Is Fred Kaplan the latest victim of the curse of Gore Vidal? One of the running jokes in Palimpsest (1995), Vidal's autobiography, is that various celebrities he writes about suddenly drop dead as soon as he turns his attention to them. As the curse wipes out Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, the reader begins to wonder whether any of Vidal's associates will outlive the book's composition. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that, a few days before he began writing this new biography, Fred Kaplan was stabbed in the chest, nearly dying, on the New York subway.
A previous biographer was not so lucky. Walter Clemons spent nine years researching Vidal's life, wrote nothing and died. Perhaps he was defeated by the sheer variety of Vidal's activities as novelist, politician, playwright, screenwriter, literary critic and autobiographer. Beyond these achievements, a biographer must take account of the friendships with Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood and Paul Bowles, as well as making sense of the political aristocracy into which Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born in 1925.
His grandfather was a senator for Oklahoma, and politics was regarded as "the family trade". Vidal's own father was Roosevelt's assistant director for air regulation. Vidal's mother, Nina Gore-Vidal-Auchincloss, has already been vilified at length by her son, and Kaplan retells stories against her without troubling to interrogate or verify them. Can it really be true that Nina maliciously left her son's teeth "rotting away" under braces for five years? What is worse, when the manuscript of Vidal's unfinished first novel goes missing, Kaplan decides that Nina must have destroyed it, although more likely it was simply lost. At no point does Kaplan investigate the source of Vidal's pronounced mother-hatred - surely one of the first questions a critical biographer ought to be asking.
Vidal's adolescent love affair with a schoolboy baseball player, Jimmie Trimble, was a defining point in his life. To the bookish Vidal, the athletic Jimmie was an ideal brother-figure, an infinitely desirable bisexual binary opposite. But Jimmie was killed on Iwo Jima in 1944, too young to have grown apart from Vidal, who has written that, even in his seventies, he still feels that he has "unfinished business" with Jimmie. A thinly fictionalised Trimble resurfaces in The City and the Pillar (1948) as "Bob Ford", the absent, sought-after lover. Vidal and his present partner have both arranged to be buried close to Trimble's remains.
Many of Kaplan's anecdotes will already be familiar to readers of Palimpsest. Perhaps the strangest of these is Norman Mailer's opinion that Vidal wrecked the creative energies of Jack Kerouac (whom he had met by chance at the opera) by taking him to bed: "To fuck him in the ass is to take the steel out of his cojones." Vidal's feuds with Mailer, Truman Capote and the right-wing journalist William Buckley are well documented here, and he emerges from these dust-ups with his dignity intact, looking less blood-drenched than his antagonists.
This biography provides interesting material on the background to the novels, and the long friendship with Tennessee Williams is dutifully written up, but Vidal's own published version is immeasurably more entertaining. Here is the central problem with Kaplan's approach. This book is diligently researched, and Vidal has co-operated by granting access to archival material and private papers. As a straightforward, chronological account of the main events in Vidal's life, it is unlikely to be bettered. But it lacks the wit and the elegance of Vidal's own writing. In Palimpsest the figure of Jimmie Trimble keeps intruding on the narrative, as new information about him comes to light while the book is under way. He becomes Vidal's organising principle. Kaplan, favouring A-to-Z linearity, struggles to cram a bewildering mass of unfiltered information into 850 pages (twice the length of Palimpsest).
The biographer is also a presence here. At one point Vidal explodes when asked about his sexual partners, claiming that this represents a failure to understand the American ruling class. Yet it might be objected that the resulting portrait tries too hard to see events from Vidal's viewpoint. Excessive reverence towards one's subject does not necessarily make for good biography, and it is scarcely in the spirit of Vidal's own literary journalism.
How, then, in spite of Kaplan's well-intentioned if leaden intervention, will Vidal be remembered? As the author of a handful of good novels (Myra Breckenridge chief among them), as one of the great autobiographers and as a sharp-eyed cultural and political commentator. If you require a summary of Vidal's family history, political views and literary aesthetic, then Palimpsest is still the best place to start.