Jay Parini was born in 1948the same year Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, his seminal book on U.S. homosexuality that blacklisted him with reviewers.
As varied and prolific as his subject, Parini has written five books of poetry, seven fictional novels and 12 nonfiction titles, including biographies of John Steinbeck ( 1994 ), Robert Frost ( 2000 ) and William Faulkner ( 2004 ). He is Vidal's official biographer. Each year, he edits volumes of criticism for Scribners in their series American Writers and British Writers. In 2009, his novel The Last Station was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film. Film adaptations of Benjamin's Crossing and The Passages of H.M. are currently underway.
"My selves are many," wrote Pabla Neruda of himself. Many, too, are the Gore Vidals of Jay Parini's Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.
Windy City Times: What is the correct lineage of Vidal's biographers?
Jay Parini: Vidal had selected Walter Clemons, who, unfortunately, suffered from diabetes and frequent writer's block and had died before any chance of completing the project. Gore begged me to take it on: "Please, please be my official biographer."
My wife warned me against doing so fearing we would never be friends again. Gore was very thin-skinned and could not tolerate even the slightest criticism. I declined but began writing notes for a book that could only be published after Vidal's death. Then I ran into Fred Kaplan at a writer's conference and I asked him to do me a favor and take on Gore's biography, which I may have suggested to him earlier but cannot remember for sure. He agreed ( Gore Vidal: A Biography, 1999 ) but the problem is that Gore hated the book and in my presence through it across the room. Kaplan focused on Gore's youth and a lot on his money issues early in his adult life. Reviewers were also rough, arguing the 800 pages had no 'through line' or central argument. After that, I came into the picture as Gore's official biographer.
WCT: When writing about a famous author who acknowledges how easily it is to misremember one's life, how did you guard against misremembering Vidal's life?
JP: I was constantly making notes. And biography is 80 percent agreed-upon fact and 20 percent interpretation. As his official biographer, I had full access to his archives, letters, notes and interviews with many who knew him. I also have about 25 years worth notes, clippings and notebooks on him.
His literary estate helped with setting up interviews, provided access to his diary entries. I had access to anything I thought I needed.
WCT: At the end of each chapter, you include your own experiences with Vidal. They were intimate moments...
JP: Yes, they were very close moments for us. Visiting Rock Creek, where he lived when his mother married Hugh Auchincloss, or peeking into the windows of Edgewater, the first home he purchased in upstate New York. It was a last minute thought to food the stories I must have at least 100 or more of them. I thought it would be a good way to declare my interest in the subject.
WCT: Jimmy Trimblea real or imagined affair?
Imagined but something he certainly got a lot of mileage out of over the years. He was an adolescent who knows about adolescent crushes. A school chum, Barrett Prettyman, swore the relationship never happen. I think it was all Gore's perception and that Trimble would have been shocked to know how Gore felt about him, real or imagined.
WCT: As a schoolboy, was Vidal a classic underachiever?
JP: He was deeply stunted emotionally over the problems he had with his mother, especially her rampant alcoholism. It had always been a very rough relationship between them. That's what led to his being shuffled off to his grandparents, one of whom was, of course, Sen. Gore. That's where, at about age 10, he began reading the congressional record to his grandfather who suffered from poor vision and was legally blind. Years later when visiting Gore at home I could see that he was obsessive about his research for his historical novels. Even as we sat there talking with one another he had stacks of history books that he would pour through for details.
WCT: The movie Best of Enemies, about 1968 and Vidal's cantankerous relationship with William F. Buckley Jr, shows them bearing teeth but did they actually need one another? At one point, Vidal whispers into Buckley's ear, "I guess we gave them their money's worth tonight?"
JP: They were both actors. They knew what they were doing. I had dinner with Gore and Norman Mailer, another of his newsworthy relationships. All three of them were true to their beliefs and actions.
WCT: Speaking of famous relationships, Vidal always peddled that he was an "intimate" of the Kennedys. You disagree.
He was more of an "onlooker" than an insider. They were not in each other's company that many times. Now, remember, he and Jackie shared a stepfather when each of their respective mothers married Hugh Auchincloss. But that was before she was a Kennedy.
WCT: Vidal's half-sister, Nina Straight, and her son Burr Steers, while talking to Tim Teeman, author of In Bed with Gore Vidal, brought up the "pedophile" issue regarding Vidal. William Buckley also intimated for years that he too thought Vidal was involved with underage males. Thoughts?
JP: That's just nuts, insane. He was not a pedophile. He really didn't like children although he was always polite to those children in his orbit. Did he have sex with younger men, 20 to 25 or even older when he was himself much older? Of course. He never hid that fact at least not among his inner circle.
WCT: Why bring it up?
JP: I think Nina thought she was going to get millions more than she got. Burr had been promised Gore's LA house and, somehow, that was reneged on in his will.
WCT: Vidal's lifelong partner Howard was always the mysterious one to those outside of the inner circle. What role did he play in his life?
JP: I loved Howard. He was funny, a mensch. They truly loved one another but there were some rough times. In the '70s, Howard seriously thought about leaving Gore who had begun acting rude toward him.
WCT: Howard could tell Vidal to shut up?
JP: Yes, especially when Gore was full of himself, drunk, or both. Howard would say, "Okay, that's enough Gore" or "Time to shut up!" They were like any longtime married couple.
WCT: He had all kinds of moments?
JP: He did. I've been at dinner parties were Gore was the delight of the evening, holding everyone in the palm of his hand, charming, funny as one could be. Other dinner parties he was plain drunk, slurry. As a friend, you'd be embarrassed for him. He was thin-skinned and could be dismissive of others. With me, and I know others too, he was also kind, and solicitous. He always asked about my wife and children. We talked on the phone constantly. Once I arrived at his home and asked how he was doing. He said," Better now that you're here." Like all of us, he had a range of emotions.
WCT: He's part of you?
JP: Gore was an important part of my life. This has been cathartic for me. Writing the book helped me to understand our friendship. We also write to get rid of stuff. Then, move on.