The lives and loves of the ubiquitous Gore Vidal

February 18, 2000

As biographer to Gore Vidal, Fred Kaplan not only found himself conversing with giants of film and literature, but also in a legal spat with Vidal himself. Jennifer Wallace reports

Fred Kaplan seems to relish celebrity status. When I visit him in New York to talk about his new biography of Gore Vidal, he gives me a tour of his home, a brownstone townhouse in Brooklyn. "This is the sitting-room, which we did up," he tells me, and "this", walking into his study, "is where I write my books".

I appear suitably impressed. After all, like the girl who danced with the man etc, I am rubbing shoulders with the man who has rubbed shoulders with the most famous rubber of shoulders in the United States.

"So what is Gore Vidal like?" I ask breathlessly, in what I hope is a groupie-like voice. Kaplan tells me about his visit to Ravello, southern Italy, where he stayed for a month. He talks about Vidal's villa, located at the end of a winding path, and about daily life there. "Gore is a very generous man and he is loyal to his friends. He is a great charmer as well," Kaplan says.

In many ways, biographer and biographee appear an odd couple. Vidal is one of the most flamboyant and well-connected people in the US. He is tall, handsome, formidably wealthy and privileged, promiscuously bisexual, a campaigner for gay rights and has, on occasion, been accused of being anti-Semitic.

His mother was the daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, the senator for Oklahoma and scion of the famous Gore family, of whom Al is now the most prominent member. His father, Gene Vidal, was Roosevelt's director of aeronautics and one-time lover of Amelia Earhart. His father's next lover, Liz Whitney, dropped in on Franklin Roosevelt at the White House without appointment to ask advice about her divorce and later nearly got the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

Thanks to Vidal's varied career and family connections, he knows most of the major players in American politics, in Hollywood and in television. He has turned out a prolific array of essays and novels - among them Washington DC, the splendidly gossipy novel about the corrupt nature of American politics - but he is best known as a controversial commentator on current affairs.

Kaplan, on the other hand, is a small, heterosexual, Jewish New Yorker, who started out as an academic and still teaches English literature at New York's City University. His previous biographies, much acclaimed, have been of classic, canonical and, as he points out, long-dead writers: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Thomas Carlyle.

So how did he end up writing a biography of Vidal? The short reply is - he was asked. Vidal approached him through an intermediary, Jay Parini. "Gore gave the impression that he'd read one of my biographies and liked it, but I'm not certain that he really did," Kaplan recalls. "He can be very diplomatic and engaging, especially when he wants to be persuasive."

A biographer had been hired previously, but in nine years had failed to produce a word and so Vidal and publisher Little, Brown decided to pull the plug and think again.

Kaplan admits that he did not know a lot about Vidal before he started the book. "I was aware of him as a controversial figure in political and sexual matters. If his name appeared on the roster of guests on a late-night TV programme, I made a note. But I wasn't familiar with him, I hadn't read the entire works or anything of that sort."

Urged on by an agent and a good publisher's advance, he set out to find out more. Writing a biography about a living writer meant that there was more scope for the oral interview, and Kaplan went out with his tape recorder and interviewed about 150 of Vidal's acquaintances, including Norman Mailer, Paul Newman and Paul Bowles. He also spent a lot of time with Vidal and his companion, Howard Austin:"He's wonderful, supportive, helpful and frank - a great treasure," Kaplan says. They would talk on the telephone every other day and he spent July 1994 at their house in Italy, taping six to ten hours a day, keeping the tape recorder running over lunch and dinner.

It was difficult, Kaplan says, in such circumstances, to maintain an objective approach to the material and not to get sucked into Vidal's perspective on his life. Kaplan was careful, for example, when he was in Italy to stay in a nearby hotel and not to accept Vidal's invitation to be his house guest. "As the biographer, I had to make efforts not to be compromised. I had to be not too much Gore's guest," he explains. "One of Gore's strategies when dealing with people, especially people who are in a position to influence his image and reputation, is to charm them and to pre-empt their reservations by the attractiveness of his presence. I had to keep that in mind."

