Fiends in high places

A narcissist? Me? On the publication of his modest memoirs, Gore Vidal (70) gossips with Tim Haigh

GORE VIDAL is 70 now. He gives the impression of never having expected to get old. As he was writing his newly published memoir, Palimpsest, he watched with dismay as the friends and family and sparring partners he was recalling died, almost, it seemed to him, struck down by his act of writing about them. The thought that he is the angel of death prompts a mischievous gleam in his eye. "Maybe I should again take up my pen ..."

Gore Vidal always said that he would not write an autobiography. Palimpsest is therefore a memoir, which is to say that it is gossip; elevated gossip, certainly; high-octane gossip. His playmates were the great, the world-famous, the colourful, not infrequently the mendacious. "Part of it was self-defence," says Vidal, "it simply hadn't occurred to me that by the time I reached three-score and ten there would be about 400 books in which I appear, sometimes in amusing cameo, sometimes as a major villain. And from my point of view practically everything is wrong ... People's memories are self-serving, of course." But he has a pretty good memory, he allows, "for the things that are not important".

He sits on the sofa in a hotel room close to the American embassy complaining about the British press, who have only one adjective for him. "The hacks of England keep talking about me as a narcissist. Well, I'm almost invisible in this text." The looks have gone, the beauty which was so widely attested to has settled into statesmanlike early old age. But his powers are undiminished: his most recent novel, Live From Golgotha, is as mordant and funny as Myra Breckinridge. And despite jet-lag, the wit is brilliant, the eyes sparkle with amusement, the burlesque impressions of Kennedy, Tennessee Williams and Tom Driberg are as vivid as ever.

Gore was originally called Eugene, which is Greek for "well-born". His grandfather was T P Gore, Oklahoma's first ever Senator; Vidal's father, also Gene, served in Franklin Roosevelt's administration; Gore Vidal is distantly related to the current Vice-President of the United States and to former President Jimmy Carter. But he can gossip about luminosities more exalted and glamorous still. The Kennedys, for instance. Vidal is entirely cheerful about debunking a genuine American saint, like Jackie, who also died while he was writing the book. Is this an icon worthy of his clast? Well, no, he rumbles in that splendid patrician drawl, she was family after all. He was by a recondite route related to her. "It's not all that recondite," he says. "We had the same stepfather." Besides, "I think she comes over rather charmingly in my version, certainly over the possibility of war ..." (Vidal was at Hyannis Port during the Berlin Wall crisis.) "She was savage with the President of the United States and started haranguing him about all the children who would be killed. This is the Jackie nobody knows, not the queen of fashion."

Well, yes, but the first time we meet her in the pages of Palimpsest is at Vidal's sister's wedding, and there is the American saint with her dress hitched up to her waist and one foot on the bathtub showing the bride how to douche after sex. Vidal knows better than most that even the great and glamorous are merely human, but telling us that Jackie went to bed with Bobby to pay Jack back for sleeping with her sister Lee Radziwill is to shift insouciance into a higher gear.

The contingency of memory is only one side of the unreliability of memoir. Among the characters Vidal has available to him are a series of world- class liars. His mother, Nina, was an alcoholic and impossible. Vidal seems never to have liked her and he ended up hating her. He gets his revenge in this book by turning her into a comic character, marvellously vivid and monstrous. She married Hugh Auchincloss because he was rich and she thought that she had made it clear that there would be no sex. Gore, then a boy of 10, found her on the stairs after a disastrous wedding night and was treated to all the details.

Vidal has arranged his own life more carefully. He has lived with Howard Austen for 30 years; the secret of the success of the relationship is, he says, no sex, in accordance with his elaborately developed theory that sex is best practised "en passage", and on principle he does not go to bed with friends.

