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In Sickness and In Health

A bouquet for Gore Vidal, the snidest of the snide.

By 4.12.07

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This review by Florence King appeared in the March 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.

Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir
By Gore Vidal
(Doubleday, 277 pages, $26)

SHOOT IF YOU MUST this old gray head, but spare your country's enfant terrible. Gore Vidal -- expat liberal elitist, name-dropper extraordinaire, snidest of the snide, unabashed advocate of male love decades before America even knew what "gay" meant, has written his final memoir, and I loved it.

His first memoir, which took him from his birth in 1925 to age 70, was called Palimpsest, and I panned it, saying among other things that the title "sounds like an arcane sexual practice involving an inflated condom that explodes like the Hindenburg in the tradesman's entrance of some hired Apollo, sending ecstasy and other things washing over Maitre Vidal."

Actually "palimpsest" refers to a papyrus that has been written on before and scraped clean, leaving traces of the earlier writing showing through. Vidal intended it as an allusion to the tricks that memory plays on autobiographers, but the title he has given this, his second memoir, is a more down-to-earth description of the 82-year-old memory he must now depend upon. In World War II he served as first mate of an Army freight-supply ship based in the Aleutian Islands, where the weather was so cold that the compasses often froze, making it necessary to rely on memorized landmarks, a process known as "point to point navigation" in which the navigator proceeds without radar and hopes for the best.

He repeats previously published accounts of his birth and childhood in Washington, D.C., but interestingly, his portrait of his blind grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, is sharper now that he himself has reached the age of the old man for whom he acted as guide and reader. Instead of the eccentric character he seemed in Vidal's earlier writings, the stoic Gore, who served 30 years in the Senate, abstained on the Social Security vote, lived on his $15,000 salary, and was the first and probably the last senator from an oil state to die without a fortune, emerges here almost as a ghost from the Early Roman Republic when virtue in its original sense of male honor reigned supreme. If Vidal has seemed to harbor a patrician contempt for just about every "popular" leader and flavor-of-the-month pol, it is because he had the good fortune, during his formative years, to know and to serve a giant among men.

Today he has moved back to the United States from his self-exile in Italy and spends much of his time reading Montaigne and meditating on mortality. Were it anyone else but Gore Vidal one could say that he has "mellowed," but he is still the master of the withering retort. What makes this memoir different from anything he has ever written is his unsentimental yet heartrending account of the horrendous final illness of his companion of 53 years, Howard Auster, and his unexpected revelation about the nature of their relationship.

Howard was a lounge singer. The two met soon after the war -- Vidal doesn't say how but other accounts claim the friendship began at the Everard bath house in New York -- and became housemates. "He confessed that he thought he was just passing through my life and was surprised as the decades began to stack up and we were still together." Howard did not pursue a musical career but he sang at their parties, which he also planned. A born host, he was able to compile a guest list containing the likes of Greta Garbo at a moment's notice. Altogether, just the kind of person a writer needs.

Although he was a heavy smoker, he remained remarkably fit until the age of 70 when he suddenly started getting sick. His first illness looked like appendicitis to Vidal, who had had it himself, but the doctors patiently explained that nobody can get appendicitis at 70, whereupon Howard's appendix burst and he had to be rushed to the hospital and operated on for peritonitis. Next, he developed a malignant tumor on one lung. The doctors operated and claimed they got it all, but found that the other lung was weakened by emphysema. Then the cancer spread to the section of the brain that controls locomotion. The brain operation left him unable to control his movements or his bodily functions, and he had to wear diapers.

He had several falls. Vidal ruptured a disk lifting him up, and also developed an ulcer from worrying about him and dealing with "the ongoing bureaucracy of American medicine, never again to be avoided this side of Rock Creek Cemetery." And as if all this were not enough, he was rewriting his movie, The Catered Affair, for television, complete with 44 breaks all in the right places; "slices of movie filler to separate the commercials from each other."

