Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal

by Jay Parini


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An intimate, authorized yet totally frank biography of Gore Vidal (1925–2012), one of the most accomplished, visible, and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century 

The product of thirty years of friendship and conversation, Jay Parini’s Empire of Self digs behind the glittering surface of Gore Vidal’s colorful career to reveal the complex emotional and sexual truths underlying his celebrity-strewn life. But there is plenty of glittering surface as well—a virtual Who’s Who of the twentieth century, from Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart through the Kennedys, Johnny Carson, Leonard Bernstein, and the crème de la crème of Hollywood. Also a generous helping of feuds with the likes of William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and The New York Times, among other adversaries. 
     The life of Gore Vidal teemed with notable incidents, famous people, and lasting achievements that call out for careful evocation and examination. Jay Parini crafts Vidal’s life into an accessible, entertaining story that puts the experience of one of the great American figures of the postwar era into context, introduces the author and his works to a generation who may not know him, and looks behind the scenes at the man and his work in ways never possible before his death. Provided with unique access to Vidal’s life and his papers, Parini excavates many buried skeletons yet never loses sight of his deep respect for Vidal and his astounding gifts. This is the biography Gore Vidal—novelist, essayist, dramatist, screenwriter, historian, wit, provocateur, and pioneer of gay rights—has long needed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345805836
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 759,294
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.99(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

JAY PARINI, a poet and novelist as well as biographer, is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. His novels include The Last Station (adapted as an Academy Award-nominated film and translated into more than thirty languages), Benjamin’s Crossing, and The Passages of H.M.  His poetry includes The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems, and the forthcoming New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015. He has written biographies of Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Jesus. Among his nonfiction books are Why Poetry Matters and Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America.

Read an Excerpt

My friendship with Gore Vidal began in the mid-eighties, when I lived with my wife and young children in Atrani, a fishing village on the coast of southern Italy.  We had a small villa on a cliff overlooking the sea, with a view to Salerno to the south, and Capri just out of sight to the north.  The bay below us glistened, the sunlight like diamonds scatted on the water, almost too bright to bear, with fishing vessels departing each morning in search of mullet, mussels, mackerel, tuna, and squid that they would unload in the afternoon and sell in wooden barrels by the dock.  I was writing a novel in the mornings at a café in Amalfi itself, walking into town along a stony footpath where a thousand cats seemed to prowl, where sturdy women carried groceries slowly up hundreds of steps, and children kicked footballs in back alleys.  The smell of laundry soap, cat piss, and wild flowers were ubiquitous. 

We had a lovely rooftop terrace, above which rose a lemon grove and high limestone cliffs.  A massive villa – alabaster white, clinging to the rocks like a swallow’s nest – shimmered above us, and we wondered who lived there in such opulence.  Some Italian nobleman?  A local mafia don?  A film star?  When I asked the tobacconist in town about its resident, he said, “Ah, lo scrittore!  Gore Vidal.  Americano.”  He explained that the writer stopped by his shop almost every afternoon for a newspaper.  He retired to the bar next door for a drink, where he would sit and read for an hour or so before taking the bus up the hill to Ravello.

Already I knew the work of Gore Vidal quite well.  Having been an anti-war activist during the Vietnam era, I admired his fierce political commentaries in Esquire and The New York Review of Books.  I never forgot his fiery debates with William F. Buckley during the presidential conventions of 1968, especially during the siege of Chicago.  He had held his ground, driving Buckley mad with his relentless logic and unflappable manner.  I had read half a dozen of his novels, including Myra Breckinridge, Burr, and Lincoln. Needless to say, I wanted to meet him.
I sent a brief note, telling Gore I was an American writer living at 23 via Torricelli in Atrani, and would like to meet him.  That evening he pounded on my door, inviting us (my wife and I) to dinner.  I was terrified, as his reputation preceded him, and thought he might be tricky. But a friendship blossomed. I would often meet him for a drink or dinner, and a series of conversations began that lasted until his death in 2012.  It would be fair to say, in a crude way, that I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son.  We had a good deal  in common, including a passion for liberal politics, American history, and books.  We both loved Henry James, Twain, Trollope and Henry Adams – just to name a few of the more obvious names – and we invariably found we had more to talk about than time allowed.  We also shared a love of both Italy and Britain.  By that time I had spent seven years in the British Isles, and it turned out we knew many of the same people.  The literary world is, in fact, quite small – especially in Britain and Italy, where writers and editors often converge at parties and literary events.   

In the decades that followed, we spoke on the phone every week – for periods on a daily basis.  And I would stay with him often in Ravello or, later, Los Angeles, meeting him often when he traveled.  I have strong memories of times together in such places as Rome, Naples, Edinburgh, Oxford, London, New York, Boston, even Salzburg and Key West. He proved more than helpful to me as a younger writer, reading drafts of my books, offering frank critiques and encouragement.  We discussed his work at length, too – he would frequently send a typescript or galley for me to read. 

