Gore Vidal biography reviewed by Craig Brown: Gore blimey! What a silly narcissist America’s ‘Great Man of Letters’ turns out to be

It was pointless. ByCraig Brown Event for The Mail on Sunday

Published: 21:01 GMT, 5 September 2015 | Updated: 21:01 GMT, 5 September 2015

Every Time A Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life Of Gore Vidal Jay Parini

Rating:

When Ali G paid a visit to Gore Vidal in 2009, he told him: You is an amazing guy. He was a know-all who never knew quite as much as he claimed.

I first noticed the holes in the ozone layer of his omniscience some years ago, when I heard him banging on about M-Fifteen and M-Sixteen in a BBC discussion about the British Secret Services. Just stop it! And Gore would.

Howard undermines Vidals story central to his autobiography that he had sex with a schoolfriend, Jimmie Trimble, the love of his life, who was then killed in World War Two.

I dont believe it, not so much.

Other contemporaries confirm that Trimble was in fact stalwartly heterosexual.

Everything in Gores memories of Jimmie fits into the category of fantasy, says one.

Similarly, Howard wouldnt go along with Gores emphatic belief that there are no homosexuals, just homosexual acts, which he often twinned with the suggestion that he was really a hetero who just happened to like playing around with men.

If hes straight or even bisexual, said Austen, then Im Genghis Khan.

Vidal as he appeared on The Simpsons

A lot of Vidals claims, both about himself and the world at large, simply didnt add up. She didnt see me. There is no plan.

A conspiracy theorist is someone who wants to be at the centre of the universe, or at least wants the universe to have a centre.

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As he grew steadily older and drunker, Vidal was doomed to become the victim of his own batty theories.

One day, he woke up insisting that he was the victim of radioactivity that had drifted to Italy from Chernobyl. but what followed would be made up.

As a writer, he takes his seat at the high table, where in real life he never found much of a welcome, Parini notes.

One of Vidals mothers husbands was also the stepfather to Jackie Kennedy. Perhaps he was really at his best in miniature, as a waspish aphorist

The other great influence on him was his glamorous, flighty mother, whose lack of maternal interest seems to have set young Gore off on his lifelong quest to be the centre of attention. An insider he was not.

His psychic powers were generally faulty, too, most of his lordly predictions disintegrating within a few years of his having made them.

In 1987, he predicted Armageddon, a war, to be specific, between the United States and Russia, to take place in Israel.

Two years later the Berlin Wall came down. I need help. The satires now seem outdated, the histories a bit of a plod.

Perhaps he was really at his best in miniature, as a waspish aphorist, with a high strike rate for hitting the nail on the head.

American writers want not to be good but to be great, and so are neither, he once said; his own novels attest to the truth of this observation.

Even his essays, for all their imperious humour, are too often undone by an essential silliness, stemming from a need to show off. I wished I didnt see her, he said of his glamorous, flighty mother, Nina.He never forgave her indifference

Over the course of a long life, he had befriended presidents and actors, poets and pop stars: Rita Hayworth, W H Auden, President Kennedy, Stephen Fry and Sting all rub shoulders in the index.

Those he had sex with, or at least claimed to have had sex with, included Fred Astaire, Jack Kerouac, Charles Laughton and Rock Hudson.

Might he also, in a mad moment, have hopped into bed with the great erotic writer Anas Nin?

It seems unlikely that they never went to bed together, says his biographer, Jay Parini, which, once youve paired off the negatives, emerges as a thumbs-up.

According to the slightly haphazard Parini, on the wall above Vidals desk were either twenty or so framed magazine covers, with Gores face on each one (page 2) or a dozen framed magazine covers of himself (page 277). Parini is sceptical, for instance, about Vidals much-vaunted friendship with the Kennedys (pictured with John F Kennedy in 1960)

Jay Parini mixed with the two men for the best part of 30 years, so the book is as much an intimate memoir as a scholarly biography.

Often Gore would make an outrageous assertion, and it would float in the air for a little while, then Howard would say, Oh, Gore. You aint just a historian, and a writer, and a speaker, you is also a world-famous hair stylist.

