Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Gore Vidal opens like The Rocky Horror Picture Show: an innocent young couple in a vehicle are about to meet someone monstrous. Only in this case it’s not Doctor Frank N. Furter; it’s “Gore Vidal,” Mewshaw thinks as he sits on the cross-town bus in Rome, “renowned for his acerbic wit and cutting remarks about those who didn’t measure up to his exacting standards. Having watched him on television … I preferred not to imagine the mincemeat he might make of an American couple in Rome for a year with their six-month-old son.”
But Vidal is warm and welcoming, and the Mewshaws are soon part of the American expatriate colony to which Vidal and his partner Howard Austen happily belong. More than anything else, Mewshaw’s Sympathy for the Devil is a nostalgic love letter to Rome, and that is what makes it so very readable—that and the endlessly quotable Gore Vidal. Vidal’s own memoir of Rome—his essay “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and Others”—doubles as a review of Tennessee Williams’ own memoirs, and it begins with a picture of the city when Vidal and Williams had just arrived there after the Second World War. Mewshaw tells Vidal that he’s reviewing Williams’ Memoirs—which he finds full of self-pity and bad writing—and Vidal asks to be loaned the galleys; several weeks later, Mewshaw finds Vidal’s essays in The New York Review of Books. From the start, they are fellow writers.
Williams never became a resident of the Eternal City, but Vidal and Mewshaw did, and that, really, is the story of this book. It was a time when apartments were cheap (Vidal’s starts out at $420 a month and, decades later, balloons to $4,000) and the city, while crowded with cars, had not yet become polluted. Indeed, Mewshaw doesn’t even mind getting stuck in traffic jams because the views out the bus window are so beautiful. And there are a lot of American writers passing through the city, many under the aegis of the American Academy in Rome—writers like John Horne Burns, William Styron, Pat Conroy, Donald Barthelme, and Gay Talese, writers we associate with a kind of middlebrow literary culture whose importance has shrunk, if not vanished, since then.
But the main reason Vidal chose Rome, he says in an interview, is “because I didn’t want to become an alcoholic, basically. They are all there [in the U.S.]for some reason. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner are the classic examples, but it didn’t stop with them.” Another reason, as we’ve already learned from In Bed with Gore Vidal, Tim Teeman’s recent book about Vidal’s sex life, is the availability of hustlers. The first big event Mewshaw experiences with Vidal as a resident of Rome is the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini by a hustler Pasolini had picked up at the train station—precisely where Vidal and his partner Howard Austen found theirs. When Barbara Grizzuti Harrison asked Vidal about Rome—“Is it the colors that you love? Is it the quality of the light? Is it the warmth of the people?” Vidal replied: “Well, what I like—you have to understand I came here shortly after World War II. What I like is you could go up to the Pincio at night and buy any boy that you wanted for five hundred lire.”
Vidal, says Mewshaw, “like a lot of expats—I don’t exclude myself—treated Italy as a luxury hotel he could check in and out of as it pleased him.” Later on, there would be the “years of lead”—the kidnapping and murder of the Italian premier, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades—but at first, life in Rome is good. Mewshaw becomes a frequent visitor at the Vidal-Austen penthouse in an old palazzo, where, we learn, Howard and Gore refer to their houseboy by one of two terms: either “hashish” or “LBP” (Little Brown Person). The word “faggot” is tossed around as well, as when Vidal calls his agent “a little faggot too weak to stand up to” his editor in New York. But then, everyone seemed to use the “F” word then, even William Styron, to Vidal’s face, when Styron claimed that writers who are “fags” have an advantage because they don’t have to support a wife and family.
Despite the lunches, dinners, parties, and gossip, Vidal turns out book after book. “Why do you push yourself so hard?” Mewshaw asks him in one of several interviews Vidal grants him. “Do you feel guilty when you’re not working?”
“Of course,” Gore replies. “After all, I am a puritan moralist.”
That’s one of the things that many people did not get about Vidal; and what people did not get about Vidal is precisely what Mewshaw says he wants to show in his book—that the cool, aristocratic, imperturbable grandee was also a hard-working, sentimental, generous, and loyal friend who, “while he preferred to pass himself off as a stoic à la Marcus Aurelius … was frequently quite the opposite—irascible, brusque, angry, depressed to the point of suicidal ideation.”
