One of the many fascinating photographs in Palimpsest, perhaps indeed the most fascinating of the lot, is of the author’s grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, having his portrait painted in old age. Reticently distinguished, the subject sits in his chair, ignoring the canvas, a remarkable likeness of him on a properly heroic scale, and presided over by the artist, Azadia Newman, whom we learn was soon to be married to the film director Rouben Mamoulian. The expression on her beautiful face, with its plucked eyebrows, is quite deadpan. Like a portraitist of the Renaissance she is doing her job, and has no special feelings about it or the sitter. But the photograph seems a revelation not only of the society in which Gore Vidal grew up—a very uncommon one in what Roosevelt was even then calling the Age of the Common Man—but of Gore Vidal’s ability to put his reader inside that society, to give us a happy and an unfamiliar sense of familiarity with it.
The reader—the English reader in particular—is here somewhat in the position of one of the characters in Anthony Powell’s long sequence of memoirized fiction, A Dance to the Music of Time. Marrying accidentally into the haut monde, this chap sets himself to find out all about its peculiar ways, while not for a moment aspiring to be part of it himself. Vidal’s skill as a memoirist puts his reader in the same privileged and enviable position. And he is very funny about it. Ever a stickler for elegance of language, he is careful not to use the word “palimpsest” in any merely approximate sense.
“Paper, parchment, etc., prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate” and “a parchment, etc., that has been written upon twice; the original writing having been rubbed out.” This is pretty much what my kind of writer does anyway. Starts with life; makes a text; then a re-vision—literally, a second seeing, an afterthought…, writing something new over the first layer of text…. I once observed to Dwight Macdonald, who had found me disappointingly conventional on some point, “I have nothing to say, only to add.”
It might well have amused Proust, a great palimpsester, to have made a rather similar claim. And for the memoirist-novelist, as Proust and Powell would have agreed, the most essential thing is humor. True snobbery is always solemn. After the wedding of Vidal’s half-sister, Nina Gore Auchincloss (her marriage was a failure, “as family tradition required”), Vidal finds himself driving to the reception with the young Jack Kennedy.
In the back of the limousine, Jack and I waved to non-existent multitudes, using the British royal salute, in which the fingers of one hand unscrew, as it were, an invisible upside-down jar of marmalade. Jack thought that Nini had made a mistake in not marrying his brother Teddy. I had no view on the matter. Absently, he tapped his large white front teeth with the nail of his forefinger, click, click, click—a nervous tic.
The reader feels right there, with it and in it; and so effective is the superimposed ripple of Vidal’s style and personality (the palimpsest at work?) that a kind of innocence of absurdity—as with the marmalade jar—easily mingles with an effortless and knowing sophistication. Brought so fascinatingly close to us, the Vidal world seems both exotic and domestic, glitzy and homely, and is presented with a deft economy that is itself highly droll.
That winter Paul and Joanne and Howard and I took a house together in the Malibu Beach colony. Each had a small car. Paul left for Warners at dawn, as that studio was in the far, faraway San Fernando Valley. I left second, to drive to MGM in Culver City. Finally, Joanne made her leisurely way to Twentieth Century-Fox in nearby Beverly Hills…. Weekends, the house was full of people that, often, none of us knew. Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy were often there, as were Romain Gary and his wife, Leslie Blanche, and….
I am at the point I have been dreading: lists of names of once-famous people who mean nothing, by and large, to people now and will require endless footnotes for future historians. One might just pull it off if one had something truly intriguing to say about each name or if I had, like so many contemporary autobiographers, tempestuous love affairs, bitter marriages, autistic children, breakdowns, drugs, therapy, a standard literary life. But I was to have no love affairs or marriages, while casual sex is, by its very nature, not memorable. I have never “broken down” as opposed to slowly crumbling, and I’ve steered clear of psychoanalysts, nutritionists and contract-bridge players. Joanne Woodward and I were nearly married, but that was at her insistence and based entirely on her passion not for me but for Paul Newman. Paul was taking his time about divorcing his first wife, and Joanne calculated, shrewdly as it proved, that the possibility of our marriage would give him the needed push. It did.
In 1958 they were married at last and we all lived happily ever after.
