The Beatrice Interview

Fred Kaplan

"Gore doesn't do the things that people are expected to do."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

As a biographical subject, Gore Vidal is fascinating. For one thing, he's moved in so many different spheres of influence-- who else could have introduced Tennessee Williams to John F. Kennedy? And as a writer, he has a remarkable stylistic range, shifting from historical novels that recall the best of 18th-century Enlightenment prose to postmodern inventions that do away with traditional narrative conventions of time and space. I've always wanted to interview Vidal, though I've never gotten the chance. But when I had an opportunity to speak to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, over lunch on the patio of his Brooklyn home, I didn't hesitate.

RH: You'd been adamant for years about not wanting to do biographies of living subjects. What made you change your mind?

FK: I wanted very much to do a 20th-century American figure. I had started with a late 18th, early 19th-century writer in Thomas Carlyle, then gone forward in time to Dickens, then to Henry James. I always wanted to do a fourth biography, because I had conceived these biographies as not only vivid narrative lives but also cultural histories. The main themes that run from book to book attempt to address cultural developments and changes in Anglo- American culture and society. Since I wanted to go from Henry James to a figure who was completely American, completely of the 20th century, I thought about the possibilities and then essentially put it on hold. I didn't think I was going to come up with anybody, and wasn't eager to do anybody still living. I then decided I would do a biography of Mark Twain.

Then in January 1994, I got a call from Jay Parini. He told me that Gore Vidal was looking for a biographer. Was I interested. "Well," I said, "I don't want to say yes or no too quickly." He's controversial and exciting; that's both a plus and a minus. He's also very much alive, which was also a consideration. It's much harder to do a biography of a living figure, there are certain problems that emerge which I wasn't sure I wanted to confront. There were also some practical problems; I was under contract to do the Twain biography and well along with that research. "However," I told him, "it's tempting enough, attractive enough, because I'm a Gore Vidal fan and because it would fit into my larger scheme." The themes of national identity, expatriation, sexual identity, artists as public figures, would all certainly apply to Gore Vidal as well as my earlier subjects.

So we had some discussions about it, then Jay put me in touch with Gore. Vidal and I began discussions. It took a few months for me to overcome my hesitation, and for some of the practical difficulties to be worked through, and then I decided to go through with it. For better or for worse.

RH: You spent hundreds of hours in conversation with Vidal. How did that work out?

FK: Any job, no matter how glamorous it may look on the surface, has its tedious and mechanical side. Some of my hundreds of hours with Gore were wonderful and interesting. Some of them were not. Some of them were hours in which he repeated things he'd already told me once or twice before. In some hours he was sharp and alert; in other hours he was tired. Some hours were convivial, in which his late night pleasure in drinking was part of our conversational tone. Sometimes I talked to him by telephone rather than face to face. The face to face interviews were done in New York, Washington, and Ravello. As I saw the tapes of our conversations mounting up, the pile getting bigger and bigger, I would inwardly groan at the realization that I'd have to transcribe them. I tried to have a secretary transcribe them, but it turned out to be more trouble and work for me than it was worth. I quickly discovered that it was more efficient--though extremely time-consuming and tiring-- to do them all myself. Some of the time I spent with Gore was a great deal of fun. We met in restaurants, in hotel rooms, often at his home in Ravello. Gore's witty, spontaneously sharp, with a kind of acute intelligence and brilliant articulation I've never seen in anybody else before. He is funny that nobody else I know is, and just able to come up with a line that pierces to the heart of a matter instantly. Like everybody else, though, he only has so much to say, and if you've heard it once or twice, the third time isn't always as pleasurable. And there was occasional tension between us, which I'm sure you want to hear about--

RH: You bet! As you probed into Vidal's life, I'm sure there were things he didn't want to discuss with you.

FK: Absolutely. Gore is a man who creates the impression of absolute frankness about what's on his mind and about his past. But at the same time, he's capable of self-evasion and other evasion. He's a man who claims not to have a psyche--utter nonsense--who claims not to have an unconscious, though he'll discuss his unconscious if it suits his needs to do so. One of the ways Gore functions effectively is to refuse to admit into his consciousness, his self-awareness, things about himself that are impediments to doing the things he wants to do. He has very little to do with remorse. He claims that he never regrets, just moves on, and there's some truth to that. There's a ruthlessness that's almost superhuman. But it's clear to me that he is regretful and sorry about certain things, though he won't ever say that he is, not directly, and will find a way to absorb the regret without damaging his ability to plow on and do what he likes.

RH: What sort of direct tension did you experience with him?

