Myra Breckinridge book
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"Myra Breckinridge has been thought by some to be a Commie, not the worst thing to be known as…

… I am convinced that any attractive television personality who wanted to become our dictator would have… full support.

On the one hand, I am intellectually devoted to the idea of the old America. I believe in justice… Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage."

from Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge [1968]

by Rich Grzesiak

"I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess." With those seemingly innocuous words, novelist Gore Vidal unleashed a body blow to conventional American literature some 18 years ago which readers and academicians are still feeling today. In one short book he cemented for all time his reputation as a satirist with radical ideas about sex, politics, religion, literature, democracy, you name it.

That is not to say that the world did not know Vidal before the advent of Myra Breckinridge . He somehow scraped along for years, first as a "war novelist" (Williwaw), then as a scandalous novelist (The City and The Pillar), later a television script writer. Finally, in the late 1950's, after a long period when he earned barely seven thousand dollars a year, he had a Broadway hit play on his hands (The Best Man), one of his plays was sold to the movies (Visit to A Small Planet) and a presidential candidate by the name of John F. Kennedy invited him to dinner.

While those soon-to-be White House dinners did not last long (GV was thrown out one night after the late Robert F. Kennedy allegedly called him a "faggot"), Vidal's creativity did. In the late 1960's, after successfully completing two best-selling historical novels (Washington, D.C. and Julian), he holed up in Rome — soon to be one of his new homes — and in the unbelievably short period of 30 days, he gave birth, as it were, to the literary creation which the world knows now as Myra Breckinridge , a work which, in its cunning audacity, is quite unlike any other in American literature. (Both Myra Breckinridge and its sequel, Myron, are now available for the first time in a single volume from Random House, $19.95/hardcover).

In the summer of 1986 I caught up with Vidal while he was sunning himself at La Rondinaia, his villa in the Italian countryside near Ravello. AT&T provided the linkage. We spoke shortly before the recent Supreme Court ruling on a Georgia sodomy law (which he later denounced).

We talked of AIDS and politics and literature — surely subjects dear to the heart of Myra Breckinridge. He also reminisced about two recently deceased friends, Merle Miller and Christopher Isherwood (to whom Myra Breckinridge was dedicated, just as Isherwood's A Single Man was dedicated to Vidal).

Rich Grzesiak is a freelance journalist. He contributed regularly to Boston's Bay Windows and Philadelphia's au courant. He was the book columnist for the Society Hill weekly The South Street Star . He is a former Senior Editor of the Philadelphia Gay News, where his editing of cultural/entertainment pieces recently won the Gay & Lesbian Press Association's Wallace Hamilton Award]. © 1986 by Rich Grzesiak. All rights reserved.
RG = Rich Grzesiak; GV = Gore Vidal

RG: I want to begin on the somber subject of AIDS. Three years ago you told my friend John Mitzel that you were very suspicious about the initial transmission of AIDS, especially in the United States. Both you and novelist John Rechy expressed some fascination [1983] with conspiracy theories.

GV: Well I always enjoy conspiracy theories… [but] there is no evidence thus far.

I look at it from an entirely different perspective from people today. You must remember that I went into the army in 1943. And the Army was a sexual riot —  hetero-, homo-, bi-, whatever you wanted. It was quite extraordinary, the Second World War, in that it more than anything else changed the United States' attitudes toward sex for good or for ill.

Remember, we didn't have penicillin until my last year in the Army, 1945-46. People died all the time of venereal disease. If you got clap —  I'm not going to go into anything personal here —  among other things they stuck an umbrella up your cock. After it was up there, they opened it, pulled it down and screened out the inside. That was just part of the cure for gonorrhea.

For people my age sex could indeed kill you and so what? Obviously, AIDS is a bad thing; obviously, it is awful if you get it; it was awful in the old days if you got syphilis and died of it. The idea that death is un-American, which is really beginning to crop up, is just all wrong.

This is very much on my mind because here in Ravello we were hit very seriously by [the nuclear accident at] Chernobyl. On May 2nd there was a powerful tempest straight from that unhappy city, and we were "cooked," as the anti-nuclear people say.

We have Cesium 137 in the soil here whose half life is 30 years.

We're all coughing and hacking and blood is coming up — all quite aware of mortality…
RG: Sounds like Italy of the 14th century…

GV: … yes, it's Boccaccio time, and we all know it, and it's very unpleasant.

