Political Firebrands From Decades Past Still Burn Hot
Gore Vidal's third novel, in which two buff dudes do it under a "lovely dark sky," then tumble "back on the blanket" and do it again, came out in 1948. Vidal was only 23. The City and the Pillar was the English-speaking world's first mainstream book to conjure vivid man-to-man sex without damning anyone to hell. It is virtually impossible to grok now how new that was then.
Nearly 60 years and as many books later, Vidal was one of the first famous Americans to start calling the Bush administration a junta.
His knee is titanium. His skin sags. He ran for Congress in 1960 and the Senate in 1982, against Jerry Brown -- long before many now buying Vidal's new anti-war books were born. After burying his longtime companion in 2003, he left the villa near Naples where his house guests had included Greta Garbo, Rudolf Nureyev and Hillary Clinton. He moved into a Hollywood Hills house he had bought in 1977 but planned never to inhabit before "the Cedars-Sinai years" -- Cedars-Sinai is a nearby hospital. Call him hostile. Call him radical. Call him anti-social and controversial, as critics have. He couldn't care less.
"Controversial? I can't say that I have ever had much interest in what I've been called," Vidal tells me now. "What others think is their business, not mine. What I mostly do is examine contradictions in public discourse. This sometimes causes distress, but 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' as Plato says Socrates said. ... Now that we are post-Runnymede," he tells me, invoking the Greeks and the Romans and the Magna Carta, what frightens him most in America is "the loss of habeas corpus."
Call him gay and he will tell you it's a "nonexistent category." Call him old and you'll get no argument.
This is the year of new memoirs by old radicals. Vidal's elegiac "Point to Point Navigation" (Random House, 2006) is like a long electifying seance, conjuring a string of departed souls the author once knew in politics and the arts, from Fellini to Capote to JFK. Flores A. Forbes remembers busy days arming Black Panther Party firing squads in "Will You Die With Me?" (Atria, 2006). Progressive art critic Robert Hughes dishes on '60s icons in "Things I Didn't Know" (Knopf, 2006). Sixties rocker David Crosby's "Since Then" (Putnam, 2006) is subtitled "How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It." He writes about his environmentalism, his civil rights and anti-war work. The first photo shows him with an upraised fist.
You know what they say about hindsight.
Growing up in the '60s or '70s, it was impossible to imagine anyone being cool and old. "Don't trust anyone over 30" wasn't a joke. The Who sang, "Hope I die before I get old." Only Keith Moon did, so does that make the other guys hypocrites?
We have reached an era in which firebrands wear Depends.
If these authors are tribal elders dispensing lore around campfires -- if these memoirs are the Iliads of shaky-handed, age-spotted bards -- then what do they say? How do the old gods and creation myths hold up?
A bit bent. Bruised. In some cases flayed. Gazing way back, these authors now write neither in the heat of youthful passion nor even at the middle-aged putative peak of their powers. They appear unwilling to candy-coat. Maintaining their principles, and aware that in this Information Age countless Sherlocks are fervently winnowing truths from lies, these authors cast the past in such a pure unfiltered light as to make us flinch. Because heroes in that light appear only human. Because some hopes and dreams never came true. Because we realize that history repeats itself, that ideas and ideals we prize as avant-garde, as our own inventions, really aren't.
Writhing under their own gaze, these authors wonder what was worth what. "I'm quite literally a case of arrested development," David Crosby confesses. "I don't think I grew much." Flores Forbes remembers how terrified he was to realize, at 20, that as "part of the Black Panther Party's best and brightest ... I would more than likely die as a Panther or go to jail for life or disappear as a fugitive never to be heard from again. ... One way or another, I was doomed." Wounded during a botched hit on a prosecution witness, Forbes -- whose comrade-in-arms and best friend died that night -- spent eight years in jail.
Writing about art while mingling with rock stars and trendsetters in late-'60s London, Robert Hughes watched his peers "come up with a different set of social contracts, based on spontaneous hedonism, the joy of the majijuana high, spontaneous and uncommited sex, the 'togetherness' of crowds at rock concerts -- the whole shtick, which seems so absurd and uncompromising forty years later, but looked fresh and sweet" back then. "What a dead end this romantic fallacy, this adoration of the unbridled truth of the self, proved to be." His diction is as flower-bedecked as a Rose Parade float, but he was there, in the underground, nibbling hash cake and promoting Robert Crumb and protesting the Vietnam War as his wife hooked up with Jimi Hendrix and followed Eldridge Cleaver to Tangiers. Hughes is hardly a right-winger. Having lived in America for the last 30 years, he also protests the current war and "the truly disgusting cynicism of the Big Lie" that launched it.
He knew a lot of icons. Few escape unscathed. Timothy Leary, although "treated as a kind of holy sage," was "more like a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest, anxious to be loved and spouting apocalyptic rubbish about salvation and transcendence." Germaine Greer contributed to an underground magazine "a photograph, up close and full frontal, of her large and exuberantly hairy private parts, with her knees behind her ears .... Doubtless there was some feminist rationale for this, but I forget what she said it was." The Black Panthers, "festooned in bandoliers ... regarded all white men as devils and all white women as hoes pining to be raped." Cleaver was "a bully" who spent years "trying to market a line of items of men's fashion for the black stud, including a codpiece ornamented, if I remember correctly, with crocheted pubic wool." Cleaver's book "Soul on Ice," of which Hughes wrote a review -- "favorable, I am embarrassed to admit" -- for that same magazine was actually, in hindsight, "grossly racist and sexist."
