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Gore Vidal's Novel 'Hollywood' Is Just Out, but the Great Curmudgeon Is Not Celebrating

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IT IS DECEMBER, AND THE AIR is a wash of silky light, astringently cool, but sunny enough to allow one to bathe in multiple sensations of warmth. Under white canvas umbrellas in outdoor cafes the beautiful ladies of Rome in their beautiful furs cross narrow ankles; old men read their papers and sigh over remembered pleasures.

On this gorgeous day, the restorers' scaffolding that has obscured the pillars of the Pantheon for a year has been removed; the building that is both prototype (cave) and culmination (temple) of all the buildings on earth is revealed in its amazing beauty. Gorbachev is in Rome talking to the Pope. All the city--Catholic, communist, everyone young and old--is wreathed in smiles. Perfection of weather and of hopes. The Berlin Wall is down. Old shibboleths crumble. There is a spirited will to joy. It is easier than usual to breathe.

"So, are you rejoicing?" I ask Gore Vidal.

"Whatever for?" he asks. "Surely rejoicing is somewhat premature," he says.

GORE VIDAL HAS LIVED DOWN THE STREET from the Pantheon, in the historical center of Rome, since the mid-1960s; he lives in a penthouse with a wraparound terrace in the Palazzo Origo--one of the more resonant addresses in Rome. It belonged to the noble family-by-marriage of Iris Origo, whose life was distinguished by more than graceful prose ("Saint Bernardino of Siena" and "The Merchant of Prato"). She had what Vidal calls a "good war"--protecting her contadini from the Fascists, hiding escaped prisoners of war and Allied soldiers, feeding and housing the poor. Vidal knew Iris Origo and her Anglo-Irish / American family, of course. He knows, as they say, Everyone.

One would think that to be in the proximity of this kind of nobility--not of rank but of heart--would make one contagiously happy. And, as a gloss upon one's happiness, one would, if one lived in the Palazzo Origo, have merely to cross the street to Delfino's, where the Italian version of takeout is purveyed: tender Roman artichokes in satiny olive oil, chicken alla diavolo grilled to golden succulence.

"Does Rome still thrill you?" I ask Gore Vidal.

"I still look at it," he says.

In London, the city from which I have just come, copies of his new novel, "Hollywood" (available next week in the United States), are heaped in the windows of all the bookshops.

"I have no cause to say hosanna," he says.

A CAT CAN'T BE IN HEAT only three weeks after she gave birth, can she?" Vidal asks. A slim, milky-white cat with pale green eyes insinuates herself among our limbs, uttering a mournful cry of dumb lust. The elegant, kittenish creature--who pleases Vidal because, motherhood notwithstanding, she (a Lolita in heat) doesn't look the least like an adult animal--gave birth to a poor thing with a deviated septum. The offspring died in an attempt to suckle, drowned in its own mucus. This week, Vidal, 64, is being operated on for a deviated septum (which makes his face slightly asymmetrical and his voice nasal); he is apparently not a superstitious man.

The drawing room is cold, the coldness of marble, and dark, very dark, though the sun shines brightly on the terrace, and the great chandelier in the dining room is blazing. The only source of heat--the sun seems not to reach this room--are two bouquets of roses, yellow and orange, tightly curled.

The lobby of the Palazzo Origo, which houses a Berlitz school and a school of the dance, is white and Brunelleschi-gray, with bits of antiquity casually built into the walls, Roman-style. Vidal's apartment is achieved by means of an open lift, on which hangs a sign proclaiming that to use the lift is Strictly Forbidden, a sign that everybody--Rome being a place where that which is forbidden is permitted--ignores.

We stand at first on the terrace, with its fresh view of Borromini's St. Ivo alla Sapienzia, its white corkscrew steeple joyously boring into the sky; the dome (from which wild flowers grow) of the Baroque St. Andrea della Valle; the Roman Synagogue (which Vidal has never been in); and two hills, the Janiculum and the Aventine. It is a shock to go from the sunny terrace to the dark living room, like coming out of a movie theater into bright sunlight, only in reverse.

