PALIMPSEST: A Memoir” by Gore Vidal

Published in 1995.

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This is one of the most wide ranging — and most oddest titled — memoirs I’ve ever read.  Palimpsest??  It’s written in the vein of “the private lives of public people.”  And Gore Vidal — with his sharp eye and relentless, and often caustic, but always amusing, wit — skewers the foibles of the rich, the famous, and the powerful.

This memoir covers a hell of a lot of ground. His work in the early days of television (Vidal was baffled why one of his fellow TV screenwriters seemed to resent him, until the director Sidney Lumet explained why: “You weren’t Jewish, and this was our game.”).  His adventures in the Hollywood of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Charlton “Chuck” Heston (who he got to know more than he would have liked). His forays into politics (he ran for Congress). His close friendship with the playwrite Tennessee Williams, a zany and fun-loving guy who Vidal nicknamed The Fabulous Bird, and who died one of the more peculiar deaths (zonked on alcohol and pills, he woke up in the middle of the night and swallowed what he thought was a sleeping pill but was actually the plastic cap to the bottle, which he choked on). His ground-breaking gay novel The City and the Pillar (“We all read that,” said Allen Ginsburg. “Because of the sex. Nobody had gone that far then.”)  His association with The Beats, who he was interested in, but didn’t particularly admire (succinctly as ever, Vidal summed up the relationship between the four principal Beats: “Bill is infatuated with Allen, who is in love with Jack, who is in love with Cassidy.”)

But the most fascinating parts to me are his up close and personal accounts of the Kennedy family.  Gore Vidal, after all, was raised in Washington DC, amidst the rich and powerful.  His grandfather was Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, of the Al Gore lineage (hence, the odd first name of Gore). And Jackie Kennedy Onassis was his cousin who he grew up with (“Selfish and self-aggrandizing beyond the usual, Jackie was still a slyly humorous presence.”).  And he knew John F. Kennedy when they were both 20. So Vidal got a very close look at all these characters behind the screen of their famous public images.

Vidal, the Fabulous Bird, and JFK.

Vidal liked and admired Jack Kennedy, who he found charming and witty and basically a decent guy. But disliked the rest of the Kennedys (“I thought even then that, excepting Jack, the family was pretty deplorable, while the father belonged in jail, along with his close friend Frank Costello. In fact once a week, until Joe’s stroke, the boss of the Mob and the president’s father had dinner together in the Central Park Kennedy apartment. Of course Joe made no secret of his underworld connections, unavoidable for a man who had cornered the Scotch whiskey market.”).

Though Vidal liked Jack Kennedy, he had no illusions about Kennedy’s fitness as the leader of the free world. He knew that, left to his druthers, Jack would have preferred the life of a playboy lay-about, and only ended up forced into politics because of his hyper-ambitious father.  Their conversations together mostly consisted of Kennedy plying Vidal for the latest “Hollywood gossip” (basically Kennedy wanted to know which young Hollywood starlets were presently available for him to have sex with). During one particularly intense period when the Kennedys were considering declaring war on Russia, Vidal wrote: “I have a vivid memory of the two furry heads together (Jack and Bobby, who he particularly loathed), a  lamp back of them, as they murmured to each other in silhouette. It is chilling to think that all our lives were in their callow hands.”

Though Kennedy’s public image was that of youthful vitality, Vidal said that up close and in person, Kennedy mostly looked sickly, with “yellow-tinted skin,” and was virtually a cripple due to his back injury — which, contrary to popular opinion, wasn’t the result of a war injury but a touch football injury.  As ever, there was the huge disparity between the Kennedys public image, and the actual reality.  Fitting of a clan who’s father, Papa Joe, considered the family motto to be: “It’s not who you are, but who the public thinks you are, that counts.”

Gore Vidal and friend.

Papa Joe was no doubt helplessly horrified from his stroke-ridden bedside, when Bobby Kennedy — in his self-appointed role as vain/glorious do-gooder — started arresting and imprisoning  numerous mobsters.  Many of whom were life-long friends and/or associates of Papa Joe.  And some of whom Joe had called on to help swing the presidential election of 1960. While others were hired by John Kennedy to try and assassinate Fidel Castro.  So it wasn’t surprising when Mob boss Sam Giancanna was caught on an FBI wire-tap discussing with another mafioso the possibility of whacking Bobby Kennedy.  Though they ultimately concluded: “If you chop off the snake’s tail, the snake still lives.  But if you chop off the snakes head, the snake dies.”  Which is why they decided to whack John Kennedy instead.  Which effectively ended Bobby’s career.

At any rate, after awhile you start getting slightly dizzy reading Gore Vidal’s memoir.  As one famous person after another rushes by the pages.  “And then Eleanor Roosevelt said this . .  .” “And then Hillary Clinton said that . . .” “And then that weasel Truman Capote showed up. . .” “And I’ll never forget the look on Kerouac’s face on the pillow as I  . . .” “And speaking of Anais Nin and Greta Garbo . . .”

But one thing’s for sure.  Gore Vidal certainly lived out a good deal of the political and cultural history of America over the last century.  Recommended.

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