Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal

  • By Michael Mewshaw
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 224 pp.

A straightforward look at a famed writer known as much for his antics as his art.

Gore Vidal belongs to the cohort of successful young male novelists, all deceased, who began their careers in the aftermath of WWII and quickly matured into literary lions. James Baldwin, Truman Capote, James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Vidal wrote in multiple genres, enjoyed media celebrity, shared crosshatched biographies, and earned strong if unequal posthumous literary reputations.  

Baldwin and Capote broke important ground with their early homoerotic fiction, Giovanni’s Room and Other Voices, Other Rooms, respectively, and Jones and Mailer with first novels that nailed the American war experience, From Here to Eternity and The Naked and the Dead, respectively.

Baldwin shuttled between homes in Paris and Saint-Paul de Vence; Jones settled en famille in Paris on the posh Isle St. Louis; Capote decamped hot New Orleans for chic Manhattan café society; and Mailer stayed put in his New York of hipsters and literate tough guys. Baldwin and Mailer are now canonical, while the reputations of Jones and Capote rest largely on one book each: From Here to Eternity and In Cold Blood.

Gore Vidal also broke important ground with his second and expressly homosexual novel, The City and the Pillar. Though he squabbled with reviewers throughout his career, he compiled a distinguished body of fiction, nonfiction, plays, and screenplays, including, notably, his seven-volume novel cycle, Narratives of Empire.

After living for decades in Rome and Ravello, Vidal and his longtime partner, Howard Austen, repatriated to Los Angeles, where Vidal died in 2012 at the age of 86. Vidal was patrician, wealthy, smart, and quick — both a “public intellectual” and a showman waging highly publicized feuds with Capote, Mailer, and William F. Buckley.

Some of Vidal’s novels, like the transsexual cause célèbre, Myra Breckinridge, have not aged well, but his historical novels, particularly Burr, 1876, and Lincoln, have staying power.  

Literary cool — and everyone mentioned above possessed it — was once popular currency. In the heady zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin regularly chatted up guests like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and, ubiquitously, Capote, Mailer, and Vidal.

Politics was the plat du jour: Capote, impish, teased out the erotics of public policy; Mailer, bombastic, expounded on Vietnam and the timidity of the Left; and Vidal, dyspeptic, railed against Washington’s intellectual bankruptcy and serial bellicosity.

In Sympathy for the Devil, Michael Mewshaw pursues two objectives. One, he celebrates his “four decades of friendship” with Vidal to show that the author’s persona — aristocratic, dismissive, cynical, and cold — harbored a secret sharer (“generous, hospitable, loyal to friends, and a quiet contributor to charities that benefited other authors”). And two, he portrays Vidal as a tragic figure — a gifted writer who felt demonized by the literary establishment, became increasingly paranoid and alienated, and died infirm, overweight, and alcoholic.

To some extent, Mewshaw undermines his first objective, exposing Vidal’s virtues, by spending so much time on his second, detailing Vidal’s vices (especially public drunkenness). In the end, though, it does not matter, since Vidal’s personal qualities have no bearing on his literary legacy (everyone agrees that Joyce was both a shit and a genius).

Mewshaw’s background as a practiced and successful literary pro informs both the stronger and weaker aspects of Sympathy for the Devil. On the plus side, this workmanlike book tells a straightforward story in clear prose. It stays focused on Vidal, capturing and conveying his arch voice through frequent citation of his epigrams and pronouncements. It also shows a fine touch for place and for movement between places, no small matter in a story about peripatetic writers.

On the negative side, the book offers neither an artful nor distinctive style, and it blurs its secondary figures (excepting Howard Austen, whose charm and vivacity shine). Since it provides no real insight on intimacy, its patent fascination with sex comes through as prurient.

The book does use sex, though, to advance a salient theme. Mewshaw represents writing as trade and written work as commodity, rehearsing at length the ins and outs of getting books published, articles placed, screenplays produced, work reviewed. He intimates that one’s success or failure in the trade depends largely on one’s personal relationships and that these, at heart, are commercial exchanges.

Evidently by intention, this perspective parallels Vidal’s frequently invoked views on cruising, anonymous sex, and paid sex — the last of these, in Vidal’s economy of desire, the least obligating and most satisfying. Lenny Bruce put it succinctly: “I was in a hotel in Hollywood and called down for a hooker. They sent up a writer with a beard.”

Built of anecdote and gossip, Sympathy for the Devil proffers entertainment rather than heft. It makes a good read for a sunny day on the beach, a rainy day in the house, or a long flight.

Charles Caramello is Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland.

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