Tapestries, ancestral portraits, a fanciful--kitschy and also rather lovely--mirror from the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, leather, bibelots . I am pleased to sit on a chair frequently occupied, until his death in 1985, by Italo Calvino, of whom Vidal has written with affection and esteem. On the table in front of me are sun-dried figs and walnuts on wooden skewers, made in Vidal's villa in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, south of Rome. On the table next to me are a photograph of Paul Newman--faded almost to sepia--with a floppy dead fish in his hand and a bewildered expression on his young face; an unframed colored snapshot of Vidal, a still from the made-for-TNT movie "Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid," in which he played a bit part; and, partially obscured by the colored snapshot, a framed picture of a 1940s kind of woman's face--arched and stenciled eyebrows, dark glossy lips, shoulders framed in some heavy shiny stuff. A dusky male servant pads quietly, making unobtrusive arrangements here and there.

In this solemn Roman apartment, and from this particular chair, it seems natural to speak of writers and writing. "You loved Henry James, no?"

"Oh, yes."

"So is there a contemporary writer you love? I know you loved Calvino." (In fact, Vidal launched the Italian novelist in America in 1973. He reviewed all of Calvino's books in the New York Review of Books, the principal outlet for Vidal's essays since 1964; it was an act of writerly love.)

"That was about it," he answers.

"That was it? Just Calvino?"

"Well, I mean I like certain books, but there are no writers that really excite me. . . . As you are Catholic, I suppose you believe you'll meet him some day."

"Calvino? I allow for that possibility. And you?"

"Christianity--your idea of a suffering God who became man--is just ludicrous. Before Christianity came along we were doing very well. We had philosophy for the most advanced, plain old superstition for the superstitious and mystery cults for those who were worried about the afterlife. Something for everyone. . . . Calvino is in my brain."

"So he's alive."

"Till the brain goes."

"Anybody else? Updike?"

"A very charming and very skillful writer," Vidal says. "But not very intelligent. They wanted a right-winger and they got one. He should have been a preacher. 'Reverend Updike' sounds exactly right to me."

"James Baldwin?"

"I respected him. He was so hostile to Mailer and to me and to other young writers of the time, it was very hard to be around him. He only wrote one really good book--the one with 'Beale Street' in the title, a kind of perfect novel, a small novel. You can make a small one come out properly, and he does. It's the least piss-elegant."

Perhaps I am being unfair to him, I think; I broaden the question: "Who are the writers you admire?"

"My favorite writers, when I was at the top of my energy and reading a lot, were Apuleius and Petronius, and my roots are in them--much more than in Hawthorne or Melville, whom I don't care for. When your spiritual home is classical, romantic woolly American writing is just very distasteful. 'Moby Dick' is my idea of an irrelevant work. George Eliot is good--you have to be 40 and know the world to know how good she is. I like the novels of Carson McCullers; I like the short stories of Paul Bowles; I loved Waugh when I was a kid, I don't think I could reread him; I enjoy Graham Greene, but he tends to be 'the mixture as before.' I like some young fellow--Ellis? something like that, I can't think."

Vidal is elliptical in his praise, as one might be who shrinks from vulgar effusion or who places himself under constraint not to use the word love , believing that if he does, he will be held sternly to account for it. He has been generous in print; in stylish and moving essays he salutes writers as diverse as Saul Bellows and Tennessee Williams. When he speaks, in his chilly drawl, he is inclined to become jejune.

And despite the sense he conveys that nothing--including generosity--counts for very much, stories about his own financial and emotional generosity abound. Writers speak of his willingness to bear their burdens when they endured terrible personal crises; at least one artist owes her villa in Umbria to his having come through with a personal loan at a crucial moment; a child in Ravello owes her eyesight to his efforts. (He also has apparently abandoned friendships for reasons tantamount, one ex-friend says, "to your saying you think he's perfect except for one dreadful shirt.")

The Vidal-on-display is the Vidal who, in a series of noisy TV commentaries in 1968, traded venomous insults with William F. Buckley (he called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi"; Buckley called him a "queer" and threatened to punch him); the Vidal who sued Truman Capote for libel after Capote said in an interview that Bobby Kennedy kicked a drunken Vidal out of the White House for placing a hand on Jacqueline Kennedy's bare shoulder. (Jacqueline Onassis and Vidal are by way of being related. Their mothers were married to Hugh D. Auchincloss. For a while, according to Vidal, Jackie claimed him as a brother.)

