A Biography

By Fred Kaplan

Doubleday. 850 pp. $35

World War II freed our music and painting. Isolated for a generation from crushing European influences, our composers and visual artists became identifiably American. As for literature, it already had a homegrown tradition from Hawthorne to Faulkner; but the prewar machismo of Hemingway seemed suddenly shed by three young Southern WASPs, each unrepentantly gay in art as in life, each valuable, but otherwise disparate. I knew them all. By 1947, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal -- the latter pair a mere 21 -- had become (and remained) celebrities more famous even than their work: Williams our preeminent dramatist, Capote the exemplar of well-tuned fey poignancy, and Vidal a solid novelist, polemical essayist and sometime politico (and a friend of this reviewer for many years). The trio was publicly perceived as collegial yet rivalrous, intelligent adults given to childish feuds. It was an age of the writer as star.

Of the three, Vidal was the most level-headed, the most prolific, and had the most staying power. He has already outlived the others' pathetic deaths by 16 years, and is still going strong. Vidal's strength is now commemorated by Fred Kaplan, biographer also of Henry James, Dickens and Carlyle. He opens with a lyrical three-paragraph prelude describing the visit of Vidal and Howard Austen, his partner of five decades, to the Washington cemetery where the two will purchase a burial plot. The plot lies equidistant between those of Henry Adams and Jimmie Trimble, an obscure childhood friend of Vidal's, killed in the war, whom Vidal later decided was the love of his life. This scene, related in the present tense, is alive and delicious.

People's childhoods are much the same (wonderment, suffering) until the individual emerges. Only the settings vary. Vidal's setting was Washington government and international society, to which he had immediate access, and which served as literary contexts for the rest of his life. His maternal grandfather was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma, his father an aviation specialist, his mother a handsome, cold-eyed alcoholic philistine who by a second marriage became an Auchincloss, thus linking Vidal to a dynasty that included Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. His education was high-class -- St. Alban's, Exeter (where he shone as a political orator) -- with an extended stint in the Army. He read voraciously, and his early writing was influenced by Maugham, that self-proclaimed first-rate second-rater. His artistic interests, at least according to Kaplan, were books and movies; in the whole biography is nary a word about painting and scarcely more about music (although Vidal once told me it was he who suggested Lord Byron as the subject of a libretto to Virgil Thomson, who then invited him to collaborate on the opera).

Vidal's notorious aloofness, in work as in play, developed gradually. In adolescence, writes Kaplan, "he was not really, at least publicly, egotistical"; "he was a dedicated non-liar who rarely lapsed"; "telling the truth was a way of making the world more reliable." His sex life was astoundingly active and is documented with vicarious relish by Kaplan, who never tires of telling us how gorgeous the young writer was, and how irresistible his physicality seemed even to such foes as Capote. He had "all the sex his expansive, virile desire could accommodate . . . sex but not love with strangers," picked up on the street or in steam baths. With few exceptions (the childhood crush on Jimmie Trimble, an affair with the dancer Harold Lang, his relationship with Howard Austen), Vidal's attachments were non-sentimental, and they numbered in the thousands. The women in his life -- Claire Bloom, Anais Nin, Joanne Woodward -- are depicted mainly as friends, if maybe one-sidedly in love with the writer.

Over the years, and with the same vaguely objective urgency, have appeared 21 novels, many of them bestsellers, and three of them -- the equivocal The City and the Pillar, the terrifying Kalki, the insolent Myra Breckenridge -- ground-breaking sensations; two volumes of stories, including the wryly original "A Thirsty Evil"; six collections of essays, arguably his most lasting work, and consisting of political tracts, book reviews (or lit crit, a term Vidal is proud to have coined), and reactions to stabs, notably a far-sighted treatise on Midge Decter's homophobia. Add to this five plays and a bevy of film scripts (anecdotes about Charlton Heston's obtuseness to the gayish nuances that Vidal says he injected into "Ben Hur" are hilarious), and you have an oeuvre of many millions of words.

Kaplan carefully deconstructs each of Vidal's works, along with the social and professional circumstances surrounding the initial impulse. Yet the analysis never comes alive. Of course, the pith of any art lies in the art itself, not in the critique. And perhaps Vidal's style and language, as distinct from his substance and plot, are not memorable. His characters are all prone to talk alike, nor do we find the bigger-than-life "poetry" of Williams and Capote. Indeed, it would be fun to claim that Vidal's Achilles heel is that above-the-fray position -- he never bursts into tears. Yet that very position defines him as man and artist. One cannot censure a stance per se but only how well the stance is brought off. Vidal brings it off fine, and occasionally makes it into high art.

As a whole Kaplan's book is tough sledding, partly because much of the material is already familiar from Vidal's autobiographical writings, partly because no detail is deemed too slight to repeat (sometimes several times) in Proustian-length paragraphs. The most engaging moments are not in analyses of the work but in lengthy portraits of peripheral players. Read the intense and canny description of the late-1960s TV dialogues with William F. Buckley (Kaplan says "he had the ability to use language to simplify complex issues and to complicate simple issues") and the ugly lawsuits that ensued. Or the on-and-off rapport with Norman Mailer (Vidal noted that it was "one thing to be literary rivals, quite another to work actively to damage him"), whom Vidal found to be a homophobe despite himself. Or Angus Wilson (in Vidal's estimation "flawed by intelligence"); or Jason Epstein (who said that Vidal "had too much ego to be a writer of fiction, because he couldn't subordinate himself to other people"); or Truman Capote (whose death Vidal called "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"). Or even Ned Rorem (who quotes Vidal as saying "It's not that love's a farce -- it doesn't exist" and then responds, "Defensible. Yet it's just one definition, or something without definition. Rather than risk being called a softy, he affects a pose of weariness. Still he remains in Italy. That is a romantic decision as well as practical").

Now 74, the "onnfont-tarribul" (as Capote once called him) lives mostly in Ravello, where he and Austen entertain the best minds and crowned heads of our globe. He fully cooperated, sight unseen, with this biography, which at half the length would be twice as good. As with all biographies, the subject is only partly there. But Gore Vidal, nothing if not terse, might be more clearly depicted if his adulator had followed suit. Meanwhile, Kaplan's book is an invaluable font of research on the subject, possibly the only one we'll ever need.

Ned Rorem is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and the author of 14 books, including "The Paris Diary" and "Knowing When to Stop."