Sexy Life Story, Limply Told: Gore Vidal, Angel and Monster

Gore Vidal: A Biography , by Fred Kaplan. Doubleday, 850 pages, $35.

Ah, to have been Gore Vidal! The blond princeling in 1930′s Washington, the postwar prodigy, boozing and cruising with Tennessee and Truman, Christopher Isherwood and Paul Bowles; the double-edged sexual swordsman, slaying youths and maidens with seigniorial hauteur; the heavyweight author, trading blows with Norman Mailer and Bill Buckley; the sage of Ravello, surveying the world from high atop his Amalfi cliff; and Hollywood Vidal, Camelot Vidal, Candidate Vidal, Best Seller Vidal, TV Vidal.

Not an unpleasant way, all in all, to have spent the last three-quarters of the American century.

But to have been Mr. Vidal’s biographer–that’s a different story. The task is like cleaning up after a messy and riotous party to which one had not been invited. What is to be done with all the sticky wineglasses and the crumpled cocktail napkins scribbled with phone numbers? A life like Mr. Vidal’s requires a master raconteur to make any sense of it, and it already has its master raconteur: Mr. Vidal himself. But now along comes Fred Kaplan, the author of previous books on writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James, to give Mr. Vidal his first full-dress biography.

It’s a job that had already defeated another author before Mr. Kaplan took it up. In 1985, the late Newsweek columnist Walter Clemons got a $350,000 advance from Little, Brown & Company to write an authorized Gore Vidal biography. He spent years “meeting every famous person I have known” (as Gore Vidal put it in a letter to Louis Auchincloss), without apparently writing a word of the book. It can’t have helped matters that, by Mr. Kaplan’s account, Clemons’ subject hounded him to see the manuscript, anxious for a work that would, he said, halt his “slow fade to black.”

Clemons died in 1994, and Mr. Kaplan began his own book the same year–with the wise stipulation this time that Mr. Vidal promise, in writing, not to try to see any of it before publication. And in the meantime, in 1995, Mr. Vidal published a memoir of his first 39 years, Palimpsest , which served up as heaping a plateful of dish as any reader could desire.

Gore Vidal: A Biography is twice as long as Palimpsest and covers Mr. Vidal’s entire life, and still somehow feels like a drearier reprise of the same book. The best parts are nearly all recycled from Mr. Vidal’s writings: glittering fragments of Palimpsest and other autobiographical works embedded in the thick cement of Mr. Kaplan’s own research.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing we learn about Mr. Vidal is that, reassuringly, certain parts of his life have been as humdrum as anyone else’s: In between the cocktails at Hyannisport, the grand literary contretemps and the nights of sweet lechery in Rome, he also attended summer camp as a child, wore braces on his teeth, briefly served as personnel director of a plastic-bread-tray factory, and had five polyps removed from his colon.

Writing a first-rate biography is tougher than it looks–it’s even tough when the writer is blessed with a colorful subject. Almost anyone’s life, when narrated in straight-ahead, just-the-facts fashion, can start to sound much like anyone else’s. The last biography I’d read before picking up Mr. Vidal’s was one, about the same length, of Rutherford B. Hayes. If you’d asked me beforehand what the two had in common, I probably couldn’t have come up with much. But now, after reading Mr. Kaplan’s book, the two have started to blur strangely in my mind. The same surreal sunlight of childhood, then the rise to success: a grim slog uphill through a documentary sleet of letters and pay stubs, dinner invitations and medical reports, good press clippings and bad ones.

True, President Hayes’ biography did not include, as far as I can recall, anything like the following passages:

“Each day at the beach, … [he] diverted himself with Ethel Merman …”

“Kerouac blew him. Then they rubbed bellies for a while.”

“Having heard from Jean Cocteau of a male brothel that Proust had frequented …”

What Mr. Vidal needed, though, wasn’t a book that would confirm his already prodigious reputation as an elbow-rubber (and occasional belly-rubber) with history, a kind of haut -goy Zelig. What he needed was a critical biography–critical in either of the two senses of the word. Mr. Kaplan could’ve put Mr. Vidal’s self-mythologizing propensities to the test, or–a more difficult and more important task–tried seriously to define the various cultural roles that he’s filled for the past 50 years. He does neither.

At a magazine where I once worked, one to which Mr. Vidal sometimes contributes, the arrival of one of his manuscripts was enough to send fact-checkers screaming from the room. His slapdash way with the details–something he has in common with most world-class anecdotalists–has been a lifelong habit; as a teenager at Phillips Exeter Academy, he boasted to classmates that his mother had a library of 300,000 books and his grandfather 500,000. And Mr. Vidal jokes in the very first sentences of Palimpsest that his memoir, like most others, might aptly be titled A Tissue of Lies .

But Mr. Kaplan–who conducted more than 250 interviews with his subject, “drunk and sober”–happily swallows Mr. Vidal’s version of events, rarely presents alternate accounts, and rushes to justify any unattractive behavior. Mr. Vidal’s vicious and often excessive feuds with other writers (Capote, Mr. Mailer, Mr. Buckley) draw the bland comment: “Full, active lives inevitably generate grievances, the lives of professional writers especially.” None of the facts in Palimpsest , or Mr. Vidal’s other autobiographical writings, is directly challenged.

Even in recounting Mr. Vidal’s famous sex life–when he was 23, Alfred Kinsey presented him with a copy of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male , with an inscription slyly complimenting him on his “work in the field”–for the most part Mr. Kaplan comes up dry. Sex was, he admits, a sore topic between him and his subject: Mr. Vidal “feared that his straight, comparatively bourgeois biographer would write a biography that got him and his life completely wrong.” Once, when Mr. Kaplan asked him if he had slept with a particular acquaintance, Mr. Vidal exploded: “Goddamn it, I think you’ll never get it through your head that these sexual things aren’t what my life’s about and that you’ll never understand how we deal with these things in my world.”

Still, given Mr. Vidal’s own lifelong fascination with other people’s erotic predilections–abundantly evident in both his fiction and nonfiction–his biographer shouldn’t have folded quite so willingly in the face of this outburst. It’s amazing that out of all the hundreds or thousands of people that Mr. Vidal has bedded over the years, Mr. Kaplan doesn’t seem to have found one who could tell him about the experience from the other side of things.

Mr. Vidal’s private life, though, is ultimately far less interesting than his public persona as a novelist, critic and historian–which has been given short shrift, especially in recent years, with the American press usually preferring to treat him as just another generic celebrity. But he is much stranger than that. He is, in truth, almost a figure of another, pagan era, with his insatiate Neronian hunger for fame and sex, power and art. He also understands America and its past as almost no one else does, or ever has–perhaps because of the way, since he was a child, that history has often seemed to converge on him. As a writer, Mr. Vidal once said, he has been “the black sheep among those great good white flocks of folks who graze contentedly in the amber fields of the Republic.” Less black sheep than wolf, actually: He has always, with wicked finesse, given the flocks exactly what they deserved.

In a 1959 essay, “The Twelve Caesars,” Mr. Vidal praised the Roman biographer Suetonius, who, “in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects not only them but ourselves: half-tamed creatures, whose great moral task it is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within–for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster.” In his life and in his writings, Mr. Vidal himself embodies this duality, and quite a few others. He awaits his own Suetonius.