The Vidal-first-met is Vidal-the-cynic (he calls himself a realist--"an unbearable thing to be") who performs his iconoclastic but not wildly original liberal-left act on the "Tonight Show" (Johnny Carson and his then-wife, Joanna, visited Vidal at Ravello when their marriage, soon to fail, was in trouble--this is one act of kindness Vidal can't not mention, perhaps because names of the famous are delicious in his mouth); the Vidal who exchanged deadly quips with Norman Mailer on Dick Cavett's TV show and publicly feuded with him (They have since made it up: "We ought not to be acting out private dramas in public to give our detractors purchase," he says).

The Vidal-first-met is a weary and attenuated version of the public performer. He is tired. He is dully mischievous. He is sad.

SURELY THE WORD LUCKY must often have been applied to Gore Vidal. But not by him.

Vidal believes that we are all brought up in "cages" and are doomed to know the world only from the particular set of bars we find ourselves behind. His cage was golden, the cage reserved for those born to privilege.

"How did you get out of your cage?" I ask.

"Ah," he says. "That's what everyone would like to know."

And that is what he is disinclined to speculate about, at least out loud. ("Are wicked mothers invariably beautiful?" I ask, pursuing demons of my own. "Mine was," he says. "Do you want to talk about your mother?" "No.")

In his bathroom hangs a picture of Vidal as a young Army warrant officer; he was then invariably described as "devastatingly handsome." There are also framed covers of Time and Newsweek--one of Raquel Welch, his Myra Breckenridge ("Myra Breckenridge" is the work most frequently attacked when Vidal's moral probity comes under discussion; in his words, it is a novel "about a homosexual who becomes a woman, falls in love with a girl and then becomes, more or less, a man again."), another of Vidal himself, upon the publication of his novel "1876." Outside the bathroom hangs a framed list of 64 signatures, those of residents of a small town in Maine who sent him greetings on the occasion of his 64th birthday. ("Will Philip Roth receive that on his 64th birthday?" he asks.)

Parts of his childhood sound made-to-order by Hollywood and the other capital of make-believe, Washington. His grandfather, Thomas Gore, was a blind Bible Belt senator whom a bare-footed 7-year-old Vidal regularly escorted to his Senate seat. His father, Eugene Vidal, was an aviation pioneer and a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Cabinet. Vidal was the first child to cross the continent by plane; he was 4.

He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943. He was 17. He would never go to college; he enlisted in the Army. When he was 19, stationed in the Aleutian Islands, he wrote his first novel, "Williwaw," a critical success. In his third novel, "The City and the Pillar," he wrote matter-of-factly about a homosexual relationship. The book was not advertised in the New York Times (the Kinsey Report wasn't either), and he complains of being "blackballed" by the literary Establishment. He offers in proof that his next five novels were not reviewed in the daily New York Times or in Time or Newsweek.

He wears these scars like stigmata. In 1976, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters--"the American Academy and 200 immortals and so on; they sent me a very pompous telegram congratulating me, and I sent them a little short telegram congratulating them on having elected me. And then I said: 'I cannot accept this election as I already belong to the Diner's Club.' I made so many enemies with that one. John Cheever told me it was the rudest telegram he'd ever seen and so forth and so on. John said, 'Well, couldn't you at least have said Carte Blanche instead of Diner's Club?' "

If generosity consists of being able to take as well as to give, it is fair to say that Vidal is lacking in generosity. He has been financially and critically rewarded. "Burr," "Lincoln," "1876," "Empire" and "Washington, D.C."--his "novels in history"--have been best sellers. Altogether, his 12 books have been translated into 20 languages and have sold an estimated 30 million copies. His plays have been produced on- and off-Broadway. He has written box-office successes for Hollywood. Jim Belushi just made a movie of one of his screenplays; Vidal is talking with Martin Scorsese about another; Hollywood may make "Hollywood" into a miniseries.

He has been a golden boy with perpetual promise perpetually renewed. He has not, on the evidence, fared badly--unless he wishes to be regarded as prescient, as a political and sexual guru, undisputed king of the literary and political mountains.

Can anyone want so much? He once wrote that "very early, the idea of fame--eternal fame--afflicted our race." Surely his wounds have had time to heal? They suppurate.

