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In a biography of his life, Gore Vidal is a more sympathetic figure than in his own memoir.

GORE VIDAL: A BIOGRAPHY by Fred Kaplan. Random House. $35

Reviewed by Harry Kloman

[Author's Note: This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, Nov. 14, 1999.]

FRED KAPLAN BEGINS his mammoth biography of Gore Vidal - the novelist, essayist, playwright, politician, historian, actor and conscience of America - with the one subject his protagonist fears and in the one place he never wants to be, although eve n the formidable Vidal can't prevent himself from ending up there some day.

The scene is Rock Creek Park Cemetery, Washington, D.C., where Vidal and Howard Austen, his companion since the early 1950s, have come to see the burial plots that Vidal chose as their side-by-side final resting place.

The choice is not arbitrary: This site is equidistant from the graves of Henry Adams, whom Vidal admired, and Jimmie Trimble, the grade school boy whom Vidal loved when they were 14, never (he claims) to have loved again.

Kaplan has gone with them to the cemetery to witness the signing of the deeds for the land. But the adventure also allows him to witness Vidal in the presence of Death, the only thing that scares the intrepid author, who prefers intellect to psychology an d sentiment, and who has no room in his life for nostalgia, regret or remorse.

"I prefer my subjects dead," the biographer tells the subject, and he means it. A professor at Queens College, Kaplan has written well-regarded biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Henry James - the latter a writer to whom Vidal feels a lit erary kinship, thus the reason he approached Kaplan a number of years ago to write this authorized life story.

So Kaplan has written Gore Vidal: A Biography, a bountifully detailed book that's unsparing in its detail and thorough in its evaluation of a writer whom one might call - tongue firmly planted in cheek - the Forrest Gump of 20th Century culture. Either directly or through small degrees of separation, Vidal seems to have intersected the lives of virtually every literary, political and cultural figure since his birth in 1925 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

His father, Gene, a pioneer aviator and an adviser to FDR, taught his son to fly an airplane, and young Gene (Gore Vidal's given first name) took a solo flight at age 10 for Pathe's newsreel cameras. The elder Gene was an intimate of Amelia Earhart, and V idal's mother, Nina, an intimate of Clark Gable and the second wife of Jackie Kennedy Onassis' future stepfather. Vidal's blind maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was the first senator from Oklahoma and a famous America Firster.

As a young writer, just after World War II, Vidal joined a salon of literati and aristocrats hosted in New York by Peggy Guggenheim. He smelled Mussolini's acrid cologne on the eve of World War II, met Andre Gide and George Santayana in their twilight, be gan a life-long friendship in the 1950s with Paul Newman, got Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt to campaign for him when he ran for Congress, and gave presidential candidate John F. Kennedy the idea for the Peace Corps.

The list of contacts goes on and on, from the literary luminaries Vidal engaged in Europe and America of the 1940s and 1950s, to the Washington, Hollywood and New York political and social circles in which he swirled most of his life, until the 1980s when - tired of all the American scenes and of his globe-trotting peregrinations - he and Austen settled in their Italian villa overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

It's an extraordinary life, perhaps the last great literary life of the 20th Century, for one can hardly imagine who else's story might approach Vidal's in its cultural, political and historical breadth. It's also a life whose protagonist seems to earn th e patrician sense of himself that he so famously sustains.

Kaplan writes about it all journalistically in the broadest sense of the term: His biography is, on the one hand, a detailed journal of Vidal's life, and on the other, a rollicking good story, with vividly described characters and a breathless climax to v irtually every chapter.

Of course, to enjoy it, you probably have to care about the things that formed the foundation of Vidal's life experience: His sexuality, which he pursued vigorously, and which set him on a course in his youth quite unacceptable in the 1940s; his internati onal life among writers and publishers, including glimpses of how the book business works; and his passion for politics, a seed planted by his family's political ties that grew into a belief that America had become a global military-industrial empire in a beyance of the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic was founded.

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VIDAL'S FIRST NOVEL, Williwaw (1946), a story of some Army men aboard a transport vessel in the Aleutians during (but not involved in) World War II, launched a promising career. But his third novel, The City and the Pillar, was t he story of a young homosexual. Vidal thought people would not associate the protagonist's predilections with his own. Of course, they did - and thus he had marked himself in a way that led some powerful, homophobic editors and critics in the mainstream p ress to ignore or torpedo his subsequent books.

