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A Critical Eye : In the hands of Gore Vidal, a pen is a sword. And he points it at the high and mighty who have crossed his path--and a public lured by TV.

October 30, 1995|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gore Vidal is having one of those tree-in-the-forest kinds of days. If he wrote a book and there was no one around to read it, would it make a sound?

"Reading, with the power of television, has really been a lost art," he muses, languishing on a divan at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "There are far more good writers in America than we have good readers. I want to give the Nobel Prize for the best reader in the world, and perhaps a regional one. The best reader in Southern California. They'll hand out a golden lamp, a reading lamp."

Ah, the elusive audience, Vidal's own particular Holy Grail. In a new memoir of his early life, "Palimpsest" (Random House), the prolific and pugnacious author, screenwriter, playwright and political candidate bemoans the wandering eye of "the sort of honor that I do lust for, the attention of the great audience."

Even if it's true that much of today's great audience would rather surf channels than turn pages, Vidal has always wooed the masses where they roam, in the mass media, especially TV. Vidal is the rare literary lion equally at home with Edith Sitwell and Mike Douglas. But for all his chumminess with his beloved great audience, he sniffs in "Palimpsest": "To be commercial is to do well that which should not be done at all."

That makes a certain Vidalian sense, coming from a man who has lusted after the presidency--and argued for abolishing it. Who spent decades trouncing policy-makers for failing to adequately fund education--and skipped college himself. Who was raised as a little aristocrat--and spent a lifetime bellowing at the halls of power.

Indeed, maturity--Vidal just turned 70--has done little to dilute his acid wit. And if Norman Mailer, who once took a swing at Vidal, told him, "I thought you were the devil," "Palimpsest" makes no claims for his sainthood. The gossipy memoir is ripe with tart observations of the high and mighty who have populated his life.

Of the rivalrous Truman Capote, whom Vidal sued for libel over Capote's talent for giving "the astonishing interview," he writes that, from the start, Capote had "decided that I was to be the competition. He was 21; I, 20. But, as he confided to the press, 'that Gore Vidal is 25 if he's a day.' "

"Capote lied in order to damage other people," Vidal says later. "It was very important because life had damaged him."

Charlton Heston, launched to stardom by the Vidal-written "Ben Hur," wasn't the filmmakers' first choice, Vidal writes. Heston ran second to Paul Newman, who had sworn "never to act in a cocktail dress again" after "The Silver Chalice." "Chuck had all the charm of a wooden Indian," Vidal snips in the book.

Wallis Simpson, who had "square ugly hands covered with large jewels," lamented her marriage to the hapless Duke of Windsor the morning after the wedding. She told Vidal: "I woke up and there was David standing beside the bed with this innocent smile, saying, 'And now what do we do?' My heart sank. Here was someone whose every day had been arranged for him all his life and now I was the one who was going to take the place of the entire British government, trying to think up things for him to do."

And, of course, there was Jackie Kennedy, a faux relative whose mother married Vidal's wealthy ex-stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss. Vidal reports that she lost her virginity to a friend of his in a Paris lift, but spurned him in favor of JFK because "he has money and you don't."

Vidal also writes about such neglected topics as Jackie's favored douching techniques and asserts that her first marriage was loveless, that her first husband a warmonger, and that the Kennedy she really loved was Bobby. Not only does he puncture the Myth of Jackie, Vidal lifts the curtain to show the wizard who created it.

"She was Jack's invention, her public persona," Vidal says. "He said, 'Don't talk. Don't give interviews, and don't write letters.' And she followed his advice and then became this great blank icon that you could write anything on you wanted to."

As she lay dying of lymphoma, he writes, "Do I feel anything at all? No, nothing beyond a certain glumness. . . . Selfish and self-aggrandizing beyond the usual, Jackie was still a slyly humorous presence when she was in my life," a chapter that ended when his rift with Bobby evolved into banishment by all the Kennedys. Not that Vidal held that against her. "The clan works as one," he says coolly.

When he met Hillary Clinton years later and applauded her campaign for universal health insurance, Vidal dryly compared her active First Ladyship to that of his Chauncey Gardner-like relative.

"Isn't that an irony," he says, "someone who did nothing for anyone else if she could help it and someone who's really trying to do something for every American, one is beloved and the other is despised?"

*

If Vidal is merciless in unmasking others, he is equally brazen when writing about himself. He writes frankly about his sexual peccadilloes and those of his friends.

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