The grand old man of letters Gore Vidal claims America is â€˜rotting awayâ€™ â€” and donâ€™t expect Barack Obama to save it
A conversation with Gore Vidal unfolds at his pace. He answers questions imperiously, occasionally playfully, with a piercing, lethal dryness. He is 83 and in a wheelchair (a result of hypothermia suffered in the war, his left knee is made of titanium). But he can walk (â€œOf course I canâ€) and after a recent performance of Mother Courage at Londonâ€™s National Theatre he stood to deliver an anti-war speech to the audience.
How was his friend Fiona Shaw in the title role? â€œVery good.â€ Where did they meet? Silence. The US? â€œWell, it wasnâ€™t Russia.â€ Whatâ€™s he writing at the moment? â€œItâ€™s a little boring to talk about. Most writers seem to do little else but talk about themselves and their work, in majestic terms.â€ He means self-glorifying? â€œYouâ€™ve stumbled on the phrase,â€ he says, regally enough. â€œContinue to use it.â€
Vidal is sitting in the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, where he has been coming to stay for 60 years. He is wearing a brown suit jacket, brown jumper, tracksuit bottoms; his white hair twirled into a Tintin-esque quiff and with his hooded eyes, delicate yet craggy features and arch expression, he looks like Quentin Crisp, but accessorised with a low, lugubrious growl rather than camp lisp.
He points to an apartment opposite the hotel where Churchill stayed during the Second World War, as Downing Street was â€œgetting hammered by the Nazis. The crowds would cheer him from the street, he knew great PR.â€ In a flash, this memory reminds you of the swathe of history Vidal has experienced with great intimacy: he was friends with JFK, fought in the war, his father Gene, an Olympic decathlete and aeronautics teacher, founded TWA among other airlines and had a relationship with Amelia Earhart. (Vidal first flew and landed a plane when he was 10.) He was a screenwriter for MGM in the dying days of the studio system, toyed with being a politician, he has written 24 novels and is hailed as one of the worldâ€™s greatest essayists.
* I knew JFK, and believe me Obamaâ€™s the better leader
* Then and Now
He has crossed every boundary, I say. â€œCrashed many barriers,â€ he corrects me.
Last year he famously switched allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic nomination process for president. Now, he reveals, he regrets his change of heart. Howâ€™s Obama doing? â€œDreadfully. I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person weâ€™ve had in that position for a long time. But heâ€™s inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. Heâ€™s acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism.â€ America should leave Afghanistan, he says. â€œWeâ€™ve failed in every other aspect of our effort of conquering the Middle East or whatever you want to call it.â€ The â€œWar on Terrorâ€ was â€œmade upâ€, Vidal says. â€œThe whole thing was PR, just like â€˜weapons of mass destructionâ€™. It has wrecked the airline business, which my father founded in the 1930s. Heâ€™d be cutting his wrists. Now when you fly youâ€™re both scared to death and bored to death, a most disagreeable combination.â€
His voice strengthens. â€œOne thing I have hated all my life are LIARS [he says that with bristling anger] and I live in a nation of them. It was not always the case. I donâ€™t demand honour, that can be lies too. I donâ€™t say there was a golden age, but there was an age of general intelligence. We had a watchdog, the media.â€ The media is too supine? â€œWould that it was. Theyâ€™re busy preparing us for an Iranian war.â€ He retains some optimism about Obama â€œbecause he doesnâ€™t lie. We know the fool from Arizona [as he calls John McCain] is a liar. We never got the real story of how McCain crashed his plane [in 1967 near Hanoi, North Vietnam] and was held captive.â€
Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in â€œa black cityâ€ (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obamaâ€™s intelligence. â€œBut he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star. Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact itâ€™s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred â€” religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word â€˜conservativeâ€™ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. Theyâ€™re not, theyâ€™re fascists.â€
Another notable Obama mis-step has been on healthcare reform. â€œHe f***ed it up. I donâ€™t know how because the country wanted it. Weâ€™ll never see it happen.â€ As for his wider vision: â€œMaybe he doesnâ€™t have one, not to imply he is a fraud. He loves quoting Lincoln and thereâ€™s a great Lincoln quote from a letter he wrote to one of his generals in the South after the Civil War. â€˜I am President of the United States. I have full overall power and never forget it, because I will exercise itâ€™. Thatâ€™s what Obama needs â€” a bit of Lincolnâ€™s chill.â€ Has he met Obama? â€œNo,â€ he says quietly, â€œIâ€™ve had my time with presidents.â€ Vidal raises his fingers to signify a gun and mutters: â€œBang bang.â€ He is referring to the possibility of Obama being assassinated. â€œJust a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital,â€ he says in a wry, dreamy way.
