Jay Parini owes his friendship with Gore Vidal to a stranger’s hospitality. Planning a sabbatical for the spring of 1986, Parini mentioned to then Italian Professor Ugo Skubikowski that he wanted to spend the time in Italy cultivating his ethnic roots. As it happened, Skubikowski’s mother had a friend with an empty house on the Amalfi coast, and she was delighted to rent it to Parini and his young family.
Soon after they arrived, Parini learned that the villa perched on the cliffs above their terrace belonged to Gore Vidal, whose work he’d long admired. So he jotted a quick note: Dear Mr. Vidal, he recalls writing. I’m a college professor, a poet, a novelist, and a critic, and I’ll be living at this address for the next six months. If you ever have the time, I’d love to meet you. He then gave the note to a local tobacconist, who saw Vidal most afternoons when the writer stopped in for a newspaper. “It was a message in a bottle,” says Parini. “I had no idea what would happen.”
A few days later, he and his wife, Devon Jersild, were tending to their two sons—the younger only a few weeks old—when someone pounded on the door. “I’m Gore Vidal,” the man bellowed. “Are you Jay Parini?” Vidal invited them to dinner later that week at the Ravello mansion he shared with his longtime partner, Howard Austen.
The evening was lovely, Parini says, full of laughter and good wine. He was captivated by Vidal’s wit and expansive knowledge of literature, politics, and history. Yet Vidal also seemed vulnerable. When they sat for drinks in Vidal’s study, Parini noticed on the walls framed magazine covers—Time, Newsweek, and Life among them—bearing his host’s image. “Why did you hang all those pictures of yourself?” Parini asked. “To remind me every morning of who I am,” Vidal said.
Their friendship blossomed. Many afternoons, Vidal would stop by and pick Parini up en route to Amalfi for drinks and conversation at the Bar Sirena. “We had some kind of visceral intellectual connection,” says Parini, founded on a mutual love of Mark Twain and Henry James, liberal political views, and an eclecticism that made both writers hard to pigeonhole.
They shared a few friends who lived in London, including the writer Stephen Spender, and an antipathy toward Ronald Reagan. “Gore called him our ‘acting president,’” says Parini. Parini saw Vidal as a model for the kind of writer and activist he was striving to be: outspoken, courageous, and committed to engaging with the world. Vidal saw him as the son he never had, and perhaps the key to defying what he called “the great eraser” of time. “He wanted an heir of some kind, or a disciple,” Parini says. However, “this was southern Italy, and there really wasn’t much traffic to his door. I represented the outside world of books and discourse. And the conversation just continued for the rest of his life.”
That 25-year conversation forms the heart of Parini’s new biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. Parini, who is the D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing, has produced a book that blends reporting, literary criticism, and personal recollection. Parini’s portrait of Vidal is nuanced—clear-eyed yet sympathetic. He captures this gifted but difficult man, illuminating not only Vidal’s place in the American canon but also a moment in history—pre-Twitter and partisan gridlock—when literate individuals with complex ideas could become cultural icons.
Like its subject, Empire of Self is both serious and entertaining. “Most writers’ lives are dull,” says Parini, whose 25 books include biographies of William Faulkner, Robert Frost, and John Steinbeck. “They just sit at a desk and grind away. Not Gore. He really had the life.”
Eugene L. Vidal Jr.—Gore was his mother’s maiden name—grew up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by power and privilege. His mother, Nina, was a narcissistic senator’s daughter. His father, Eugene, was a West Point graduate who went on to become an Olympic decathlete, professional football player, and aviator. Both philanderers, they squabbled incessantly and neglected Gore, who went to live with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, a populist lawyer who served as one of Oklahoma’s first two senators, was blind. Vidal became his eyes, reading to him in the Senate, as well as from his vast home library. He described his grandmother, whom he called “Tot,” as “my real mother” and “the woman who raised me.”
