Gore Vidal (Fred Kaplan)

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Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, New York, 1948, at a party celebrating the opening of Williams's Summer and Smoke. (Photo by Jo Healy. Courtesy of Erin Clermont)

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  In early November 1961 Gore was busy in New York with rehearsals of Romulus. There seemed little reason to be optimistic that the play would be as successful as The Best Man, let alone a success at all. The first act was tediously troublesome. Cyril Ritchard's comic flair for the outrageously campy did not convey the Roman emperor's serious side and the play's significant historical elements, including the analogy between the Roman and the American empires. Lyn Austin, who had not had the same tingle as she had had with The Best Man, was happy to have another of Roger Stevens's associates, Robert Whitehead, be the hands-on producer. Though he had not yet faced it consciously, Gore sensed that his decision to adapt the Dürrenmatt play had been a mistake. Also, he would soon have to make up his mind whether to run for Congress again. Joe Hawkins pressed him for a decision, as ambivalent as Gore about whether it would be a good idea. The Senate seat came up again. For both, he had until late winter to decide. But the longer he waited, the less likely his chance of success. Maybe the best thing would be to chuck political life altogether. He had seen much during the first year of the Kennedy administration that had drawn home the disadvantages of political office. For the first time he admitted to himself that both holding political office and writing novels was untenable. At this point he received an invitation from the President and Mrs. Kennedy to attend a dinner at the White House on November 11. As he went down to Washington for the grand dinner, he was not in the best of moods. Recently he had written for Esquire, for which he now did occasional political columns, about his outrage at the Justice Department's indifference to the FBI's disregard for civil liberties. Bobby Kennedy seemed either too much in sympathy with or too much under the thumb of the powerful FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. Gore had written directly to Bobby at the Justice Department to complain about FBI coziness with the Ku Klux Klan. The Attorney General had responded with curt dismissiveness. Still, this was a celebratory evening. The Kennedy administration had come into power almost exactly one year before. It was the first major social dinner they were hosting, in honor of their glamorous Italian friends, the Agnellis, owners of Fiat and apparently, also in honor of the Radziwills, Jackie's sister Lee and her tenuously royal Polish businessman-husband. Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. whom Gore knew through Eleanor and who represented the Agnelli business interests in America, was being rewarded for his early support of Kennedy, by a White House dinner for his clients.

Arriving by car with Schlesinger and his wife and John Kenneth Galbraith, Gore anticipated an evening of ostensible glamour and real boredom. About a hundred fashionable guests in tuxedos and evening dresses. Elaborate White House hospitality in spaces small for the event. Music. Dancing. Dinner. Flashes of crystal catching light. A hum from dozens of indistinguishable voices. In the Red Room he unexpectedly found himself face to face with the Auchinclosses. Marriage to Nina had brought Hughdie access to a senator. Marriage to Janet had brought him to the White House. With his usual good manners Gore attempted to maneuver the encounter onto high ground. With characteristic quarrelsomeness Janet responded rebukingly to an elaborate compliment from Gore about how well she had performed as a stepmother to Gore's sister Nini. Why are you attacking your mother? Taken aback, Gore answered that he thought he had been complimenting Janet. Extricating himself as quickly as possible, he moved into the adjacent Blue Room. There was barely standing space. Groups of chairs, mostly occupied, were scattered around. He was delighted to see Jackie, seated amid other occupied chairs. Never quarrelsome, she could be counted on for her usual purring pleasantries. Since the chairs around her were taken, he squatted next to hers, steadying himself by placing his hand across the back of her straight-backed chair, his arm brushing her back and shoulders. Jackie seemed happy to see him. They chatted amiably. As she turned her head to talk to someone on her other side, Gore felt his hand being removed from behind the back of her chair and shoulder. Looking around and up, he saw Robert Kennedy, who then immediately walked to the door separating the Blue from the Red Room. Unaware of what had happened, Jackie continued her other conversation. Gore went immediately to Kennedy. It had seemed to him a personal attack, as if the Attorney General were some high-toned puritan butler policing the room. "Don't ever do that again!" he said to Kennedy. "'Fuck off, buddy boy,'" Gore recalls Kennedy responding, "to which one of America's most distinguished men of letters responded, 'You fuck off, too.'" Since clearly he had the Attorney General's ear, Gore renewed the complaint he had outlined in his Esquire article about the FBl's acting in the South as an anti-civil-rights terrorist organization. Kennedy responded that it was none of his business. Gore said that as a writer he would make it his business. Kennedy answered that he was not much of a writer. Later, Gore heard that Kennedy claimed that Gore had said, "I'll get you!" No one had seen the encounter. No one else heard the dialogue.

