To Jay Parini, Gore Vidal was a great friend, a true artist and a presence in the American intellectual firmament for more than 50 years.
“Here was a man who, in his time, was a meteor,” said Parini of Vidal, a novelist, essayist and public personality who died in 2012 at age 86.
Parini, himself a poet, novelist and biographer, was the featured speaker at the March 10 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society. He spoke about his 2015 biography of Vidal, called “Empire of Self,” published by Doubleday.
Parini chose Vidal as his latest biographical subject for both personal and professional reasons — along with being an admirer of Vidal’s novels, screen and stage plays and essays, Parini and Vidal enjoyed a friendship that lasted more than three decades.
In an interview before his talk, Parini said he met Vidal in the 1980s when he was living with his family on the Italian coast for a year as he worked on his second novel. Learning that it was the great American writer who owned a prominent cliff-top mansion, Parini sent him a note, suggesting a meeting.
“He pounded on my door that very day. He said, ‘Let’s have a drink.’ From then on we were friends. We talked and talked and talked and talked,” Parini said.
Parini’s book chronicles Vidal’s life, from his boyhood in his grandparents’ home near Washington, D.C., to time he spent in New York, Rome and his villa near the town of Amalfi on the Italian coast. The list of Vidal’s friends and acquaintances reads like a celebrity manifest — as a child, he counted aviator Amelia Earhart as one of his babysitters, and later in life he moved in circles that included everyone from actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to John F. Kennedy and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Amidst his active social life, Vidal, who joined the U.S. Navy after high school but never attended college, managed to write some 100 books, including 25 novels, dozens of television and film screenplays, and hundreds of essays. He was also a regular guest on talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin and others.
His best-known novels include “Lincoln,” “Burr” and “Myra Breckinridge.” One fascination, which he kept coming back to in his work, was American history.
“Those are great novels,” said Parini. “People should read those novels and know about them down the road.”
Vidal also became known for his essays and public commentary espousing progressive political ideas, and his legendary series of televised debates with conservative pundit William F. Buckley.
The grandson of a U.S. senator, Thomas P. Gore, Vidal ran unsuccessfully for office twice, including a bid against Jerry Brown for a U.S. Senate seat in California.
Parini said he purposely waited until after Vidal’s death to write his book, to avoid interference from the writer. He said he did not pull any punches regarding Vidal’s acerbic, narcissistic personality, his heavy drinking or his homosexuality, a term that Vidal eschewed.
While Vidal preferred to think of himself as bisexual, others around him, including Howard Austen, his companion of 53 years, disagreed.
According to Parini, Austen once said of Vidal, “If he’s bisexual, I’m Genghis Khan.”
Parini, who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, lives in a 19th Century farmhouse surrounded by woods and streams, where he can get away from the hubbub of modern life to think and write. His latest book, “New and Collected Poems 1975-2015” is due out in late March.
On the front page of his website, www.jayparini.com, is a link to a 1990 interview Parini conducted with Vidal and progressive intellectual Noam Chomsky.
Parini said he misses the frequent telephone chats with his long-time friend, which usually focused on current events and politics. “I would give anything to have him here today to talk about Donald Trump,” he said.
“(Vidal) was an astoundingly gifted public intellectual who played a role in American society for over half a century. We need more people like Gore out there speaking and framing issues, livening the culture in a way that wasn’t crude,” Parini said.
“He flashed across the sky. He was a bright star.”
For more information on Parini and his work, visit jayparini.com.