Vidal is full of contradictions. The puritan moralist and his partner even make annual trips to Bangkok “in our relentless pursuit of AIDS,” says Gore. Not too relentless, evidently: when the dying Rudolf Nureyev comes for a visit from his own Italian island to Vidal’s villa in Ravello (as in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) and takes a swim in Vidal’s pool, they are warm hosts, but he and Austen have it emptied afterwards in case chlorine is not enough to kill the virus. And Vidal and Austen remain healthy and Rome golden. Soon the Mewshaws are going to parties at Vidal’s place filled with actors, priests, film directors, writers, and male models—the sort of party we all wish we’d gone to, in a city we wished we’d live in, particularly at that time.
And then, as time passes, things begin to change—for reasons that are never quite explained. All Mewshaw writes is: “As the rest of us enjoyed the sweet life, Gore increasingly seemed glum and off-kilter. … Death was more and more on his mind as he approached sixty, and a parallax yawned between his handsome, haughty persona and the paunchy, disconsolate man he was turning into.” For one thing, it was the booze. “In addition to great quantities of wine, he consumed Rabelaisian amounts of Scotch and vodka. The old cautionary tales about hard liquor, and his disdain for contemporaries whose careers had been wrecked by alcohol, no longer played any part in his repertoire. When warned that with his high blood pressure he had better cut back on drinking, he said that he would rather die.”
But what caused this? Simply the loss of youth, the specter of old age, the failure of his own success to match what he had hoped for? (Vidal had serious political ambitions.) Mewshaw thinks Vidal suffered for years from unacknowledged depression. At a certain point we learn that even the hustlers no longer helped. “Don’t tell me you can still get it up,” Vidal accuses a friend. “I need real technicians now, not street trade.” At the same time he started blabbing about sex at elegant dinner parties—talking about his ancestors’ genitalia, asking the women at a dinner party what they think of anal sex. The irony, Mewshaw writes, is that “for all his coruscating chatter about sex, Gore struck me as one of the least sensuous, least tactile men I ever met. Despite a drawling, relaxed voice, he was physically rigid, coiled. … In his essay ‘Pornography’ he wrote that ‘an effort must be made to bring what we think about sex and what we say about sex and what we do about sex into some kind of realistic relationship.’ In his own life, however, he never appeared to come close to achieving that harmony.”
Tim Teeman’s In Bed with Gore Vidal is about contradictions as well, though it purports to be a study of Vidal’s take on sex. Mewshaw’s memoir is simply richer and more rounded; he knew Vidal for decades. In Sympathy for the Devil we see Vidal in Rome, in the villa in Ravello to which he moved after Rome became too expensive and polluted, on a book tour in London, at a literary seminar in Key West, and home in Los Angeles; and we see him over time. We watch the man who, when Vidal and Mewshaw got to Rome, didn’t drink hard liquor. By the time the book is over, Vidal is downing Scotch and vodka throughout the day, but to Mewshaw’s amazement he seems never to have a hangover, and he always gets up the next day to deliver the article or interview as promised.
So, inevitably we end up in the same place we do in the Teeman book: with alcoholism and decline. “I have no intention,” Mewshaw writes in his preface, “of producing what Joyce Carol Oates [the three saddest words in the English language, according to Vidal]has described as a ‘pathography’—the kind of lurid postmortem that dwells on an author’s deterioration.” The fear that he is producing a pathography, however, seems to haunt him: “Perhaps Gore Vidal should be permitted to rest in his grave, confident that neither I nor anyone else will reveal what he was actually like. But in the case of a writer whose work and character have so often been misrepresented, I’m convinced that there needs to be a corrective portrait.” And that would have to deal with the fact that “alcohol, massive amounts of it consumed over decades, did him incalculable damage, ravaging his physical and psychological equilibrium. This, it might be argued, was his private business. But because drinking undermined his work and his public persona, I believe that this topic and his long-standing depression deserve discussion.” Okay. But dandruff?
Vidal’s dandruff first appears in a description of the great man in a bookstore in London as Mewshaw waits in line to have a book signed. Howard Austen, he writes, looks “drawn and pale. … Gore, who had turned seventy in October, didn’t look much better. His shirt buttons were stretched to the popping point, and his blazer hung open, exposing a swagged belly. His shoulders were dotted with dandruff, and his parchment-dry skin had a permanent crease on the right cheek.” Later, when Mewshaw and his wife had been invited for dinner: “Howard and Gore were drunk when Linda and I joined them in their suite at the Connaught. Room service had sent up a magnum of Veuve Clicquot and a pot of caviar, much of which dribbled down Gore’s shirtfront, along with hard-boiled egg yolk and toast crumbs.”
