University Business
UB Daily
UB Exec
Arts & Letters Daily
Academic Partners
Contact Information
Subscription Services
Advertising Information
Copyright & Credits

Volume 10, No. 7 - October, 2000  
Table of contents for this issue
Bio Hazard
The Perils Of Writing A Life Of Gore Vidal

By Fred Kaplan

ONE MORE TIME I WAS to be observer, participant, and witness. In February 1999, my telephone rang. "I understand the book's finished. When do I see it?" Gore Vidal said to me.

"When it's published," I said. "When the rest of the world gets to see it, as it states in our agreement."

Long pause. "What agreement?"

My hand was already moving across my desk. In preparation for this day, I kept one of the many copies of the document in easy reach. "The agreement you signed on March 15, 1994, in which you stated that I would have complete access to and use of your unpublished letters and that you would not interfere in any way with publication of the book."

Another long pause. "What about the quotes from my letters?"

"What about them?"

"Well, they are my words. I should have some control over them. I should have at least the opportunity to correct them for misquotation."

"How can you check them for misquotation," I asked, "when you don't have the originals or copies of the originals to check them against?"

It seemed to me that Vidal's interest in checking the letters was a substitute for what he really desiredóto read my manuscript before it was too late to influence what it said and how it said it. If a lengthy first-ever biography of me were about to be published, I'd be nervous, too. What inaccuracies, slanders, and misrepresentations might the book not broadcast? And I had previous experience with Gore that led me to believe that he felt about his unpublished letters much as he felt about his fiction in progressóthey were drafts subject to revision, at least to the extent of eliminating stylistic infelicities. He did not think of letters written fifty years ago as historical documents.

"Don't you have your copy of the letter of agreement?" I asked.

"No! I don't remember such a letter."

"I have a copy in front of me now. Would you like me to read it to you?"


I read his own words back to him:

After nine years, Walter Clemons, my authorized biographer, has presented almost nothing at all to me or to Little, Brown. Therefore, I should like to transfer the mandate to Fred Kaplan. I give him free range to quote from letters to and from me, interviews about me, critical studies - with the only proviso that print interviews be scrutinized for accuracy of quotation.... [At my archive in Wisconsin, he may see] whatever he wants to see, with the single reservation of one old diary that has been sealed. Naturally, Mr. Kaplan must have a free hand in writing his book, and I shall exert no control.

When I first received this document, I made two comments to myself and others: (1) Gore Vidal is genuinely libertarian in such matters, and (2) how Vidalian he is in style, even in a letter that in the hands of most anyone else would be legalistic boilerplate.

I hoped that reminding him of our letter of agreement would end his attempt to see the manuscript, though my jaundiced sense of even the best of human natures cautioned me that it would not. Vidal's grandfather, like Mark Twain, had said that if there were any race other than the human, he would go join it. As Vidal's biographer, I knew that when he thought his interests were threatened, he would go to lengths to defend himself; it is human nature to be itself, to repeat the patterns of the past, for the inner angel to reveal its dark as well as its bright side.

THIS WAS A BIOGRAPHY I had not sought to write, though I was excited by the opportunity. In January 1994, I had received a phone call from Vidal's literary executor, the novelist, poet, and biographer Jay Parini. Jay had given a favorable review to my life of Henry James and had praised my biographies of Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens. Your name, he said, has come up in a discussion I've had with Gore Vidal. He's looking for a biographer. The current one hasn't made any progress in almost nine years. Are you interested in discussing it with him? Vidal, then sixty-seven, wanted it done while he was still alive.

By April 1994, all the pieces had fallen into place. I agreed to put on the back burner a biography of Mark Twain I had already spent three years preparing. Before beginning work on the biography, I did ask him to put in writing the terms of our working relationship. I knew how difficult, if not impossible, my situation would be later if I didn't have a document to protect me. Writing the biography of a living writer, especially one who has a bite, is a dangerous undertaking for both subject and biographer. Vidal agreed to my conditions (which had been put to him in the form of requests), and he signed the letter of agreement. In September, I made the first of at least a dozen visits to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison, where Vidal had been depositing his papers since 1963. And in November 1994, I joined Vidal and his companion, Howard Austen, in Washington, D.C., the city of Vidal's childhood, where he was about to give a talk to the National Press Club.

