was about money too of course, but movies back then often seemed to be the most aes­thetic medium ima­gin­able: fash­ion, art, glam­our. How was that?

The early moguls liked art,’ explains Vidal. ‘Like Adolph Zuckor who foun­ded Paramount. He cast Sarah Bernhardt, the fam­ous French act­ress, in Queen Elizabeth, his first fea­ture film. Zuckor aspired to the highest stand­ards of theatre. Then of course Hollywood became very suc­cess­ful and money became all any­one was really inter­ested in.’

Remember, movies are movies. It’s bet­ter to do them out here where there’s plenty of light without going broke over the elec­tri­city. Mind you, the reason that Warner Brothers films were often the best movies made in the 1930s was because they looked so dark — the chiaroscuro qual­ity of WB films was price­less. Bette Davies in The Letter was a great one– from the open­ing gloomy, brood­ing shot. How did Warner do it? Well it was because the Brothers Warner were very, very cheap! They’d go around from sound­stage to sound­stage turn­ing the lights down, so halfway through the day every scene was in darkness!’

It was said that a British actor, a little on the pom­pous side came over here for some loot. Addressing some of the old timer American act­ors he asked: “Isn’t it dif­fi­cult liv­ing in a soci­ety so unrooted and uprooted, without tra­di­tion of any kind?” One of them answered: “Why the Warner Brothers Christmas lay­offs are one of our greatest tra­di­tions!“‘ Vidal laughs scornfully.

Vidal is him­self a fre­quent vis­itor to the UK, ‘When I was younger I always made a point to visit Saville Row Whenever in London — though the last time was 30 years ago.’

How long does a Saville suit last?’

Forever! I don’t believe in fash­ion. I have no time for it. Versace once told me I looked a state and sent some of his staff to visit me in Ravello and make a suit. And very nice suits they were too. But it isn’t some­thing I take an interest in.’

Vidal may claim not to believe in fash­ion, but in Myra Breckinridge he proved a pro­found observer of male fash­ion trends, pre­dict­ing in effect the Twenty First Century: ‘…young men [today] com­pensate by play­ing at being men, wear­ing cow­boy clothes, boots, black leather, attempt­ing through clothes (what an age for the fet­ish­ist!) to imper­son­ate the kind of man our soci­ety claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be any­thing more than an illu­sion­ist, play­ing a part.’

But when I sug­gest this to him, bring­ing up his most fam­ous, most proph­etic book, he just says quickly, ‘I should read it again.’ Making it quite clear that he doesn’t wish to dis­cuss it. Perhaps the eccent­ric 1970 film ver­sion star­ring Raquel Welch left a bad taste in his mouth — it cer­tainly left one in the crit­ics’ mouths.

I ask him when he was last in the UK. ‘Just the other week. I had the great joy of address­ing the House of Commons in Westminster’s Great Hall cour­tesy of Third World Solidarity to talk about the mat­ter of Cuba and the United States. It was the venom of the Kennedy broth­ers who were out to des­troy Castro because he didn’t want to be killed by them. Or invaded. Or taken over. And his revolu­tion erased. The van­ity of that family!’

Vidal’s vig­or­ous attacks on lib­eral icons the Kennedys — whom he knew per­son­ally — for their war­mon­ger­ing are always value for money, explod­ing as they do the soft-focus myth­o­logy of Camelot. Vidal was one of the few people in American pub­lic life to dare to denounce the Cold War as an American inven­tion to keep the polit­ic­ally and eco­nom­ic­ally prof­it­able US war machine turn­ing over after the Second World War ceased trad­ing. ‘The thing about Jack was that he actu­ally believed all that anti-communist pro­pa­ganda — the pre­vi­ous Presidents didn’t.’ (To which could be added: George W. Bush had much in com­mon with Kennedy’s mes­si­anic zeal and frothy talk of ‘free­dom’ — he just didn’t have the good for­tune to be assas­sin­ated in his first term.)

Vidal was vehe­mently attacked for his out­spoken­ness about the Cold War and par­tic­u­larly for talk­ing and writ­ing about some­thing that was as clear as day: the American Empire. ‘“How dare you!” people shouted,’ recalls Vidal. ‘“We’re not an Empire! We stand for freedom!“‘

Recently pretty much every­one has star­ted talk­ing about the “American Empire”,’ I observe.

Well, when we star­ted down the Roman Imperial, dyn­astic way with the Bush fam­ily,’ says Vidal wear­ily, ‘it became quite clear it was all wrong whatever it was. Remember, we didn’t break away from England, we broke away from the King. That’s what the Declaration of Independence is all about. Thomas Jefferson’s bril­liant pro­pa­ganda united the col­on­ists against George III.’

We’re the ori­ginal Evil Empire.’

Well, you cer­tainly were then.’

Alas, our empire fell …’

Well, you ran out of money.’