"In 1984, I won the Pulitzer Prize for 'Lincoln.' " (In fact, he did not.) "There were three judges, as always, and two voted for me. The third--a lady, some sort of novelist, I think--said she would go public if this prize were given to such a bad writer. How many Americans can tell good writing from bad? I'm sure that little lady couldn't. They gave it to a very minor novel by a very good writer, Alison Lurie. And that was my Pulitzer.

"Of course the little lady didn't mean I was a bad writer, she meant I was a bad person; they always say bad writer when they mean bad person.

"Well, it's no more than I expected," he says, consulting a glass of Scotch. "I don't want prizes, I don't want jobs in universities, I don't want to give readings. They can't understand that I'm not like them.

"Am I sad?" The air, so cold, is thick with sadness. "My blood pressure must be a sign that something is irritated by them; it's much more likely it's reading the New York Times and not my own misadventures that sends my blood pressure up."

He has been sitting sprawled on the sofa, his arms flung out, his pudgy fingers splayed, his smallish feet neat in shiny black moccasins. The green pullover he wears over a shirt untidily open at the waist to reveal a furry stomach wars with the warring colors of his face--flushed red over gray, the complexion of a man with high blood pressure. He rises slowly and shuffles, this once devastatingly handsome man, to the door.

GORE VIDAL FEELS "marginalized, demonized, trivialized." He says, "They find ways to discredit me so I won't be taken seriously." "They" are the literary Establishment, the government and "all of journalism--the media is in place to make it impossible for anyone to take seriously anyone who is serious."

"The Washington Times demonizes me. They have a cartoon of me that looks like the devil, and the Washington Post trivializes me in the Style section. It's all very giggly, just terribly giggly stuff." As for the New York Times, "I'm high on their enemies list and they're high on mine."

"I cannot give print interviews and win. You are the invention of the writer." And the media plague him with what he calls "the reverse." He cites an appearance on the "Today Show." Tom Brokaw, then the host, kept bringing the subject around to bisexuality, Vidal says. "I said, 'Look, Tom, bisexuality is a late-night subject.' When Brokaw started for the third time, I said, 'Now I'm going to talk about politics, we won't talk about me, we won't talk about your favorite subject, bisexuality--we'll talk about Jimmy Carter.'

"A year later, in Time, Brokaw said, 'There are some really tough moments in the business; for instance, I remember when I was doing the 'Today Show,' I had Gore Vidal on, and I wanted to talk politics and he wanted to talk bisexuality.'

"I ran into Tom at a party and asked him why he'd lied. He pretended he couldn't remember. They do it to me all the time."

"I must always be discredited because nothing I say is true--because I'm evil and an expatriate, and I hate America. They just go on, they drip torture. 'How can he write about America when he doesn't live here?' I didn't leave America. I've always had a house in America--in Los Angeles--and one in Europe. Many people have two houses."

He has three. "I hate possessions but I have to have houses because I have to have books. I buy houses to put the books in. I once had a house on the Hudson, a Greek temple built in 1820. I finally sold it and got rid of everything. I found that I owned 42 sofas. Just think of that. I do not have sofas now."

In 1960, Vidal ran for Congress in upstate New York, and although he lost, got almost twice as many votes in a staunchly Republican district as the head of the Democratic ticket, his friend John F. Kennedy. From 1970 to 1972 he was co-chairman, with Dr. Benjamin Spock ("a funny guy--looks like a mortician and knows nothing about politics") of the People's Party. In 1982, he ran for the Democratic nomination for the Senate in the California primary. He came in second in a field of nine, with nearly 500,000 votes; he spent less than any of the top four candidates--about $50,000. Jerry Brown ("poor, innocent mouse") spent, he says, a couple of million.

He said then that the American government is a government "of the rich, for the rich and by the rich--socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor."

"Forget the politicians," he tells me, "they're the cosmetic government. The real government are the very rich, something like a dozen families who always pretend they don't have anything to do with it but of course they do. It's like going to Rockefeller's house and saying, 'Well, he isn't in charge, he didn't cook the lunch.' They hire the cooks, they hire the presidents, and they hire the Congress."

He believes that drugs should be legalized. He believes that the government, or "a rogue element in the CIA, the DEA or whatever, introduced drugs to gain total control over the lives of everybody in America so that they can make money. Mandatory blood tests, urinalysis, lie-detector tests. . . . They have set up the infrastructure of a police state, and they're not going to give that up. They know that sooner or later somebody's going to try to overthrow this government."

