Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th October, 2015
The American writer and egotist Gore Vidal was a force of nature who shocked and amused people on both sides of the Atlantic for much of the post-War period. I never met him, though I would have liked to. Christopher Isherwood, whose biography I was writing at the time, gave me an introduction but at that period I was so penniless that I could not finance a trip to Italy to visit Vidal in the huge villa that he occupied with his faithful companion Howard Auster on a cliff-side at Ravello, surrounded by 8,000 books. Not that he stayed put in any one place for long. Vidal was a compulsive traveller just as he was a compulsive drinker, yet still he managed to produce a huge body of work: novels, essays, film scripts and book reviews, as well as popping up on television all the time. His increasingly tart televised debates with the conservative commentator William F. Buckley in 1968 are legendary. Unlike many writers, Vidal adored the medium as it allowed him to act out his self-defined role. As he famously declared, never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television. His sexual appetite (mainly for casual encounters with young men) was as prodigious as his literary output until the last years of his life, but was catered for in the afternoon, between a disciplined morning of writing and an evening of socialising.
Vidal was a pre-eminently social creature, especially when the people he could socialise with were from the European nobility or stars from Hollywood. To capture the spirit of such a man would be a challenge for any biographer. Fred Kaplan tried, while Vidal was still alive — and the subject hated the result. Tim Teeman produced a volume entitled In Bed with Gore Vidal which catalogues Vidal’s sexual exploits. But it is only with the recent publication of Jay Parini’s Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something inside Me Dies (Little, Brown £25) that readers are now offered a full portrait of the talented gadfly. Parini, a professor of English as well as a novelist, knew Vidal over a period of several decades and indeed intersperses short passages of memoir of their times together in various places between the book’s chapters. He is therefore aware of Vidal’s weaknesses and excesses as well as of his strengths, but is a fervent admirer of the man as well as of the work, so is prepared to be forgiving, some times over-generously so. Not all of Vidal’s work was brilliant, though much of it was. He wrote too much, too fast, and barely let any editor change his words. He could be extremely witty, but often his humour was cruel. And although he could be kind and generous when in the right mood, he could be selfish and vindictive too. He made millions from his work and his public performances and lived lavishly, but he left nothing to the people who had devotedly helped look after him in his later years (Howard Auster having pre-deceased him), instead giving the lot to Harvard University, of which he was not even an alumnus but which would henceforth honour his name.