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Growing Up With Gore Vidal

Posted on Nov 13, 2006

VIDEO: Watch Vidal read a portion of this chapter (Flash required) or try Quicktime.

By Gore Vidal

Editor’s note: In this Truthdig exclusive excerpt from his just-released book, “Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir,” National Book Award-winning author Gore Vidal recounts Depression-era episodes of his life involving his grandfather T.P. Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, along with a political awakening that followed young Vidal’s viewing of “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Chapter Five

My memory of the Depression is more of talk on the radio and in the house than of actual scenes of apple-selling in the street. Also, I did not always understand what I heard. When stock market shares fell, I thought that chairs were falling out of second-story windows. I did know that senators spent their days in the Senate chamber passing bills—dollar bills, I thought—from one to another, by no means an entirely surreal image.

At the age of five I sat in the Senate gallery and watched as T. P. Gore was sworn in for a fourth term. Defeated in 1920, he had made a triumphant return in 1930. I recall the skylit pale greens of the chamber so like the aquarium in the basement of the Commerce Building. I was also very much aware of my grandfather’s enemy (and my father’s friend and employer), the loudly menacing Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a black spot—like a dog’s—over his left eyebrow. He was always in the papers and on the radio; worse, there he was in practically every newsreel, smiling balefully at us and tossing his huge head about.

Finally, in the spring of 1932, I saw at first hand history before it was screened. A thousand veterans of the First World War had arrived in the capital to demand a bonus for their services in the late and, to my grandfather, unnecessary war. These veterans were known as the Bonus Army, or Boners for short. By June, there were seventeen thousand of them encamped around Washington and in deserted buildings near the Capitol. The city panicked. There was talk of a revolution, like the recent one in Russia, or the one in France, which I knew so well from having seen so many movies.

At first, I thought that the Boners were just that—white skeletons like those jointed cardboard ones displayed at Halloween. Bony figures filled my nightmares until it was explained to me that these Boners were not from slaughterhouses but from poorhouses. My grandfather was against granting them a bonus. A onetime fiery populist from the Mississippi up-country, and a contributor to the only socialist constitution of the fifty states, he had come to the conclusion that “if there was any race other than the human race, I’d go join it.” He was a genuine populist; but he did not like people very much. He always said no to anyone who wanted government aid. On one memorable occasion, the blind senator was denounced to his face by a blind suppliant for federal aid. On the other hand, he believed in justice—due process, anyway—for all, equally.

As the summer grew hotter and the Depression deepened, and Congress debated whether or not to give the veterans a bonus, rumors spread: they had attacked the White House; they had fired on the Capitol; and, most horribly, they were looting the Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. I dreamed of skeletons on the march; of Boris Karloff, too—all bones and linen wrapping.


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On June 17, 1932, the Senate met to vote on the Bonus Bill. I drove with my grandfather to the Capitol, sitting beside him. Davis, his black driver and general factotum, was at the wheel. I stared out the open window, looking for Boners. Instead, I saw only shabby-looking men holding up signs and shouting at occasional cars. At the Senate side of the Capitol there was a line of policemen. Before we could pass through the line, Senator Gore was recognized. There were shouts; then a stone came through the open window of the car and landed with a crash on the floor between us. My grandfather’s memorable words were: “Shut the window,” which I did.

Shortly after, the Boners were dispersed by the army, headed by General MacArthur and his aide Major Eisenhower. Guns were fired; there were deaths. The following Sunday, my father and I flew low over what had been the Boners’ encampment at the Anacostia Flats. There were still smoking fires where the shanties had been. The place looked like a garbage dump, which in a sense it had been, a human one.

From that moment on, I was alert to all films about the French and Russian revolutions and, from that day, I have always known that not only could it happen here but it probably would. In the wake of the disorders and discontents of the sixties, soon to rise again in the nineties, this is no great insight. But back then, it was an ominous portent of things to come, and of the fragility of our uniquely founded state in which everyone thought himself guaranteed sufficient liberty in order to pursue happiness on the high Jeffersonian ground that the present belongs to the living. But if the rich are too rich and the poor have nothing to support them in bad times, then how is liberty’s tree to be nourished?

A chill wind went through the Republic. Three years later Social Security was passed by Congress despite the cry of the conservatives that this was godless socialism and henceforth every citizen would be forced to exchange his name for an administrative number. My grandfather asked for the bill to be voted on. His friend, Huey Long, seconded the motion. Then Senator Long voted for Social Security, and Senator Gore abstained.

The children of the famous are somewhat different from the children of all the rest, including those of the merely rich. Until my mother married a second time, there was no fortune in the family. Cunningly, my father managed to lose control of each of the airlines that he had founded; but then he had no interest in money, only in the making of new things. Senator Gore lived on his salary as a senator, $15,000 a year. He was also the first and, I believe, last senator from an oil state to die without a fortune. But though we were relatively poor, I could tell that I was not like the other children because of the questions that my teachers would ask me about my father and grandfather, and was it true what the papers said?

