As the world in 2023 bumps and stalls and falters, I find myself considering the question of Gore Vidal the internationally famous writer and Darius Campbell Danesh, the not all that famous pop star. When life gets difficult – as it has done for so many this year – the question of ultimate purpose has a curious way of resurfacing and clarifying itself.
Darius Campbell Danesh died in August 2022 – another of those celebrity deaths which come out of leftfield, as wrong – as strange. We’ve become used to thinking: drugs. Or we think: alcohol. And we sigh: fame. A little fame seems to be as bad for the soul as a lot of it: you get that taste for the hedonistic life, learn how to boomerang into rehab and back out again – and by that point you’re more than up-and-running as a candidate for an early death. The paparazzi increases its attention on your dramatic arc, sharpening its intensity, until the curve is hastened.
The young body turns out not to be strong at all when faced with the rote rigors of stardom.
But in the case of Darius, who died in a Minnesota clinic from inhalation of chloroethane and an undiagnosed heart condition, a different force was at work: pure bad luck. His death, though it looked like misadventure at first, turned out to be a tragedy without the moral dimension of crack-up we’re used to. He was simply very unlucky. A car accident led to pain, leading to painkiller addiction, leading to his sad end.
It is the fate of some pop stars to cross over into the arid but peaceful world of never-being-interviewed. Darius made it there: after Pop Idol, where he secured a degree of fame in that banner year when Will Young and Gareth Gates led the competition, he prospered for a while. Refusing with a certain cool clear-headedness the offer of a music contract by Simon Cowell, Darius went on to write his own songs before gaining five Top 10 singles. He then had a successful career on the stage playing leading roles in Broadway and in the West End. It was a quietly successful life.
By the time of his death, Darius was still well-known enough for his untimely end to register in the mainstream media. He had, in fact, got to the point where an interview might be given by the trainee trends writer of The Daily Record, fail to be published, and then resurface after his death.
It’s this interview which caught my eye for its quiet wisdom, and humility. Not knowing that he is destined to be speaking posthumously, Campbell nevertheless sounds valedictory at the start of the article: “I’ve been really blessed. I’ve been really lucky to have had an amazing life,” he says.
Probed further, he explains his desire to move back to Scotland: “I’m looking to form a new relationship with a country that I love coming back to, an extraordinary gem of a country that has contributed more to science and the arts and inventions than many countries could ever dream of. I’m coming back to give back and to establish a base in Scotland.”
This is the note of patriotism and authentic pride. Campbell goes on to add: “When you get to the peak of achievement, of doing all the things that you love, it’s all about giving back.”
I like this very much. It’s simplicity shouldn’t blind us to its wisdom. Campbell is talking about what really matters. He is talking about life at the apex.
What the Dictionaries Say
The apex. The word is an interesting one, and dates from about 1600. It means, the summit, the peak, the tip, the top, the extreme end. It originally denoted part of a headdress worn by priests in ancient Rome. Etymologists say that it’s possible that it is related to the Latin verb ‘apere’ – to fasten or to fix. It has to do then with being attached to the top of things – on top of the world, as the song goes, looking down on creation. But with the possible connotation that you might be unfastened – one day, you’ll possibly need to come back down again.
It therefore needs to be distinguished from the notion of the ‘establishment’, which has to do with the old French root establiss, and the even older Latin root stabilire: to ‘make stable’. There is something cosier one feels about the establishment than there is about the apex. One senses that once you’re in the establishment, you’re in unless you do something really stupid. Sometimes, you can even murder and remain in it: ask Lord Lucan.
The apex feels less certain – a place you have to struggle to arrive at, and then struggle to stay in. Nothing’s certain at the apex except your own fragile eminence.
So who’s at the apex? A down-at-heel aristocrat is usually in the establishment but can hardly be a serious candidate for the apex. A prime minister or Cabinet minister may moonlight at the apex, but depending on their beliefs and performance, may never really be admitted into the establishment: think Liz Truss, or even in certain ways Tony Blair. A rags-to-riches businessman will get to the apex by making enough money; if they want to join the establishment they might consider donating to the Prince’s Trust.
A writer will be at the apex if they sell a lot of books but only in the establishment if they chair, or are elected to, the Royal Society of Arts. It is the goal for many of us in our careers to taste the heady crosswinds of the apex, and while we’d like to feel stable there, by 2023 it feels as though experience has bitten off another chunk of innocence: nowadays there’s very little stability in our society.
