As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.
—Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
The first sentence of Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir 1964-2006 (Doubleday 2006) appears disarmingly contrary to the obituaries presenting him as an elegant elitist who made his mark less as a novelist (he wrote 25) and essayist (some 20 collections) than as a caustic, combative public intellectual. The New York Times suggests he was “at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed.” In England, the Guardian obituary, written by Vidal’s executor Jay Parini, describes “a controversialist and politician manqué … celebrated both for his caustic wit and his mandarin’s poise.”
While there’s no denying Gore Vidal was thought of — and thought of himself — in those terms, the fact is that he chose to begin what, at this writing, has proven to be his swan song by declaring that the only thing he “really liked to do was go to the movies.” On July 31 — where else but in Hollywood? — he reached the door marked Exit.
As anyone who has read Vidal or seen him on television over the years surely knows, “the only thing” claim is disingenuous. He obviously “really liked” being in the limelight among the luminaries he’s sharing photos with in Point to Point Navigation, in a previous volume of memoirs, Palimpsest (1995), and in Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009), a book of 360 photographs. He also “really liked,” at least intermittently, reading, writing, politics, travel, and feeling at home in the world, whether living longterm in the Hollywood Hills, in his villa La Rondinaia in Ravello, or Edgewater on the Hudson in Barrytown, or in, among other locales, Rome, Paris, Bangkok, London, or Washington, D.C., which is where he grew up, bonding with the cinema in the various theaters fondly remembered in Chapter Four of Point to Point Navigation.
The use of a commonplace crutch word like “really” underscores Vidal’s primal enthusiasm for movies. As he’s quick to add, “Sex and Art took precedence over cinema but neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen.” While he admits to being “a compulsive reader from the age of six,” he goes on to say that he was “so besotted with movies” that one Saturday he saw five “in a day.” Several pages farther on in Point to Point Navigation, the patrician intellectual of the obituaries confesses, “what I really wanted to be was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney, and to play Puck, as he had done in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
A Letter from Edgewater
The Gore Vidal I knew best, in a manner of speaking, is the author of the early novels. Not yet famous, not yet a television presence or sophisticated media player, this is Vidal before the historical novels that began with Julian in 1964, Vidal before Myra Breckenridge in 1968, Vidal before he locked horns with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley.
“I have started your book,” the handwritten four-page note with the Edgewater letterhead begins, “which looks remarkably — I might even say enviably — well-written considering its author’s age (a patronizing note I like to strike now that I am safely past that business).”
I was 20 and thought of Vidal as another, older “young writer” who had published his first novel at 21. He was a few weeks short of his 34th birthday when I sent him a copy of my aptly titled first novel, Let Me Be Awake. Until I discovered eight of his books in a bookstore rental library that was going out of business, I didn’t know anything about him beyond the fact that he’d written a hit play called Visit To a Small Planet. The unlikely discovery of these novels I’d never heard of, all in their original dustjackets, gave them a certain charisma. Since they were only 25 cents each, I bought all eight.
“I mean, of course,” the letter continues, referring to my still-wet-behind-the-ears novel of a midwestern innocent emotionally shipwrecked in the Evil East, “it is most well-written and, as far as I’ve got, has that flow, that sense of the thing held whole in a fine consciousness which is literature.”
I’ve added italics to indicate the impact that this elegant, Jamesian sentence had on someone who was only beginning to figure out the difference between a metaphor and a simile. I should have thought, “Is he kidding?” I should have been wondering just how far he’d actually “got” in a narrative that didn’t really lift off until the protagonist went to New York. “I have started … as far as I’ve got …” Like maybe as far as page two? But who was I to question such eloquence? Reading on, I found that, as I’d anticipated, he was pleased to hear my “kind words” about his early novels. “I can only marvel that you found them! There are times when I think I dreamed them all — since all are out of print except for occasional paperback reprints — I am now the subject of obscure master theses on the novel of the 40s, or what went wrong?” He then assured me, “I have not given up prose — I just went into the trade (i.e. drama) for a few years to make money.”
