The World Acording To Gore

Palimpsest: a Memoir
by Gore Vidal

Random House 435 pp. $27.50


Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

"I like to say that, had it not been for me, Ronald Reagan would never have been president."

So writes Gore Vidal as he recalls how difficult a time he had in casting the Adlai Stevenson-type politician for his 1960 Broadway play The Best Man. The Stevenson character, William Russell, was a noble but waffling liberal whose philandering reminded Vidal pal John F. Kennedy of himself (Vidal's half-stepsister, Jackie Kennedy, assured her soon-to-be-president husband that he was not the target of Vidal's wit. Relieved, JFK decided he liked the script and happily gave Vidal the lowdown on how pols deal with one another: "When a politician says to you, Jack, if there's anything I can do for you, just let me know,' that means you're dead.")

Vidal continues:

Most middle-aged American actors start out as folksy all-American boys, which means that, even in age, irony and self-deprecation are not to be found in their repertoires. When Reagan's agents proposed him to me for Russell, I said that although he was a good actor, I didn't think that the audience would accept him as a politician in the Stevenson mode. In later tellings, the Stevenson modifier was dropped. In any case, Melvyn Douglas played the part; won prizes; and his career was hugely revived, while the rejected Reagan, at loose end, became governor of California.
Now we know who to blame.

Vidal has also taken responsibility for Richard M. Nixon, a literary invention who somehow escaped from Vidal's pages and into the White House. These days, even with the aid of a search light, the merest trace of a political play cannot be found anywhere on Broadway.

Perhaps this is a good thing. After all, from one play She Best Man, written by a political lefty came two right-wing presidencies.

Palimpsest, Vidal's 38th book, is aptly titled. A palimpsest is "paper, parchment, etc., prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate" and "a parchment, etc., which has been written upon twice; the original writing having been rubbed out." That, in a nutshell, is memoir writing, which comes, as the word indicates, from memory. Says Vidal:

This is pretty much what my kind of writer does anyway. Starts with life; makes a text; then a revision literally, a second seeing, an afterthought, erasing some but not all of the original while writing something new over the first layer of text. Finally, in a memoir, there are many rubbings-out and puttings-in or, as I once observed to Dwight MacDonald, who had found me disappointingly conventional on some point, "I have nothing to say, only to add."
The book, then, is a collection of layered memories which together form a truer picture of Vidal's life than would a plain, linear autobiography. The anecdotes in Palimpsest are wickedly revealing, but they're also fun and, regarding the upper classes, educational. For instance, here is Vidal describing for us Mrs. John F. Kennedy and Vidal's half sister, Nini Gore Auchincloss, after Nini's wedding in 1957 to a well-to-do businessman professor:
Later that day, in a bathroom at Merrywood, the Virginia house where we had all served time as stepchildren or children of Hugh Dudley Auchincloss, Jr. (known as Hughdie or, more often, poor Hughdie), Jackie hitched up her gown and showed the innocent Nini how to douche post-sex, one foot in the bathtub and the other on the white tiled floor. Although the bidet was known in those days, no proper house contained one.
Readers steeped in good taste will honk their displeasure at Vidal's vulgarity. (Actually, there's something sensual about the image of Jackie and Nini; one recalls Degas' paintings of women caught in the intimacies of their toilettes.) But let's be honest: isn't it nice to know that a future First Lady would share such practical knowledge? In never-never land, toward which today's Family Values army stridently marches, wives of politicians are supposed to be as pure as snowflakes; sainted First Ladies even more. What has made Vidal such a refreshing writer and polemicist for more than 40 years is his scorn for such nonsense. In books and on TV he has blown the national mythology to bits and told Americans that their hallowed "rulers" (Vidal's word) past and present aren't all they're cracked up to be. And he should know.

Born into an upper-class family with political ties, he grew up in Washington, D.C. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was the first U.S. senator from Oklahoma. Vidal's father, Eugene Luther Vidal, directed the Department of Air Commerce in FDR's administration. Vice President Al Gore is a cousin, as is, vaguely, Jimmy Carter. In the summer of 1993, Hillary Clinton visited him at his home in Italy. England's Princess Margaret corresponds with him.