So all the AIDS hysteria is really just hatred of fags, that's all it's about. It's a very minor disease. It's a ghastly one… . As belly rubbing comes back into style, who knows just what variations people will think of?

RG: You mention the "hatred of fags," which is a long-standing American theme. How would you assess the political strength of the gay community in the United States today? And given what many people perceive to be the very negative [political] impact of the spread of AIDS, what strategies would you recommend politically?

GV: Would to god that I knew. It certainly falls into the hands of the dread Podhoretz's and also the Jesus Christ-ers and it seems like god is at work.

But you can also point out to them that the good god let off the thing at Chernobyl, that god dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. It ties in with all of their prejudices.

One of the funniest things I always find when reading right wing literature is [the assertion that] the fags are always asking for special rights. I have never seen one that anybody ever asked for except that the 14th Amendment extend to people of that persuasion.

The far right are always into special rights. I've often had [to confront] them on television. You ask them, well what do you mean? And then they start the battle and talk about god's "law."

But I don't know what strategy to use except to simply say that this [AIDS] is in Africa and heterosexual, and that brings out their anti-black feelings. They have some fun with that one.

AIDS is a weapon overall. As the country drifts rightward toward what my friend Norman Mailer calls "musical fascism," they're going to go after every minority that questions in any way the people who run the country.

RG: From California comes news that the LaRoucheites are putting a referendum on the California ballot this fall whose goal is being taken very seriously. If passed, it would require the quarantining of AIDS patients in that state.

GV: It won't pass; I know the state that well. But it will get a lot of support down in Orange County…

There is a strong fascist movement in the country and part of my alarm [arises] over my former Jewish, former liberal friends joining in with the fascists in order to get support for Israel. That's one of the things that stuns me because these people are as anti-Semitic as they are anti-fag and anti-black.

I think that's sweeping across the country. They have a president now who is complaisant . There's trouble ahead… .I must be very careful because I could be put into jail for inciting to terrorism, but I would take the position that at any point when a majority group decides to punish a minority for religious or whatever reason[s], then I am one with Thomas Jefferson [who said] that the tree of liberty must be fed with the blood of tyrants.

So I am for fighting… whoever is motivated wins. The crazies aren't.

Our musical comedy fascism is flabby: we can't win any wars, we can't make a car anybody wants to buy. The place is a failure now. We're Number Two in the world after Japan. We're dropping further and further down. We can't win a war against anybody.

I'd like to forget all about the Empire and just go back to educating people and stop worrying about things that are none of our business.

RG: You claimed earlier that you see the conservative trends persisting here. Yet pollsters claim that President Reagan's popularity is more personal than ideological. Still others, like historian Arthur Schlesinger, claim that we are merely living through a conservative cycle about to yield to liberalism…

GV: Yes, I always refer to him as "Arthur ('it's a cycle') Schlesinger" or even "Arthur ('you see this pendulum') Schlesinger."

Well, of course, this, too, will pass but it does not necessarily mean it's going to right itself in the natural conservative/liberal, conservative/liberal flow. The United States has always been conservative, so it's really more like conservative to reactionary.

As we face true failure in the world, which we now confront economically, then it's more like reactionary versus fascist, and the troubles really begin. Scapegoats are needed; fags are right up there in the first category.

Yes, Reagan's popularity is largely personal and based on the manipulation of television and that is something which, while I've been doing it all my life, I don't understand how you absolutely brainwash people so they will vote against their own interests time and time again simply because they like a man's smile.

Beyond Reagan's personal appeal, there is an ideology in that he only tells you good news — he's Hal Happiness.

RG: Pollsters have found that the youth in this country have demonstrated consistently conservative political tendencies. What do you make of this for our political future?

GV: Well, the demographics are that they don't vote at all anyway, and the ones who do vote like daddy and they're very right wing.

They're interested in getting jobs and have no feelings about others. Remember, the Sixties were a rare moment when people were shaken out of themselves. By and large, people don't, and you can't hold it against them in that they're acting in a normal way.

RG: Reagan approximates what you observed when your novel Messiah was published [1957], that if an American dictator were to come to power he would be a smiling, clean-shaven Arthur Godfrey and not some morose, mustachioed Hitler.

GV: Well, I was right! [Reagan] doesn't have the energy to be one… but he's totally ignorant and no one seems disturbed by that.

The people who deal with him are astonished at how little he knows and how little he cares — he's entirely The Salesman.

After all, half the people don't vote. We don't have political parties: we have one political party with two right wings called the Democratic and the Republican.

