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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

(Page 2)

In 1936 I moved from Rock Creek Park to the house, Merrywood, across the Potomac, and money suddenly hedged us all round. At the height of the Depression there were five servants in the house, white servants, a sign of wealth unique for Washington in those years. My stepfather was an heir to Standard Oil, the nemesis of T. P. Gore and Huey Long. Although I now lived the life of a very rich prince, I was still unconscious of class differences other than the relation between black and white, which was something as fixed in our city then as the Capitol dome, and as unremarkable. But the rock that had landed between my grandfather and me in the back of the car was a sharp and unmistakable signal that there were others who were not, indeed, princes at all; that there were millions of people to whom an old-fashioned word applied—pauper.

Although something of an avatar of Mark Twain, I have never read The Prince and the Pauper, made into a film by Warner Brothers in the thirties.

Lonely children often have imaginary playmates but I was never lonely; rather, I was solitary, and wanted no company at all other than books and movies, and my own imagination. I was Puck; I was a long-dead Egyptian; I was a time traveler to Rome; I was many other selves. But now, suddenly, I wanted to be not Puck, or even Mickey Rooney. I wanted to be the identical twin boys who played the prince and the pauper. I wanted to be myself, twice. I do not dare speculate upon what the school of Vienna—I refer, of course, to the Riding School—would make of this. But I don’t think that my response to the film was unusual, particularly if one were the actors’ age and so could easily identify with the notion of the two as really one and that one oneself, or with the general proposition that a palpable duplicate of oneself would be the ideal companion.

A current pejorative adjective is narcissistic. Generally, a narcissist is anyone better looking than you are, but lately the adjective is often applied to those “liberals” who prefer to improve the lives of others rather than exploit them. Apparently, a concern for others is self-love at its least attractive, while greed is now a sign of the highest altruism. But then to reverse, periodically, the meanings of words is a very small price to pay for our vast freedom not only to conform but to consume.


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The childhood desire to be a twin does not seem to me to be narcissistic in the vulgar Freudian sense. After all, one is oneself; and the other other. It is the sort of likeness that makes for wholeness, and is it not that search for likeness, that desire and pursuit of the whole—as Plato has Aristophanes remark—that is the basis of all love? As no one has ever actually found wholeness in another human being, no matter of what sex, the twin is the closest that one can ever come toward wholeness with another; and, dare one invoke biology and the origin of our species, there is always, back of us mammals, doomed to die once we have procreated, our sexless ancestor the amoeba, which never dies as it does not reproduce sexually but merely—serenely?—breaks in two and identically replicates.

Anyway, I thought Billy and Bobby Mauch were cute as a pair of bug’s ears, and I wished I were either one of them, one of them, mind you. I certainly did not want to be two of me, as one seemed more than enough to go around even in a “famous” family. Yet doubleness has always fascinated me, as mirrors do, as filmed images do.

The plot is pure Shakespeare. It is also impure Samuel Clemens—or is he by now entirely Mark Twain? Certainly, he was obsessed by twins, and by the likeness of one to the other. But then what does his pen name mean? if it does not mean two or twain or twin? I often wonder what I might have become if Warner Brothers had filmed not The Prince and the Pauper but that blackest of American “twin” fables, Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Although Errol Flynn is charming as an ideal older brother, I had completely forgotten that he was in the movie. Plainly, I didn’t want an older brother. I was fixated on the twins themselves. On the changing of clothes, and the reversal of roles. On the descent of the boy prince into the life of the poor, which struck many bells for someone who had actually seen the Boners plain. We now know, through such FBI informers as Ronald Reagan, that in the thirties and the forties Hollywood was being infiltrated by the Reds and that writers in the pay of Moscow were subtly poisoning every script that they could with malicious attacks on greed and selfishness and those other traits that have made our country great. It is true, of course, that some of the movie writers were Communists but, as they all agreed in later years, you couldn’t get anything of a political nature into any film. This has also been true in my experience.

On the other hand, it is worth at least a doctoral thesis for some scholar to count how often in films of the thirties and forties a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt can be found, usually hanging on a post-office wall; and then try to discover who put it there: the writer, the director, the producer—the set designer?

At a subconscious level, there was actually a good deal of politics in even the simplest of everyday stories, while historical pieces could always conceal messages, since studios were certain that nothing that happened then could ever have anything at all to do with now. For me, at twelve, the poor of London in their encampment, Robbers’ Roost, were just like the Boners in the Anacostia Flats.

The film’s overt political message is straightforward: a good king will listen to the people and help them. Oddly enough, kings with absolute power were a staple of American movies. One seldom saw democracy in action and, when one did, the results were apt to be simpleminded fables like those of Frank Capra.

More is to be learned, I believe, from William Keighley, auteur of The Prince and the Pauper as well as of Babbitt, than from Capra. The prince’s father, Henry VIII, explains to his son the nature of power. Why the Warner Brothers thought that the American public would find interesting a disquisition on princely power in Renaissance times is a secret that Jack L. Warner took to his grave. On the other hand, the king’s musings were possibly addressed to the serfs at Warner Brothers, a studio known for its love of such traditions as the annual Christmas layoff.

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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