Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Book Review: Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal
Michael Mewshaw

Once, a British aristocrat asked Gore Vidal to which social class he belonged. He grinned toothily, and immediately replied, “The very highest. I’m a third generation celebrity. My grandfather, my father and I have each appeared on the cover of Time magazine!” Vidal’s celebrity, and wealth, was well-earned. His literary output was vast and remains widely admired: novels, plays, screenplays for film and TV, and essays. If one knew nothing but what one learned from reading Vidal, one would know quite a lot indeed. And his readers came to know him well, not only from his writing, but from his hundreds of television appearances. He once quipped, “Never pass up an opportunity to have sex or appear on television.”

Author of Sympathy for the Devil, Michael Mewshaw, is a working writer who became friends with Vidal in 1979 when he interviewed him in Rome, where Vidal and his longtime companion Howard Austin lived for several decades. Mewshaw has written hundreds of magazine articles, many of them about Vidal, for various publications. Scion of a political family, Vidal valued loyalty, and Mewshaw was a loyal friend. He never misquoted Vidal in print. Vidal had a horror of being misquoted; he polished his quips assiduously.

Now that Vidal is dead, Mewshaw reveals the man he knew. The haughty self-possessed public wit in a navy blazer and gray slacks we knew was Vidal’s greatest creation, and that persona was maintained at ruinous personal cost to him and to Austin, who managed his complicated and difficult life and career. By the mid 1970s when Mewshaw and Vidal first met, the vain Vidal’s figure was becoming fleshy. Howard was barely managing Vidal’s intake of food and alcohol. Vidal had often remarked, and written, about his friend Tennessee Williams’ self-destructive dependency on drink and pills, but Vidal was already drinking heavily by then, and his drinking was nearly out of control for most of the rest of his life. Nearly, because every day, without regard for the lateness of his hours or the amount of booze he consumed, Vidal pulled himself together every morning and wrote. The afternoons were given over to the young Italian men he paid for sex, never the same one twice. He was an obsessive hypochondriac and for decades spoke of his eminent death. Nonetheless, his literary achievements, even in the last half of his career, would be remarkable for three healthy writers.

Gore Vidal wrote two autobiographies, Palimpsest and Point by Point Navigation, as well as Snapshots in History’s Glare, a memoir told through historical photographs of him, his family, and the many famous people who were part of his life (the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, Amelia Earhart, Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Truman Capote, Princess Margaret, Johnny Carson, and on and on). He once wrote, “Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Through Mewshaw’s Sympathy for the Devil we learn that is not true. He was a warm, loving, and generous friend, but this book should not serve as an introduction to Vidal. Read Vidal first, then read Sympathy for the Devil. Vidal’s public persona and his writing were his great achievements. He was a master, perhaps, the master, of American English writing. As Mewshaw writes, “Vidal’s sentences have the snap of a dominatrix’s whip.”

David Blake
Fiction  Department
Central Library

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