And if you want an image of the apex, what would that be? To know that you need to visit the Amalfi Coast.
Here Among Swallows
Two questions. What’s the most beautiful house in the world? What’s the best house a writer has ever lived in?
The answer to these two questions happens to be the same: La Rondinaia. The name means Swallows’ Nest, but such associations hardly do justice to the beauty of the building, a sprawl of delicate marble somehow sprinkled down the cliffside near Ravello in Italy, presiding celestially over the Mediterranean.
Now a luxury hotel, it is most famous for having been the home of the American writer Gore Vidal from 1971 to 2006. Vidal was both an outsider and an insider – but very definitely knew what life was like at the apex. It’s not entirely clear that he didn’t invent the apex; he certainly clarified the language of the apex. There remains the suspicion that you’ve not hit the heights unless you’ve stood on the balcony here, having just signed the transfer of deeds documentation, and raised a glass with the toast: “To my new house”.
Vidal was born into the purple of American life. His biography comes up against an irremediable fact in the birth ward: he loathed his mother steadfastly, without any chink of light. It’s possible to happen upon interviews where she is described variously as: “atrocious” “a terror” “everybody hated her” – all within the space of a few suavely embittered lines.
In this case, hatred of his mother meant closeness to the grandfather – the blind senator for Oklahoma Thomas P. Gore. Furthermore, when Vidal’s mother divorced his father – not untypically in the Vidal narrative, Eugene was an aviation star, and great friends with Amelia Eckhart – she remarried into the Auchincloss family, meaning that Vidal became distantly related to Jackie Kennedy, the wife of JFK. ‘It is always a matter of delicacy when a friend or acquaintance becomes president,’ he would later say, sounding as he always did, like a creature of the apex.
We can now say that post-war America churned up about seven ‘great’ writers, usually considered by their surnames: Mailer, Bellow, Updike, Heller, Vonnegut, Roth – Vidal. The Vidal opus is vast, containing a host of novels, plays, essays, short stories – and interviews usually conducted at La Rondinaia. The act was well-known. Vidal would recall famous friends, and waspishly dispatch his enemies: Truman Capote, William Buckley Jr., Norman Mailer. (When the novelist Mailer once went up to Vidal at a party and smacked Vidal in the mouth, the wit replied: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.’) In interview, Vidal would roll his eyes at the folly of America; he would remind everyone that he didn’t care what they thought of him; he would give an account of what life is like once you are free of concern and duly elevated. Some thought he’d gone to a lot of effort to convey his own calm detachment. Martin Amis, having observed Vidal in situ at La Rondinaia, wrote: “He has removed pain from his own life, or narrowed it down to manageable areas; and it is one thing he cannot convincingly recreate in his own fiction. But his deeply competitive nature is still reassured to know that there is plenty of pain about.”
How had his fame become so great? As the recent play Best of Enemies by James Graham shows, Vidal’s celebrity grew particularly as a result of his head-to-head debates on ABC with the Conservative thinker William Buckley Jr in 1968. These debates occurred while protests about the American war in Vietnam raged outside the television studios. They represented – as Graham’s excellent play depicts – the moment when head-to-head TV debate created a sort of bifurcation in American society. From now on the question would be: Are you left or right? Are you Republican or Democrat? Are you Buckley or Vidal?
The debates to some extent marked the end of the era of the floating floater: by a quirk of television, two extremely nuanced thinkers ended up, by accident, retiring the public space for nuance. Millions of people watched the culminating exchange. During a discussion about Vietnam, Buckley labelled opponents of the war Nazi appeasers. Vidal, who knew that the important thing in television is to retain one’s self-possession no matter what, retorted:
Vidal: The only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself…
Buckley: Now listen you queer, quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.
In short, Buckley lost his cool and Vidal didn’t, meaning that Vidal won. At various times since, it has looked like each man won the far more crucial aftermath: the battle for the eventual direction of America. During the Reagan years, Buckley seemed to be winning; but, in the 1990s, Vidal befriended the Clintons, Hilary being a famous visitor to La Rondinaia. Despite the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Vidal went to his grave thoroughly disillusioned by the state of America – as an isolationist well might do when his country has a military presence across the earth. One of the perennial themes of the debates themselves was always that – in the same way that Darius Campbell Danesh cared about Scotland – Buckley cared about America more deeply because he was rooted to the country. Meanwhile, Vidal, in exile in the Amalfi Coast and Rome, is to Buckley a sort of gilded visitor to the US. Further, as a gay man, you always feel that Buckley thinks – though can’t quite say – that Vidal has an insufficient sense of the building block of the family and so isn’t invested in America’s future. Here is an excerpt from Best of Enemies, during debate prep, when the Buckleys are wondering aloud about the slipperiness of their antagonist:
Patricia Buckley: Not only that. He doesn’t even go by his real name. His
Christian name is Eugene. Gore isn’t even a Christian name, it’s a surname he just
took it and gave it to himself.