In the 1950s, going broke from sagging book sales, Vidal began writing scripts for live television drama (he flourished), screenplay for Hollywood (excellent money) and plays for Broadway (two hits). He returned to the novel in 1964 with the historical Julian, a huge commercial and critical success. Nine years later, with a few other best sellers in between, came Burr, and nine years after that, Lincoln, for which he almost won a Pulitzer Prize. And throughout it all came dozens of superlative essays on politics and literature which would distinguish him as a man of letters in ways that his novels never would.

Although Vidal has always maintained that he wrote The City and the Pillar because, after two novels, he was "tired of playing it safe," Kaplan reveals how the intripid young writer miscalculated the book's reception. Vidal had not intended to announce himself as a man who preferred men; he assumed the audience would somehow divorce the author from the book. Nor did Vidal's father much care for his son's revelations and proclivities, despite what Vidal has implied over the years.

These errors in judgment - which certainly show how his rarefied art world social circle secluded him from the wider world - upset Vidal more than he has ever let on. In fact, the only document he withheld from Kaplan was a 1948 diary into which he poured his "anguish" (Kaplan's word) at the stormy reviews for The City and the Pillar. Kaplan says in an afterword that he is no longer curious about what those pages might reveal. Still, it's an intriguing story about a seemingly dauntless man, and one certainly has to wonder what Vidal so fears about those revelation.

But Kaplan had access to everything else. He interviewed scores of living people who took part in Vidal's life, and he draws many long passages in the biography from half a century of diaries and letters written by and to Vidal, who early on believed he w ould be someone important and thus never threw anything away.

In high school, Kaplan writes, Vidal displayed a mix of "compulsive overstatement and unembarrassed self-projection." That's one of many concise evaluations by Kaplan, whose knack for summarizing Vidal's strengths, weaknesses and fundamental character rel ieve him of the need to interpret his subject's every move and give attentive readers all they need to begin to comprehend.

Vidal traveled the world and made friends or acquaintances with virtually everyone who wrote or published anything, and with many of the wealthy friends and politicians they knew. He became fast friends with JFK, a kinship formed through each man's rabid sexual appetites (each respected the other's taste in gender). The relationship with the Kennedys ended at a White House party one evening where he had words with Bobby, a moralistic, power-hungry ideologue whom Vidal could not tolerate.

More famous feuds followed in the volatile 1960s and the almost surreal 1970s: With William F. Buckley on live TV (Vidal ultimately won the libel suit that followed), with Norman Mailer (a 30-second exchange of words and fists at a society party in LA wit h Jackie Onassis looking on); with Jewish right-wing intellectuals, like Norman Podhoretz, who claim Vidal is anti-Semitic; with Truman Capote (Vidal won a libel suit again after eight years in court). These feuds create an extended dramatic climax to Kap lan's book, and his exciting accounts will surely set the record straight once and for all.

In the 1960s, outraged (like so many others) by the Vietnam War, Vidal's political side began to emerge in full blossom, and he began writing the historical novels - Burr and Lincoln the most popular among them - for which he would becom e well-known. These novels were excellent counterparts to his immeasurably trenchant essays on politics, literature, culture and America's sexual Puritanism, which he tried to combat in 1968 with his most notorious novel, Myra Breckinridge.

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TWO CHARACTERISTIC THEMES emerge in Vidal's life: His rabid fear of death (he did not attend many funerals of people he cared deeply for), and his hated of lying and liars, a hatred that developed because of his troubled, complex relationship with his alcoholic, unstable, highly critical mother.

And so he resolved early in his life to always tell the truth, a take-no-prisoners pledge that would in many ways cause almost him as much pain as pleasure. He became, Kaplan writes, "a dedicated non-liar who rarely lapses."

Of course, one needn't tell every truth that comes to mind in order not to be a liar. Yet Vidal told them all, and often, with them, bridges burned. He and Carson McCullers called this trait of his "the franklies," and it occasionally seemed to cause him as much grief as satisfaction. It's almost as if this accomplished writer would forget that words can wound as severely as fists: Arriving at a book store in the 1970s, where a German camera crew was waiting to shoot a documentary on him, he greeted the G ermans with, "What's new from Auschwitz?" The Germans, says Kaplan, didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Perhaps there's no better example of the effect Gore Vidal had on the country that he loves and scorns than this one fleeting anecdote: When Vidal appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the show's ratings went up in major cities and down in rura l America.

