The Essential Gore Vidal
edited by Fred Kaplan
Random House, 988 pp., $39.95
The Smithsonian Institution: A Novel
by Gore Vidal
Harvest Books, 260 pp., $12.00 (paper)
Here is a report from The New York Times of September 12, 1960, written from Poughkeepsie under the byline of Ira Henry Freeman:
Gore Vidal, Democratic candidate for Representative in the twenty-ninth Congressional District, sprawled barefoot in a gilded fauteuil of his luxurious octagonal Empire study as he considered the question whether he could win the election.
“If this were not a Presidential year, I might have a chance,” he said. “As it is, every four years, about 20,000 extra people crawl out of their Hudson Gothic woodwork up here to vote for William McKinley.”
Mr. Vidal is 34 years old, slender, smooth in dress and manner, bright, sharp, sophisticated. He looks like a juvenile lead and talks like Mort Sahl. “I say 80 per cent of what I think, a hell of a lot more than any politician I know,” he said.
Take out the proper name in that story, and who could fail to guess the subject’s identity? By then, he had written his first eight novels, two Broadway successes, and the screenplays for Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. According to the New York Times reporter, he had also written some speeches for President Eisenhower. That detail—I’m unsure of its provenance—might have thrown some people off the trail. Yet it is essential, in the understanding of Vidal, to know how conservative as well as how radical he can be.
Having been defeated in Dutchess County while outpolling the presidential leader of that ticket, Vidal was pressed by the party managers to try again. He was offered backing if he would contest the same House district, or perhaps if he would run for the Senate against Jacob Javits. Having scored a critical and commercial hit with his play The Best Man (still, in its celluloid form, the only enlightening movie ever made about an American party convention) and having outperformed JFK as a man of the people, Vidal evidently felt that he had squeezed the political lemon dry for that season, and told the emissaries from New York that he was off to either Athens or Rome, to write a novel about Julian the Apostate.
This could, in ordinary times, have been a reculer pour mieux sauter. There seemed to be space and leisure enough, for Julian and, perhaps, for a return to the fray on the part of Senator Gore’s grandson. But “Camelot,” as he would never have dreamed of calling it, was to be as ephemeral as it was tawdry, and the Republicans were to surpass his most sardonic predictions by nominating Barry Goldwater, and every law of unintended consequence was to combine to make 1964 a landslide year in which even Dutchess County, New York, went for the Democrats.
From a number of hints, scattered through his texts and footnotes, it is possible to intuit that Vidal has never quite forgiven himself or the Fates for this turn of events. Even the dullest imagination might feast for a moment …