Before taking on this project, I had met Vidal once before, at a banquet hosted by the Cheltenham literary festival in England; Parini was there, too. When we met, Vidal seemed to know that I'd written a biography of Henry James, and a few complimentary words from him implied he might have read it. This pleased me. I'd been a casual Gore Vidal reader since adolescence, particularly of his essays, and I'd been intrigued by the autobiographical stories he had often related in his work: of his grandfather, the blind senator from Oklahoma; of his father, the first director of air commerce in the Roosevelt administration; and of his own career as a writer and a public personality. He had traveled in high political circles during the Kennedy years and had run for Congress. His work as a television and Hollywood scriptwriter had made him a celebrity whose name appeared in gossip columns as well as book reviews. And as a writer who championed unorthodox views on sex and politics, he had done something that few serious literary artists ever had: created artistically and intellectually formidable best-sellers. I had found Myra Breckinridge scintillating and his history novels, particularly Julian and Burr, absorbing. Like many others, I had been riveted by some of his television appearances, especially his debates with William Buckley at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

When we met in Washington, the rapport between us was largely friendly, though I was surprised to learn that he was working on a memoir, which nobody had bothered to mention to me. He was putting the final touches on it in the Lincoln suite at the Willard Hotel, from whose windows he looked down on the Commerce Department building, where his father had worked sixty years before.

In Washington, Vidal took me to the scenes of his childhood in a hired limousine. It was my first taste of his predilection for a first-class life, an advantage to a biographer of a living subject. At our final stop, Rock Creek Park Cemetery, Gore and Howard were shown the site they had chosen for their graves; together, the two men discussed their memorial stones. I witnessed with my signature the purchase agreement for the stones. I now had the opening for my book.

LITERARY SUBJECTS have often been complicit in their biographies. Samuel Johnson cooperated with James Boswell, Dickens with John Forster, and Carlyle with James Anthony Froude. Each assumed that his ego and accomplishments required posthumous reification. But Johnson, Dickens, and Carlyle all stipulated that the sacred stories not be written and published until they had departed this earthly scene. It apparently never dawned on any nineteenth-century literary celebrity that scriptural apotheosis would, like that of a Roman emperor, occur during his lifetime.

Vidal's pride, one of the leitmotifs of his life, frequently compared to that of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, required that a biography be published while he still lived. If Norman Mailer already had two or three versions of his life published or in process, Vidal argued, why should he not have at least one? My argument that he should follow the example of Mark Twain, who insisted that his biography not be published before his death, met firm resistance.

On a brilliant summer day in 1996, after two years of research, I walked from the piazza in Ravello down the long private road that leads to La Rondinaia, the villa on the Amalfi coast that Vidal bought in 1972. To the left, terraces of lemon trees and olive groves descended almost a thousand feet to the shoreline. To the far south, the outline of Salerno was visible twenty miles away. I was buzzed through three sets of gates. Everything was well tended, landscaped, classically Italian. Over a little rise, a large intensely blue swimming pool edged the boundary between the path and the view. Howard greeted me, and we went on to enjoy a day and a half of continual talk. The next day we both greeted Gore, lurching slightly with weight and jet lag as he walked to the house from the piazza; he was returning from America, where he had been performing a cameo in what turned out to be the forgettable movie With Honors.

Gore rested a short while. Our intense face-to-face sessions began the next morning. I had brought with me transcriptions of almost two thousand of his letters, some quite lengthy. I had also brought transcripts of my interviews with almost a hundred people, a number that would later increase by about fifty. Some were with celebrities. I haven't an ounce of hero worship in me, but as individual human facts, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Claire Bloom, Vidal's three closest celebrity friends, all proved likable and articulately intelligent, the latter two with excellent memories. Norman Mailer gave me three long sessions over the telephone: Because of his loss of hearing, he explained, an amplification device on the receiver would make him more responsive than he could be in person. A few people refused to talk, but many accomplished and creative people did, including Ned Rorem, Louis Auchincloss, and Don Bachardy, the fine portraitist who had lived for many decades with Christopher Isherwood. I got useful information from Gore's friends, former friends, and business associates and from people who despise him, such as Norman Podhoretz and William Buckley. Occasionally, someone who hardly knew him insisted on telling me at length about their close friendship.