Not only does Vidal have original things to say on many subjects but the reader feels himself becoming one with the characters in the book: a sure sign of a literary master at work. He has, for example, a good point about class. He is amused by the British class system, and by romantic English writers—Auden was one—who loved the idea of America as the classless society while firmly asserting their own status back home (upper-middle in his own case, Auden insisted—he was the son of a doctor). Of course America has its own class system, says Vidal, just like Britain. The difference is that most Americans don’t even know it. The few that do are well aware of the exclusion zones and neatly roped-off areas which it takes either privilege of birth or dazzling social and intellec-tual skills (Vidal had both) to enter and enjoy. Whereas the Englishman knows his place, and is prepared either to put down his inferiors or to be put down—ever so unobtrusively—by his betters, the American really can change his class, if his talents or chutzpah are up to it. All this is very politically incorrect, but it probably happens to be true; and Vidal, as a natural classicist and an admirer of Montaigne and Cicero, thinks it is likely to go on being true.
Incidentally, the “Howard” referred to in the passage quoted above has been Vidal’s almost lifelong companion. “‘How,’ we are often asked, ‘have you stayed together for forty-four years?’ The answer is, ‘No sex.’ This satisfies no one, of course, but there, as Henry James would say, it is.” Howard Auster was born in the Bronx, worked in a drugstore to put himself through New York University, and tried to get a job in advertising. At that time Jewish persons were discouraged in that profession, so Vidal recommended that he change the r at the end of his name to an n. He did so, and was at once taken on by an agency. Class is less visible than racism, but no doubt the two always have and always will be intertwined. (Austen, by the way, or its variant Austin, is a respectable though not a grand name in England, not like Talbot, say, or Villiers. Jane Austen knew her class—roughly upper-middle, like Auden’s—and kept a beady eye above and below it, for like many such families she had some connections grander than herself, and others less grand.)
His needle-sharp curiosity and humor make Vidal a natural enjoyer of all such matters. He revels, as already noted, in a sort of sophisticated innocence. P.G. Wodehouse would have been delighted by the idea of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and the author each setting off for their respective studios at different moments in the early morning: yawning, no doubt, as they brushed the crumbs away. A super sophisticate in the public estimation, he has a ruefully witty tale or two to show with what unjust firmness that persona has clung. An actress once told him that everyone knew Noel Coward had one really rather disgusting sexual habit. “I was horrified. I knew Coward well. He was as fastidious about sex as about everything else.” When Vidal saw the actress later she said she’d never forgotten what he had told her about Coward’s sex kink. “Thus I have been transformed into the source of a truly sick invention that will be grist to the Satanic mills of Capotes as yet unborn.”
The two most important people in Palimpsest, and the ones most movingly brought to life, are his Gore grandfather, the senator, and Jimmie Trimble, the fair-haired boy he met in Washington, killed in 1945 with the marines on Iwo Jima. Vidal loved both, and it is love that brings them so much alive in his memoir. Thomas Pryor Gore becomes for us as memorable a figure as the old patriarch grandfather in Aksakov’s well-known memoir A Russian Childhood, but there is nothing patriarchal about him. Rather he is a distant, detached, and slightly sardonic figure, which itself may give a clue to the difference between the naturally big man in a Russian nineteenth-century family and in a twentieth-century American family. Power in an up-and-coming American family was a more subtle affair than it had been in the Russian context, and it had to be more skillfully exercised. Freedom in America was always there for the rest of the family to walk away into if they wanted.
T.P. Gore, in any case, was not inclined to control his family by means of money, or through the prospects of inheritance. He was blind from ten years old: as his grandson says, an extraordinary trick of fate. “The odds are very much against losing an eye in an accident, but to lose two eyes in two separate accidents is positively Lloydsian.” And fate had more freakish adventures in store for him. He was a friend of Clarence Darrow, and at a time when he was visiting one of Darrow’s court cases he was himself about to be tried for rape. He had backed the Indians against the oil interests in Oklahoma, where he was senator, and after ignoring threats to soften up he had the “badger game” played on him. A woman constituent rang him with some request, and after leading him to her hotel room, in the absence of his male secretary, tore her clothes off and started screaming. Two handy detectives rushed in and said, “We’ve got you!”
A jury took ten minutes to exonerate the Senator, who, as it happened, had already once found himself in a “shotgun” situation over a young woman. And she too had been blind. Her family accused him of raping her—the youthful pair were living in the same boarding house in Corsicana, Texas—and demanded marriage. A real shotgun was produced, but the future senator walked away saying, “Shoot, but I’m not marrying her.” The facts of what happened remain obscure, as family facts perhaps always do and should do; but making his own inquiries in later years the grandson found some evidence to suggest that the Senator had indeed been guilty in this instance. Surmounting all the odds he was already on his way to becoming a quietly charismatic personality and a brilliant and dryly Ciceronian speaker; but even he might have been overhandicapped by becoming a partner in a blind marriage. He met his wife—they became known to the family as Dot and Dah—at a political meeting in Texas. After hearing her beautiful low voice he said at once, “I’m going to marry you.”