Benjamin Svetkey
November 03, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

There’s a photograph in Gore Vidal’s living room of Jackie Kennedy. It’s hard to find a date on it — the gravity-defying First Lady-era bouffant suggests it was shot in the early 1960s — but the inscription is still vividly legible. ”To Gore,” she scrawled across her somber visage, ”who makes it impossible to look this serious.”

Turns out there are oodles of these nifty historical artifacts stashed all over the 81-year-old author’s sprawling house in the Hollywood Hills. There are framed portraits from the 1930s and ’40s of his well-connected family (that’s his father standing next to Franklin Roosevelt), along with images of Vidal himself snapped throughout his long, extraordinary career as a novelist, essayist, playwright, politician, screenwriter, historian, agitator, and actor (not to mention two-time guest panelist on What’s My Line?). Perhaps the most poignant picture, though, is one of the most recent: Vidal alongside Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, three graying literary lions, jutting out their chins as if posing for Mount Rushmore.

With interior decor like this, who needs to read his new memoirs? ”I had an Italian journalist here the other day looking at that picture of my father,” Vidal announces as he lumbers into his living room gripping a cane. ”He asked me who Franklin Roosevelt was. Took me an hour to explain.” He raises a suspicious brow while slowly lowering himself into an armchair. ”Have you even read the new book?”

Couldn’t put it down. Point to Point Navigation is the follow-up to Vidal’s way-harder-to-pronounce 1995 memoir, Palimpsest. And not only does it shed further light on the interior life of one of the most prolific literary figures of the 20th century — author of 25 novels (from scandalous best-sellers like Myra Breckinridge to scholarly works like Burr and Lincoln), well over 200 essays, seven plays, and not even Vidal knows how many TV and movie scripts (including an uncredited rewrite on Ben-Hur) — this second volume of recollections is packed with just as much juicy gossip as his first. Among the acquaintances popping up: Truman Capote (”a pathological liar,” Vidal calls him), Anaïs Nin (no comment on the shocking rumors that the two once canoodled, not even off the record), Alfred Kinsey (who met Vidal in the late 1940s while conducting human sexuality research in a New York City bar), Eleanor Roosevelt (Vidal still does a killer impersonation of her voice, by the way, and of her husband’s), and far too many others to list (Tennessee Williams, Federico Fellini, Greta Garbo…).

”This is not autobiography — that would require footnotes,” Vidal is careful to point out. ”These are memories. They’re ruminations and thoughts. They’re the illumination of the landscape of one’s life. And, when you think about it, what’s a more interesting subject than one’s own life? That is the one thing one always knows best.”

Whatever you call what’s inside these books, Navigation could be the last of its kind. Sadly, there are signs that after 60 years of epic scribbling, Vidal’s inkwell is finally running dry. ”You’re a writer for life, but I no longer find myself waking up every morning with the compulsion to put pen to paper,” he confesses (quickly adding ”Thank God”). For the moment, anyway, he couldn’t put pen to paper if he wanted. His right hand — or ”writing hand,” as he refers to it — is wrapped in splints and bandages, evidence of a recent fall. It’s the latest drama in a recent streak of rotten luck, starting with the illness and 2003 death of Vidal’s longtime partner Howard Auster and the subsequent sale of Swallows Nest, Vidal’s beloved cliffside villa in Ravello, Italy. Now, ensconced once again in his old Los Angeles home, ”I still have about 10,000 books in crates,” he notes glumly. ”I don’t know what I’m going to do with them all.”

Happily, there is one compulsion Vidal hasn’t given up: talking. His plummy senatorial boom may have lost a few decibels, but he is still capable of dazzling verbal acrobatics. Indeed, his flair for pontification is what made Vidal famous in the first place. After all, more people got to know him from his frequent trips to Johnny Carson’s sofa — 16 guest spots from 1970 to 1988, practically as many as Charo — than ever read The City and the Pillar. More than any serious literary figure of his generation (except maybe his nemesis Capote), Vidal became a ”TV personality,” amusing audiences with witty banter on zeitgeisty shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (and in bit parts in films like With Honors and Gattaca). Not such a bad thing, by the way, when it comes to book sales.

”There’s a childlike quest for stardom in Vidal,” says Gay Talese, a friend for 40 years. ”When you’re a writer, you don’t hear the applause. You may get praised, but it’s not the same as being in front of an audience and a camera, and Vidal craved that.”

”I never thought about myself as a ‘personality,”’ Vidal bristles. ”To go around in a purple suit or something just to get attention — that’s not my style. But you’ve got to amuse yourself somehow, you know? And I find that being on TV is a lot more amusing than actually watching it.”

Good one. And he’s got more zingers, on love (”Americans like to chatter about it all the time, particularly how lovable they are — it’s wondrous!”) and cinema (”That famous scene in Battleship Potemkin, with the baby carriage going bumpity-bump down the steps. What’s that mean? I’ve asked film people that question — French film people — and they get hung up for hours trying to come up with an answer”). Of course, politics is still his favorite flavor of conversation, but these days it’s harder to be shocking. Vidal has always been zealous in his iconoclasms — famously coming close to fisticuffs with William F. Buckley Jr. during a live TV debate at the 1968 Democratic National Convention — and he still enjoys lobbing the occasional outrageous aside (casually referring to the current administration as ”the dictatorship,” for example). But not even this card-carrying believer in conspiracy theories (long before JFK’s assassination) thinks George W. Bush had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. ”The absolute proof he was not culpable was the brilliance with which it was executed,” he argues. ”Bush can’t do anything well. He’s totally inept.”

Another good one. Turns out Jackie Kennedy was right. Even now, swathed in bandages and holding a cane, watching the curtains finally close on his astonishing life and career, Vidal still makes it impossible to look serious.

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