Visiting Gore Vidal

James Campbell in The Times Literary Supplement:

VidalIn the summer of 1980, at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, precursor of the present festival, I was introduced to Gore Vidal as the editor of the New Edinburgh Review. “And how is Lord Jeffrey?” Vidal asked as he took my hand, referring to the first editor (1803–29) of the Edinburgh Review. “The wide eyes were alive with humour and so was the smiling mouth”, in the words of the memoir by the Austrian aristocrat Cecilia Sternberg, quoted, along with other passages in praise of himself, in Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. I was suitably charmed. Interviewed onstage, he answered questions with the amusing acerbity expected of him. When I included in my report for the TLS a characteristic witticism about Anthony Burgess (also present at the conference) writing for “an imaginary readership”, Vidal wrote a letter without smiling mouth to the Editor to deny that he had said any such thing. “How could I? I am part of Burgess’s audience and although I am often grotesquely imagined, I am not imaginary.”

I was chastened but puzzled. The joke had been repeated by more than one member of a delighted audience. After reading Sympathy for the Devil, I realize that I was not alone in being subject to the master’s morning-after revisionism. It was probably only Vidal’s affection for the TLS, to which at the time he was a regular contributor, that restrained him from instructing his lawyers to settle the potentially damaging calumny. (How could severed relations with Burgess harm him? But he would find a way.) In 2007, as Michael Mewshaw relates, the London Review of Books repeated a libel that had been originally issued in print many years earlier by Truman Capote who alleged that “a drunken Vidal had been bodily heaved from the White House by Bobby Kennedy”. After much expensive wrangling, Capote, a former friend of the wounded party, was obliged to pay damages and apologize, even though Vidal was often paralytically drunk and admitted in Palimpsest that Robert Kennedy “hated” him more than almost anyone.

More here.