* * *


In the mid-1970s two of Vidal's literary colleagues, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, had come back into his life, both unpleasantly, as if these well-publicized giants of American literature insisted on inscribing their names in comic headlines. Perhaps any headline was better than none. Not that he himself had forgotten or neglected either of them. In Myron, in 1974, Capote makes a parodic appearance as a giggling, inept gossip named Maude, a snobbish hairdresser with "a damp-looking face." Mailer appears as a drunken, semiviolent cook named Whittaker Kaiser, "a small fat old man of fifty or so with a full head of wiry gray hair," constantly threatening Myron/Myra with a meat cleaver. Kaiser proclaims that "the real man takes one woman after another without the use of contraceptives...just the all-conquering sperm because contraception of any kind is as bad as masturbation and because the good burger makes the good baby." Other than Time magazine, which remarked on Kaiser as "a merciless lampoon" of Norman Mailer, few reviewers identified the wildly funny portrait or the eerie precision of the caricature of Capote, though many recognized Vidal's targets. Neither Mailer nor Capote responded privately to Vidal or commented in print. Probably neither had read the novel: all three had long since given up reading one another's fiction. Mailer and Vidal had not had any contact since they appeared together in 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show. Vidal, with his talent for moving on, had focused whatever occasional public comments he had made about Mailer since 1971 on the issues on which they differed. "Yes," he wrote to Jim Tuck, his Washington childhood playmate who had written favorably about Myron, "Norman is every bit as flabby and his own conversation rather less credible than W.K.'s." The depiction of Mailer as Whittaker Kaiser expressed how much he resented Mailer's attack on him on the Cavett show and what it represented, especially Mailer's homophobia.

Vidal had last seen Capote at a party in New York, where neither said anything of consequence to the other, though later Vidal recollected that because he had not had his glasses on, he sat down "on what I thought was a stool and it was Capote." "Where was Capote sitting at the time you sat on him?" "On a smaller stool." Capote's attempt at a reconciliation in Rome in 1969, which Vidal mistrusted, did not prevent each occasionally making derogatory comments about the other for quotation, mostly witty, humorous ripostes such as Vidal's that Capote has "raised lying into an art--a minor art" and that he "belongs less to the history of literature than the history of public relations." Capote's remarks were equally hostile, particularly his on-camera comment to David Susskind, "Of course, I'm always sad about Gore. Very sad that he has to breathe every day." To Judith Halfpenny, who had queried Gore in 1976 about the rumor that he was "about to write a gossip novel," he privately expressed his disdain for both Capote and Mailer. "That is Capote's field. Most of what is written about me in the press is untrue. This is not due to malice so much as to plain incompetence... I find on TV I am often supposed to talk about fashions and famous society ladies. I then remind the host that I am the one who talks about politics and Capote is the one who tells naughty stories about the rich and Mailer is the messiah."

When, in 1975, Capote told a "naughty" story about Vidal to an interviewer for Playgirl magazine, Vidal resorted to the law, partly a misplaced moment of admonitory moralism, partly an expression of his longstanding sensitivity to the distortions and inaccuracies widely current about the history of his relationship with the Kennedys. He felt there was ample evidence Capote had made a career out of embroidered distortions and outright lies. Capote himself readily admitted the former. Vidal told stories by stripping away ornamentation in order to reveal basic realities. The aphorism and the telling detail were his weapons. Capote embraced expansion, exaggeration, the slippery transition into self-dramatizing fantasy. Their styles clashed, their narrative strategies in literature and life differed. They had incompatible ideas about what was truth. Vidal measured claims against the world. Capote turned the world into a supporting cast for himself. Capote's performance personality, which Vidal felt gave homosexuality a bad name, revolted him. It was one thing to be a queen. It was another to be a malicious sissy whose fantasy life damaged others. In 1966 Capote's fragile career as a writer and social lion had reached its peak with the publication of In Cold Blood and his "Black and White" ball at the Plaza Hotel. By the early seventies he had become addicted to alcohol, drugs, and self-punishing behavior, including publishing portions of a tell-all novel-in-progress whose revelations about the easily recognized originals of its characters alienated the high-society friends on whom he depended for his social position. In September 1975 Playgirl, with the cover headline "Outrageous Interview with Truman Capote" and the subhead "Gore Vidal...'Bobby Threw Him Out of the White House,' " quoted Capote as saying, in response to "Why did Vidal resent the Kennedys so terribly?" that he thought it went "back to when Bobby had Gore thrown out of the White House [in November 1961]. It was the only time he had ever been invited to the White House... he insulted Jackie's mother whom he had never met before in his life.... And Bobby and Arthur Schlesinger, I believe it was, and one of the guards just picked Gore up and carried him to the door and threw him out into Pennsylvania Avenue. That's when he began to write all those cruel pieces about the Kennedys." Capote had at first declined Richard Zoerink's request to interview him for Playgirl. When a mutual friend, the writer Dotson Rader, intervened, Capote consented. With a glass of vodka in hand, prompted by the interviewer, who suggested some of the sensational phrases--particularly "picked him up"--Capote felt free to repeat, expand, and refashion the core anti-Vidal rumor about Vidal's encounter with Robert Kennedy.