Politicians and celebrities were part of his upbringing. “Gore would tell me stories about Amelia Earhart being his babysitter, or about the time Huey Long came to dinner and read him a bedtime story,” says Parini. “He’d talk about going to Hyannis Port and staying with the Kennedys, or attending dinners at the White House.”
A lackluster student, Vidal bounced from prep school to prep school, eventually graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, where he excelled at debate. Eschewing college, he enlisted in the Army at the height of WWII, pulling family strings to land at an Army air base in Colorado Springs, where he began what Parini calls his “lifelong pursuit” of cruising for sex with men. He surprised himself by passing the test to qualify for the sea-transport division and became a first mate on a ship bound for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In his spare time, he wrote. (The setting of his first novel, Williwaw—a local word for “sudden storm” in those waters—is on a similar ship.)
After a bout of hypothermia, Vidal was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and sent to a Los Angeles hospital, becoming infatuated with Hollywood. Savvy, restless, and compulsively prolific, he used his charms and connections to secure a position as an associate editor at Dutton—the only office job he ever held—and a publishing contract. He produced six novels before he turned 26.
Then he got really busy. A bold, facile writer with a grasp of politics and the public Zeitgeist, he churned out novels, essays, plays, works of nonfiction, TV adaptations, and movie screenplays (including Ben Hur). His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar broke ground in its detailing of adolescent homosexuality. Parini is among the critics who consider Vidal’s historical novels—Lincoln, Burr, and Julian (about the fourth-century Roman emperor)—his best works of fiction. “But his essays are his master works,” says Parini, who remembers reading, long before he met Vidal, Vidal’s magazine pieces against the Vietnam War and his personal reflections on literature. “He was our Montaigne.”
Vidal also dabbled in politics, running unsuccessfully for Congress twice. Handsome and trenchant, he became a sought-after television commentator, once famously calling William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. By the time Parini met him, he was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.
Parini began keeping notes on Vidal soon after their first dinner in Ravello, thinking he’d stockpile the material for a future novel or memoir. “His conversation was glorious,” he says. “He was a hilarious storyteller and raconteur. He liked to talk about people. ‘History is just the higher gossip,’ he would say. He was always dropping names.” Parini adopts a booming, patrician voice: “‘Then Tennessee Williams said to me…’ ‘I was dining with Princess Margaret…’ He was a very bright flame, and I was drawn to it.”
After Parini’s sabbatical ended, the two continued their conversations—over the phone or during spontaneous rendezvous at Vidal’s request (if not expense). “He would call up and say, ‘Jay, next week I’ve got to be in Vienna. Meet me on Tuesday and stay with me until Thursday.’ And I was crazy enough sometimes to just drop everything and do it!” Impulsivity had its perks: through Vidal, Parini met Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Frederic Prokosch, and Anthony Burgess. “I wouldn’t have gotten to visit Graham Greene, or have dinner with Alberto Moravia without Gore,” he says. “For me as a young man, it was just amazing to meet so many of these people who were like heroes to me.”
Still, when in the early ’90s Vidal asked Parini to take over the biography that Newsweek book editor Walter Clemons had abandoned, Parini said no. He didn’t want to feel pressured to sacrifice truth for friendship. Vidal was a well-known narcissist, and Parini feared he’d try to seize control of the narrative and whitewash his image. “Gore would have been constantly harping, saying, ‘Oh, don’t mention I was drunk at that party! Take out the bit about Mailer hitting me in the mouth!’” But Parini did promise to write a book after Vidal died.
This prospect pleased Vidal, who took to introducing Parini as “Jay Boswell” after James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s famous biographer. He seemed to relish always being on the record. “Are you writing this down?” he’d often ask Parini. Parini was. Over the years, he conducted countless hours of interviews—not just with Vidal but with many of those who knew him best, including Tom Stoppard, Gay Talese, Susan Sarandon, Edmund White, Erica Jong, and Howard Austen. Parini drafted parts of the book over 20 years ago, then updated these sections before publication.
