Bicoastal Relations: Gore Vidal's "Hollywood" Novels

By Harry Kloman

[NOTE: I wrote this essay in December 1990 for a graduate school class. Nothing in it is incorrect, yet neither is it groundbreaking scholarship. I like to think of it as Scholarship Lite.]

THE NOVEL-WRITING CAREER of Gore Vidal began much like those of other writers from his generation and the generation before him. He had gone to war at age 18, and in 1946, he published Williwaw, a novel based upon his experience as a soldier aboard art Army transport fleet in the Aleutians. It was a lean novel that told its story mostly through dialogue, and 16 years later, Vidal said of it 'The coolness of tone, the precision of style reflect inner tension. Since my inexperience was obvious to everyone, it was all the more necessary for me to do the things I could do with a certain unobtrusive dispatch. Also, I listened to stories, and sailors - real sailors - are dedicated rememberers of people and places."

The "inner tension" Vidal later saw in his seminal work is what soon erupted and launched one of the most diverse and successful post-war literary careers in the United States. His next novel, In a Yellow Wood (1947) , told the story of a young man working as an editor at a New York publishing firm. Here, the tension continued, and as life began to diverge for the Young Vidal, he faced some life-altering decisions. Vidal brought two things to his work as a novelist that, taken together, made him unique among his peers. He was the grandson of a American politician, the blind Sen. Thomas Gore of Arizona, growing up very close to his grandfather, and reading books to the old man, like the Arabian Nights and the Congressional Record; and he was a homosexual (or, as he often says of himself, bisexual). Both figured greatly in the work that followed.

In 1943, while stilt a high school student at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, the young Eugene Luther (soon to become Gore) Vidal wrote a fiction which he titled simply A Novel. He never completed this tale of a young homosexual writer, but after the success of Williwaw and In a Yellow Wood, he decided it was time to stop "playing it safe" (his words, written in 1965). With the publication of The City and the Pillar in 1948, Vidal launched the career for which he would become known. The tale of a young homosexual adrift in California after a nervous coming out, The City and the Pillar to some degree liberated Vidal from the "inner tension" he claims to have felt in his early work.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though, Vidal became known as a sort of novelist/historian for his "American chronicles," six books which tell, with some gossipy cynicism, the story of America's growth as a world power. The books were not written chronologically; in fact. Vidal rather stumbled into the chronicles without realizing what they would become. Beginning with Burr, Vidal examines what he calls "the history of the United States from the Revolution to - well, the beginning at Camelot" (the Kennedy era). The six books in the series are, in the chronology of American history: Burr (published in 1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (l976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and Washington, D.C. (1968). Many of them feature characters or descendants of characters seen in previous books, and all possess the wry tone and arch wit that distinguishes Vidal as one of the country's most persistent political observer.

Yet buried in Vidal's canon is another pattern, one that has as much to do with his life as his political ties. During the 1950s, Vidal wrote screenplays and teleplays in Hollywood, and for much of his life he lived bicoastally. For Vidal, the East represents a certain kind of decadence that goes with the self-aggrandizement of politics and power, while the West represents a completely different kind of decadence, one more akin to purely personal pleasures.

Vidal's Washington novels have been spoken of frequently, but little has been observed about the links between the recurring images of Hollywood in his novels. It is certainly significant that Jim, the young protagonist of The City and the Pillar, drifts from New York to California for his sexual maturation; and that the critical narrator of Messiah (1954), the story of a California death cult, is named Eugene Luther, Vidal's given name; and that his most controversial novel, Myra Breckinridge (1968), star a bisexual transsexual woman who seduces a would-be Hollywood stud. These three novels tell Vidal's West coast story, just as the American chronicles tell about his life in the political East. And with the publication this year of Hollywood, which takes place on both coasts, Vidal seems to have come full circle, returning to the kind of bicoastal tale that began his liberation in 1948 but adding an 'important dose of history and politics to the mix.

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VIDAL SEEMS ALMOST to possess two narrative voices: The cynical or self-centered voice of his West Coast tales, and the more hushed and austere voice of his political novels. These differences have to do with the stories he tells: from the East, stories of public policy and social commitment; and from the West, stories of personal pleasures, both sexual and ideological Of course, Vidal's East coast characters have vivid private lives, and his West coast people do more than just overindulge themselves. But his West coast stories nonetheless are more sinister and, in the case of Myra Breckinridge, downright perverse.