We're not allowed to have politics! We've never had a labor movement! Can you imagine an industrialized country the size of the United States which has the weakest and smallest labor movement in the entire Western world? And it's declining even as we speak, down to about 18% of the work force.

RG: To cure these ills, you once advocated a new constitutional convention.

GV: I'm still all for that, even though the liberals hate it because they say that they will take away the Bill of Rights. I say, good! Then we'll have a civil war and we'll re-establish them and they will be vivid and meaningful. We will win because there are more of us.

Liberals are essentially so guilty: they think they are a minority because somehow they're wrong, or because they don't love money enough… they seem to be less dedicated than the true right wing that makes Coors beer.

RG: So if film director John Milius invited you to reshape his right wing fantasy screenplay of Red Dawn, your plotline wouldn't see the commies taking us over. Instead we'd have a civil war and all of these problems would be sorted out.

GV: Well, I would say no to Mr. Milius… he doesn't know what communism is about.

My favorite moment from my 1982 quest for the California Senatorial nomination was when I appeared before an audience in Orange County and some woman got up and said, "I have two questions to ask you. First, what can I as an average housewife do to combat communism and two, what is communism, Mr. Vidal?"

She had no idea what she was talking about… thought it was something awful.

RG: Do you see the Democrats moving back into the White House in January of 1989?

GV: No one on earth could possibly care!

Mondale would have been the same president as Reagan except he wouldn't have felt so good because he does fret about issues. He'd be like Carter: you'd see him worrying about things that people wouldn't know about.

I'll tell you in one sentence how you can tell that something new is on the scene. It's the defense budget.

In the last election Reagan wanted to increase it by 13% factoring out inflation. By contrast, Mondale was the traitor and commie lover who wanted only an 8% increase.

My hero Jesse Jackson wanted to cut things by 25 to 30%. The first candidate who says that is a serious candidate. The others all belong to the same party who have been giving you the same wonderful government we've been enjoying for the last 30 years.

RG: One of my favorite right wingers is Attorney General Meese, who looks like a refugee from one of those 1950's TV sitcoms. His commission on pornography has been attempting to intimidate the retailers of sexually suggestive works.

Do you anticipate any attempts to ban the reissue of Myra /Myron?

GV: Meese's like Grady Sutton, the great Southern sissy in the W. C. Fields pictures. [Imitating Sutton]: "Now, Mr. Fields, I just don' understand… " [Imitating Fields]: "I've told you my boy, you've got too much of the tomboy in you."

Well, there's too much of the tomboy in me, too. [If the Meese pornography commission came after me], I'd love to take that one to the U.S. Supreme Court, because after all these years Myra Breckinridge has acquired so many accolades from critics all around the world from Harold Bloom to the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino.

They would really have to take on Literature itself, something I'm sure they'd be happy to do. But they could lose… and look very silly.

Actually, I won the first round with the right wingers in 1968 by not allowing any review copies of Myra Breckinridge for a full six months when it was first released. It was already on the bestseller lists before anyone even got around to reviewing it.

RG: Even when Myra Breckinridge was reviewed, you complained that it was completely misunderstood by American critics.

GV: Well, they're not critics. They're school teachers or journalists or somebody's wife or boyfriend. Book reviewing has never been taken seriously in the United States and no one should take it seriously. I never have. They're all pretty dumb.

When Myra Breckinridge was published, Time magazine asked, "Has literary decency fallen so low?" There was a lot of hysteria.

RG: As I recall, when Myra Breckinridge debuted, you received many strange reactions, some fairly off the wall…

GV: Oh, yeah… I got a set of photographs from a guy who had been turned into a lady showing the entire operation step-by-step. It was absolutely sickening.

I know nothing about transsexualists and I'd never even met one outside of the dread Candy Darling who used to corner me at parties and exclaim, "I was born to play Myra Breckinridge!"

By contrast, one of the young writers who did an early screenplay for the movie version of Myra Breckinridge once reported to me that he showed the script to Raquel Welch, who opined that she, too, was born to play Myra. "I always wanted to be a star," she told him, "that's all I ever thought about: movies, stardom."

Yeah, he told her, but what about the part of the role that needs to be a man? She said, "What?" and just blacked that part out.

RG: My theory about the overwhelming initial success of Myra Breckinridge is that the flower children picked it up…

GV: Do you think they did? I found that all kinds of weird and not so weird people did. It amused an awful lot of hetero studs. And it became simultaneously and contradictorily a kind of marching anthem for the feminists  anything to shove up a stud's ass, you know, brought a smile to their face.