When I asked my grandparents about the newspapers, they replied in unison, “If you read it in the papers, it isn’t true.” But then populists have never had a good press in Freedom’s Land. I was also warned never to answer the questions of strangers, and, of course, I always did. To one reporter, I said that my stepfather could not possibly have been the father of my half sister as he had not known my mother long enough. Although I had no inkling of the facts of life, I had an instinct for the telling detail. Later, at school, when asked what my father did, I said, “He’s in the newspapers.” Which seemed to me a precise way of accounting for his activities as director of air commerce.


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By Nick, November 30, 2006 at 12:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Speaking as an Australian with a Prime minister as silly as
President Bush I can only say that Gore Vidals words of
wisdom in regards to international affairs have always be
welcome. In regards to his novels I regard Julian very highly.
A great introduction to Roman times and the apostate view.
I wonder if our latest apostate apostle Richard Dawkins has
read it.  Regards Nick from Australia

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By El Bandy, November 16, 2006 at 5:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I had in mind a different comment about the great GV, but the encryption code I needed to copy to make my offering here (to the tech God?) seemed to contain a secret message.

GV himself, possibly only he, would receive my meaning; so I’m left with that singular feeling again, the one conjured by the experience of experiencing his works, the one he, possibly only he, would understand.

Ah, Vidal…

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By Ion C. Laskaris, November 15, 2006 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore Vidal has always struck me as one of the brightest American writers of the last 60 years and I will read his new volume, ASAP. His sense of awareness of self, culture and zeitgeist remind me strangely of Oriana Fallaci, another luminous mind and faithful daughter to her anarchist family tradition.

The reviewer’s quotes revive my own childhood sense of a child in the 1930s, although I am only 74. Still the shadows grow swiftly longer now. Clearly Vidal had the experience of the great and near great from early Washington,D.C. days. That he could emerge from that setting as so much of a freethinker and devotee to the life of the mind is nothing short of miraculous. That he is still writing 60 years later is a blessing for us all.

Ion C. Laskaris, Burlington,Vt.+

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By, November 15, 2006 at 8:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The “Fruit of Eden” - A review of Point to Point Navigation: Gore Vidal - A Memoir 1964 to 2006, Doubleday.

by Christine Smith, Colorado

Mark Twain wrote “Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with,” and so it is, too, with historian and author Gore Vidal.

Point to Point Navigation is best described as a stream of consciousness.  Reflections, observations, and reminisces, not in any chronological order necessarily, but as one thought leads to another Vidal recollects interesting as well as poignant memories from throughout his life.  Filled with Vidal’s wit and observations, one comes away from the book with a sense of what it must be like to sit down with this renowned author simply for a talk together.

Aptly titled, “Point to Point Navigation” refers to the dangerous navigation Vidal had to use during World War Two when as first mate on an army freight-supply ship they had to maneuver without compass (inoperable due to weather) but rather by memorized landmarks and without radar, a process which the writing of this memoir made him feel as if he “were again dealing with those capes and rocks in the Bering Sea,” for the memoir presents a nonlinear reflection of a life whose course and recollection thereof has twist and turns but which remained on course.

Vidal is one of America’s finest biographers: author of twenty-five novels including his fascinating informative Narratives of Empire series, six plays, many screenplays, and more than two hundred essays.  He is an esteemed political commentator who has expertly utilized rationality and erudite humor regarding topics such as sex, religion, politics, literature, and history of empire.

I have loved the man’s works since I was a teenager, from his essays and earliest novels to his more recent pamphlets regarding American imperialism, his words have educated, enlightened, and given me much to ponder.  When I consider Vidal, I think of knowledge.  As I recall the many Vidal essays, novels and interviews I’ve read, I am reminded yet again of a Twain quote Vidal exemplifies, “I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people.” (from Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead?)  Such unrestrained candor is what makes Vidal a pleasure to read.

Though subtitled “A Memoir 1964-2006” the book reaches far back into Vidal’s earliest childhood years with touching stories of his fascination with cinema (including a charming anecdote of seeing his first movie in 1929), as well as his family and early exposure to politics and politicians.  All this is presented with a wry humor and beautiful style we’ve come to expect from him, such as this indicative gem, “Contrary to legend, I was born of mortal woman, and if Zeus sired me, there is no record on file in the Cadet Hospital at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point…”

Point to Point Navigation seems shorter than Vidal’s first memoir, Palimpsest, and also seems to contain shorter chapters, and in the latter chapters it digresses into quotes/excerpts/and Vidal’s commentary upon other’s books: that of Dennis Altman’s Gore Vidal’s America, Marcie Frank’s How To Be An Intellectual In The Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal,  and Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann’s Ultimate Sacrifice. 

As a reader of most of his works, I appreciated his occasional comments on the writing of such greats as Myra Breckinridge, Washington D.C., and occasional references throughout the book on his life during the writing of other works. 

But in the primary quest to learn more of Vidal’s experiences, the reader is generously rewarded, with this reader at times nearly brought to tears, with other passages making me laugh a loud at his signature wit and sarcasm.  Far more than entertaining, Point to Point Navigation delves into what this reader would consider painfully personal experiences, as well as Vidal’s recounting of tidbits from the huge array of well known personalities he has known including among others Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Saul Bellow, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola.