At this point, Americas grand old man of letters corrected him. You always assume there is a plan, Gore. This fragile connection gave Vidal an entre to Camelot, but he soon ruined it by getting drunk at a White House reception for Gianni Agnelli.

After the assassination, he wasnt even invited to Kennedys funeral, and was instead forced to watch it from the street.

The Kennedys simply didnt want Gore around, writes Parini.

Parini is clearly right to suggest that Vidals essays stand up better than his novels. Parini is sceptical, for instance, about Vidals much-vaunted friendship with the Kennedys.

Many of his droll anecdotes would begin with the phrase: As the President once said to me… Struggling to be generous to his old friend and mentor, Parini prefers to overlook such bloopers.

But who now believes that Monica Lewinsky was lying, having been put up to it by the tobacco industry, or that the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was innocent?

I dont like your conspiracy theories, Alberto Moravia once said to him. She didnt see me. There are Somali pirates in my swimming pool.

The American edition of this book was better titled Empire Of Self.

The UK publishers have given it a daffy new one, a variation on a wisecrack originally uttered by Somerset Maugham. But whatever the exact number, it was clearly never quite sufficient to feed his all-consuming vanity.

He was born Eugene Vidal, but early on changed his name to the more striking Gore, after his distinguished grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, from whom he also appropriated his omniscient, patrician tone.

Parini is clearly right to suggest that Vidals essays stand up better than his novels. It was pointless. If you could cut any First Ladys hair, which one would it be?

Even after the interview had come to an end and Ali G had left, Gore Vidal remained unaware that he had just been pranked by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

British television, dear God, is over. I wished I didnt see her.

Late in life, she wrote a letter to Time magazine, complaining that her son never gave her any credit for his success.

Gore never spoke to her again, and in letters to others said he detested her. Thats Vidal Sassoon, not me.

But thats what you go under?

Gore Vidalwas as famous as a TV pundit as he was as a writer, perhaps even more so, having appeared on Whats My Line and The Simpsons, The South Bank Show and countless election specials and TV debates

No, thats someone else. A few months before he died, in 2012, he phoned Parini in a panic.

Get the next plane to LA at once. It has the effect of reducing Vidal to the level of a stand-up comedian.

And maybe this is how history will remember him: not so much as the Great Man of Letters, the Scourge of the USA, but as the man who once played stooge to Ali G.

Share or comment on this article . I know him, and hes a nice guy.

But Ali G refused to be distracted by such nit-picking. The satires now seem outdated, the histories a bit of a plod. The truth was less dramatic: he had a hangover.

He saw enemies everywhere. Stop it. He never forgave her indifference.

We rarely got into a conversation. If you are going to be a world-class hater, as he was, what better place to start than your mother?

His old adversary, Norman Mailer, was probably right in saying that Vidals worst vice as a writer was his narcissism.

His amiable long-time companion Howard Austen had a nickname for him: Mr Me.

Austens asides to Jay Parini, peppered throughout the narrative, prove richly informative, particularly on the subject of Vidals endless need for validation by the outside world.

He could only see himself in print, in photos, on television.

Some of the best moments in this rich, perfectly judged book come when Austen chips in with an alternative, downbeat version to Vidals self-mythologising.

If Gore was an upmarket Alf Garnett, forever sounding off about this, that and the other, then Howard Austen was his long-suffering Else, quietly undermining the trumpet-blowing with a sigh and a mutter.

A lot of Vidals claims, both about himself and the world at large, simply didnt add up. Its over! he complained.

This funny little episode offers a glimpse of the transient nature of literary celebrity.

For 60 years or more, Gore Vidal had maintained his position as the witty scourge of capitalism, growing ever wealthier and grander (he left his fortune of $37 million to Harvard University) with each of his Olympian appraisals of Americas moral and economic decline.

He was as famous as a TV pundit as he was as a writer, perhaps even more so, having appeared on Whats My Line and The Simpsons, The South Bank Show and countless election specials and TV debates.

We rarely got into a conversation

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