In the wake of Gore Vidal’s death on July 31, Jay Parini has been contracted to write his biography. Polari‘s editor recalls the interview with Vidal in which he proposed just that.
In the course of my conversation with Gore Vidal in January 2009 (which formed the basis of the article ‘Carved In Marble’) we talked about the 1999 biography written by Fred Kaplan. Vidal did not like the book. He dismissed Kaplan as a “gossipy biographer” in the memoir Point to Point Navigation (2006), and again in the closing chapter of the last (and, sadly, least) of his American Chronicles, The Golden Age (2000). “He had no interest in literature, he just taught it,” he said when I referred to Kaplan, to which he added. “I think that went to his head.” Kaplan was brought in to finish the biography on Vidal started by the journalist Walter Clemons, the writing of which had dragged on for many years, with Vidal despairing that it would ever be finished. It was still unfinished when Clemons died. “Clemons had done a lot of interviews with a lot of people who were dead, and I thought to waste this material would be tragic.” Here he paused, then added, parenthetically, “For the subject, anyway. But it was totally wasted because Kaplan didn’t know anything. Largely myself is what he couldn’t figure out at all.”
Jay Parini, who has been contracted to write a biography of Vidal to be published by Doubleday in 2015, edited Vidal’s Selected Essays (2007) as well as writing an introduction. It’s one of the most lucid descriptions of Vidal’s talents as an essayist. I asked Vidal if there was any chance that Parini would write the decent biography, and added, “he seems to me like the best candidate”. Vidal responded, “I think he would be, but I prefer some things after death.”
I’m sure that Vidal had already planned for the possibility that Parini would be his biographer. The two men had been friends for thirty years, after all.
The real fault with the Kaplan biography is that he doesn’t seem to get the books, and the essentially symbiotic relationship between the essays and the books. Parini does, which is clear from his introduction to the Selected Essays. “It’s a delight to be lifted so high, so easily, by an eagle of our time,” Parini writes. “He scans the world of letters with his large, hooded eyes, and the shadow of his wingspan leaves a distinct mark on the world below.” Parini also understands not only how politically radical Vidal was, but also how conservative, how committed to the idea of America set out by its Founding Fathers. This conservatism powered Vidal’s radicalism, and his anger at the corruption of the American political system as well as the betrayal of its ideals. “It should be noted that Vidal is conservative in many respects, asking only for liberty in the eighteenth century sense of that term,” Parini notes. He concludes by calling Vidal, “America’s perpetual Shadow President”. I can think of no writer better equipped to write the definitive biography of the great Gore Vidal.