His phone calls, in later years, often began:  “What are they saying about me?”  To a somewhat frightening degree, he depended on the world’s opinion.  Once, in one of those memories that stands in for many others, my wife and I were sitting in his study in Ravello when he came in with drinks.  On the wall behind his desk were twenty or so framed magazine covers, with Gore’s face on each cover.  I asked:  “What’s that all about, those covers?”  He said, “When I come into this room in the morning to work, I like to be reminded who I am.” 

Over many decades he had built a huge empire of self, sending out colonies in various languages. “They love me in Brazil,” he would say.  Or Bulgaria, or Turkey, or Hong Kong.  I took his rampant egotism with a grain of salt.  It was part of him, but only part.  The narcissism was, at times, an exhausting and debilitating thing for him, as it proved impossible to get enough satisfying responses.  He required a hall of mirrors for adequate reflection, and there was never enough. The narcissistic hole can’t be filled.  At times, I wondered about how much money and time I spent in winging off to various far-flung cities to spend a few days with him, and my transatlantic phone bills reflected my own mania.  But his flame was very bright and warm, and I was drawn to it.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Rock Creek Ramble 6

Chapter 1

I A Silver-Plated Mug 9

II Capitol Steps 14

III A Wider World 27

Truman and Gore at the Plaza 38

Chapter 2

I Not a Lovely War 40

II Two Roads Diverging 50

III Storm at Sea 56

IV Hearts of Darkness 58

Edgewater Recalled 67

Chapter 3

I Portrait of the Artist as Balletomane 69

II Pillars of Salt 72

III Stateside 83

IV More Dolce Vita 87

V Finding Dutchess County 90

VI Loving Howard 95

Beverly Hills Blues 101

Chapter 4

I Detecting Life 103

II The Spanish Main 111

III Media as Messages 114

IV Silvery Screens 117

V More Visits to Small Planets 121

VI Outlaws 124

VII Ben-Hur 128

VIII A Place at the Round Table 132

At the Witter's Edge-Hyannis 134

Chapter 5

I "You'll Get More with Gore" 136

II Slouching Towards Camelot 145

III Essaying the World 148

IV Roman Spring 153

V Julian Rising 158

Moravia and Gore on the Isola Tiberna 164

Chapter 6

I Romanitas 166

II Capitol Steps Revisited 173

III The Holy Family 175

IV Myra 177

V Busy Weekends 182

VI The Vidal-Buckley Debates 185

VII Furious Visions 191

Miss Sontag Writes a Novel 198

Chapter 7

I A Bad Year 200

II Writing Richard Nixon 205

III Italian Hours 207

IV Patriotic Gore 213

V The Swirl 219

VI Myron Unmanned 222

The Man Who Wouldn't Fall to Earth 228

Chapter 8

I Half a Century 230

II 1876 and All That 236

III Memories, Dreams, Self-Reflections 239

IV Apocalypse Not Quite Yet 243

V Hollywood Redux 250

VI Grace and Hope 253

Gore and Isaiah Berlin in Oxford 259

Chapter 9

I Acting President 261

II Running in Place 267

III Duluth: Love It or Loathe It 272

IV Honorary Citizen 274

V Land of Lincoln 278

VI Ah, Venice! 284

The Lesson of the Master 287

Chapter 10

I "It's a Trade" 288

II "One Disaster After Another" 293

III Fear of Flying 294

IV Imperium 297

V Sailing the Coast 302

VI Adding Wings to the Mansion 306

Lenny and Gore 314

Chapter 11

I "Our Country's Biographer" 316

II "The Other Side of the Camera" 319

III Attacking the Sky-God 323

IV Thinking About Sex 328

V Retreats, Advances 330

VI In the Widening Gyre 332

At the Harvard Faculty Club 343

Chapter 12

I Rethinking Washington 345

II Dreams of Wholeness 348

III Elder Statesman 351

IV Reviewing the Life 352

V The Golden Age 355

VI Still the Best Man 358

Songs in the Hollywood Hills 366

Chapter 13

I The Pamphleteer 368

II Finding Founding Fathers 372

III A Death Before Bedtime 375

IV Marching to the Sea 380

V The Last Memoir 385

VI Mopping-Up Operations 388

VII Snapshots of the End 393

Conclusion 401

Postscript 407

Acknowledgments 411

Notes 413

Photo Credits 437

Index 439

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Empire of Self : A Life of Gore Vidal 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Franklynn More than 1 year ago
Parini has written an entertaining, informative, comprehensive biography of the controversial Gore Vidal. It will interest, amuse, and educate all those who loved or hated Vidal.