Inside the Oyster Bar of the Plaza Hotel, Gore Vidal eases into a leather booth and removes thick dark sunglasses to reveal brown eyes aureoled by the faint outline of contact lenses. He orders New England clam chowder and a half-dozen oysters, then launches his attack.
“American history,” Vidal pronounces, has been written by “footnote fetishists and court historians who have forgotten that history is a division of literature… . The Republican convention was a long commercial for a product that most of us do not feel any need to buy… . Now politicians are mendicants who do nothing but telephone for money.” Having dispensed with the general health of the nation, Vidal gets personal, beginning with his own distant relation Al Gore, whom he calls “the Cromwell of Washington’s Fairfax Hotel,” and continuing on to “the Bush family, about as pointless a family as has ever come along in public life: nobodies.”
But special venom is reserved for Fred Kaplan, the author of Vidal’s first major biography: “He just ripped off Palimpsest, my memoir, and turned it into dull, bureaucratic, academic prose,” Vidal says. “He missed the point of everything I am and that I have done.”
Indignant, eloquent, and contrarian: This is vintage Vidal. Whether sparring with Bobby Kennedy, suing Truman Capote, infuriating historians with revisionist takes on Lincoln and Aaron Burr, or duking it out with William F. Buckley on national television, Vidal has lived the life of a consummate provocateur. This fall, he’ll celebrate his 75th birthday in style, with the Broadway revival of The Best Man, his 1960 play about presidential politics, and the release of The Golden Age, the final novel of his seven-volume history of the United States. With this celebration, Vidal will try to set the record straight about two things he cares about most: his country’s politics and himself.
“People keep asking me, ‘When is volume 2 of your memoir coming out?’ ” sighs Vidal, dressed in a black jacket, gray pants, a white sport shirt, and scuffed brown leather shoes. “I say, ‘Well, I’ve already done volume 2,’ ” and with the flair of a master intellectual showman, he continues, ” ‘I’ve called it … The Golden Age.’ “
Indeed, the final volume in Vidal’s cynical “story of how we lost the republic” merges the revisionist fervor of his historical novels with the gossipy reflections of his more personal fiction and essays. It is about, as Vidal suggests, his life as much as it is about American history, in large part because Vidal has lived so close to power for so long. And if The Golden Age is an ironic title (“Perhaps I should have called it The Iron Age,” Vidal jokes), the era in which the novel is set, from 1939 to 1954, was also a golden one for Vidal.
“It was an odd book for me to write, because I lived through it. All of it,” explains the raconteur, who has recorded much of his life in 23 novels, hundreds of essays, and numerous plays and screenplays. “I was practically an adult in 1940.”
That year, Senator Gore introduced his precocious 14-year-old grandson to Wendell Willkie at the Republican convention, which happens to be the setting for one of the new book’s first scenes. By 1954, when his novel ends, Vidal had served in World War II, published eight novels, topped the best-seller list with The City and the Pillar, befriended Jack Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and Anaïs Nin, had sex with Jack Kerouac, frolicked in Europe with Christopher Isherwood and Paul Bowles, and met his partner of the past 50 years, Howard Austen.
The Golden Age blurs Vidal’s life and fiction, as past friends and figures like Willkie, Williams, and his grandfather mingle with characters from his historical novels Empire, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood. The author even resuscitates a youthful Gore Vidal, who happens to be thinner, wittier, younger, and smarter than his longtime fictional alter ego, Peter Sanford, and who, one kooky character repeatedly claims, “writes just like Shakespeare.”
The novel tracks the development of what Vidal calls “the regimented society” and forcefully argues that FDR, Senator Gore’s onetime nemesis, deliberately provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to enter World War II. “The entire court-historian industry is now in a state of hysteria over this,” says Vidal, “and I will be getting a lot of unpleasant comments from them.” Vidal, who included Jefferson’s affair with the enslaved Sally Hemmings in his 1973 novel Burr, cannot hide his excitement.
So as he spoons through a bowl of chowder, he explains that the new book’s title and those glib comparisons to Shakespeare are only half ironic. “What I’m doing here is precisely what Shakespeare was doing in his age,” explains Vidal, a man who has never been praised for humility. “In his plays, he wrote a history of England; I’ve tried to write a history of America. As Wodehouse said, there’s always Shakespeare. Of course, my stuff is different. There are no rhyming couplets at the end.”