Over the years Vidal had attempted to correct inaccurate accounts of the incident and of his relationship with the Kennedys, most recently his letter in May 1972 to The Atlantic Monthly in response to an article by Gerald Clarke, who was to become Capote's biographer, quoting George Plimpton's account of what had happened that evening at the White House. Plimpton provided his version of the angry conversation between Vidal and Kennedy, and little more. With only a general idea of what had been said, Plimpton's use of language uncharacteristic of both participants made it clear he had not actually heard the conversation. "It would seem," Vidal responded, "that my old friend George Plimpton is now trying to replace Truman Capote as the Baron Munchausen of the jet set. He's been dining out for a decade...on what I am supposed to have said to Bobby Kennedy and he to me.... The truth of the matter is that George did not hear one word of that legendary conversation, nor did Jackie. Bobby and I were out of earshot of everyone.... George by now believes he overheard us, but he did not." Gore had less tolerance, though, for Capote's putting into print an equally inaccurate but more broadly sweeping account actually stating that Gore had been bodily thrown out of the White House. Plimpton's story was self-servingly good-humored, and not at all intended to harm. Capote's was an attempt to demean him, a transference of Capote's general hostility to an inaccurate, specific fabrication. It was a revenge fantasy whose only approximation to truth was that there had been some unpleasantness between Vidal and Robert Kennedy. When a copy of the interview reached Vidal at Ravello, he was shocked and angry. But he had no intention of suing. Whatever the merit of his potential case, his experience with Buckley had made him sensitive to the misuse of libel laws to discourage free speech. And it seemed reasonable to think that an interview in as meretricious a magazine as Playgirl would not have wide currency. A month later, in Amsterdam, he was approached at an outdoor magazine stand by an admiring stranger who had recognized him. The man pointed to a prominently displayed copy of the September issue of Playgirl and asked, "'Is that true?'" At that moment Vidal decided to sue.

After consulting with Arnold Weissberger, his lawyer in New York, and then Peter Morrison, to whom he had been referred by Weissberger, he had assurance from counsel that he had a good chance of prevailing in a suit for defamation and malice. Morrison's retainer was reasonable. There seemed grounds on which to expect that Gore would recover his legal costs. The suit requested damages of $1 million. Angry, aggrieved, he thought it fair that Capote either recant or pay a price for his maliciousness. The legal process, which he knew well enough from the Buckley suit, was under way by autumn 1975, though this time he had reversed roles, convinced he might serve moral justice, put to rest once and forever inaccurate accounts of his feud with the Kennedys, and terminate conclusively the tendency of the public to associate him with Capote, as if they were birds of a feather. On the basis of a memorandum he supplied his attorney, the legal complaint that went to the Supreme Court of the State of New York in December, naming the interviewer, Capote, and Playgirl as defendants, initiated a series of briefs that denied the factual accuracy of Capote's statements and alleged malicious recklessness. Bewildered, angry, Capote decided to defend against the suit. He had convinced himself that his description of what had happened at the White House was accurate. In the legal procedure, Capote fantasized, Vidal would be humiliated, crushed, forever a laughingstock. Ultimately his defense rested on his claim that Lee Radziwill, whom he thought his good friend and to whom he had done good service--including
creating a television opportunity for her to further her acting ambitions--was the source of his information. She had been at the White House that night. Whether she had or had not told him that Vidal had been thrown out bodily, Capote had come to believe she had. The discovery process began. Depositions were solicited. In September 1976, on his way back to Rome from Los Angeles after filming his episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Vidal spent two of his New York days being deposed. Capote had nothing to offer other than his claim that his statements were general knowledge, that he was surprised the plaintiff was challenging them, and that he expected George Plimpton, Arthur Schlesinger, and Princess Lee Bouvier Radziwill to confirm his account of the White House affair. According to his friend Donald Windham, Truman, who "was gathering affidavits for his defense," believed that "Gore didn't have a Chinaman's chance of winning." When Windham ran into Vidal in mid-September 1976, as the latter was leaving Rizzoli's and Windham was entering, Gore "had just finished two days of giving his pretrial depositions in his suit against Truman." Capote threatened to countersue. When Windham, who seemed to Vidal "a sad and bitter creature," again ran into him in New York, they talked first about Tennessee's regret that he had given the copyright of his letters to Windham for an edition. Tennessee had told Gore that Windham "had gotten him drunk and tricked him into signing away his copyright." Both Gore and Truman resented slighting remarks Tennessee had made about them in his letters to Windham. It was another example of Tennessee's paranoia, Gore wrote to Judith Halfpenny. "But the letters are marvelous to read and do recreate that long-off time." Capote threatened to sue Williams for defamation. Vidal remarked to Windham that he supposed "it's all actionable. At least they show [Williams] used to be able to write. But they also show that he had a murderous streak in him as far back as the forties, to act as he did toward me and to write about me in that way.' The conversation was friendly," Windham wrote in Lost Friendships. "I didn't detect any hidden hostility, despite the word 'actionable.'"

