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  Who ever said writing a biography of Gore Vidal would be easy? In writing the biography there had been the pleasure of innumerable interviews with Gore Vidal, of visits to his Italian home, of association with a large cast of fascinating people and issues, of the challenge of trying to get it right and do it well. To my admiration for the work was now added fondness for the man. My telephone rang late in February 1999. It was the master himself. "When do I see it?" he said. "When the book is published," I said. "When the rest of the world gets to see it, as it states in our agreement." Long pause. "What agreement?" My fingers were already moving across my desk. I had one of the many xeroxes of the document in easy reach in preparation for this day, which I had hoped would never come. "The agreement you signed on March 15th 1994 in which you stated that I would have complete access to and use of your unpublished letters and that you would not interfere in any way with the publication of the book." Another long pause. "What about the quotes from my letters?" "What about them?" "Well, they are my words. I should have some control over them. I should at least have the opportunity to correct them for misquotation." "How can you check them for misquotation?" I said, "when you don't have the originals or copies of the originals to check them against?" I suspected that his interest in checking the accuracy of the quotes was a red herring, a temporary substitute for what he really desired: to read the manuscript before it was too late to influence what it said and how it said it. If a lengthy first-ever biography of me were about to be published, I'd be nervous also. What inaccuracies, slanders, and misrepresentations might the book not broadcast? And I had a previous experience with Gore that led me to believe that when it came to his unpublished letters he felt about them much as he felt about his fiction in progress--they were drafts subject to revision, at least to the extent of eliminating stylistic infelicities. He did not think of letters written fifty years ago as historical documents. "Don't you have your copy of the letter of our agreement?" I asked. "No! I don't remember such a letter." "I have a copy in front of me now. Would you like me to read it to you?" "Yes," he said.
After nine years, Walter Clemons, my authorized biographer, has presented almost nothing at all to me or to Little, Brown. Therefore, I should like to transfer the mandate to Fred Kaplan. I give him free range to quote from letters to and from me, interviews about me, critical studies--with the only proviso that print interviews be scrutinized for accuracy of quotation.... [At my archive in Wisconsin he may see] whatever he wants to see, with the single exception of one old diary that has been sealed. Naturally, Mr. Kaplan must have a free hand in writing his book, and I shall exercise no control."
When I received this in March 1994 (in response to stating what assurances I would need before I would undertake to write his biography), I had made two comments to myself and others: 1. Gore Vidal is genuinely libertarian in such matters and 2. how characteristically Vidalian he is even in a letter that in the hands of most anyone else would be a legalistic boiler plate. I had asked him to put in writing the terms of our working relationship. I knew how difficult if not impossible my situation would be at a later time if I did not have a document to protect me. Writing the biography of a living writer, especially one who has a bite (even if less than his bark), is a dangerous undertaking for both subject and biographer. I hoped this would be the end of it, though my jaundiced sense of even the best of human natures and of human nature in general cautioned me that it would not. Gore's grandfather, like Mark Twain, had said that if there were any race other than the human he would go join it. As Vidal's biographer, I knew that when he thought his interests were threatened he would go to great lengths to defend himself: it is human nature to be itself, to repeat the patterns of the past, for the inner angel to exercise its dark as well as its bright side. It needs occasional exercise in order to be itself. Now one of the perils was about to begin. In the end, Doubleday and I successfully fought off the last minute effort of my subject to assert some control over the manuscript. Gore Vidal did not get to see the book until it was published. And my affection and respect for him is as great as it always was.

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Copyright © 1999 Fred Kaplan.

Photo credit © Daniel Reilly