William Buckley: …My God. He doesn’t even exist does he. Nothing about him
is real, permanent. He has no roots. He doesn’t come from anywhere. He has no
regular family. He is incapable of committing to a relationship as much as he is a
country to reside in.
By 1968, Vidal’s novel Julian was a best-seller: he had found his metier in the shape of the erudite historical novel – history handed down from on high. Vidal didn’t go to university but was prepared to mock those ‘priests of academe’ or ‘scholar-squirrels’ who might query his version of events. Being a creature of the apex, he could also claim personal knowledge, via his famous grandfather, of the gossip of history which is denied the staffers at universities.
Vidal didn’t have it all his own way: he had to fight. His early novel The City and the Pillar, with its frank exploration of homosexuality, was banned by The New York Times – a sign that Vidal, while patrician, was never quite of the establishment.
It’s not clear yet to what extent he shall speak to the next generation. After a death, fame can recede with a rapidity which would probably scandalise the famous were they to be made aware of it: it’s as if the world pauses, mulling the contribution, deciding whether to issue a posthumous acceptance or rejection letter.
In terms of his novels, his lasting influence is likely to be with Julian and Burr (1973). These books feel lastingly readable in a way in which his success de scandal Myra Breckinridge (1968) doesn’t. That book, with its transgender themes, could easily be taken up today and become a hit for some trillion-dollar streaming company.
The fact that Vidal was homosexual (an adjective he despised) in a time when that wasn’t yet acceptable, meaning that he had to shoot for the apex and not the establishment. The cosy structures of the American aristocracy could never quite be for him: The New York Times refused to review his books in the 1960s (at a time when that newspaper could make or break a book), meaning he had to turn to screenwriting to make a living.
He was successful at that too. As he was known to boast, he always had more money than his competitors. Soon bestsellerdom and – like Shakespeare – a canny eye for property, removed financial concern. He lived with the advertising professional Howard Austen for many years – a platonic friendship whose secret, as Vidal would explain, was its refusal of sex.
I don’t yet know which letter Vidal has received in the great atrium of the skies. The early signs are good: his quotability outstrips his competitors, and the life is reliably gilded and interesting. Saul Bellow looks too verbose and baggy now; John Updike somehow weightlessly gifted; Norman Mailer, too macho and maybe a little mad; Kurt Vonnegut too arch. Vidal’s only serious rival among his contemporaries in terms of the creation of pure laughter – that quality which turns out to have far more posthumous value than people realise in the present – is Joseph Heller. Catch-22 isn’t going anywhere; it was always here to stay.
So are Vidal’s great lines. ‘Every time someone else succeeds, a little part of me dies’. ‘A narcissist is someone better looking that you are.” “I never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television.” This is the sort of stuff that turns out to last as people can’t – shouldn’t – wean themselves off wit.
Cynicism can be addictive; Vidal’s certainly was. Sincerity, like Darius Danesh Campbell’s, turns out to be harder to sustain. The real reason for this juxtaposition is that cynicism can be funny and sincerity can’t. And we all need a laugh.
And yet, if we dig a little deeper, we start to wonder if Vidal’s life was all it was cracked up to be. Vidal took a predictably lordly stance against the counterculture of the 1960s, loathing the Beatles and Bob Dylan and all the rest. I wonder how he would feel if told that he had something to learn from Darius Campbell Dinesh, someone far further down the pop food chain. It’s difficult to imagine him being pleased.
Over the years, life went sour for Vidal: Buckley’s admonition that he would ‘stay plastered’ had a sort of punning afterlife. Late period Vidal was indeed all about staying plastered – in the sense of consuming epic amounts of booze. At a certain point, it seems always to have been cocktail hour at La Rondinaia.
The novelist Tim Robinson – author of Hatham Hall – recalls hearing direct from the writer Kevin Jackson about his interview experience with Vidal: “Kevin was an enormous fan, and went to interview Gore Vidal for a TV programme,” Robinson recalls. “By that time, Vidal was no longer the beautiful man of his youth but somewhat bloated – on account of a very high daily consumption of, I think, Jack Daniels.”