The issue of Kaplan's independence as a biographer came to a head when the book was nearing completion. At the start of the project he had a written agreement from Vidal that, while he would give complete access to his published and unpublished work and to people he knew, he would exercise no control over the final outcome. But in early 1999, Kaplan had a telephone call.

"So you're just about done, right?" asked Vidal. "When do I get to see it?" Kaplan paused: "Well, just as our written agreement says, you get to see it when everybody else does, when the book is published."

They then went on to debate the possibility of Vidal checking the quotations from the oral interviews and checking the quotes from his unpublished letters.

Vidal was allowed to check the quotes from the oral interviews. "Most of the changes that he wanted were stylistic changes," Kaplan says. "He wanted to make his spontaneous oral conversation sound like his polished prose."

But the argument that stemmed from Vidal's need to control his image and Kaplan's independent integrity rumbled on until Vidal contacted his lawyer to demand that he be allowed to see the quotes from the letters. Kaplan responded by pulling the quotes from the text, randomising them so that they would not reveal the structure of his narrative, and got a written agreement that Vidal could only see the quotes and not alter them in any way. But this satisfied Vidal, and despite the legal dispute, they went back to the same easy friendship they had enjoyed before.

"Gore rarely, if ever, holds grudges. He likes to battle, but once the battle is over, as long as it is an honourable battle, he's perfectly friendly," Kaplan says.

There was only one moment during the interview stage when they fell out. Given their vast differences in background, Kaplan was surprised that there were not more. The testing moment came when they were discussing homosexuality and Vidal's participation in the gay scene.

"The question was simply an informational question: to his knowledge had so and so, who was male, had sex with another male?" Kaplan remembers. "But for him it touched one of his fears that I, as a straight male who has a moderately comfortable affiliation with middle-class, bourgeois society, was simply not going to understand the world that he and Howard inhabited. My mind was too rigidly set on conventional morals. So he exploded."

Kaplan tried to calm him down, acknowledging their differences but pointed out that they were stuck with one another. "We took a break. He came back and he was completely composed again. But for a minute he'd really lost it."

In the biography, Kaplan describes the nights that Vidal spent at the Everard Baths, the notorious homosexual meeting place in New York, known locally as the "Ever Hard", where men of all backgrounds would go for single or multiple encounters.

How did Kaplan find out about that world? How did he convince Vidal that he could understand the environment he moved in and was not rigidly and conventionally moral?

"It was a fascinating education for me," he says. "I didn't attempt to have any bathhouse experiences myself, but I asked homosexual friends and acquaintances what went on at the Everard Baths and I got a lot of information out of books."

Accustomed normally to reading in scholarly archives about dead authors, Kaplan found himself boning up on the latest in gay literature. "I learned about tops and bottoms, the language they use."

Since Vidal has written about his experience of the homosexual world in his memoir Palimpsest (and indeed about much of the rest of his life in essays elsewhere), there is little in the biography that will come as a shocking revelation. Vidal has always made his life public knowledge, even a cause cel bre, and there is nothing really that he has attempted to conceal.

As Kaplan says: "I would need to find something utterly monstrous or bizarre about Gore to shock anyone."

But what is new are the details of his relationships, his relationship with Austin or his relationships with women - Anais Nin or Claire Bloom or Elaine Dundy.

"If you want answers to questions such as, 'has Gore ever gone to bed with a woman?', it's there," Kaplan says.

Now that the biography is published, Kaplan is moving back to a more familiar world. He has started work on a biography of Mark Twain.

"I am looking forward to it," he tells me, as we sit in his study, surrounded by videos of Vidal's numerous television appearances. "Gore is very happy in the public limelight, meeting people and being a celebrity. But while I enjoy that for a time, I really prefer being quiet, being a scholar, working in the library."

Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English, Peterhouse, Cambridge University. Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan is published by Bloomsbury, Pounds 25.00.

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