Being close to his subject made Parini’s work both easier and more fraught. “When you write about people you never knew, you’re dealing with many removes. You’re talking to Robert Frost’s granddaughter, for instance,” he says. “I could never know what his day actually looked like. But I knew Gore’s world inside and out. We talked on the phone every week, sometimes every day. “‘Jaaaaaay,’” says Parini, doing his Vidal impression. “‘I’m in Bangkok. What time is it there?’ ‘Gore, it’s 3 in the morning! I wish you would look at the clock.’ My wife could never tell if I was talking to Gore or my mother. She said I had the same tone with both.”
Parini struggled with how much to incorporate himself into the story. He considered turning the book into a memoir about their friendship but ultimately decided a serious study of Vidal’s life and work was most needed. Still it felt wrong to overlook their friendship.
“I wanted to stay out of it but not deceive the reader,” he says. “I thought, ‘How can I let it be known that I was there?’”
He settled on adding brief first-person vignettes between chapters. “A late idea,” Parini says. Though Parini makes subtle appearances throughout the biography, the evocative inter-chapters make his presence most plainly felt: At lunch when Vidal urges Susan Sontag, who had just published The Volcano Lover, to “never ever try your hand at fiction again.” On a nostalgic tour of Vidal’s beloved old estate, Edgewater, on the banks of the Hudson. Aboard a fractious boat ride capped by Leonard Bernstein calling Vidal a “star fucker.” “In the end, I thought it would make a better biography if people knew we were friends,” Parini says.
Parini sees Vidal’s foibles and flaws, but also—as a good biographer—presents them without fanfare or judgment. Vidal could be pompous and egocentric, seeking always to expand his “empire of self.” He had an insatiable need for affirmation, which Parini attributes to Vidal as a child feeling unloved by his alcoholic mother. “He’d call me up and ask, ‘What are they saying about me in Brazil?’” Parini says. “A tremendous number of people hated him, because he was at times an arrogant son of a bitch. But at the core, he was shy and insecure.”
This was small consolation for those to whom he was rude and cruel—behavior alcohol exacerbated. When Parini won a fellowship to Oxford, Vidal remarked, “They don’t let in wops like you, do they really?” But despite his sharp tongue, Vidal was thin-skinned. He never forgot personal slights or bad reviews. With his literary rivals, he could be petty and childish. Describing his first meeting with Truman Capote, Vidal later told Parini he thought the man was “a colorful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed.” Vidal, introduced to Mailer in 1952, asked him how long his grandparents had lived. When Mailer said they’d died when they were around 70, Vidal said, “I’ve got you!” since his had lived much longer.
Vidal also struggled with his sexuality. Though he was predominantly attracted to men, he did sleep with a few women, “which was really not any fun for him,” says Parini. He preferred to think of himself as bisexual or as a “heterosexual man who liked to mess around with men.”
“Gore wanted to be straight,” Vidal’s partner, Austen, told Parini. “It would have made his public life a lot easier. When he tried to go straight, he found girls who were boyish.” Vidal called gay men “degenerates” or “fags,” though he claimed to be joking. His gay novels reveal a clear “note of self-hatred,” writes Parini. Still, Vidal never denied having sex with men and in his later years was fairly open about it. Parini says he considered sex “an annoying need” that had to be fulfilled. “He really hated having to take the time for it.” This didn’t, however, preclude him from racking up thousands of sexual conquests.
The one man Vidal didn’t have sex with—except at the very outset of their relationship—was Austen. “Gore’s one emotional connection was to Howard,” Parini says. “It was not sexual, but it was genuine.” Smart and down to earth, Austen managed all the details of their busy life together, from travel arrangements to shopping. He played chess with Vidal in the evenings, mixed a mean sidecar at cocktail hour, and always set guests at ease. Best of all, he kept Vidal in line. “Howard could prick his balloon in a good way,” says Parini. “Gore could be pretentious and blown up. And Howard would say,” Parini adopts a high-pitched Bronx accent, “‘Gore, stop it! Just stop it, Gore!’ And Gore would.”
