Mark Simpson speaks to the mother of Myra Breckinridge, and scourge of imperialism, monotheism – and monosexuality
(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2009)
It’s a bad connection, and I’m having difficulty 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: “IS ‘QUIET’ 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 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 elite 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 of – and outlasted – tiresomely macho brawlers like Norman Mailer: he famously compared Mailer’s 1971 anti-feminist screed The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of menstrual flow’. Later, when he was headbutted to the ground by an angry Mailer, he retorted, still on the floor: “As usual, words fail Norman Mailer”.
And also right wing bruisers like William F. Buckley Jr., 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 (‘the greatest disaster to ever befall the human race’), 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, who went on to marry Paul Newman). A follower of Alredy Kinsey, who interviewed him for his sex research in the 1950s, he maintains, like the incurable blasphemer he is, that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ are adjectives not nouns, acts not identities:
‘there 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, and what anyone does with a willing partner is of no social or cosmic significance.’
Most recently, his impressively unnecessary punking of the venerable, extravagantly charming BBC TV presenter David Dimbleby on US Presidential 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 came 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, it is generally agreed, 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”. (Vidal is now wheelchair-bound as a result of arthritis caused by his military service during World War 2.)
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 anyone coming – a long way off. His fortress-like famous 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!“
“The opening aerial shot of a future, infernal Los Angeles in Blade Runner was supposedly inspired by Middlesbrough at night – where the director Ridley Scott grew up, not far from where I’m calling you today.”
“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.”
After favourable reviews of his first two novels, The New York Times, taking Grey Ladylike fright at the matter-of-fact way Vidal’s third novel The City and the Pillar (1948) dealt with same-sex love in the US Army during the Second World War (Vidal had enlisted at the age 17, immediately after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941), 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 in the US.
Perhaps the NYT was so shocked because this distasteful dissident was a product of the very heart of the East Coast Elite. A cuckoo in a feathered nest. Born on October 3, 1925, at the US Military Academy in Westpoint, his father Eugene Luther Vidal 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 his mother 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 elite which he was to attend. Later he took the name ‘Gore’ in honour of his blind Senator grandfather (a leading Isolationist), 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 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 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 elite 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 anymore.”
“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 Zukor who founded Paramount. He cast Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, in Queen Elizabeth, his first feature film. Zukor 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 Davis 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 did in the critics’.
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.” (Harvard is home to the Gore Vidal papers.) Unlike most historians, Vidal has 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 Vidal’s 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,” concludes 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
Gore Vidal died July 31, 2012, aged 86