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Growing Up With Gore Vidal
Posted on Nov 13, 2006
By Gore Vidal
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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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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