Pummeled Vidal biographer licks his wounds

The critics were vicious -- and then there was Gore.

Published November 18, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Near the end of Fred Kaplan's "Gore Vidal: A Biography," a Ravello innkeeper warns Kaplan that in Italy it's considered bad luck for a living man to have his biography written. After Doubleday published the book last month, however, the malocchio seems to have bounced off the subject and landed squarely on the biographer.

Except for a starred review in Kirkus and a decent write-up in the Los Angeles Times, Kaplan's authorized biography has generally had a cranky reception, especially in the New York Times. In the Nov. 14 Sunday Times Book Review, William Deresiewicz griped that the biographer "descends to a prose of depressing clumsiness, as if, having stuffed his word processor with 74 years' worth of date books and account ledgers, he had left the machine to write the damn book itself."

Last month critic Richard Eder arrived at a similarly damning verdict in the daily Times: "Mr. Kaplan had observed that 'I prefer my subjects dead' ... Mr. Kaplan, author of biographies of Dickens, Carlyle and Henry James, was dead right in his preferring."

Kaplan, whose 1988 "Thomas Carlyle" was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, is still incensed at Deresiewicz's hatchet job. "It seemed so distorted and inaccurate," he says. "At one point, the reviewer refers to the book as 'the damn book.' It's the most unprofessional thing I can imagine a reviewer doing."

According to Kaplan, Vidal feels that the Times has always been hostile toward him, so it follows that the paper wouldn't welcome a biography of him, either -- a notion that Times Book Review editor in chief Charles "Chip" McGrath dismisses out of hand. "That's nonsense," he says. "We've given very praising reviews of both 'Palimpsest' and the recent anthology ["The Essential Gore Vidal"] -- and I believe that was edited by Kaplan. Those two reviews alone would go some distance toward proving that there's no grudge against him at all."

If Kaplan has a rocky relationship with his critics these days, at least he still enjoys a relatively stable rapport with Vidal, who approached him in the early '90s about writing the biography. Kaplan says in the book that after he started work in 1994, Vidal was "totally cooperative" except for an instance in which he refused to hand over one diary from 1948. ("What that you didn't know already would you learn from a list of the boys I fucked and a litany of complaints about nasty reviews?" is how Kaplan now paraphrases Vidal's objection.) "I wouldn't ever describe Gore as abusive," Kaplan says. "But he can be harsh."

Yet there was one other very discomfiting hitch in the process, which Kaplan alludes to in the book's acknowledgments, and which he recently proposed expanding into a magazine article. An unpleasant exchange erupted after the biographer refused his subject a peek at the final manuscript. "He put a lot of pressure on me," Kaplan recalled. When asked if Vidal threatened legal action, Kaplan replied that indeed he did, adding with a laugh, "Gore does that as a reflex action." Eventually, Kaplan says, Vidal backed down. (Vidal could not be reached for comment.)

Kaplan submitted the proposal to both Vanity Fair and the New Yorker but withdrew it after deciding that the material is too sensitive, at least at the moment. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has commissioned Vidal to write a review of Kaplan's reviews; no date has been set for it, according to New Yorker spokeswoman Perri Dorset.

Despite their differences, Kaplan and Vidal appeared together in New York on Nov. 9, at the 92nd Street YMCA and at a Barnes & Noble, in a rare biographer-subject double-header -- although at the last minute Vidal demanded that they speak separately rather than sitting at a table together.

So, in the end, does Kaplan still prefer writing about dead subjects? "This particular instance offered an all-involved exception to that rule that was worth pursuing," he replies with diplomatic caution.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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