Howard began to hallucinate and had to have radiation for the brain tumor, his head bolted in place while gamma rays were zapped into his skull. Then came pneumonia, followed by heart spasms. The descriptions are almost unbearable to read, but it is as he is lying quietly in the hospital that a perfect brushstroke of a sentence clinches the whole experience in a single touching detail: "The hospital bed had a railing around it and one could barely poke a hand through in order to hold his hand." No one who has ever been a patient or a visitor in a hospital could read that with a dry eye.

Howard died at 74 in 2005. Reflecting on their long successful life together, Vidal says without fanfare: "But then it is easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does. Each had a sex life apart from the other: all else, including our sovereign, Time, was shared."

POINT TO POINT NAVIGATION ZIGZAGS a lot and frequently doubles back, but it makes port without foundering. It carries a classic Vidal cargo with a generous store of name-dropping ("Howard and I sailed the Aegean in a caique with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward"); Zelig moments (how he invented the Peace Corps and "passed the proposition along to Jack"); devastating descriptions (Jacqueline Susann's thick false eyelashes "resembled a pair of tarantulas in a postcoital state"), (Tony Blair's "tic-like smile and bright vulpine stare"); Garbo in an androgynous mood, making a point of leaving the toilet seat up after using the bathroom at a party; catty digs at Truman Capote (who plagiarized Eudora Welty because "he wanted to be a great Southern lady writer too"); and spot-on one-liners ("Commercialism is the ability to do well what ought not to be done at all").

There is plenty of dish, such as Eleanor Roosevelt's resentment of his aviation-pioneer father's affair with Amelia Earhart, "for whom she had a Sapphic passion that Amelia found disconcerting. Amelia said that Eleanor was always suggesting they make flights together all around the country, just the two of them, communing with the wind and the stars." The aviatrix supposedly wanted to marry the elder Vidal, but he declined, saying he thought of her only as a friend and flying companion. Shortly before her last mysterious flight from which she never returned, she wrote him a long emotional letter which his wife found and destroyed, never telling her stepson Gore what was in it, but his father speculated that Earhart had deliberately crashed her plane to escape her miserable marriage to the publisher G.P. Putnam, and because "she was having some sort of premature menopause."

He also passes along a story that touches obliquely on one of the personages in our 2004 election. At a dinner party given by the late Princess Margaret Rose sometime around 1990, the guests included Vidal, Jack Nicholson, Tony Richardson, and, seated across from Princess Margaret, "Senator John Heinz... soon to be killed in a plane crash." Princess Margaret whispered to Vidal, "Isn't he beautiful?" and Vidal says: "I complimented her on her taste." Senator Heinz was Teresa Heinz Kerry's first husband. Does this mean that he and Princess Margaret were lovers?

These are one type of Vidal story, not proven but well within the realm of possibility all the same. Another type of Vidal story is the jaw-dropper. The one included here claims that when Pope Pius XII died in 1958, he was embalmed by an amateur taxidermist:

...while he lay in state in the basilica, he turned, according to one viewer, "emerald green." Then, in response to the summer heat, he suddenly exploded. This was kept from the world for a long time until someone (a Jesuit?) passed on the information. It is also reported that many sturdy Swiss guardsmen fainted during this holy combustion.

For conservatives for whom the name Gore Vidal is anathema, there is hope: He loathes the New York Times. His war with the gray eminence began in 1948 when he published his second novel, The City and the Pillar, an openly gay work, and the paper's most powerful book critic was so shocked that he swore he would never review the author again. Newsweek followed his lead, and Vidal's next seven books went unreviewed by publishing's most important venue. "A professor who lectures on my work tells me that academics to this day refuse to believe that the Times could ever have done such a thing. Such is simple faith."

Worse than the blackout was the paper's hypocrisy and outright stupidity: It raved the three mysteries he wrote under a pen name, but a decade later when he published them in a single volume under his real name, it reviewed them again -- and panned them.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).