Yes. As the US seems to be doing now. Are you sur­prised by the speeded-up sched­ule of Imperial implosion?’

I was sur­prised by the speed at which we lost the Republic, and lost Magna Carta dur­ing the Bush Dictatorship.’

But you see lib­eral icon Roosevelt as the first American Emperor — decree­ing there should be no Empires, save his.’

I’ll tell you a story. Roosevelt was hav­ing lunch with Churchill. The Second World War was draw­ing to a close. They toasted the end of the war. Then Roosevelt gave Churchill a radi­ant smile, and said [here Vidal imit­ates Roosevelt’s high Patrician voice: he is a great, sav­age mimic], ‘You real­ize you’re going to have to give up your pre­cious India, don’t you?’ [imit­at­ing Churchill’s jowly tones] “Never!” And they had a quar­rel over the lunch table. Many people who happened to be there spread it around. Roosevelt not only won the argu­ment, it was force majeure. Roosevelt said, ‘The days of Empire are over, and I trust you real­ize this.“‘

Churchill said: “What do you want me to do? Get on my hind legs like your little dog Fala, and beg?” Roosevelt said simply: “Yes.” Don’t tempt an Emperor!’

Most people in the UK seem not to have real­ised the real nature of the ‘spe­cial rela­tion­ship’ we have had with the US since 1940.’

Why should they? their lives go on anyway…’.

Vidal is a keen his­tor­ian, but that most dan­ger­ous kind: an auto­di­dact. ‘I didn’t go to Harvard,’ he once boas­ted. ‘I just sent my work there.’ Unlike most his­tor­i­ans, Vidal has actu­ally had met most of the key play­ers. Or per­haps the other way around — as he has put it him­self else­where: ‘People always say: “You got to meet every­one.” They always put that sen­tence the wrong way around. I mean, why not put it the right way, that these people got to meet me, and wanted to? Otherwise it sounds like I spent my life hust­ling around try­ing to meet people: “Oh, look, there’s the gov­ernor!“‘ Wouldn’t you want to meet Gore Vidal if you were Jack Kennedy or William Burroughs? Although he is an incor­ri­gible name-dropper, it’s prob­ably because his world has been so filled with names that not to drop them would be the pre­ten­tious thing to do.

I used to know Nancy Astor,’ he says, launch­ing into a five star anec­dote sparked by our dis­cus­sion of Britain’s rather unlikely Imperial past. ‘And I asked her about her fam­ous trip to the Soviet with Bernard Shaw. “Well, I was just lookin’ out that train win­dow” — she had a Virginia accent — “I was watchin’ the whole world go by. And it was pathetic — he kept readin’ one of his own books!”

In Moscow Stalin was in charm­ing mode, embra­cing them, one in each arm. He listened to Shaw go on for a while, then poin­ted to a map of the world on the wall of his Kremlin office and he asked, “How is it that this little island in the North Sea has ended up with all this??” And he poin­ted to all the pink on the map. ‘“Can you explain that to me Mr. Shaw?” Shaw declined to respond. And so he turned to Lady Astor. “Well, ahh think it is becaauuse it was we first who gave the world the King James Version of the Bible.” I asked her, “What did Stalin say to that?” “He didn’t say any­thin’.” On the way out, Lady Astor asked, “Mr Stalin, when you gonna stop kil­lin’ people?”

Oh, Lady Astor,’ replied Stalin, look­ing dir­ectly at her. “The undesir­able classes do not kill themselves.“‘

Now,’ says Vidal, ‘that’s a nice story where everybody’s in character!’

My audi­ence with the Twentieth Century is wind­ing down. ‘Do you think,’ I ask, look­ing for sil­ver lin­ings and sunny end­ings, ‘the latest Emperor, Barack Obama, can res­cue the American Imperium?’

The US is a very racist coun­try,’ responds Vidal sor­row­fully. ‘He will prob­ably be assas­sin­ated. Then Martial Law will be declared. The con­tin­gency plans are already in place, I’m sure.’ Like the Brother’s Warner, he’s switch­ing off the lights.

Do you think the American Dream can be revived?’

No. There was never any­thing to it. It was always fraud­u­lent.’ Off goes another light.

LA was once the city of the future — does it still have one?’

No. It’s run out of gas.’ And another bulb dies. We’re now in dark­ness. Bette Davis had more light in that open­ing shot in The Letter.

Do you think America can sur­vive without the kind of bril­liant dreams and illu­sions Hollywood used to man­u­fac­ture — or without an Empire on which the sun never sets?’

Of course we can,’ he retorts. ‘We’ll just get on with our lives like every­one else.’ And a little no-frills night-light comes on.

All things con­sidered, it was prob­ably for the best that I didn’t men­tion the top­less fan let­ter I’d sent all those years ago to Gore, glor­i­ous Grinch of the Hollywood Hills.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2012

Special thanks to Steven Zeeland and DAKrolak