Vidal knows personally many of the rich and powerful. So when he tells us, as he has throughout his career, that the United States is owned by some four percent of its population, it is difficult to dismiss the statement as mere left-wing cant.

In Palimpsest, Vidal takes us back and forth from present to past. The past covers, in a series of anecdotes not always chronological, the first 39 years of his life. By 1948, when Vidal was 22, he had already published two novels and had been featured, along with Truman Capote, in Life magazine as one of America's most promising young authors. He was made.

That same year he published a third novel, The City and the Pillar. Though it reached number five on The New York Times best-seller list, Times' daily reviewer vowed never again to read, much less review, another book by Vidal. Time and Newsweek vowed the same. Suddenly, Vidal was unmade.

The City and the Pillar is a story about two young virile American men who happen to enjoy sex with each other. In 1945, such a subject, not to mention the act, was a no-no on a titanic scale. Interestingly, a month after The City and the Pillar came out, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male appeared, in which the good doctor told decent society what it didn't want to hear: that homosexuality isn't so abnormal. In fact, Kinsey said 37 percent of American males had had a homosexual experience. Decent society screamed. The New York Times refused to advertise Kinsey's book and Vidal's.

The door of American literature having been slammed in his face, Vidal turned to a new medium television for which he wrote plays, the most popular being Visit to a Small Planet, which became a Broadway hit. Later, he would write movies for MGM Ben Hur (starring Charlton Heston, whose acting Vidal compares to a lumber yard), Suddenly Last Summer ("what The New York Times shrieked was a celebration of sodomy, incest, cannibalism, and Elizabeth Taylor at her most voluptuous"), The Catered Affair (starring Bette Davis, who referred to the Warner Brothers actor and future American president as "little Ronnie Reagan"), among others and plays for the theatre until the early 1960s, when he returned to the novel.

Of Vidal's novels, The City and the Pillar seems closest to him. It is based after a relationship that a teenaged Vidal had with a boy named Jimmie Trimble, who joined the Marines in 1942 and died three years later in the South Pacific. Trimble was the only person whom Vidal had ever loved: "What I was not, he was, and the other way around."

Palimpsest contains four photographs of the blond, curly-haired Trimble, and throughout the text Vidal's memory of Trimble haunts us almost as much as it does the author.

During Vidal's often poignant, often sarcastic, often witty stroll down memory lane, we meet JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Tenessee Williams, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anais Nin, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Truman Capote it seems as though Vidal has known or met just about everybody who was anybody in politics and the arts. We also get impressions of the American political climate of the period in which Vidal, while palimpsesting, finds himself. He tells us that in the spring of 1950,

I was ready to settle down, somewhere but not in New York City as the Russians were coming and the Bomb would soon fall in the night. The American people were now being systematically terrified by the country's ownership. Schoolchildren were told how to "save" themselves when the bombs fell. If in school, they were to hide under their desks.

The great perpetual American war machine was humming smoothly, and though it was still officially peacetime (soon we would have a proper war in Korea), Truman had reinstituted the draf. When we learned that the people of North and South Vietnam would, in a free election, vote for Ho Chi Minh and godless Communism,Kissinger wailed, "Don't we have the right to save a people from themselves?"

Vidal says that while growing up he was a political Ttory. By the time he wrote The City and the Pillar he was aching to leave the class and politics into which he was born. Finally, the American income tax knocked out of him the last bits of conservatism.
The good news about other societies is either kept from us or carefully distorted: Swedes have free education, health care, and so on, but they also practice "free love," get drunk, and commit suicide, because they lack the excitement of living in a society where the untrained have the freedom to starve. My real political education began when I made money only to have it confiscated by a military machine. As the age of [Sen. Joe] McCarthy dawned, I would soon be taking a crash course in "radical politics. "
What more to say? Palimpsest is an edifying excursion into the life of one of America's leading men of letters.

Dennis Quick is a freelance writer who lives in Orangeburg.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 7/11/96