Vidal's first portrait of Hollywood and the West comes in several chapters of The City and the Pillar in which the young protagonist, Jim Willard, leaves a Merchant Marine ship in Seattle to resettle in Los Angeles. In Jim's native Virginia. life is domestic, polite, conventional and repressed; in the Hollywood of his dreams, people's names appear on marquees and no one has to work in an office. He arrives to find a tranquil place with sunny, rainless weather that never changes. Re also finds a society of discreet sexual freedom, and he is told to be careful of handsome young bellhops who will try to 'corrupt' him. Soon he meets the handsome actor Ronald Shaw (nee George Cohen), and he immediately becomes a detached participant in a world "where all men were whores and all whores were bisexual, where people drink heavily and talk endlessly of their sex lives, where prestige depends on income, and where everyone possesses the desire to wove in splendor through the lives of others, to live forever grandly, and not to die."

This sketch of Los Angeles culture, which occupies perhaps a third of the novel, laid the cornerstone for the California that Vidal continued to construct in the novels that followed. In 1968, Vidal published a collection of essays called Sex, Death and Money, in which he proclaimed that the titular trio comprises "the essential interests of the naked ape." It's striking that his portrait of California life revolves around precisely those three elements, whereas his portraits of Washington - where money is a given and sex a mere diversion - concern themselves more with power, both personal and political. "Why anyone is anything is a mystery, and not the business of law," says one character in The City and the Pillar. Indeed, Vidal's California is a place where anything can flourish - in Myra Breckinridge, with perversely humorous results, and in Messiah, with much darker consequences

Where Vidal's first portrait of Los Angeles focused mainly on sex, his second visit took up the issue of death. Messiah concerns a well-meaning popular philosopher named John Cave, whose notion that it is good to die" becomes the rallying point for a small band of followers and. finally, the core of a religious cult that overtakes the world. Vidal gives the California of Messiah the same airy self-indulgence that characterized The City and the Pillar, yet here it becomes increasingly sinister and ultimately fatal Depending upon how you judge Myra Breckinridge - with her rubber gloves and oversized dildo - Messiah may be Vidal's bleakest view of the consequences of West Coast sunshine

The central narrative of Messiah, like that of The City and the Pillar, begins in the East with an image off summer greenery at the peak of its bloom. Both openings suggest the change of seasons in the East, whereas in California, everything remains constantly, lullingly, monotonously green.

"I was an Easterner," says Gene Luther, the novel's narrator, "a New Yorker from the valley with Southern roots, and I felt instinctively that the outlanders West Coast residents were not entirely civilized." He sees in these outlanders "a blithe mindlessness that would in no way affect their usefulness as citizens." And he adds: "L.A. is unique in its bright horror. I was more intrigued by the manners, by the cults, by the works of this coastal people so unlike the older world of the East and so antipathetic to our race's first home in Europe. Gene immediately chides himself for his East coast prejudice when he says things like this, yet even his self-scolding has a mocking air - as though we know instinctively to believe Gene's first impressions of California.

The pop-cult rise of John Cave, the titular character and philosopher in Messiah, takes with the help, both conscious and unwitting, of the well-meaning Gene and the much slicker and more odious Paul Himmel, an advertising man whose work before meeting Gave involved "building up show business types. But in strangely prophetic passage, Gene describes Cave's first TV appearance, engineered by Paul:

Cave was equal to the moment. He looked tall. The scale of the table and chair was exactly right. He wore a dark suit and a dark unfigured tie with a light shirt that gave him an austereness which, in person, he lacked. I saw Paul's stage-managing in this.

Cave moved easily into [camera] range, his eyes down. Not until he had placed himself in front of the table and the camera had squarely centered on him did he look directly into the lens. Clarissa gasped and I felt suddenly pierced: the camera and lights had magnified rather than diminished his power. It made no difference now what he said. The magic was working.

Read today, this passage sounds like the sort of analysis we hear every year about the TV ads or the debates of presidential candidates. Put Vidal wrote the passage in the early 1950s, before the era of the television presidency that is, before the Nixon/Kennedy debates - and a time when modern advertising techniques had been used successfully on movie stars but hardly at all on politicians So in John Cave's first TV appearance we see an unusual linking of East and West: The techniques used to sell actors are used to sell a religious Messiah at the dawn of the era that discovered how to use them to sell national leaders This prophetic little passage, then, suggests that California was the birthplace of the modern media image-making that would soon consume Washington politics.