"The Japanese hate us, and, which is worse, are contemptuous of us. They come in every quarter and buy bonds that keep the government going. All they'd have to do is not come in one quarter. There's no way of keeping up this famous empire.

"America has not created a civilization. We've started every now and then: But the waves of immigration meant we had to start all over again--to absorb people who brought certain things of value but slowed down other things. Now we're taking in such huge waves, particularly from south of the border, who apparently do not take our culture seriously at all."

These may or may not be incendiary beliefs. They're not novel.

It is difficult for me to understand his despair; it is perhaps a matter of temperament. He inhabits, in fact, no gulag. He is denied no worldly success. Do enemies of the state appear on the Johnny Carson show?

"If I spoke from a loser's stance," he says, "nobody would pay any attention to me. I do this so well. Interminably. But I'm paying a toll. I don't mind, I don't really mind at all. On the other hand, my blood pressure is very high, and I have to take a beta blocker for hypertension."

A strange side-effect of the medication Vidal takes for his blood pressure is that he is no longer able to cry. His eyes will not produce tears.

WE DRINK SCOTCH, we talk about phobias. He has a friend who is so afraid of Fifth Avenue that he cannot even be driven down it in a limousine. The next day, Vidal's greeting to me, as I come out of the creaky lift--which he never takes--will be: "Did the streets get you?" Two of the characters in "Hollywood" are so afraid of the dark that they cannot sleep alone; men, they sleep with other men for comfort, not for sex.

"Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s" is, of course, very much on Gore Vidal's mind, though he sighs with mingled exasperation and wit: "What is the joy of writing a novel? Finishing it."

Vidal calls "Hollywood" a "contemporary novel." It takes the reader through the administrations of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. It parallels matters of state with the silent-movie world of the '20s, moving between Washington and Los Angeles to make a perfect circle of corruption: "Films fed the people involved; people involved fed the films. L. B. Mayer reinvented America and the world. The world of Andy Hardy became echt -America, and not only did America fall for it, the world fell for it. And eventually they give us Ronald Reagan because he's a reminder of the great glory days, standing tall--city on a hill--a visible reminder of something that was imaginary to begin with. But it's soothing; and these are troubling times, so it was inspired to have him there--it was a disaster for the country, but it was an inspired kind of artwork."

After his more personal books did not receive universal accolades, he might have thought (though his intelligence surely would have advised him otherwise) that there was refuge and safety to be found in writing historical novels, that putting history on parade would make him less vulnerable than putting what were perceived to be his own feelings on parade. Such hopes, if hopes they were, proved illusory. And criticism from historians was more than he'd anticipated.

Whether or not it is legitimate to mix real characters with invented ones as Vidal did became a question much vexed.

"I make it very clear, but people don't quite know how to handle it: People who were figures in history I don't play around with; they do and say what they did and said, as much as we can tell. After all, what is history? If you think history is reading all the New York Times' statements about a President, you're not going to get anywhere near it.

"What I have done is to take the narrative back to its origins, right back to Homer. To Dante. To Shakespeare. To Tolstoy. I'm writing about the rulers, the victimizers, the kings, the gods, the heroes. I am the chronicler of the American republic--which ought to be described in terms other than the god-awful history books that kids are supposed to read and wisely don't."

Vidal has been attacked by academicians--"scholar-squirrels" or "hagiographers" to him--for fictionalizing actual political figures. They have fallen prey, he has said, to the naive delusion that there is "a final Truth revealed only to the tenured few in their footnote mazes."

Much has been made of the flaws Vidal attributes to Lincoln: "Look what I've gone through just with Lincoln's syphilis! Lincoln told his law partner that he had syphilis: In fact he gave the name of the town and the name of the girl, and the name of the doctor he went to in Cincinnati. There was no cure. It was epidemic. And he had it .

"Every time I've made a whopper--and I've made a few--it's always been from following 'authority.' I've always gotten it from the biography--and the biography's wrong.

"Well, it's coming to an end. I can't get the energy anymore for it."

"Hollywood" will be followed, he says, by the seventh and final installment of the historical cycle--a book "from my point of view, in the present, looking back on 45 to 50 years."

