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A really good biography is a gateway drug that sends readers immediately in search of more works on and by its subject. For those unfamiliar with Gore Vidal, Tim Teeman’s book should trigger an irresistible urge to learn more about the life and literary output of the brilliant controversial writer who died in 2012 at 86. At the time of his death Vidal had been in lamentable condition for years, demented and alcoholic, mourning the loss in 2004 of Howard Austen, his companion for over half a century. When asked how their union had lasted so long, Vidal said the secret was simple: they didn’t have sex with each other: “I’ve always made a point: never have sex with a friend.” The biography supplies so many more examples of Vidal’s ornery provocative statements that reading it feels a bit like sitting next to him at a drunken dinner party—maddening sometimes, but still an experience one would regret missing.
In the Prologue, Teeman warns the reader not to expect a biography that is conventional in structure or scope. “This is a book with sexuality at its heart; it is neither a general biography, nor evaluation of Vidal’s writing career.” Instead, it is a searching but ultimately sympathetic exploration of the psychological quirks of one of the twentieth century’s most acerbic and prolific public intellectuals. Teeman covers everything Vidal would have begged him to shut up about: “the details of his sex life, his attitude toward love, his supposed bisexuality, relationships with women, the true terrain of his relationship with Austen, how he felt about his own sexuality, the reality of that sexuality and where it intersected with his writing, ambition and politics.” During his lifetime he made himself a difficult subject for biographers. Walter Clemons worked for four years on a biography before giving up. He died a few months later, in 1994. Next was Fred Kaplan, who succeeded in publishing a detailed biography in 1999, despite Vidal warning him that “I don’t like talking about myself and certainly not about private matters, so I don’t know how you’re going to do this because there isn’t anything there.”
Teeman’s engaging study proves there is more than enough there for any number of books. Vidal stubbornly resisted categorization—as a writer, political observer, and above all, as a sexual being. Much to the vexation of the gay rights community, he insisted that “there was no such thing as a homosexual. Despite the current usage, the word is an adjective describing a sexual action, not a noun describing a recognizable type. All human beings are bisexual.” As a man of letters, he succeeded in every genre he attempted. While critics generally regard his essays as his finest work, Vidal also wrote fiction, including such notable historical novels as Burr, and Julian, as well as two memoirs, mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box, stage plays, and screenplays for television and film. His third novel, The City and the Pillar, published when he was only twenty-three, was an immediate best-seller, “the first post-war American novel to feature explicit gay sex and gay characters.” Now that gay fiction has achieved wide acceptance by the reading public, it may be difficult to imagine the sensation and furor the book aroused in 1948. As Allen Ginsburg noted, people, including the Beats, were eager to read The City and the Pillar “because of the sex. Nobody had gone that far then.” Vidal was understandably leery about being labeled and dismissed as a homosexual writer, but the publication of the novel removed all doubt in the public mind about his sexual orientation.
Vidal courted fame as assiduously as anyone in his generation, while refusing to praise the work of those he considered his intellectual inferiors. Since this included pretty much everybody, he had numerous detractors, including Truman Capote whom he loathed right back, remarking that “the instant lie was Truman’s art form.” He also had staunch admirers, including Tennessee Williams, Ned Rorem and Christopher Isherwood. Competitive to a fault, when E.M. Forster died, he remarked contentedly to Isherwood, “Well, we’ve all moved up one rung higher.” In Hollywood he had close friendships with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Sarandon and Claire Bloom. The book is full of delectable gossip from Hollywood, the literary world, and the political arena. Vidal was the grandson of a U.S. senator, and his stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss married the mother of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Given his pedigree, it was natural for Vidal to run for public office, and given his reputation, it was hardly surprising that he was defeated both times he campaigned, in 1962 and 1980.
Vidal was memorable for his wit, iconoclasm and stubborn refusal to be silenced or pigeonholed. The same pugnacious qualities that made him famous clearly made him an obnoxious enemy, eager to sue others for libel, including William F. Buckley, following their famous 1968 televised debate. Norman Mailer head-butted him and he punched Mailer in the stomach before they appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971. More disturbing is the revelation that Vidal defended Timothy McVeigh as “a true patriot, a Constitution man.” Teeman does a commendable job of showing readers the man in full, warts and all, without drawing inferences that cannot be supported by the evidence. One finishes the book in agreement with Christopher Isherwood who said in his diary, “What one feels and rather loves in Gore is his courage.”
In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master
By Tim Teeman
Paperback, 9781626010413, 283 pp.