In Vidal's Washington, D.C., the regal old Sen. James Burden Day remains true to his public ideals, even if he privately corrupts himself to maintain them. But John Cave, we learn, is incorruptible, "not because he is so noble or constant but because he can only think a certain way and other opinions, other evidence, don't touch him." It's another kind of difference that separates Vidal's Eastern characters from his Western ones. In the East people look outward Gene studies history, and Sen. Day believes in doing good for society. But in the West people seek to satisfy their own immediate needs. "I do promise oblivion and the loss of self, of pain," says Cave, a former undertaker who develops his idea that "death is good" while looking at the dead body of a close friend. Yet he confesses that he never thought he would be "traveling around talking to people like one of those crackpot fanatics you've got so many of in California" - never intended, that is, to share his gospel with others. Cave (begins making speeches only so assuage his own inner tensions, and the carnage of suicide that grows from his lectures ultimately surprises even him.

Messiah is a dark novel, told in flashback by the aging, ailing Gene Luther, who had broken decades earlier with Cave's organization and now fears they will find him and assassinate him. It is a vision of a world consumed by a fervor that preaches suicide and helps people achieve it painlessly. And this all begins in California - so benign and self-consumed in The City and the Pillar, so malignant in Vidal 's more mature tale.

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AROUND THE TIME OF Messiah's publication, Vidal began to write teleplays and screenplays in Hollywood, launching a new career that would sustain him financially and frustrate him artistically. He would not write another novel for 10 years and would not return to California for the setting of a novel until 1968, when he startled everyone with the publication of Myra Breckinridge, the story of a simple homosexual man who has an operation that turns him into a hedonistic, autocratic transsexual woman who seduces both men and women with whatever devices - emotional or physical - she finds necessary. Of course, it takes place in Hollywood, among movie stars, celebrities, bimbos and hunks the most extreme landscape Vidal has ever painted of California.

Vidal wrote Myra in one month during a time in which he was writing essays about the 'French New Novel," a literary movement which claimed that novelists had the obligation to record every minute detail of human behavior precisely and accurately. This notion perfectly suited Vidal's new heroine, whose novel/notebook is being written as therapy for herself, thus giving us the opportunity to get "an exact, literal sense of what it is like, from moment to moment, to be me, what it is like to possess superbly shaped breasts reminiscent of those sported by Jean Harlow in Hell's Angels and seen at their best four minutes after the start of the second reel. "This mockery of the French New Novel also firmly establishes Myra, despite her protestations to the contrary, as a California creature, one highly enamored of herself who references almost everything in her life through the two-dimensional illusions of the movies. "A life's dream has come true, she soon confesses. "I am in Hollywood, California, the source of all this century's legends." And later, in a conversation with her nemesis, the actor Buck Loner (nee Ted Percey) , she speaks "in a careful low-pitched voice, modeled on that of the late Ann Sheridan (fifth reel of )."

Early in the novel, Vidal makes explicit a notion that he dealt with more implicitly in Messiah: Myra speaks of how "traditional human speech" seems to have evaded the California youths she encounters because "one must never forget they are first the creatures of the television culture which began in the early Fifties." Myra also muses that "the relationship between consumer and advertiser is the last demonstration of necessary love in the West. and its principal form of expression is the television commercial." Clearly, Myra means the Western United States and not "Western culture" in the global sense, for she soon speaks of how her students as her California acting school affect "certain speech mannerisms, appropriated from Western or Eastern stars of television series. And she adds: Any evidence that there could be a real world outside Southern California tends to demoralize our students. Of course they can observe other worlds on television but then that is show business and familiar. " Here, through the wicked observations of Myra, Vidal offers his most stinging vision of California, "that great sponge," says Myra, "into which all things are drawn arid then promptly homogenized," a place where they deal not in talent but in myths, and where people "possess a manner which is routinely cretinous as well as nasal."

Yet Myra, like John Cave, is a Californian at heart, for she strives to "put down all my impressions exactly for they are extraordinarily intense and important She mocks fads, yet she is herself a self-proclaimed "New Woman, whose astonishing history is a poignant amalgam of vulgar dreams and knife-sharp realities." And in her single-minded goal to seduce and humiliate Rusty Godowsky, the athletic all-American boy in her Posture class, Myra becomes the epitome of self-importance, a true Vidalian creature of West.

In Myra Breckinridge, as in Messiah and The City and the Pillar, Vidal again links the California weather to the character of its people It's a comical notion, to be sure, but there's also some odd logic to Vidal's insistence that a place without a change of seasons will naturally breed homogenized and dimensionless people. He writes of Myra encountering

a typical California type: a bronzed empty face with clear eyes and that vapid smile which the Pacific Ocean somehow manages to impress upon the lips of almost everyone doomed to live In any proximity to those tedious waters. It is fascinating how, in a single generation, stern New England Protestants, grim Iowans and keen New York Jews have all become entirely Tahitianized by that dead ocean with its sweet miasmic climate in which thoughts become dreams while perceptions blur and distinctions are so erased that men are women are men are nothing are everything are one Gentlemen, the desire and the pursuit of the whole ends at Santa Monica!
If there's one thing you can say about Myra, it's that she certainly knows how to put things into perspective.