Vidal now believes, as he did originally, Clinton would be the better president. â€œHillary knows more about the world and what to do with the generals. History has proven when the girls get involved, theyâ€™re good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to.â€The Republicans will win the next election, Vidal believes; though for him there is little difference between the parties. â€œRemember the coup dâ€™etat of 2000 when the Supreme Court fixed the selection, not election, of the stupidest man in the country, Mr Bush.â€
Vidal says forcefully that he wished heâ€™d never moved back to the US to live in Hollywood, from his clifftop home in Ravello, Italy, in 2000. His partner of 53 years, Howard Austen, who died in 2003, collated a lifetimeâ€™s-span of pictures of Vidal, for a new book out this autumn, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in Historyâ€™s Glare (an oddly clunky title). The cover shows what a beautiful young man Vidal was, although his stare is as hawkish as it is today.
He observes presidential office-holders balefully. â€œThe only one I knew well was Kennedy, but he didnâ€™t impress me as a good president. Itâ€™s like asking, â€˜What do I think of my brother?â€™ Itâ€™s complicated. Iâ€™d known him all my life and I liked him to the end, but he wrecked his chances with the Bay of Pigs and Suez crises, and because everyone was so keen to elect Bobby once Jack had gone, lies started to be told about him â€” that he was the greatest and the King of Camelot.â€
Today religious mania has infected the political bloodstream and America has become corrosively isolationist, he says. â€œAsk an American what they know about Sweden and theyâ€™d say â€˜They live well but theyâ€™re all alcoholicsâ€™. In fact a Scandinavian system could have benefited us many times over.â€ Instead, America has â€œno intellectual classâ€ and is â€œrotting away at a funereal pace. Weâ€™ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesnâ€™t realise how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush.â€
Vidal adds menacingly: â€œDonâ€™t ever make the mistake with people like me thinking we are looking for heroes. There arenâ€™t any and if there were, they would be killed immediately. Iâ€™m never surprised by bad behaviour. I expect it.â€
While materially comfortable, Vidalâ€™s was not a happy childhood. Of his actress and socialite mother Nina, he says: â€œGive her a glass of vodka and she was as tame as could be. Growing up is going to be difficult if the one person you hate is your mother. I felt trapped. I was close to my grandparents and my father was a saint.â€ His parentsâ€™ many remarriages means that even today he hasnâ€™t met all his step-siblings.
He wrote his first novel, Williwaw, at 19. In 1948, he was blacklisted by the media after writing The City and the Pillar, one of the earliest novels to deal graphically with homosexual desire. â€œYouâ€™ll be amazed to know it is still going strong,â€ he says. The â€œJTâ€ it is dedicated to is James â€œJimmyâ€ Trimble, Vidalâ€™s first love and, he once said, the love of his life. â€œThat was a slight exaggeration. I said it because there wasnâ€™t any other. In the new book there are wonderful pictures of him from our schooldays. He was a great athlete.â€ Here his voice softens, and he looks emotional, briefly. â€œWe were both abandoned in our dormitory at St Albanâ€™s [boarding school]. He was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima [in 1945] because of bad G2 [intelligence].â€
Vidal says Trimbleâ€™s death didnâ€™t affect him. â€œNo, I was in danger of dying too. A dead man canâ€™t grieve a dead man.â€ Has love been important to him? â€œDonâ€™t make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay menâ€™s relationships are like heterosexual ones. Theyâ€™re not.â€ He â€œwouldnâ€™t begin to commentâ€ on how they are different.
In 1956 he was hired by MGM, collaborated on the screenplay for Ben Hur and continued to write novels, most notoriously Myra Breckenridge about a transsexual. It is his satires, essays and memoirs â€” Live From Golgotha, Palimpsest and most recently, Point to Point Navigation â€” which have fully rounded our vision of this thorny contrarian, whose originality springs simply, and naturally, from having deliberately unfixed allegiances and an enduring belief in an American republic and railing sadness at how that ideal has been corrupted.
Vidal became a supportive correspondent of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. The huge loss of life, indeed McVeighâ€™s act of mass murder, goes unmentioned by Vidal. â€œHe was a true patriot, a Constitution man,â€ Vidal claims. â€œAnd I was torn, my grandfather [the Democrat Senator Thomas Gore] had bought Oklahoma into the Union.â€ McVeigh claimed he had done it as a protest against tyrannical government. The writer Edmund White took the correspondence as the basis for a play, Terre Haute (the jail McVeigh was incarcerated in before he was executed in 2001), imagining an encounter between the bomber and Vidal charged with desire.