The letter ends with a facetious coda, a Gore Vidal moment true to the urbane wit described in the obituaries: “I hope you will order your life better; one way — perhaps the only honorable way — is to marry money.”
Having read Vidal’s groundbreaking 1948 best-seller The City and the Pillar shortly before receiving his letter, I knew something of the author’s sexual orientation. I did not know, however, that at the time of the writing, he was already nine years into his 53-year relationship with Howard Auster, who, because he couldn’t land a job on Madison Avenue with a Jewish last name, took Vidal’s advice, changed Auster to Austen, and joined the Mad Men. I should also mention here that Vidal’s sensitive account of the illness and death of his longtime partner in Point to Point Navigation is another facet of his character at odds with the “cool and detached” obituary stereotype.
On the subject of The City and the Pillar, Vidal claims in his memoir that “the most powerful reviewer of the day,” the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, was so repelled by the mere idea of a novel portraying “a love affair between two ‘normal’ male athletes” that he not only refused to review it, but imposed a personal embargo: he would “never again read — much less review” anything by Gore Vidal.
While The City and the Pillar reads like the work of a writer who had yet to find the voice he found four years later in his seventh novel, The Judgment of Paris, it remains the book of Vidal’s that made the strongest impression on me, if only because, in its unaffected, straightforward, sometimes plodding way, it opened my eyes to my own clueless perception of “gays” (a term Vidal despised).
It Got Ugly
As much as I’ve enjoyed Gore Vidal’s essays and reviews over the years, I’ve read very little of his middle and late-period fiction. I found it hard to get into the spirit of literary tour de forces like Myra Breckenridge (1968), and his series of novels recreating American history never attracted me. The writer who had my attention was his arch rival (and at times mortal enemy) Norman Mailer, who was able impose his own style of novelistic excitement on real-life events such as the Democratic conventions of 1960 and 1968. While Vidal was on television going nastily one-on-one with William F. Buckley, Mailer was making literary history. The Gore Vidal I connected with was the young novelist of the 1950s, not the celebrity of the talk show feuds. Even though I was on his side most of the time, I found it hard to relate to the polished, sneering cynic trading insults with William F. Buckley. I never found those television skirmishes, including the ones with Mailer, amusing. I prefer writer-to-writer encounters like the famous one-night stand starring Vidal and Jack Kerouac, who presented a discreetly muddled version in his novel The Subterraneans, wherein Vidal becomes Arial Lavalina. A more graphic account of this literary tryst can be found in Fred Kaplan’s biography, Gore Vidal (1999).
On the Afterlife
One of the films in Point to Point Navigation that Vidal singles out for special mention during his “first and most vivid moviegoing phase” (from 1932 to 1939, age from 7 to 14) is The Mummy, with a lethally scary Boris Karloff in the title role. When Vidal saw the film again for the first time in 58 years, he “became, suddenly, seven years old again, mouth ajar,” as he inhabited, “simultaneously, both ancient Egypt and pre-imperial Washington, D.C.” Speculating on the movie’s appeal beyond “the charnel horror,” he observes that “any confirmation that life continues after death has an appeal to almost everyone except enlightened Buddhists.” In the next chapter, after meditating at length on The Prince and the Pauper, another Hollywood film that captured his imagination some four years later (“I wanted to be the identical twin boys … I wanted to be myself twice”), Vidal admits that “Like most children,” he used to “imagine what death must be like. But unlike most, I had no belief, or even interest in an afterlife.” Nevertheless, he sees fit to acknowledge “the notion of images impressed on celluloid” providing “a spurious sense of immortality, as does, indeed, the notion that those light rays which record our images will keep on bending about the universe forever.”
In the end, Vidal, the afterlife-denying novelist overrules Vidal, the moviegoer. “There are those who find comfort in such concepts,” he writes. “I don’t.”