Gore Vidal continues to blaze his own trail
January 27 2005 1:00 AM ET
Novelist and social critic Gore Vidal walks slowly and with a limp after recent knee replacement surgery. "Turns out, according to the doctors, that I had been walking the wrong way for all of my life," he says. Some people don't need doctors to tell them that Gore Vidal goes his own way--all they have to do is read his work. At age 77, the writer known for his sharp wit and unsparing waspishness has given up living in Italy to spend most of the time at his home in the Hollywood hills section of Los Angeles and continue his mission as a sort of national scold. He once called himself "the gentleman bitch" of American letters and described himself as a man without qualities. "I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water," the author of such best sellers as Lincoln, Myra Breckinridge, and Burr once told an interviewer.
Norman Mailer once tried to beat him up. William Buckley sued him for libel. Robert Kennedy wanted him barred from the White House. But Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in which 168 people died, wrote him letters, thinking he would understand him although not condone his actions; McVeigh invited Vidal to attend his execution. Always a pessimist when it comes to America's use--he would say misuse--of its power, Vidal's worries about the direction of the country these days seemed larger than usual, saying things are not only bad but getting worse: "What is happening as we speak is catastrophic for us," he said.
During a recent conversation he began with an approving discussion of the recent film Alexander. In Vidal's typical manner of marching to a different drummer, the interview had been granted so that he could come to the defense of a movie trashed by almost every critic in the country. As far as Vidal was concerned, Alexander was a breakthrough work because it treated Alexander's bisexuality in a matter-of-fact manner rather "than a terrible sin to be punished by Our Lord." He continued, "They are on the right track with this picture because it says bisexuality exists, which is something the public already knows because they practice it."
Then he described how as one of the key script doctors on Ben-Hur he secretly wove in a homosexual subplot into what bills itself "as the world's most honored movie." Vidal, who along with playwrights Christopher Fry and Maxwell Anderson were uncredited writers on the film, figured that a homosexual subplot would explain the tension between first-century Jewish prince Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd), the old Roman pal who turns on him and sends him into slavery. "I said this thing is not working and that the only thing that would work is if when they were teenagers they had an affair and Ben-Hur is still in love with Messala. Sam Zimbalist, the producer, said, 'Gore, this is a tale of the Christ,' which was the subtitle of the novel on which the movie was based. I said I would not bring this up directly, but I told Boyd about it, and he used it in acting with Heston, who always denied knowing anything about it. He also denied I was on the picture until he was shown a photograph of the two of us together on the set."
These days Vidal says he does not feel physically up to researching another historical novel or funny enough to write another satire like Myra Breckinridge. He does plan to go to Duke University next month to help oversee a production of a play he has written about the effect of Union soldiers' marching into Georgia during the Civil War. Then Vidal and the conversation strode into another direction--the war in Iraq and what it was doing to the country. He said that he can foresee the war going so badly that President Bush will be forced to resign or be driven from office. "I can't believe the speed with which the entire republic fell apart. The U.S. Bill of Rights fell apart with Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act," he said of post-9/11 America.
"Preventive war became our national policy, which has not been any nation's policy since Hitler. A preventive war is about as un-American as you get. But that doesn't mean we haven't done it before," he said. "The worst [previous] example was the Mexican War. That brave moralist, Ulysses S. Grant, who had been a second lieutenant just out of West Point, hated that war and said...that nations, like individuals, suffer for their transgressions. I believe the Civil War was the judgment of God on us for what we did to Mexico. God knows what we are going to get for Iraq."