Best of all, I had Vidal's self-revealing letters, and I had lots of questions. The tape recorder whirred. The machine didn't get shut off even at lunch, the formal meal of the day. With few breaks, this went on for almost a month. God, I said to myself, as the pile of tapes grew monstrously, how exhausting it will be and how long it will take to transcribe these. Vidal rarely seemed tired; talking about himself energized him, though occasionally he became irritable. On about the fifth day, when I asked whether a certain relationship had involved sex, he exploded: "Can't you get it through your head that these were commonplace, unimportant things, just sex! Nobody cared. Kaplan, you're never going to understand me and you're never going to understand our style of life! Everything to you is that damned bourgeois marriage model!"

He was genuinely furious. A pause.

"Maybe yes, maybe no. I don't think so," I said. "Do you want to take a break?"

He got up and went down the long corridor from his study to the salonne, as they call it. The house was spookily, almost ominously, quiet. Howard had a long, slightly withdrawn face, his usual expression when Gore is upset. A short while later we resumed as if nothing had happened.

FOLLOWING MY LENGTHY VISIT to Ravello in the summer of 1996, a great deal happened. Vidal had what he described as two near-death experiences. He almost drowned when he fell into a Venetian canal in a rainstorm and he almost bled to death when he returned home after minor surgery. Meanwhile, I had been stabbed in an attempted robbery on the New York City subway. I had a number of meetings in New York with Gore and Howard and accompanied Vidal on a publicity tour from New York to Washington, D.C. In 1998, I saw Vidal publish a new novel, The Smithsonian Institution.

At the time Vidal called me in February 1999 and asked to see the entire manuscript, the biography was done, though the editing, copyediting, fact checking, and libel vetting were still in progress. Doubleday and I had decided to publish in October 1999, an unusually rapid schedule for such a long book. My conversation with Vidal ended with my position unchanged. Though I did not accede to his request that I provide him with a copy of the manuscript or even with a list of the quotations from his unpublished letters, I did agree to allow him to read the quotations from our oral interviews. I did this not because our agreement stated that I had to but because his desire to review them seemed reasonable to me. What if I had misheard him, or the tape had been garbled, or he had misspoken ? (The latter he didn't admit as a possibility, but I added that in my own mind.) After all, some of the interviews had been done at late, even alcoholic, hours and others in noisy places.

Early in March, I sent Vidal thirty single-spaced pages, showing him the quotes from our oral interviews that I had used in the book. Most of the changes he requested during a two-hour telephone conversation had nothing to do with transcription errors. They were stylistic: He wanted his oral comments to have the polish of his printed prose. I wanted to retain the flavor of his spontaneous talk; and when I checked the tapes, the transcriptions were accurate. We fought out the quotations one by one. I agreed to two or three changes that didn't affect either tenor or truth.

A FEW DAYS LATER, I heard from my agent, Georges Borchardt. "I got a call this morning from Marty Garbus," Borchardt said. "What's going on?"

"Who's Marty Garbus?" I asked.

Martin Garbus turned out to be renowned in New York legal and literary circles as an aggressive litigator specializing in First Amendment law. One of the reasons he's feared is because he's so expensive. If a client is willing to pay the thousand dollars an hour Garbus is said to get, you inevitably realize that the client might be willing to go to other extremes as well. Vidal, Borchardt explained, had hired Garbus to represent his demand that I turn over to him a copy of the entire manuscript so that he could check the quotations from his letters for accuracy. He was attempting to enforce the demand he had made in our February conversation, though this demand was now being represented only as a desire to check the quotations. He did not want to be sued for libel, he argued, if I had misquoted one of his letters.

The demand worried me. Since he had nothing to check the quotes against unless I supplied him with copies of his original letters (and even then I doubted he would ever do the tedious, time-consuming work), the issue of accurate quotation seemed a wedge to pry open the manuscript to his scrutiny. If I gave him only my quotations from his letters, he would attempt to guess from that whether the narrative was friendly or unfriendly, and he would again demand the entire manuscript.

Yes, Jay Parini said when I talked to him: He wants to see the manuscript while there's still time for him to demand changes.

SOON THE 1994 LETTER of agreement was in the hands of Garbus and of the Doubleday lawyer. To my relief, Doubleday was completely supportive. But things soon got worse. The dark angel had appeared.