FK: One of the topics that almost always produced tension was sexuality. As I describe it in the book, there's that moment where we'd been talking for a long period of time and I asked him if two people whose names had come up had ever slept together. He exploded: "Kaplan, I'm getting sick and tired of questions about who slept with who! You'll never understand how we work, what our sexual life is about! You're just too straight, bourgeois, too inexperienced in that world, and I fear for what it is you'll write about my sexuality!"

I said, "OK, maybe you're right, maybe you're wrong. Let's take a break." A half hour later, we resumed as if nothing had happened.

RH: There are parts of his life that, even though he's written about them in Palimpsest--like his affair with Anais Nin, he remains prickly about.

FK: More than prickly. Evasive, distortive... He hates the idea that he had an affair with Anais Nin. Not just that they made at least one effort under her prodding to go to bed together which was unsuccessful, because he didn't want to. But it's clear that he loved her and she loved him in any reasonable sense of the word 'love.' He was deeply, intimately involved with her; she meant a great deal to him. In retrospect, he hates that idea, doesn't want the world to know about it. So whenever it comes up, he has slighting things to say about her. Well, I went back to the letters, the documents they exchanged in those days. Gore grumbled--"God knows what you're coming up with"--and of course hoped that my take on his relationship with Nin would corroborate his revisionist account in Palimpsest. There's a lot of revisionism in Palimpsest, rewriting the past to suit his own needs. Well, we all do that, I'm not criticizing him for doing it--why not? If you get a chance to make yourself look better, or something in your past that you're embarrassed about, and you can fix it, go ahead. But Gore fears that things in his past will continue to be used against him in the present by his enemies.

As Gore's biographer, it was important for me to see how he looked at the world then, how he looks at it now, but also to see what the facts are. What do the documents that establish the record reveal? The biography presents his view of things, but also provides a check against his revision of the past.

RH: In doing this, it sounds like you didn't experience the sort of creative crisis Edmund Morris faced in writing about Ronald Reagan. No moment when you saw absolutely no way how to go forward.

FK: No. Gore has remarked a number of times to me and other people, "How's Kaplan going to write about my life?" It's all on the record, all in the open, there's no depth--a lot of publication, a lot of talk, but no depth. In a certain way he's right, but he's not right in the way that Edmund Morris is probably right when he says that he tried to write about Reagan, he found "no there there." I was working with the Vidal papers at the University of Wisconsion library. Morris was at the table next to me, with the Warner Brothers documents, and he leaned over and said to me, "Ahhhh, at least you have an interesting subject!"

And he's right. His problem was that he didn't find Reagan interesting as a human being, and that he himself is not all that interested in politics. Since he didn't create a Reagan biography with political drama, he wanted to depict the real inner Reagan. And when he couldn't find the inner Reagan, he had a crisis. I never had that crisis. One, I am interested in politics and social issues, and there's a lot of that in Gore's life. I'm a biographer of literary figures because I love literature, and I think Gore's an incredibly fine writer of immense talent and productivity.

RH: What was one of the things that surprised you most as you came to know Vidal both in person and through your research?

FK: I still find it amazing that Gore can possess a combination of courtliness, discretion, and sensitivity on the one hand, and on the other can be absolutely brusque--by normal standards just impolite with people. I'm not sure what to make out of it, but it astounds me that he can totally reject the normal courtesies of daily life. He often doesn't say goodbye to people. He just turns around and leaves. Maybe it's a certain bourgeois innocence on my part, this belief that everybody's supposed to say hello and goodbye. But Gore doesn't do the things that people are expected to do. What surprised me at first, but not over time, was his remarkable strength. A combination of physical strength and of will power. It's one of the signs of potential for great productivity, a sense of discipline and endurance that Carlyle and Dickens--and James, in his way--all possessed. I think what differentiates "great" people from others is that they have a steely, disciplined energy and strength-- both mental and physical--and Gore has that.

RH: What's next for you?

FK: I'm reimmersing myself in Mark Twain. I have a contract to deliver a manuscript in about two years. Of course there are interesting connections between Twain and Vidal: self-projection, celebrity, political gadflys, humor mixed with deep seriousness. And many people don't realize the extent of Twain's love-hate relationship with America. He exiled himself from the States for ten years at one point. I put this biography on hold because Gore Vidal wanted his biography done sooner rather than later. He wanted it to appear in his own lifetime. Some people will raise their eyebrows at that. It's certainly something to think about, whether that's a wise choice or not. I could not persuade him to allow me to get all the work done and know, wait. And, hey, maybe I would go before him, you never know.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
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All materials copyright © 1999 Ron Hogan