So what happened? “While Kevin interviewed him, both got steadily drunker and it was clear that Vidal’s memory was no longer what it once was. Fortunately, Jackson – who was younger – also had a younger, less addled mind and having memorised all Vidal’s best anecdotes, whenever Vidal had to stop mid-story, Vidal would wave his glass at Kevin who would repeat the first few words of the story which then triggered Vidal’s memory for the next five minutes until it was time for the next glass of Jack Daniels and another prompt. He was by then a wind-up drunken anecdote machine.”
Vidal’s death came in July 2012, as if he were unable to contemplate living through that November’s presidential elections. Insodoing, he deprived himself of the opportunity to be indignant about the many things which have since had the ill grace to happen: the rise to the presidency of a certain Donald Trump Jr.; the global pandemic; the war in Ukraine, to name a few.
Life at the apex, then, doesn’t inoculate you from the currents of life. In fact, it can merely mean you have an audience for your own tribulations.
Mr. Burr, Sir
What do they talk about at the apex? One’s hunch is that it’s mainly art and politics, with a particular emphasis on the latter. (Scientists are too distracted to mind about the apex or the establishment). Being in the apex means that you’ve taken care of your own needs. You’ve got to parade your interest in the planet. And on this topic, Gore Vidal is at his best.
50 years ago Burr was published, and it can’t be said the newspapers brim with reminiscences about this fact. Even so, in Burr, and in the other books which form his Narratives of Empire series, Vidal hands down from on high a beautifully wrought (and selective) fiction about what America really is, and perhaps more importantly, what it has failed to become. We may not wish to emulate Gore Vidal’s life, but as America spins alarmingly on, into a Trumpian election year, we need more than ever to know what he thought.
If you’ve ever been to see Hamilton, then you’ll know of Aaron Burr, and be well-aware of the many words it can rhyme with. 40 years before Lin-Manuel Miranda was reimagining the Founding Fathers, Vidal had already posed in fiction every kind of blasphemous question, probing the pieties and complacencies which still continue to dog America.
Aaron Burr has been called by Miranda ‘the Richard III of American history’. This is partly because he killed Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the American financial system, in a duel, and also because Thomas Jefferson charged him with treason in circumstances very different to unravel. Vidal takes the opposite view: that Burr was, in many respects, a maligned hero. It follows from this that the people we see staring out at us from the dollar bills were imperfect.
So we witness first-hand George Washington’s ‘large derriere’ (a typically derogatory Vidalian detail), Jefferson’s slave-owning guile, Hamilton’s alarming fervency. This becomes a leitmotif throughout Vidal’s books: to question received wisdom. In Julian, Christ is referred to throughout as the Galilean (‘compared to Plato he is a child’). This novel works well as it’s possible to imagine the historical Julian thinking precisely this; but sometimes polemic crosses over into impertinence as in Live from Golgotha (1992) where Vidal – among many other things – invents a weight problem for Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in order to mock it. The problem with such jokes is that it opens up onto the idea that nothing is sacred – apart from perhaps the amour-propre of a certain G. Vidal of La Rondinaia on the Amalfi Coast.
But more broadly, there is much to learn. Vidal shows us what you see when you enter (Lin-Manuel Miranda again) ‘the room where it happens’. What you see turns out to be, in one sense, people less intelligent and less qualified to be president than Gore Vidal. “I am at heart, a tiresome nag complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” But by asking whether American history is really what it says on the tin, Vidal shows us how to think for ourselves – his books are ultimately freeing and allow us to breathe his rarefied air alongside him. Our tendency to create saints ends up limiting us in the present time; the worship of false idols, or the aggrandisement of the imperfect, maroons us in a contemporary inertia. Sometimes this can be a little overdone. Perhaps the novel Lincoln has too many references to Lincoln’s constipation – a bodily embarrassment designed to remind us again and again that Lincoln was mortal. But the book is very powerful when it lasers in on the core psychological question: “Why, in fact, was Lincoln so pro the Union, and what was it about that concept – an essentially abstract one – which enabled him to countenance so many thousands of deaths?”
For Vidal the answer is ambition, which Lincoln gave voice to once when very young, and it’s probably as a good an explanation as any. But in asking the question, we start to wonder about what is really wise and what is not. These are insights only the apex can give; only someone like Vidal has the intellect, the money, the time – and, often forgotten, the sheer luck – to be able to give voice to all this, to pick apart everything we’ve received and say: “Is this true?” And even more than that, to say: “You’ve got it all wrong. All of you, without exception, are cataclysmically mistaken – and let me show you why.”