Of course in Europe it is very highly regarded.

RG: How did the rest of the world's readers greet Myra Breckinridge?

GV: The northern countries didn't like it: Scandinavia dislikes it intensely, the Germans don't get the joke.

The Latins, Brits (who are perverse beyond belief) love it; the French, who enjoyed my Duluth, later revived Myra and seem to have gotten it the second time around. The Hispanics adore my books. I understand that Duluth was the #1 book being read in the women's prison system in Lima, Peru. They obviously had had all they could stand of okra and prunes. I read about all the riots going on and think, at last I have found my audience.

In samizdat Myra Breckinridge has penetrated the Iron Curtain. I am told that I am currently the most popular living American writer being read in the Soviet Union.

But one must remember that they read only my historical novels [Burr, 1876, etc.]. My publisher there told me that "whatever government we may have a hundred years from now, I promise you one thing: Myra Breckinridge will never be published in Russia."

Well, they do know their folks.

RG: Without Myra Breckinridge, could there have been either a La Cage aux Folles or Victor/Victoria?

GV: Yes, I think you're right on both. Myra shares a lot, after all, with the original spirit of Saturday Night Live.

RG: But as far as your own books are concerned, could there have been a Myra Breckinridge without The City and The Pillar?

GV: No, I don't see any connection, although the N.Y. Review of Books recently referred to that "furtive prairie fire" set off by The City and The Pillar.

RG: When you initially composed Myra Breckinridge you told one interviewer that it was as if the voices inspiring Joan of Arc came to you. What changes have the voices recommended in this combined reissue (with Myron)?

GV: Most of the changes were made so that the two books would conform to one another in a single volume.

I kind of copped out in that I dropped the names of the Supreme Court justices from Myron — a funny joke at the time [1974]. I just went back to the words that the justices' were substituted for: fuck, cock, asshole et cetera.

In Myron, there is no more Blackmun. No more "we'll pull back the covering of the rehn, now Myra, to reveal the quist."

It reads better with the revisions and, as the two books are side by side, you can't have one kind of joke in one without the other. I also removed some of the topical references, cut back on some of the Nixon/Watergate paraphernalia.

RG: You've vowed repeatedly that you would never watch the film version of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. Have you honored that promise? And will there ever be a filmed sequel to Myra?

GV: Well, one can always hope, as that is beyond my control.

However, my novel Kalki is alive again. Christopher Lambeth, a French actor in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, has been signed to play a part.

RG: When your friend gay writer Merle Miller died recently The N.Y. Times had the temerity to claim in his obit that he had no survivors, despite the well known fact that he lived with the writer David W. Elliott for years. Were you surprised by either their coverage or his death?

GV: The Times would have loved to have said that it was AIDS.

I knew Merle for years. During the late 1940's he used to love going around denouncing Capote and me as sexual degenerates. He was then a leading young novelist and married and had written a war novel called That Winter.

One night I was walking down Manhattan's Lexington Avenue [1948/1949] and I realized that I was being followed. I paused and this bespectacled man came up to me and said, "Do you have a light?"

One of those great opening lines. I said to him, "Aren't you Merle Miller?" He said 'no' and fled.

Miller was then working at Harper's magazine. One day I rang up Russell Lions, who was the head of Harper's and I said to him, I have an idea. So I went over to see him and in the course of conversation I asked if Merle Miller was working there.

"Oh, yes, would you like to meet him?" Lions asked. And there he was —  one of those gorgeous confrontations. Later we became friends and he dropped the shit.

RG: Christopher Isherwood died recently…

GV: I'll give you his last word. I don't know whether they were his Last, Last, but they were his last words to me and one of the last coherent sentences he ever came up with.

He was very sad, and icy cold, and going in and out of consciousness. Don Bachardy brought me to him, and we sat on the bed and gossiped

Sometimes he would remember who I was and forget. Eventually, during this do-I-wake-or-sleep-syndrome, we talked about England and he brightened up. He had not been there in some years but he had made his peace with the English.

I said to him, you know, they are such fuck-ups. They've made no preparations for when the North Sea oil runs out and they're not competitive economically. They're a nation of grasshoppers.

Christopher swiveled towards me and said, "So what's wrong with grasshoppers?"

That was a nice epitaph.

RG: Will Gore Vidal ever run for political office again?

GV: No . It may run for me but I shall run from it.