â€œHeâ€™s a filthy, low writer,â€ Vidal says of White. â€œHe likes to attack his betters, which means he has a big field to go after.â€ Had he wanted to meet McVeigh? â€œI am not in the business of meeting people,â€ Vidal says. â€œThat play implies I am madly in love with McVeigh. I looked at his [Whiteâ€™s] writing and all he writes about is being a fag and how itâ€™s the greatest thing on Earth. He thinks Iâ€™m another queen and Iâ€™m not. Iâ€™m more interested in the Constitution and McVeigh than the loving tryst he saw. It was vulgar fag-ism.â€
Vidal says that he hates labels and has said he believes in homosexual acts rather than homosexual people. He claims his relationship with Austen was platonic (though they reputedly met at a legendary New York bath-house). He was once quoted as saying that heâ€™d had sex with a 1,000 men by the time he was 25. It must have been a little strange for Austen, Vidalâ€™s life companion, to source those pictures of Trimble, his first, perhaps only, love.
Vidal puts on a scornful, campy voice. â€œPeople ask [of he and Austen], â€˜How did you live together so long?â€™ The only rule was no sex. They canâ€™t believe that. That was when I realised I was dealing with a public too stupid by half. They canâ€™t tell the difference between â€˜The Sun rose in the Eastâ€™ and â€˜The Sun is made of yeastâ€™.â€ Was sex important to Vidal? â€œIt must have been yes.â€
He is single now. â€œIâ€™m not into partnerships,â€ he says dismissively. I donâ€™t even know what it means.â€ He â€œcouldnâ€™t care lessâ€ about gay marriage. â€œDoes anyone care what Americans think? Theyâ€™re the worst-educated people in the First World. They donâ€™t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.â€ You could have been the first gay president, I say. â€œNo, I would have married and had nine children,â€ he replies quickly and seriously. â€œI donâ€™t believe in these exclusive terms.â€
Impaired mobility doesnâ€™t bother him â€” he â€œrose like a miracleâ€ on stage at the National â€” and he doesnâ€™t dwell on mortality either. â€œEither you accept there is such a thing or youâ€™re so dumb that you canâ€™t grasp it.â€ Is he in good health? â€œNo, of course not. Iâ€™m diabetic. Itâ€™s odd, Iâ€™ve never been fat and I donâ€™t like candy, which most Americans are hooked on.â€
There is a trace of thwarted ambition about him. â€œI would have liked to have been president, but I never had the money. I was a friend of the throne. The only time I envied Jack was when Joe [Kennedy, JFKâ€™s father] was buying him his Senate seat, then the presidency. He didnâ€™t know how lucky he was. Hereâ€™s a story Iâ€™ve never told. In 1960, after he had spent so much on the presidential campaign, Joe took all nine children to Palm Beach to lecture them. He was really angry. He said, â€˜All you read about the Kennedy fortune is untrue. Itâ€™s non-existent. Weâ€™ve spent so much getting Jack elected and not one of you is living within your incomeâ€™. They all sat there, shame-faced. Jack was whistling. He used to tap his teeth: they were big teeth, like a xylophone. Joe turned to Jack and he says, â€˜Mr President, whatâ€™s the solution?â€™ Jack said, â€˜The solution is simple. You all gotta work harderâ€™.â€ Vidal guffaws heartily.
Hollywood living proved less fun. â€œIf there was a social whirl, you can be sure I would not be part of it.â€ He does a fabulous impression of Katharine Hepburn complaining about playing the matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer, which he wrote. â€œI hate this script,â€ he recalls Hepburn saying . â€œIâ€™m far too healthy a person to know people like this.â€ Vidal snorts. â€œShe had Parkinsonâ€™s. She shook like a leper in the wind.â€
I ask what he wants to do next. â€œMy usual answer to â€˜What am I proudest of?â€™ is my novels, but really I am most proud that, despite enormous temptation, I have never killed anybody and you donâ€™t know how tempted I have been.â€
That wasnâ€™t my question, I say. â€œWell, given that Iâ€™m proudest that I havenâ€™t killed anybody, I might be saving something up for someone.â€ A perfect line: we both laugh.
Is he happy? â€œWhat a question,â€ he sighs and then smiles mischievously. â€œIâ€™ll respond with a quote from Aeschylus: â€˜Call no man happy till he is deadâ€™.â€