Hedgehog and Fox
By comparison, of course, we can be relatively sure of the artistic afterlife of Darius Campbell Dinesh.
I am watching the video to the 2012 hit ‘Colour Blind’, released in the year Gore Vidal died. If Vidal couldn’t accept the 1960s, then I doubt he’d get far with this. As per pop convention, Darius is inexplicably singing and playing his acoustic guitar in a desert; an attractive woman is standing with similar strangeness on top of a random car. The message is: ‘Beautiful people appear in the video to this song and so you should listen to this song. Perhaps then you might almost be beautiful.” Darius is soon ticking off the colours he’s experiencing – he’s blue, because he’s sad; he’s green because he’s jealous. Less self-evidently, he’s yellow because he’s feeling confused, but because we need a rhyme, he’s also mellow. But the loved one casts a light on him – and the colours scatter, and he’s colour blind.
It’s a goodish pop song, but partakes of every pop convention. And convention, once the reasons for its existence lapse from memory, won’t prop up any song for the long term.
Yet, there’s no real reason to doubt that the song isn’t heartfelt, and there’s no point begrudging it the fact that it has come to mean something to plenty of people. Gore Vidal says: “I can understand marriage. I can understand bought sex in the afternoon. I cannot understand the love affair.” Darius says: “Nobody told me you’d feel so good/Nobody said you’d be so beautiful/Nobody warned me about your smile.” The first line is hilarious, intelligent – but as a position to take it is surely insane. The second is banal, but it relates to universal experience, and it opens up onto a world where other people genuinely matter.
Vidal’s mind, when it was at its best, was one of the most beautiful things of the 21st century: erudite but memorable, poised but ranging, both amusingly flippant and genuinely wise. Dinesh, coming from the world of performance and pop song-writing, was a man who began as a figure of fun, and who to some extent remained one. But however he might have been belittled by the press, and however much he looks small next to Vidal – and Vidal was the sort of man who lived for making others feel small – he knew things Vidal did not.
He knew for instance that the apex of life is doing what you love, and using that as a way of helping others. Not for Darius the destruction of all competitors. He had no Capote or Mailer equivalents. Instead, he looked forward at the time of his death to a Pop Idol reunion.
In short, about the essential fact of what life is really about, what its purpose is, Darius is right and Gore is vastly, even horribly, wrong. Had Darius lived it seems likely that he would have dedicated himself to Scotland and to philanthropy. Vidal never did that. To my knowledge, there is no Gore Vidal hospital wing, or Gore Vidal Prize for young upcoming essayists, no Gore Vidal Foundation for historical novelists. Darius’ death marooned him in a series of unrealised intentions, but I see no reason to doubt he would have seen them through. Such things never occurred to Gore: he was always lonely – or rather, apart.
But we mustn’t grumble – not least because we can have the best of both worlds. We have Gore Vidal’s marvellous books, and these give enormous clarity about the people who always will rule over us, and make the decisions which, for better or worse, define our lives. We must also empathise with him, even if empathy is something almost wholly absent in his life. Writing is difficult: it takes an enormous amount of time and energy, and sacrifice. And a large part of philanthropy is to become embroiled in administration, and writers will always shy away from that: it might deprive their latest book of its best paragraph. Writing is selfishness on a scale grander than any non-writer can begin to contemplate. And none I think was more selfish than Vidal.
The theme of the hedgehog and the fox dates back to Archilochus. It was given recent expression by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). Berlin divided writers into those who knew one thing and whose careers can be boiled down to that thing., and those with a broader He gave as examples of the first Plato, Dostoyevsky, and Pascal. Darius, in his unheralded way, is classic hedgehog. He knows quite simply the following: other people matter, and therefore what I’ll do is show them that I know that. Vidal is classic fox. He knows a lot; in fact, he can sometimes appear to know everything. But omniscience turns out to be valueless if it cannot cohere into insight. It’s a pose, and its effect is to scatter the good things of the world in favour of a self-satisfied egoism.
In 2023, we need Vidal. We need him to understand literature, Trump, Biden, inflation, empire, war. We can read Lincoln to understand the Civil War. We can read the essays to know how to think for yourself. We can consult Creation to understand the origins of religion.
But you can do all that, and still remember the man who died far too young – almost forgotten far from home, but dreaming of home.