Gore Vidal and the Jew He Loved

Writer Also Offended Many With Acerbic Ways

getty images

By Benjamin Ivry

Published August 02, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Despite his sophisticatedly mediatized one-upsmanship, Vidal retained unexpected ties to childhood naivety. Vidal’s most telling essays include appreciations of childrens’ writers such as E. Nesbit, Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum. Vidal was so devoted to the last-mentioned Oz author that he wrote an unproduced 1960 teleplay for Groucho Marx of Baum’s 1896 nonsense fantasy “The Surprising Adventures of the Magical Monarch of Mo and His People.”

Vidal sometimes resembled an Oz dweller, especially after the late 1960s when he realized the American literary dream, dating back to Henry James and William Dean Howells, of dwelling in Italy. There he lived in a hilltop eyrie on the Amalfi coast, where distinguished guests were photographed by Austen, the results gathered in a 2009 book from Abrams Publishers, “Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare.” which furthered the impression of Vidal as a lofty aristocrat whose pronouncements were not anchored in real life. Vidal not only resembled one of Federico Fellini’s lunar screen characters, he actually appeared in Fellini’s 1972 film “Roma” as an expatriate “American writer” and “illusion-maker” named Gore Vidal who was in Italy to wait and watch as “everything ends.”

This apocalyptic view, which Vidal would explore in his novel “Kalki” (1978), possibly led him to alliances with such fringe figures as the murderer Timothy McVeigh, the so-called “paleoconservative” Bill Kauffman, and the anti-Zionist Israel Shahak. In a preface to Shahak’s “Jewish History, Jewish Religion” (1994), Vidal praised the author’s “satirist’s eye for the confusions to be found in any religion that tries to rationalise the irrational.” Satire is hardly the first requirement for approaching the subject of today’s Middle East, though Vidal was, of course, a past master of satiric prose and fictional lampoons.

Considerably more valid than his satirical timing were Vidal’s polemics — produced for Jewish editors, The Nation’s Victor Navasky and The New York Review of Books’s Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein — to condemn right-wing Jewish journalists. While few readers found anti-Semitism in Vidal’s mock claim that the Hotel Hilton Kramer must be some kind of Catskills resort, some did complain about Vidal’s response to a 1970 Harper’s Magazine article by Joseph Epstein, termed by Harper’s editor Midge Decter an “elegant and thoughtful account,” which stated that if Epstein “had the power to do so, [he] would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, because [he considers] it a curse, in a literal sense.”

Decter’s own homophobic 1980 article “The Boys on the Beach” provoked Vidal’s response that “since these [Jews] are going to be in the same gas chambers as the blacks and the faggots, I would suggest a cease-fire and a common front against the common enemy, whose kindly voice is that of Ronald Reagan and whose less than kindly mind is elsewhere in the boardrooms of the Republic.” The implicit plea for good fellowship is belied by Vidal’s comparison of Norman Podhoretz and Decter’s attacks on minorities to Max Naumann, the assimilationist German Jewish patriot who in 1932 argued that Jews should support the Nazi party.

Vidal himself could be guilty of insensitivity to minorities. In a 2010 disavowal in Vanity Fair by an erstwhile ally, Christopher Hitchens deplored Vidal’s “very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.” In 1970, CUNY linguistics professor George Jochnowitz wrote a letter to the editor in response to Vidal’s review of David Reuben’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask,”, in which Vidal derided both the “Jewish/Christian God” used to oppress gay people, and Reuben’s “manner which shifts in a very odd way from night club comedian to reform rabbi.”

Jochnowitz pointed out that Vidal was “totally wrong to suggest that condemnation of homosexuals is a Jewish tribal peculiarity… In fact, Mr. Vidal, your tribe continued to burn homosexuals for centuries and centuries after my tribe had stopped stoning them. Christianity has been independent of Judaism for almost all of its history. Vidal ignores this when he persists in using terms like “Jewish/Christian God” to refer to the repressive side of Western civilization.”

An even more vehement repudiation of Vidal’s light-hearted japes in serious contexts came in 1973 from Israel Kapstein, a Brown University English professor. Kapstein had been mocked by Vidal as collateral damage in a review of novels by one of Kapstein’s former students, Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt. By taking on journalists and writers well able to defend themselves, in his vast literary output Vidal was unfair and indeed wrong at times, but to condemn him once and forever as an anti-Semite trivializes the term.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Watch him in the 60s, discussing Ronald Reagan’s record of supporting racist politicians.

And to see Vidal’s cameo in Federico Fellini’s 1972 film “Roma,” which starts 3’46” into the video.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.