Other mutual friends also attempted to persuade Vidal to drop his suit some on the grounds of Capote's precarious health, most with the claim that it was unseemly and uncollegial for one writer to sue another. Vidal felt that the damage Capote had done him outweighed his general agreement with the collegial principle. Vidal recalls that he let Capote know he would consider dropping his suit only if Capote would agree never to speak about him in public again, though the offer never reached Capote's lawyers. Apparently the trial-balloon offer was declined. A few weeks after Windham's "encounter with Gore, Truman spent twenty-four hours at [Windham's] apartment, drinking without stopping." For a while "Gore's suit against Truman was in limbo. Truman's suit against Tennessee remained what it was, just talk."

Between 1975 and 1978 Capote's life in general moved toward incoherence and collapse, partly due to substance abuse and his increasing inability to finish his long-promised novel, Answered Prayers, partly because of his rejection by his socially elite former friends, whose private lives he had trashed in the excerpts Esquire had published. "Mr. Capote never wrote Answered Prayers," Gore told Judith Halfpenny in 1979. "It is [Henry James's] 'Madonna of the Future' all over again. But as this is America, if you publicize a non-existent work enough, it becomes positively palpable. It would be nice if he were to get the Nobel on the strength of Answered Prayers which he, indeed, never wrote. There were a few jagged pieces of what might have been a gossip-novel published in Esquire. The rest is silence, and litigation and...noise on TV." By February 1979, when Capote's request for summary judgment dismissing the complaint was denied, he was on the verge of despair and rage. Documents existed to demonstrate that Jackie Kennedy had remained warmly friendly with Gore until the publication in March 1963 of his hostile article about Bobby as the heir presumptive. It was easy to demonstrate that Vidal had known Jane Auchincloss, his half-sister Nini's stepmother, for some time before 1961 and that he had been at the White House numbers of times before, including a private dinner with the Kennedys and Alice Roosevelt. Plimpton's testimony did not support Capote's claim that Vidal had been "thrown out" of the White House. Schlesinger's diary had little help for Capote's defense, and soon, in his biography of Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger, quoting the relevant passage from his journal, remarked that "Vidal's enemies delightedly embellished the story. I can testify that he was not forcibly ejected, nor cast bodily into Pennsylvania Avenue." Worst of all, Lee Radziwill, who soon told Liz Smith, the premier gossip columnist, that this was all of no interest to her since they "were just two fags," refused to back him up. In fact, her testimony totally denied she was the source of his claims. When "quizzed by my lawyer," Gore wrote to Halfpenny, "in the company of her swain, a lawyer...Mrs. R denied ever having told her once bosom-friend anything about that night as she'd witnessed nothing...and that when he'd told her what to say to my lawyer she had been upset." Playgirl immediately printed a retraction. Vidal instructed his attorneys to drop his suit against the magazine, and again offered to do the same for Capote in exchange for the payment of his legal fees, now about $40,000, and a $10,000 additional payment. Capote declined.