Vidal was never especially demonstrative, but his devotion became clear in the waning days of Austen’s life. “When Howard got sick, Gore moved heaven and earth,” says Parini. “He flew a special hospital plane all the way from Naples to LA at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” In one vignette, Parini recalls that the only time he ever saw his friend cry was a few years after Austen’s death. They were having drinks and Vidal put on a recording of his late companion singing “Hello, Young Lovers.”
The more sensitive the material, the more dispassionately the biographer recounts it. Parini demonstrates his subject’s unrepentant alcoholism by straightforwardly chronicling Vidal’s frequent boozy dinners and wee-hour benders and the boorish behavior they engendered. But as Vidal’s friend, Parini freely acknowledges how upsetting it was. “What was I going to say: ‘Gore, don’t drink so much?’ Every once in a while I’d try to pour him a weak scotch—that’s as far as I would go. But he only got worse and worse. In the end he was drinking a double scotch for breakfast. It was hard for me.”
The ’90s were the heyday of their friendship, says Parini. Vidal “was still burning at a good pace and traveling a lot.” They sought each other out, meeting up in New York, Boston, Washington, London, Salzburg, and always Ravello. Vidal opened doors for Parini, but the gesture went both ways. Parini introduced Vidal to, among others, Hillary Clinton and Noam Chomsky, whom Vidal had always wanted to meet. Vidal also leaned on Parini in academic settings, which intimidated him. “Whenever he traveled to Harvard, he’d want me there as his ‘academic bodyguard,’” says Parini. “He thought I had some special way of dealing with professors because I’d spent my life in universities.”
Vidal and Parini became enthusiastic collaborators, trading ideas and drafts of their work. Both favored historical novels and Parini valued Vidal’s insightful comments. “From early on, Gore was one of my first or second readers,” he says. Parini wrote a chunk of Benjamin’s Crossing sitting at Vidal’s pool. One day he asked his host if he thought it acceptable for two characters to talk about Kierkegaard for 30 pages. “Of course,” Vidal said. “But only if your characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there’s a bomb under the seat.” When the film adaptation of Parini’s Tolstoy novel, The Last Station, was nominated for an Academy Award, Vidal threw Parini a big party in LA.
Vidal’s fluidity across genres inspired Parini, who had been writing poems, novels, and essays since college. “Early on, I think I unconsciously looked at him and said, ‘Whoa, I don’t have to hold back on anything!’ From him, I learned to have courage and not hesitate. If you feel like you’ve got an angle on something, and you have a way with words, and you have access to the press, you damn well better use it.”
Their politics, in fact—liberal, pacifist, populist—were very similar. When Parini was 16, he published his first piece, in support of gun control, in the Scranton Times. He attended protest marches in Washington during the Vietnam War. At the start of the Iraq War, Vidal was still railing against military intervention—distributing Bush-bashing pamphlets and speaking to crowds of young people who’d never heard of him. “He cared—and he was right!” says Parini. “He said in 2003, ‘If we go in and topple Saddam Hussein, it will create a power vacuum and mad men will rush in to fill it. The whole Middle East will come apart.’ How accurate was that? He had a global perspective that was very deep. He always understood how the pieces of the world fit together.”
At key political moments, Parini misses Vidal, who died in 2012. “When the Supreme Court voted in favor of gay marriage, we would have immediately been on the phone talking about it,” he says. “He would’ve been amazed. Obamacare? He would’ve been delighted. And the consequences of Citizens United in this current election would just drive him crazy.”
Parini acknowledges that it’s probably for the best Vidal isn’t around to read Empire of Self. “He would be furious!” says Parini. “He wanted always to have a perfect, homogenized, beautified picture of himself.” While not that, Parini’s biography does capture Vidal with the kind of unflinching eye that Vidal himself cast so vigorously upon society. Surely there is no tribute more fitting.
Susan H. Greenberg is a freelance writer in Vermont.