"Dear Fred," Gore faxed me on March 30. We had misunderstood each other on several points, he wrote. First and most important, he and I had no contract. He had thought that Walter Clemons's original 1984 contract had applied to me, and he had never meant to give me the right to print his letters without his consent.

I seriously doubted that such a contract existed, but if it did, it was irrelevant. This was nothing more than a rhetorical ploy, since Vidal was much too experienced in litigation to assume contracts with one party would transfer automatically to another.

Gore's fax continued: Since I was so concerned about my "presumably awesome reputation as a lit[erary] biographer," he thought he should "point out" that I had nominated myself, via Jay Parini, as a replacement for Clemons. And on that occasion, Gore had unfortunately misheard my name. He had heard Parini say Justin Kaplan, whose life of Walt Whitman Gore admired. Only later, when he sent a message to Justin Kaplan asking for an update on the biography's progress, did he discover his error. "As I have become fond of you, in your megalomaniacal way, I shall not rub it in anymore," Gore concluded. "Bottom line: I must pass on all letters by me in bio."

It seemed surreal to be engaged in the kind of exchange I had written about so often in the biography. In the opinion of Doubleday's lawyer and of my agent, the letters between Vidal and myself in March 1994 were letters of agreement that had the force of a contract. Our answer was unequivocal: We would not provide quotes from the letters for his approval, let alone a copy of the manuscript. He had put in writing that I would have "free range" to quote from his letters. To say now that he had never intended to allow me to quote from any of his letters without his agreement was untenable.

Curious about one of Vidal's more memorable claims in his fax, I called Justin Kaplan. "It's been reported to me," I said to him after the initial pleasantries, "that at one time Vidal asked you about your undertaking his biography. Can you confirm that?"

"No," Justin said. "Where did you get that idea?"

Justin's wife, the novelist Anne Bernays, was on an extension line. "It never happened," she said. "I'd remember. It's not something I'd forget."

"I'm also fond of you and your megalomaniacal ways," I wrote to Gore the next day. "Alas, your fax of yesterday is mean and meretricious. And it's filled with false statements. Also, it's an attempt to go back on your word."

Copies of all our faxes were now going to Martin Garbus. "The conditions were total non-interference at every stage," I faxed Gore. "You gave me in writing permission in advance to quote from your letters.... You know very well that a bio that is perceived as having been influenced by its subject loses its credibility. So the bio that I've written and our original agreement stands. It's still not too late to relegate this to a 'family' quarrel, a blowup that passes without serious concrete consequences."

"Dear Fred," Gore responded. "Conflicting memories." Of course he had given me the right to quote from his letters, he explained. But he had assumed that since he owned the copyright in the letters, he and I would review them carefully together. He also noted that our earlier letter of agreement had made no mention of quotations from his published works, and he suggested that I would have to pay for any quotes I used - if he granted permission. "If you want to salvage the project," Gore wrote, "I suggest we need a proper contract for both bio and letters. Unless you have been deeply creative, I can see no reason for demur."

Well, I had been deeply creative, I thought, but not in the sense he meant. Again, if I allowed him to see the quotes from the letters, I believed that he would then most likely demand to see the context for the quotes. Even if he only haggled over the quotes, that would take time and possibly cause delay. He was capable of being ruthless when he felt his interests were at stake. And I had lost confidence in his trustworthiness. Besides, I don't like being threatened.

As his biographer, I knew of many instances when Vidal had shown some of the same tendencies he was showing now. I was not surprised. I was disappointed, though not terribly: The dark angel was part of his fascination to me and to others; it also was a driving element in his creative life. Though it was not terribly pleasant to engage with, it was interesting to observe. He had the implacability to cut off relations with his mother and to remain aloof despite her efforts at reconciliation and her illnesses in old age. He had the force of self-assertion to carry on lifelong feuds with enemies like Buckley, Mailer, and Truman Capote. He had the imagination, the cunning, and the moral flexibility to manipulate publishers, friends, and lovers to serve his profit and pride. He had fired his longtime editor and close friend, Jason Epstein, because his demand for control and his pride outweighed other considerations. Why should he not be outraged at his chosen biographer resisting his demands? It was all part of the life I had signed on to write.