He will never not write. "You can say about me that I don't possess my own mind till I've written about it. I never know what I think until I write, and sometimes I don't know then."

CAROLINE SANFORD, THE HEROINE of "Hollywood" insofar as "Hollywood" has a heroine, says that the word "faithfulness" in marriage has absolutely no application and makes no sense unless one has religious faith. Vidal concurs: "Faith is a Christian word, fideles . It's not a word that would ever grab her." Nor does it grab Vidal, who believes that "there is no such thing as a heterosexual person or a homosexual person, there are only heterosexual or homosexual acts. There is also no such thing as a heterosexual or a homosexual sensibility. What on earth does Eleanor Roosevelt have in common with Roy Cohn? One was a saint and the other a beast.

"What is wrong with other-sex even if you're married? What is wrong with same-sex even if you're married? One would rather not be the occasion of someone else's pain but we all are sometimes and that's part of being alive; it goes with the turf.

"Genetically there's monogamy built into women--they need nine months for that egg and a long time to make a commitment. For a man, the sexual act is quite enough, it doesn't have to lead to a relationship; sometimes it's far more kinetically exciting knowing that it does not. Boys hate kissing, girls start that stuff, you love that stuff. 'Just hold me,' that's all a woman wants. Boys aren't like that."

Vidal has been with his companion, Howard Austen, for 40 years, a fact he will not meet head-on in conversation. "Well, there you are," he says. "Fidelity is such a large word. Human relationships change all the time. There you are.

"The Italians have sex right. They just do it."

Howard's voice sounds from his bedroom. Howard's bedroom is covered in antique floral Roman wallpaper, muted reds and purples and hints of old gold--Pompeian colors. Striped drapes and a striped bed canopy; chinoiserie. Curled on the bed, drinking excellent coffee from eggshell china (a gold spoon), I watch a documentary of Vidal's campaign in California. He looks young and fit.

It has grown darker and colder. In the drawing room, Gore Vidal pulls the velvet drapes, lights the lights.

He likes to dish. . . .

Margaret Thatcher: "She became all boy to become all prime minister."

Nancy Reagan: "Poor Nancy, just in over her head."

Barbara Bush: "One knows that the beloved Barbara doesn't like anybody . . . except 'our kind.' "

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor: "I liked her, she was very funny. Awfully shrewd. He was, I think, the stupidest man I have ever met--and there was not much charm with it. We were once talking about coronations and I said that at the high point of the coronation of the Roman emperor, two masons with trowel and mortar appeared and said: 'We are here for your tomb, lord of the world.' And the Duke said, 'Oh yes; I'm a Mason too, you know.' "

Charlie Chaplin: "Paulette Goddard told me he was uncircumcised. She couldn't think of the word. She said, 'You know, he has one of those things .' I'd asked her if he was Jewish or not because there'd been something about it in the paper. 'Oh,' she said, 'with Charlie who ever knows? He lies all the time. But you know,' she said, 'he has one of those things .' "

Jacqueline Onassis: "She's very--quite--intelligent. She got everything she wanted. Specifically, money.

"I'll tell you a story: We were up in Hyannisport--this is the first summer of their presidency. After dinner I was playing backgammon with Himself. It was just Jackie and me and the President. And he was laughing away at some interview I'd given to Look magazine about what it was like growing up in Merrywood (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Vidal had, at separate times, lived at Merrywood, the Auchincloss estate in Virginia) when my mother was the reigning Mrs. Auchincloss. I said, 'Well, it was a very unreal world. You didn't know there was a Depression on when you were there--there were five white servants in the houses, a great, great social distinction in Washington, where domestic help was usually black. Well, I became a private in the infantry when I was 17, so I was not much affected by all that. Girls are different; if you're brought up in an unreal world, you stay in one.'

"The President said, 'What's all this golden-season crap you've been peddling about Merrywood? It was "The Little Foxes." ' He said, 'How do you explain how all of you are such disasters?' There's seven or eight of us (children and stepchildren, from Auchincloss' several marriages).

"Well, the President went down through the whole lot of us, saying why this one was a failure and that one was a failure. He skipped Jackie and me. And Jackie and I looked at each other and then we looked at Jack, and she said, 'Go on.'