In what he hoped was an extralegal preemptive strike, Capote now encouraged New York magazine to publish what he expected would be a strongly anti-Vidal version of their "feud." The front cover of the June 11, 1979, issue quoted the most pungent passage from Capote's interview in Playgirl and depicted Vidal flying over and out of the White House. The article itself, "The Vidal-Capote Papers," was noticeably evenhanded, and Capote's still-sharp literary intelligence managed to provide some interesting though arguable comment on both the achievement and the problem of Vidal's versatility as a writer. "Gore," he remarked, "wants to be all things to all men. I mean, he wants to be Caesar and Cleopatra at the same time, and he isn't." The article, though, did not damage Vidal and certainly had no effect on the likelihood that within a few years Capote would have to pay huge damages and double legal fees, even a small portion of which he could not afford. "We are willing to settle for an apology, one dollar damages, and my legal fees...happily, deductible in the land of the litigious," Gore told Halfpenny toward the end of the year. But "C.'s lawyers say that he has no money. There, for now, the matter rests." Though the judge, who in August 1979 denied Capote's request for summary dismissal, also denied Vidal's request for summary judgment, he declared that Capote's statements were, as a matter of law, libelous per se and that Vidal's attorneys had demonstrated "actual malice." It seemed likely that unless Capote caved there would be a trial. His attorneys delayed and maneuvered, including a backhanded attempt to eliminate from the record Capote's self-damaging deposition. In October 1983 Capote swallowed the bitter pill. The cost of continuing was disastrous. Though only fifty-nine, he seemed aged, pale and deathly-looking. He would apologize in writing. The question of his paying Vidal's legal fees was dropped. For some time now Vidal had been aware that at least two of his three purposes in undertaking the suit would be unrealized. "No matter what the judge determines, Mr. C. has now so muddled things as to make me seem to be his equal: a pair of publicity-mad social-climbers who make it a habit to libel and slander one another and everyone else. Pro bono publico is not, I suppose, possible when you have publico as debased as the American polity. Anyway, the expense has been formidable; the pleasure--often--intense." Capote's letter was bittersweet vindication, even if Vidal distrusted Capote's promises: "I apologize for any distress, inconvenience or expense which may have been caused you as a result of the interview with me published in the September 1975 issue of Playgirl. As you know, I was not present at the event about which I am quoted in the interview, and I understand from your representatives that what I am reported as saying does not accurately set forth what occurred. I can assure you that the article was not an accurate transcription of what I said, especially with regard to any remarks which might cast aspersions upon your character or behavior, and that I will avoid discussing the subject in the future."

Soon the possibility that Capote would break his word was ended, conclusively. In Rome, in April 1984, Gore wrote to Paul Bowles, whom he kept up to date on extra-Moroccan affairs with regular exchanges of letters, that a literary columnist and reviewer for Newsweek, Walter Clemons, who had visited him in Rome, had had a sad lunch with Capote a few weeks before. "T. seemed not to be drinking but spoke with a mouth in which the tongue (once so hummingbird-like in its dread effect) was too large and slow to shape much chat.... Those made mad by drink and pills like the Bird, does one judge them by what they did to themselves or by what they were before? It is a nice point." Gore's anger at Capote subsided somewhat. But not his distaste and disdain. When Capote died, in late August 1984 in Los Angeles at the home of Joanne Carson, who had remained loyal to and endlessly solicitous of her good friend, Gore told her ex-husband, Johnny Carson, that since "I knew he would be upset by Joanne's coup... I promised him that I would die in his house. This will even things out. He was much pleased." Accounts of the funeral came from the eighty-year-old Christopher Isherwood, who spoke briefly at the ceremony and who had always found Capote amusing, and from Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, with whom Gore had become friendly during his recent on-again/ off-again residences in Los Angeles. "As someone said when word broke that Elvis Presley was dead," he wrote to Paul Bowles, Capote's death was "a good career move. T will now be the most famous American writer of the last half of the 20th century. No one will ever read a book of his again but no one who can read will be able to avoid the thousands of books his life will inspire. Since he has told the most extraordinary lies about every famous person of our time, the hacks will have a field-day recording the sorts of lies they usually make up. T's affair with Camus, T's help in getting Marilyn aborted, T's blow job of Pres Kennedy.... Well, he is what this vulgar tinny age requires. RIP."
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Excerpted from Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan. Copyright © 1999 by Fred Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.