I answered his letter at length, not that I thought it would do any good. "I don't know what your agreement was with Clemons; it's not relevant anyway. And you certainly in the end got a bad deal there. I would not have undertaken to write your biography on any other terms than the ones we agreed on. No amount of reconstructive memories on your part or pressure that you bring to bear will change the facts."

The dispute was now in the hands of the lawyers. On April 7, 1999, Garbus faxed to say Vidal believed that any inaccuracies in the quotes from the oral interviews would make all concerned into objects of ridicule. Apparently, he didn't know that Vidal had already seen these quotes and we had long ago resolved that issue. It was the letters and the manuscript that were at issue now. Vidal doesn't want the letters misquoted, Garbus went on, and Garbus had a counterproposal he wanted to deliver in person. The meeting would be confidential, without prejudice to anyone.

In consultation with my publisher's lawyer, Borchardt and I declined. We had not made any proposal, so how entertain a counterproposal? Time was on our side. The book would soon be going to press. Vidal had dropped any demand that I pay for quotations from his published works. Only the demand to see the quotations from his unpublished letters remained. I floated the idea that if Vidal would sign a statement effectively putting an end to his interference, I might agree to his seeing the quotations from the letters. At the end of April, the lawyers composed an agreement. It stated that "whereas Vidal wishes to know what quotations from his letters appear in the Manuscript and to read those quotations, and has agreed and continues to agree not to exert or attempt to exert directly or indirectly any control over the selection and the content of those quotations or over the writing, editing or publication of the Manuscript, and whereas Kaplan wishes to honor Vidal's wish, now therefore it is agreed" that "Kaplan will within fourteen days of this Agreement submit to Vidal's attorney...all substantial quotations from any letters by Vidal that appear in the Manuscript.... The parties further recognize that this Agreement does not create any cause of action in Vidal for any breach of the Agreement.... Vidal will not seek further access to the Manuscript or to any of the other papers or documents." In essence, Vidal could see the quotes - but that would be the end of it. He would have no right to comment about them, let alone request changes. Doubleday and I could happily live with this. Gore signed this agreement on May 11.

Two weeks later I got a call. It was again the master's voice. We had had no conversations for some time. "The quotations from the letters look all right to me," he said, "except for two." This was out of many hundreds. He requested that I change them, which, of course, the legal agreement he had just signed gave him no right to do. In fact, it prohibited him from attempting "to exert directly or indirectly any control over the selection and the content of those quotations." He gave me his reasons. I said that I'd think about it. Both quotations referred to minor incidents in which he had spoken harshly of someone, though not by name, one of them the former mayor of his Italian village. The Doubleday lawyer had not thought either instance actionable. In one case, I let the quotation stand. In the other, I excised a few words. It was on a peripheral matter, and the few words made no difference.

During my years of working with Vidal and immersing myself in his world, I had become fond of him. I know him as well as anyone does except Howard and better than most do. I understood that, as contrary to fact and as unpleasant as much of it was, Vidal undoubtedly believed and felt everything he claimed at the time he said it. Making one concession seemed a small courtesy.

In June, Howard called. I had sent two copies of the bound galleys overnight to Italy. "I love the book," Howard said. "I don't know how you did it. As I read, I kept going to Gore and telling him, 'This is wonderful.' He kept saying, 'Really?'"

A few weeks later, I asked a good friend of Vidal's whether or not Gore had read the book yet. The friend responded, "He says no, but he's suspiciously familiar with some of the details, such as what the book says on page 494 and on page 612. So he's probably reading it in bed at night under his covers with a flashlight." Once again, all seemed reasonably well between us.

DURING THE YEARS I spent researching Vidal's life, I had kept notes of all the exchanges and events surrounding his attempt to control the biography. As the publication date of my book neared, I realized how well those efforts exemplified its various themes. The story of Vidal and me seemed to make an interesting, not to say humorous, postscript to the biography, and I began to think about writing an article about Vidal, myself, and the craft of biography. In August 1999, I outlined a draft of such a piece and sent it to The New Yorker.