"Jack got a little embarrassed. Jackie didn't say anything. I said, 'Well, naturally we can't be like your family--intimating that such perfection was not given to mere mortals--but if you do feel that we are individually flawed by being the children or stepchildren of Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr., I would put it down to one reason: Each of us had a mother he knew married only for money.'

"Jack was quite shocked. He said, 'Oh, well you--you--you mean security.' I said, 'No, I mean money, big money.' And Jackie said: 'Yes.' "

Barney Frank: "I was startled to see that Newsweek put Barney Frank on the cover--an act of absolute viciousness, anti-fag and anti-liberal, what's a more beautiful combination to sell newspapers?

"All we hear is private lives. Isn't he a nice man? Is that her hair? He certainly made a mess. But what does that have to do with legislation?"

Eleanor Roosevelt: "I saw a lot of Eleanor in the last 10 years of her life. She was so down on sex. One couldn't imagine her in bed. But when I read her published letters, I was convinced that her love (for a woman journalist) was 100% physical. She told me that after Roosevelt died, she found evidence that he had broken his contract with her and continued to have an affair with Lucy Mercer. FDR might have thought it was fun to take Lucy away from Eleanor--she was her girlfriend first. Eleanor went to her husband's funeral like Medea."

Jimmy Carter: "He was Rockefeller's creature. And Coca-Cola's before that. What you want in a President is not someone nice but someone who has an interest in the people at large--not the people who gave him the money to get there. You think he was a good man? What's that to do with it?"

THE NEWSSTANDS in Rome can't keep their customers supplied: Everyone wants to read about the events in Eastern Europe.

"There are two things going on in the world," Vidal says. "One is a centrifugal force to save the planet--a bringing together of all the economies to preserve the air, water and soil. Then there's another force at work, which is that everybody is sick of the nation-state. So there will be some sort of confederation which will allow freedom to the people within: Scotland will no longer have to think about Westminster, Wales will be off on its own, so will the Basque country. All the ethnic disturbances going on within the Soviet Union will be resolved. If these things balance out, it will be ideal for the human race: You would have a world state which could preserve the planet and stabilize the economy, and simultaneously you would give individual groups, tribes and factions a chance to be themselves within that world state.

"It's far more likely that the bad guys will take over the world government, they'll forget to save the planet and we'll all be slaves."

It's a bleak view. So what, I ask, does he do to refresh and renew himself? "We--Howard and I--go to Southeast Asia for at least one month in the winter. Thailand, the old Thailand, the country. I have many Buddhist friends, and I've started to learn meditation for my blood pressure. To remain tranquil and serene, which can only be done by not wanting anything. And that's the trick. Not wanting anything, you are on your way to enlightenment, on your way out of a world that is painful because of desire. I'm doing kindergarten exercises--you empty your head, all you think about is breathing, in and out, in and out. Quite hard work, but it brings my pressure down. I know what true solace is but I don't turn to it. I'm too much a Westerner and I'm too shaped in the jungles of Washington to be anything but a carnivore.

"What is true solace? Not to be what I am. Stop thinking of yourself, stop thinking of what you desire." "Are you afraid of death?"

"The Italians decide when you're going to be dead some time before you are put in the ground. You can see it in Ravello. You can see old people becoming non-people. I'm sure everybody's nice to grandfather at home; but in the square there comes a moment when no one listens to him. Nothing harsh about it. They're baby-mad, child-mad, and they're mad about themselves in middle age. But there comes a moment, a shadow line, when a person ceases to be a person to the town. Haven't you seen it in Ravello? In the square? The very old sitting in a line? And then one day the line thins out."

I have seen them, the old, the very old, the young, the middle-aged; and I have thought: One of the things I love about Italy is that the old are not despised. And each Italian knows--it is knowledge bred in the bone--that he must die.

"There are plenty more where we came from," Vidal says.

"At my age," he says, "nobody is afraid of death. I think what you're afraid of is the passage to it. I think I might take a shortcut."

I protest. Suicide sets a bad example, I say; and it is contagious. "There are plenty more where we came from," he says.

JUST DOWN THE street, his servant is buying tangerines. The shop is brightly lighted. The warm air is threaded with cold. In the piazza of the Pantheon, everyone looks at home in his skin. The thin music of a flute comes from a wandering musician. Lovers hold hands.

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