"Then as now," Hughes seethes, "America was full of debased promises and offers of salvation -- the excreta of the original New World puritanism."
Salvation it was that shimmered as Forbes heard Bobby Seale talk about taking over Oakland's container port, telling insiders: "Comrades, we are going to create the goddamnedest, sho'nuff, highfalutin, best political organization this city and country have ever seen." Seale made good on his election-day strategy to "give every person who signs up to vote for our program a free bag of groceries, a free pair of shoes and a free sickle-cell anemia examination." But if the other side did this, would it be bribery?
Reading these books might make us squirm, because not only the authors' perspectives are at stake. Ours are too. To reconcile hating guns with admiring the Panthers, for instance, entails tying yourself into one heck of a pretzel. Forbes' job was patrolling the party's "vast real-estate holdings," where weapons and ammo were stored. "When I dealt with illegal arms traders, things usually were a little tense." Still, the stockpiles included "M16s, M14s, M60s, AK47s, Thompson submachine guns, 9mm grease guns, M79 grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, AR-180s, and AR-7s with silencers."
Is it that reeling in the years lends clarity -- or that outlasting your associates and your idols burns away residual layers of love, regard and fear? You know what they say about he who laughs last. Or is it that, as their reward for survival, the old are allowed a certain honesty, a where's-the-beef bluntness? The young make a habit of mocking the old. When not rendering the old invisible, when not imagining them irrelevant, the young ridicule the old with jibes they would never dream of inflicting on other minorities. Want to tell someone she's out-of-it? Call her Grandma. Ha ha.
And yet among actual golden-agers, the ones who didn't die, are activists and insurrectionists and right-on queers. Gore Vidal is past 80. When he looks back, it is in terms not of decades but half-centuries. During the deathwatch for his longtime companion -- not lover per se; they hadn't kissed on the lips for 50 years -- a Barbra Streisand album was playing over and over and the men reminisced about bringing a twentysomething Streisand to Paul Newman's 40th birthday party in 1965, when "we introduced her to Beluga caviar." In 1971, Vidal wrote a theater piece, An Evening with Richard Nixon, which the New York Times denounced as "a play for radical liberals." He hung with the Kennedys. But of all the political figures he has known, the one whom he misses most now, he tells me, dates back very far indeed: Eleanor Roosevelt.
It is the old who truly know the ball-and-chain of remorse and regret. They write with a special kind of sorrow, either because so little has changed or so much.
Nor can you blame them for being cynical. Live long enough and sooner or later you will fall afoul of the very folks whose torch you once bore, or their disciples, that is, latter-day versions of yourself. When Forbes was a fresh new recruit, Huey Newton himself -- whom Forbes calls "my prince" -- told him: "Comrade, you are the 'chosen one.'" But many years, several trials, and at least one botched hit later, another party member offered an update: "You know," he told Forbes, "you guys had a pretty impressive run, and you frightened a lot of people in this country, but things have run their course. ... Flores, you and your people really made a mess of things." On an Australian highway six years ago, Robert Hughes nearly died in a collision with another car whose young occupants "were addicts and at least two were part-time drug dealers." One was an armed robber; another of them once "tried to tear the face off an enemy in a bar with a broken bottle." Afterward, two of them tried to extort Hughes, who called them "lowlife scum" in front of reporters. For this the Australian media reviled him as an elitist, one paper printing "a full-page caricature of me brandishing my crutches and firing machine-gun bullets from them at unidentified victims." After a defamation suit, he was out $250,000 -- "a fitting knock on the knuckles for a fucking elitist cunt like me."
Appointed president of the 1990 Venice Film Festival jury -- "a feminist jury," he notes in his memoir, Gore Vidal was booed for awarding top prizes to Martin Scorcese and Tom Stoppard -- men. Although throughout his career "I had broken a lance or two in the gender wars on the side of the ladies," it won him no mercy that night. Nor is he adored in American academia. While The City and the Pillar is often credited with spurring Queer Studies, Vidal's open loathing for literary theory has otherwise "cost me my place in the syllabus." It's ironic, given what would seem an immaculate political record. This is, after all, a man who writes gorgeously of stolen elections, who pauses during a passage about the Italian coast to call global warming "the principal fact of our lives."
When I ask about English professors, he does not hold back: "I have often wondered why publishers actually encourage these sad denizens of the swamps of tenure to write book-chat whose purpose is to keep as many readers as possible from actually reading books of any kind," he tells me. "After all, half our adult population will never voluntarily read a 'serious' book, so why is so much ferocious energy devoted to making sure [the average American] reads little or no literature?" Not that much decent literature is being produced these days, he notes, thanks maybe to those entrenched professors molding young writers: "Mediocrity is now the common condition of most of the arts," Vidal tells me grimly, "excepting, perhaps, poetry."
Hughes too is fierce on the matter of meritocracy: "Of course I am completely an elitist," he writes, "in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the esthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness."
Live long enough, and good and bad and right and wrong emerge into that harsh pure light. Live long enough to see it, say so, and lend new meaning to the words home of the brave.