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first put hair on their backs,” Vidal once joked when speaking of Israelis, but dandruff seems below the belt. I suppose one could say that it’s a measure of Mewshaw’s love for Vidal, his reverence for Vidal’s accomplishment and brilliance, that makes the details of his physical decline all the more horrific to him. Or it’s just a good writer’s eye for physical detail. Or the fact that decline is more dramatic than success. There is something Lear-like in Vidal’s long suicide by alcohol, his wish to die, his turning to sentimental reveries about the prep school student Jimmy Trimble, who he claimed was the love of his life (a myth, both Teeman and Mewshaw conclude), his increasingly tacky behavior and offensive remarks. But that dandruff makes one wonder whether Mewshaw’s stated goal of showing the kind, conflicted, vulnerable man behind the mask Vidal presented to the world has not been overtaken by the same inevitable Grand Guignol in which Teeman’s book is steeped, though Mewshaw’s is much better written, with a skilled writer’s eye for anecdote, punch line, and description of scene.
At the Key West Literary Seminar, to which Mewshaw had been given the assignment of attracting Vidal, there’s more when his old friend arrives: “A sad, shrunken doll in a rumpled blue blazer with an antimacassar of dandruff around his shoulders, he wore stained sweatpants and bright white tennis sneakers and sat slumped to one side in his wheelchair, as if the bones had been siphoned out of his body.”
Vidal’s behavior at the Key West Literary Seminar is so bad, it’s hilarious—he’s the nightmare guest whose presence induces chiefly dread in his hosts: Can he get through it? At an inaugural party at an art gallery, when the owner says, “Here’s someone I’m sure you’d like to meet, Mr. Vidal. Joy Williams,” Vidal replies, “Why would I want to meet Joy Williams?” When one of the town’s leading lights, a man who has told Mewshaw he’s looking forward to meeting the writer Tennessee Williams introduced him to years ago, says to Vidal: “Gore, what a pleasure to see you after all these years,” Vidal replies, “I’ve never seen you before in my life.” And when a generous donor to the Seminar comes over to talk to him, Vidal barks “for somebody to ‘get this drunken cross-eyed cunt out of my face.’” Not your dream panelist, though Vidal went on to be filmed by C-SPAN in conversation with his literary executor Jay Parini and later in the year addressed the British Parliament and the legislature in Turkey, and conferred on a revival of his play The Best Man before dying of pneumonia in Los Angeles not long after that.
In other words, though much better written, more interesting, and more readable, Mewshaw does not come out in a place very far from Teeman’s gothic amalgam of interviews with Vidal’s caretakers conducted not long after his demise. So how does Mewshaw end up with something very close to a pathography after all? Is it just Vidal himself that makes it inevitable? Or is it the strange tax we levy on people who achieve great things? Or the difference between being straight and gay? In the end, the Mewshaws still seem like the young couple in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or for that matter Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They, and many of Vidal’s friends, have had to put up with an awful lot. But when it’s over, the Mewshaws divide their time among London, Rome, and Key West, the parents of two grown sons and a grandchild, while Vidal has died a crazy drunk in a wheelchair.
So he drank himself to death; so what? (Or rather, would it not be interesting to wonder why at sixty he began wishing to die?) Is there an explanation for it? Does it have anything to do with his genius, or was it just alcoholism? In this case, it’s neither irrelevant nor explained. But surely we don’t read about Vidal because he died with wet brain. As with John Lahr’s recent biography of Tennessee Williams, Sympathy for the Devil portrays the tortured personality, the conflicts, the turmoil behind the public mask; but we never get what made both of these men the writers they were. Like Williams, Vidal was so witty, so quick, so sharp, he deserved a Boswell; instead we get these secondary figures who intersected with them as interviewers and survived to chart their terrible decline. Mewshaw’s memoir succeeds in its goal of showing us the variegated moods and aspects of Vidal’s character; but what do he and Lahr want of their subjects, perfect mental health? It’s a bit like Orson Welles’ speech in the movie The Third Man (to condense): Renaissance Italy produced murder, the Borgias, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. Switzerland had five hundred years of democracy and peace and produced the cuckoo clock.
Andrew Holleran’s novels include Dancer from the Dance, The Beauty of Men, and Grief.