That said, he reckons that he was going for a world record of sexual encounters after the war, when penicillin and the pill were removing the twin fears of disease and pregnancy. He casually tracks three near-contemporaries who were rival contenders for the record: Marlon Brando ("At one point Marlon had two full-time abortionists on retainer. Every actress in New York that got knocked up... Marlon was very generous, even if he didn't know her, he said, 'Go ahead...' "); Tennessee Williams and Jack Kennedy. "But I think I'm giving Jack too much credit - he had the bad back and he had no adrenal function. I don't think he racked up the numbers, but I know he certainly wanted to."

About his literary contemporaries, Vidal can be wonderfully patronising. Norman Mailer was a Harvard man, trained as an engineer. "No engineer has ever become a great writer - one thinks of Solzhenitzyn. Their minds are convergent ..." (he links his forefingers in front of him) "... everything has to hook up. Writer's minds are divergent ..." (his hands fly apart) "... they know that nothing adds up, nothing can be explained."

I was teased to read, in Palimpsest, that he got the voice for Myra Breckinridge from Anais Nin. I never knew that.

"Neither did I. I figured it out reading a dreadful book - one of her early undoctored diaries, and this thundering voice of self-love, far beyond anything ever heard on earth before, I realised was Myra. But Anais does not rise to the heights of Myra." I agree. She's not as funny as Myra. "Inadvertently, she is. 'Today my nerves are shattered, but I am indomitable.' That's Myraesque."

Anais Nin and Truman Capote complete with Vidal's mother his trio of world-class liars. "The lies of the self-invented drive me crazy, and Capote was the most notorious. Everybody knew he was lying about everything. He'd just invent stuff on the spot, you'd watch him, watch that creative process at work, watch that face start to twitch as he would invent something on the spot about somebody he'd probably never met or knew nothing about." Vidal says in Palimpsest that this was Capote's true metier. So maybe he should have spent his time lying rather than writing? "Or tried to put it into his fiction," he suggests. I confess that of Truman Capote's books I have only ever read Breakfast at Tiffany's. Vidal absolves me: "I can't read Capote: I'm diabetic."

The other major theme of the book, one which ties up through the ubiquity of sex, is the lost lover. Vidal's Rosebud, he is now prepared to tell us, was a boy called Jimmie Trimble. He and Vidal were two normal boys doing the normal things, by which he means that they were lovers. Jimmie was his "other half" from the ages of 12 to 17, when they separately went to war and Jimmie was killed on Iwo Jima. Vidal was "outed" years ago by a journalist who identified that The City and the Pillar was dedicated to Jimmie, and there was no mileage in concealing it. So Vidal became interested in finding out who Jimmie was, in bringing him back to life.

Jimmie was a good-looking blond boy, destined to be a professional athlete, while Vidal already knew that he was to be a writer. Vidal has no illusions that they could have looked forward to a life together - although he is a trifle disconcerted to discover that Jimmie was planning to get married when he came back from the war - but the lost "other half" provides a useful smokescreen for Vidal, since he has no intention of admitting to loving anybody since. He has no interest in neatly tying up his motivations. Whenever he feels the hot breath of a Freudian explanation on the back of his neck, he sidesteps with practised aplomb. He is a writer not an engineer.

Vidal was a success immediately. His first novel, Williwaw, was published when he was 20, and although The City and the Pillar queered his pitch and obliged him to spend nearly a decade writing television plays, movie screenplays and murder mysteries under the pseudonym of Edgar Box, he succeeded in his plan to make enough money to be able to do whatever he liked from then on.

Does he ever regret not going to college?

"Are you crazy? I wanted to know everything. What was I going to find out at a university except how to social climb, which is what they were set up for in my day, so that I might then shine in the world of finance, or banking or in the Senate."

Actually, he thought he would pursue a career in politics, but was distracted by books he wanted to write. Given his passion for truth, how did he ever imagine that could flourish in politics? He smiles. "When Jimmy Carter said to the American people, 'I will never lie to you', Senator Frank Church turned to me and said 'He would deny the very nature of politics.' But you can tell quite a lot of the truth if you have nothing to hide."

! 'Palimpsest' is published by Andre Deutsch at pounds 20

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