My personal favorites of Vidal’s memories of those he has known are of Tennessee Williams, Johnny Carson, Rudolph Nureyev, Paul Bowles and Amelia Earhart.  Recollections of his father, Gene Vidal, were poignant.  Of his mother, Vidal is extraordinary in his objective perception and awareness of her even from his youngest years (a most difficult task for most children even as adults).

For a man who is, as he has oft repeated, not his own subject, Vidal superbly permits the reader to observe the seasons of his life, heart and mind: taking us on a journey from the spring, summer, autumn and now into the winter of his life, even venturing into dreams of Edgewater, Howard Auster, and his father.

Both throughout the writing of the memoir and the years covered, a number of Vidal’s friends and acquaintances of his age-range, die…with the notification or recollection thereof resulting in yet more memories and thoughts.

Vidal begins with prose reminiscent of his Screening History, with several stories regarding his youth including memories of the army’s dispersion of the First World War veterans at a Boners’ camp in 1932 at Anacostia Flats of which Vidal always remembered, causing him to be alert to all films regarding the French and Russian revolutions; his fascination with twins or “doubleness,” including commentary upon the film The Prince and the Pauper”; and memories of his favorite theaters and the films he viewed and which stayed with him sometimes for a lifelong effect.  Later he ventures into his decision and details of his two campaigns for public office (1960 & 1982).

Willing to share even the most personal experience of the loss of his partner of fifty-three years, Howard Auster, Point to Point Navigation was particularly beautiful because of Vidal’s joyful memories of Auster (told in a perfect “past present” tense to use one of Vidal’s terms), his sharing of their time during Auster’s illness, Vidal’s references following Auster’s death of the plans for trips or celebrations which will never be realized, as well as Vidal’s poignant reflections on death and grief. 

It is because of Vidal’s willingness to share such deep personal experiences and observations of his beautiful friendship with Howard Auster, that I began this review with Twain’s quote upon grief.  I was particularly touched by Vidal’s references of the “we” (he and Auster) now having become the singular “I, ”  except, of course, in Vidal’s memories where the “we” remains as if in the seeming present…making such recollections of their years and travels together all the more poignant and conveying to the reader the joy of such deep friendship.

Vidal has indeed been the “Fruit of Eden” for many (a phrase Tennessee Williams noted in a letter to Vidal).  May he never deviate from his thus far ever so accurate point to point navigation. Despite what may transpire in these dire days of “the last empire,” may he stand firm, without compromise, behind the strong message he has consistently spoken and written for years.
In summary, ‘Point to Point Navigation,’ as with ‘Palimpsest,’ brought to my mind and heart Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Adagio, a composition reminiscent to me for years of Vidal’s life from childhood to the man now in his eighties.  A life of solitude amidst the many around him…a life of reflection amidst worldly distraction…a life of truth in a world of lies.  A life well-lived, and through which we may all gain more wisdom, intellectual insight, and knowledge with Point to Point Navigation being one more piece in a lifetime of literary work I highly recommend.

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By Georgia Whitman, November 15, 2006 at 3:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - It is sweet and right to die for your country. I had to look up the meaning, and found the poem Dulce Et Dcorum Est by Wilfred Owen, described as the best known poem of World War I

Yes, Mr. Vidal you are spot on - greed rules the American heart. I always laugh (soft), when immigrants assert that they are American too. I think they have no concept of what being an American really means. Amerikan or Amerikkan, correct the spelling and the portrait is revealed.

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By paul kibble, November 14, 2006 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks, Bob. Please feel free to paraphrase my modest little homage if you find something usable in it—-and thank heaven for book clubs, by the way. It’s good to know there are still some people out there who are putting their free time to good use. Video games and TV be damned—-read on!

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By Bob Tetrault, November 14, 2006 at 2:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Excellent opening comment, Paul.

For my part, this reading makes me want to recommend the title for next month’s tome in my local book club.

And again, I’m not above paraphrasing your comments when it comes time to discuss…

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By paul kibble, November 13, 2006 at 7:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Clearly the main reason the Democrats fared as well as they did in the midterms is because Gore Vidal’s memoir was published on the same day as the elections. Coinicidence? I think not. Good juju, Mr. V.

Vidal’s follow-up to his earlier memoir “Palimpsest” deserves the widest possible audience. I’ve already purchased ten copies—-one for myself, nine for various friends—-because a Vidal book is always a welcome event. There’s simply no one currently writing with his particular range of gifts.

In addition to its witty portraits of contemporaries and unique perspective on our crazy-making manners and mores, “Point-to-Point Navigation” unflinchingly catalogues the intoads encroaching mortality has made on Vidal’s various friends and enemies, as well as his own Montaignean stoicism the face of the inevitable. I believe Mr. Vidal once wrote that he hoped the English author V.S. Pritchett would live
forever. One shares that impractical but necessary hope for Mr. Vidal. Who else will serve as our—-to borrow Gerald Clarke’s honorific—-Petronius Americanus?

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