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TWENTY-TWO YEARS LATER, Myra's sinister words would reverberate through Hollywood when the novel's protagonist, Caroline Sanford, a Washington, D.C., newspaper editor, leaves the East for California, she does so upon the advice of George Creel, a young journalist from the West tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to chair his Committee of Public Information, which oversees legislation aimed at controlling press coverage of government secrets. Creel enters the novel with his "straw hat set back on his head," and "like so many energetic young men new to public life, [he] could hold nothing back that might demonstrate in the most astounding way his own involvement in public affairs."

This flamboyant (by Washington standards) entrance, along with Vidal's rather smug description of Creel's public zeal, places Creel firmly to the West of the austere Eastern political establishment, which plays power games but nonetheless takes war and public policy quite seriously. Creel then suggests that Caroline go to Hollywood to persuade the film industry to make "pro-American, pro-Allies photo-plays" because, he says, "Hollywood is the key to just about everything.

Creel says his dream of using Hollywood to fight the war "is like advertising, though the President doesn't care for the word." It is, as well, like Paul Himmel, the ad man who sold the world a new Messiah in Vidal's novel 36 years earlier. So the novelist's themes and preoccupations recur, only this time, the stakes are higher, and the link to Washington power politics is explicit and central to the tale.

Then, the novel cuts abruptly to Hollywood, and Chapter Three begins:

Caroline lay tied to the railroad track the hot sun in her face while in her ears was the ominous sound of an approaching steam engine.

A high male voice called out, "Look frightened."

"I am frightened."

This tongue-in-cheek plunge into movie-making is as far removed from the ominous specter of World War I as anything could be. It is how Vidal contrasts the East and. the West, the real and the unreal.

Vidal's vision of the West doesn't change much in Hollywood compared with his other portraits. The rather odious Creel, who served as a censor during the war, feels the direction of the wind and sees the free speech issue as a "new crusade" when the war ends; he even suggests releasing a version of a war film with the Germans winning please profitable German audiences. Vidal also so continues to see West coast life as being artificial arid superficial, where "change' is represented by new storms of mechanical lighting, which can mask the lines in an actress face that sunlight only accents. Hollywood describes "world famous men and women who were stars, each tinier than the other,' only their large heads in proportion to their small bodies demonstrated some obscure Darwinian principle that when evolution required movie stars, those best adapted to the screen - large heads atop small bodies - would be ready to make the journey to Southern California because there's sun all year round, the town proclaims

What distinguishes Hollywood, though, as a portrait of the West are the often sly ways in which Vidal compares the two coastal characters. Caroline, the hardened Easterner who has seen more of the "real world" than her West coast friends, carries a crucifix in a movie scene and wonders "what sort of wood it was made of that it should be so very light." In one particularly wry passage, Caroline must cry on cue for a scene in her movie. But she finds it to be quite difficult. Vidal writes:

Tim [her director] had suggested that she think of someone close to her dead. She thought of her daughter Emma: not a tear came. She thought of [her brother] Flon, who was dead; and scowled, with anger, that she should have lost him in so stupid a war. The orchestra was asked to help inspire tears. - [and] played "Danny Boy," and Caroline laughed. Finally, a stick of camphor was given to Heloise, who held it close to Caroline's face, so that the pungent fumes would make tears while the orchestra softly played 'There's a Long, Long Trail a-Winding.' The result had been deeply satisfying for Caroline; and authentic, too, according to a delighted Tim.

Authentic indeed.

By writing a novel of Washington that spends so much time in Hollywood - and vice versa - Vidal brings together two predominant lines of his work as an novelist and as an American chronicler. Caroline films her movies under the name "Emma Traxler" to avoid damaging too fully her reputation as an Eastern newspaper editor, and this duel identity may reflect the way Vidal sees himself as a writer: Living in New York and Europe, he writes novels of America; and from his roost in Los Angeles, he writes screenplays, all the while taking notes on the oddness around him. One of the historical characters in Hollywood is the bigger-than-life William Randolph Hearst, the newspaperman-cum-filmmaker who, in 1941, found himself vividly (if fictionally) portrayed in Orson Welles' classic Citizen Kane. How interesting, then, that Vidal's Hearst, enjoying his Hollywood camera-toys but keeping his influential hands in Washington politics, prognosticates to his friends in 1917 that "the movies are the answer to the world." Q.E.D.

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