In October 1999, a few weeks before publication of the book, Jay Parini called to express his concern that I might publish an account of Vidal's attempts to exert control over my book. I explained that I had indeed shown such a piece to a New Yorker editor for a preliminary opinion of a very early draft. How had he - Jay - learned about it, I asked? A friend of his at The New Yorker, Jay responded, had called him and had also called Gore and read to each a few selected sentences. Vidal, who lives in dread of the New York Post's Page Six gossip column, feared that my account would appear there, as he told me when I called him. He was upset. I offered to fax him a copy. No, he said, I don't want to read it, I just want it to go away. OK, I said, I'll withdraw it. The book will appear in a few weeks. There may be enough flak to deal with then. He agreed, though the excellent prepublication reviews heartened him and elicited his enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm disappeared when The New York Times reviewer called Vidal "a valuable writer but a minor one." The New York Times - his nemesis since The City and the Pillar - "is doing its usual attack," he said in a phone call to me, and he wrote to the Book Review to protest. To my shock and disgust, his letter turned out to be an attempt to distance himself from the biography, and in it Vidal made self-aggrandizing and untrue claims. "Contrary to your reviewer's statement that I 'sought out Kaplan (not the reverse)' to write my biography, the 'reverse,' of course, is the reality. First, after a certain age, one fights off biographers; second, how could I seek out someone I had never heard of? It was Jay Parini who introduced me to Kaplan as a good replacement for a departed biographer. Kaplan was eager; and so, somewhat absently, I passed the torch - under the impression that he was the estimable Justin. Later, I discovered he was not. Later, over the years, I was to read how Kaplan had laid down stern ground rules, etc. These led to misunderstandings. Finally, I must now confess, to my shame, I have never read a book by Kaplan, including Gore Vidal, but I have heard some good things of each." Our relationship, which had been warm, and then, through recent events, tense, had now become antagonistic.

A few weeks later, my wife, Rhoda Weyr, who is a literary agent of long standing and of course had scrutinized every aspect of my dealings, responded to Vidal's letter in the same forum: "Whether by design or wishful thinking, Vidal has misrepresented the facts concerning his role in the origins of Gore Vidal: A Biography.... Vidal's literary executor suggested Fred Kaplan to Vidal, as no one else was writing the biography Vidal wanted published in his lifetime, and Vidal instructed him to contact Kaplan.... Vidal agreed in writing to all the conditions Kaplan requested.... It is, of course, impossible to know the truth as to whether he ever read any of Kaplan's previous biographies or other works; however, he frequently spoke to interviewers, friends (of his), his own agent, in public forums and to me about his admiration for Kaplan's biography of James. One or the other position is false."

Two weeks later, Parini weighed in in the Times: Yes, he had recommended me to Vidal. Parini, of course, had been present when Vidal and I met at Cheltenham, and he himself had spoken to me of Gore's praise of the Henry James biography.

The best coda came shortly thereafter from Justin Kaplan. "Dear Fred," he faxed me in early February, "How about you and I writing a biography of Jay Parini?"

LIVING SUBJECTS ARE CHALLENGES for any biographer, and even the enticement of tackling Jay Parini with such an eminent co-author probably could not induce me to take on such a project again. There are long-dead authors, like Mark Twain, who are still vividly alive and well worth writing about. But never say never.

I don't for a moment regret having undertaken my life of Vidal. I learned a great deal. Immersing oneself in the complexities of someone else's life is an unparalleled opportunity to enlarge the person one has been up to that point. Writing a life is somewhat like reading a novel: Where else but in the novel of Vidal's life could I have experienced in fresh and evocative specificity the world of St. Alban's School in the late 1930s; the newsreel-like events of his political childhood in Washington; the dust of Los Alamos and the ambitions at Exeter in the early 1940s; the boredom in the U.S. Army in Alaska in World War II; Hollywood in the later 1940s and through the 1950s; the excitement of New York when World War II was finally over; and the special life of gay men in America from the 1940s to the 1990s - not to mention the shaping of a major modern literary career; the challenge of aligning my subject's politics with his personality and his sexuality; and the opportunity to see his life as best I could both through his eyes and through my own?

In all this, I have had the experience of witnessing and participating in more than most biographers ever dream of - or perhaps would ever wish to.

Fred Kaplan is Distinguished Professor of English at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center.


Get the full story:
all of Lingua Franca, delivered right to your door, at a special price.


Visit "the best web site in the world" (Observer, UK) for a daily digest of the best writing on the web.