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Gore Vidal: A Biography Hardcover – October 12, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Veteran biographer Fred Kaplan, praised for his evocative portraits of 19th-century masters like Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, turns with aplomb to a contemporary writer in this lengthy yet cogent work. Indeed, the multifaceted Gore Vidal, born in 1925 but positively Victorian in the breadth of his interests and achievements, is fortunate to have a biographer as wide-ranging as Kaplan. He traces the familial roots of Vidal's lifelong political engagement (his maternal grandfather was a U.S. senator) and lucidly assesses his nonfiction as well as his bestselling novels such as Washington, D.C. and Burr, reminding readers that Vidal has for decades been an astute, sardonic observer of the American scene. Vidal's personal relations are depicted frankly but briskly, as befits a staunch defender of homosexual rights who is open about his own orientation but refuses to be pigeonholed as a gay writer. The famous feuds with William Buckley, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote get enjoyably full treatment, properly situated in the context of larger issues. If the inner workings of Vidal's psyche remain ultimately elusive despite Kaplan's access as authorized biographer to thousands of unpublished letters, that too seems right for someone of whom a friend once remarked, "I've always thought that Gore is a man without an unconscious." --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Kaplan has written esteemed lives of Henry James, Dickens and Carlyle and is a professor of English at Queens College. He candidly admits, in a "prelude" that opens the book, "I prefer my subjects dead," and perhaps having a subject not yet dead has made it more difficult for Kaplan to synthesize the life and work, to put Vidal into context and to pinpoint the telling details of his subject's productive life. For this extremely long biography showcases erudition at the expense of selection, and the book drowns in encyclopedic detail. Much of the detail, drawn from Kaplan's access to Vidal's papers, is enlightening. Kaplan is especially good on Vidal's relationships with his editors at publishing companies and magazines and his friendships and feuds with Joanne Woodward, Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, William Buckley and others. His analysis of Vidal's multifarious work (novels, essays, plays, screenplays) is often elucidating. His accounts of Vidal's various runs for office are also useful. Yet it is annoying to read long-winded prose with a disappointing lack of immediacy. (Compare, for instance, Gerald Clarke's scintillating biography of Truman Capote, also about a contemporary writer known for his wit and style, and also written with the cooperation of its subject.) Kaplan, falling far short of that standard, convinces the reader that Vidal's unusually vast involvement with the political and literary life of his times is impressive, without seeming to draw much inspiration from Vidal's own biting prose, which, though cited dutifully, fails to spark in this context. Rather than coming to life, Vidal seems entombed within the pages of this book. 12 pages b&w photos. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 864 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (October 12, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385477031
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385477031
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 2.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,485,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Candace Scott on August 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
As a long-time fan of Gore Vidal (both the man and his work) I was disappointed with Kaplan's treatment. He is overly fawning of Vidal and looks at all events soley through his subject's eyes. The result is a fawing biography with little, if any, critical analysis or realism about Vidal. Kaplan also has a propensity for constantly droning on about Gore's good looks. Every few pages we are reminded that Vidal was "handsome," striking" or given details about his mesmerizing pulchritude. Enough, already.
There was ample gossip and name dropping, so if you're into dirt on the Kennedy's, Capote or Gore himself, you won't be disappointed. But if you're seeking a serious or even semi-critical examination of Gore, flaws and all, you won't find it here.
It's a shame, because few men of any generation have had the brains, wit and talent of Gore Vidal, but he has proven elusive to the picklocks of biographers.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 26, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Kaplan has written a wonderfully involving biography of my favorite author. His portrait is well balanced and doesn't skirt any issues concerning this talented, complex and sometimes infuriating man. I have had my reservations about Vidal as a person and Kaplan gives enough background to understand, though not fully absolve, Gore Vidal. I enjoyed every page of it. Especially priceless is the shrewd, winking, nudging account of the famous William F. Buckley/Gore Vidal feuds in which Buckley comes across as quite bad. It becomes pretty obvious to any intelligent reader of 1999 why Buckley behaved so erratically and could barely stand to be in the same room with Gore Vidal. The whole book is a great read. One finishes it with a sense of both admiration and pity for Vidal who suffered (at the hands of his shrewish mother, from the loss of an early love, from early devastating literary disappointments, from being gay when it was verboten) more than he ever let on. Vidal isn't what one would call a nice, warm human being, but he did his best to make something of himself with the considerable talent he had.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Gil Cohen on October 31, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I read this 800 page bio in the blink of an eye; it's as inexhaustibly thorough as it is engaging. Skillfully researched and written, no detail (too many?) is left unmentioned. Especially deep is the coverage of Gore's early years in Hollywood, in New York television, on Broadway-this is not for people with short show business memories. Great on Gore's literary associations, the Trumans and the Tennessees, and not bad on analasys of Gore's varied and many works. Should tide us over pretty well till he's dead and the next biographer puts the final (here missing) period to an era and a myth.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Parker Benchley VINE VOICE on November 23, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A biographer's task begins with difficulty. Add more difficulty when his subject is still alive, and square that when the subject is as lively, controlling and litigious as Gore Vidal. When I learned that this project was about to be undertaken, I simply rolled my eyes and whipered "Good Luck, Mr. Kaplan."
Needless to say, I was not surprised when I read the results, for they were exactly what I expected. However, my expectation was tempered by my joy at discovering heretofore unknown facts about the life of the subject.
Given the handicap of working with Vidal, Kaplan produces a surprisingly strong biography. When judging it we must keep two things in mind: (1) Before this book, little was known of Vidal's life other than what appeared in the society pages and gossip sheets. For someone who has lived the last forty years of his life squarely in the public eye, Vidal has remained virtually unkown to that public. (2) Vidal is still very much with us and he is an extremely controlling person. Kaplan had a hell of a battle in refusing Vidal's request to see the manuscript before publication. As it was, the omissions from the book are minor and the book itself is surprisingly factual in spite of the hurdles Kaplan had to face. (For instance, Vidal didn't become political until the late Fifties, a fact which Kaplan deftly works in at the right moment.)
Now that the tome is in paperback, one can safely buy it without the feeling of having wasted one's money. For those purists out there who feel the book was not worth the time, remember this: The book is well-written and contains many items and facts about the life of Gore Vidal that were not public knowledge. And that he wrote such a tome under the controlling gaze of Vidal was a triumph in itself. For those who want an unexpurgated life of Vidal, sorry . . . you'll just have to wait until after his death.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Klaen Morthaur on December 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
I have heard Vidal speaking about this book, and it is not authorized- the author refused to show it to him before publication, and he considered trying to block its publication. Since it came out, he has refused to read it, but has made numerous comments about the author's shoddy research, citing several examples of inaccuracies. The author also continually lied to the press about Vidal, saying that Vidal had asked him to write this biography, which he did not do, etc.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Judith C. Kinney on May 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Too many dropped names dropped too often. Too many references to Vidal's good looks: twice in the same paragraph in addition to every dozen or so pages. Too much repetition--of the good looks, of the dropped names, of the same old childish feuds reopened and redissected too often.
And yet there seemed to be some serious omissions. No mention of whether Gore's grandfather, T. P. Gore, was related to the Tennessee Gores. No mention in almost 800 pages of the House Un-American Activities Committee or Joseph McCarthy and his infamous hearings, although Vidal was a person intimately involved in both Hollywood and politics.
I rarely think a book is too long, but for this one, I'll make an exception. The book was too long.
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