Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare
Gore Vidal’s 255 pg. coffee table-sized memoir Snapshots in History’s Glare sports a rather somber cover portrait of the author as a young man, a studious looking person, holding his eyeglasses in one hand.
Underneath that conservative exterior, however beats the heart of a rebellious mind, our generation’s Oscar Wilde for wit and intelligence, although with a broader political agenda.
Vidal had become an expatriate returning to this country he has said only because the hospitals in L.A. offered his long-term partner Howard Austen a more prolonged life. (Austen died in November, 2003 and is buried in Rock Creek cemetery in Washington DC in a tomb that Vidal plans on being buried in.)
Yet, he continues to inveigle against American expansionism and the George W. Bush administration, and what he sees as irrational and destructive sex laws, among other topics.
His ready pen and now this book’s publication (with its memorabilia of photographs, party lists, letters, and so on) suggests that Vidal’s Amalfi residency is in the Henry James manner of never quite severing emotional ties to America. That he has yet to turn in his citizenship papers, no matter how disgusted he is with the American Empire-building yahoos who have insinuated their ways into the highest offices in the land. He’s a sly one, which is one of his most lovable qualities.
A novelist, playwright, screenwriter and essayist with an output so large as to boggle the mind, Vidal has also run for public office and been a controversial talking head (most memorably when he came to fist-a-cuffs with William F. Buckley Jr. on network television in 1968). All of these aspects of a life richly lived are reflected in Snapshots, which, for instance, offers wonderful candid shots of John Kennedy his arm around Tennessee Williams’s shoulder with Vidal standing nearby (the photo was taken by Jacqueline). Expect the unexpected as always from Mr. Vidal who has traveled in rarified circles from birth.
A pioneer for sexual liberation
Early on in novels and, in later years, in essays, Vidal can be thought of as a pioneer in the literature of sexual liberation, most significantly with the publication in 1948 of his third novel The City and the Pillar" with its frank and dispassionate presentation of homosexuality. Prior to publication an editor at Dutton told Vidal: "You will never be forgiven for this book. Twenty years from now you will still be attacked for it." The New York Times brief review began: "Presented as the case history of a standard homosexual, this novel adds little that is new to a groaning shelf... over-all picture is as unsensational as it is boring." Nonetheless the newspaper refused to take ads for book and to review his next five books.
Later in 1968, Vidal brought out another variation on his pet themes of sex, gender, and popular culture with Myra Breckinridge about a man who has changes his sexual identity (through surgery) from Myron, a film critic, to Myra, a acting hopeful taking acting classes in Hollywood. The novel gave Vidal the opportunity to reveal his insider knowledge of film and film culture. Amongst the films he worked on are Ben-Hur, Suddenly, Last Summer, Is Paris Burning? and the film adaptation of his successful play The Best Man, which was coincidently written to help JFK be elected in 1960. Fittingly, Snapshots contains many photos from Vidal’s association with Hollywood.
Myra, by the way, lives in the same apartment building where Marilyn Monroe once resided which is directly across the way from the Chateau Marmont Hotel, the Sunset Strip hideaway that has long been a celebrity refuge. Vidal lived there with his partner Austen, as did Tony Perkins, Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift during his recuperation from his near-fatal 1956 automobile accident. A 1950s snapshot of the enclave, with the Hollywood Hills rising behind, takes up the entire page 87 of the memoir. There are also numerous candid photos of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the couple with whom Vidal and Austen lived with in a Shirley MacLaine’s Malibu house in the mid-1950s.
In this volume the prolific Vidal (hundreds of essays, close to 50 novels, plays and screenplays) offers a peek into the rarified world of politics and celebrity. From the looks of things, his has (and continues to be) a fun, often times relaxing, and most assuredly rewarding life.
Editor’s note: many of the photos in the book came from the Houghton Library at Harvard
If you want to read what Gore Vidal has to say about America, gay rights and the state of the news, read this interview from London’s Times Online.