Kaplan's accumulation of details, together with his brisk storytelling and his even-handed tone, hand Vidal both moral and intellectual victories in most of his life's disputes. In the end, Kaplan seems to extol his subject in almost every aspect of his l ife and work. And while his book is certainly not hagiography, it sometimes casts the pleasant redolence of beatification, at least in terms of how Vidal has lived up to his own standards.

Judith Calvino, widow of the novelist Italo Calvino, believes that Vidal behaves so candidly in life because he doesn't have an unconscious or a dark side - nothing hidden away, waiting to be revealed. It's a splendid analysis, and it provides a framework for understanding Kaplan's way of admonishing his subject, which is almost no way at all.

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AND WHY SHOULD HE?Vidal seems to have made far fewer moral, personal and professional gaffes than so many of his friends and associates. So Kaplan rewards Vidal's honesty with a portrait that lauds him with a cool, swift, fact-based reconstruction of his life. Vidal's one fateful flaw may be his unwillingness to separate friendship from ideology. Thus when a friends writes unpalatable literature, or when a friend does not fully appreciate Vidal's own work, a dissolution of the friendship or a drif ting apart is often not far away.

In the long run, though, Kaplan neither finds nor manufactures any dramatically life-altering moments in Vidal's 74 years so far. The life that he chronicles makes perfect sense given the elements that formed the man. It evolved naturally, the pieces fall ing into place at what always seems to be just the right time. You might say that Kaplan has told the story of Vidal's destiny. It's a fitting tribute to a man who, almost from childhood, has worried about how history will remember him and whether he woul d be remembered at all.

Oddly, Vidal is a more sympathetic figure here than in Palimpsest, his 1995 memoir, where he sometimes (but not always) seems cold or mean. There's only a modest hint of that strain of his character here, yet somehow, it doesn't feel like Kaplan has simply whitewashed or omitted it. His documents the facts of Vidal's acrimonious public feuds so thoroughly that he barely needs to declare Vidal the winner.

Finally, there's the emotional life, which Vidal did not explore in Palimpsest, and which winnows through Kaplan's biography, drawn from letters and gentle observations. This presents the biographer with his most daunting task. For just as Vidal has always claimed, he truly seems to be the sort of man who keeps his feelings to himself, and Kaplan doesn't feel compelled to drag anything out of him.

So we believe Kaplan when he says that Vidal deeply love his father, even though their relationship appears to be more affable than intimate. We witness the long friendships with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, with Claire Bloom, and with a handful of i ntimates whom Vidal kept in his circle as honored friends.

And of course, there's Howard, his aide and companion of half a century who, early in their relationship, figured Vidal out perfectly and nicknamed him "Me Me." They led separate and bustling sex lives (except for the night they met), and yet they have re mained inseparable platonic lovers, their relationship as natural and comfortable as any two people might ever hope to achieve. If, at the end of Kaplan's book, you still don't quite get how it works, you simply have faith that it does.

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THROUGHOUT ALL OF THIS, Kaplan writes elegantly, presenting his metaphors with precision, and summarizing each of his panoply of characters with shrewd analyses. For the most part he treats Vidal's novels and plays as incidents in the life, incorp orating their plots and meanings as a part of the ongoing narrative, not bothering at any length to parse the work, which is the realm of other projects.

In all, his subject emerges as a successful, fortunate and maybe even rather ordinary man of letters. He wanted to be a writer, and so he worked diligently at it, winning recognition in every medium he attempted. He did not destroy his life and work with alcohol, ego, greed, anger, bitterness or depression, like so many other writers one could name. He engaged life, but always somehow as an outsider, which allowed him clearer eyes to write about it.

He has, in short, lived a vividly public life of the mind, expressed in a voluminous body of work. And as for the inner life? Well, it's certainly in there somewhere, carefully guarded, cautiously revealed, and still somewhat of a mystery. We may just hav e to settle for that.

Hear author Fred Kaplan reads from his book Gore Vidal: A Biography. Requires RealPlayer.

ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh
kloman@pitt.edu