Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Flourish—but not forever." On the late Gore Vidal's longtime kinship with Christopher Isherwood.

Gore Vidal, pictured around 1945. Photo
by Carl Van Vechten.
Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at College of the Desert

In 1947, Gore Vidal sent a copy of his soon-to-be-published novel, The City and the Pillar, to a number of established writers. Christopher Isherwood was one of them.

Vidal, then 22, and his publishers expected negative press due to the book’s frank depiction of homosexuality. Isherwood, then 43, sent an appreciative letter to Vidal, but objected to the novel’s violent ending, in which the protagonist kills his high school obsession. For Isherwood, the book’s climax reinforced the public’s notion that gay men could not be happy and could not love one another. The American edition of The City and the Pillar was already published, however, and Vidal did not act on Isherwood’s advice. Years later, Vidal would revise the ending.

A few months later, Vidal and Isherwood met by chance in a Paris café and formed a friendship that would last for decades. By then The City and the Pillar was a best-seller, as was Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. With Tennesee Williams, whose A Streetcar Named Desire was a smash on Broadway, Vidal and his rival Capote formed a trio of controversial writers taking American culture by storm. Isherwood was the wise gay uncle who befriended them all. Isherwood engaged with Vidal, giving serious advice on manuscripts and publications, for more than twenty years. About Vidal’s autobiographical fourth novel, Season of Comfort (1949), Isherwood wrote, “I read it in two sittings. What one likes about your work is that one feels you are telling the truth. It is very reliable, the way Maugham is. And this book is better, much better, than the others, in its style. Nice and clean. No mannerisms. No drool.” However, Isherwood did not approve of the characterization of the parents in the novel: “In my capacity of old Uncle Chris, I must tell you that you can do better—oh, very, very, very much better—than [this] sort of thing.”

Isherwood and Vidal formed a mutual support society, encouraging each other in challenging middle-American values of the twentieth century. At the same time as the publication of the Kinsey report (1948), writers and publishers were addressing issues of sexuality in many forms, helped along by the burgeoning trade in pulp paperback novels. The City and the Pillar was published in pulp, as was Other Voices, Other Rooms and Isherwood’s The World in the Evening (1954). Vidal and Isherwood met often, as Vidal frequently visited Los Angeles and worked in movies. They designated pet names for each other derived from The Wind in the Willows: Isherwood was Mole, slowly working underground; Vidal was Rat, working productively above ground, engaged with the world.

In 1960, Vidal ran for Congress from New York and his play The Best Man was on Broadway. Isherwood seems to have left the Old Uncle Chris role behind by then and wrote on a postcard to Vidal, “We saw The Best Man last night. What a truly brilliant and serious and fun play.” Vidal campaigned from his home in Duchess County, in a safely Republican district. Yet Isherwood feared losing Vidal as a literary companion. “Don’t desert the arts too much—you are needed badly: the only man in America whose sneer has integrity … How is your campaign? We think & talk of you so often.” Vidal did not win but earned more votes than any previous Democratic candidate.

In the summer of 1963, Vidal was in Los Angeles for the filming of The Best Man. He read the second draft of A Single Man and discussed it with Isherwood. In September, Isherwood wrote in his diary that he had informed Vidal that he would dedicate the novel to Vidal, and that “this pleased him.” Later Isherwood wrote in a letter to Vidal, “I’m afraid you may be disappointed because I left in all of the homosexual aggression; it seems necessary for my character. At least, I think so. However, I have followed your advice and quite rewritten the scene with Charlotte, his woman friend. I think the new ending of it may amuse you.” After dinner with Charlotte, George goes to a gay bar and encounters his student Kenny.

Vidal reciprocated a few years later when he dedicated Myra Breckenridge (1967) to Isherwood. According to Vidal biographer Fred Kaplan, the book “continued the discussion on sex and gender the two writers had begun in 1947.” Isherwood was thrilled and honored by the dedication and called the novel Vidal’s “very best satirical work. It’s wildly funny and wildly sensible. Even when I was laughing most I was overcome by your wisdom and seriousness.”

Christopher Isherwood, pictured in 1973.
Photo by Allan Warren.
Truman Capote died on August 25, 1984. Christopher Isherwood turned 80 the next day. Vidal wrote to Isherwood: “Truman gone & Mole 80, all in a day—What is the President in the sky up to?” Remembering a recent visit to Santa Monica, Vidal continued, “I couldn’t have been happier to see you clutching Time by the, as it were, short hairs, in LA. … Oh, Mole, flourish—but not forever—I need not recall to you Tithonus’s complaints.” Isherwood died 18 months later, aged 81. Vidal died in July, aged 86. The Best Man is currently enjoying a successful revival on Broadway.

Flourish, Rat.

But not forever.


James Berg is dean of liberal arts and sciences at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California. He is editor of Isherwood on Writing and co-editor, with Chris Freeman, of Conversations with Christopher Isherwood; The Isherwood Century; and a forthcoming book on Christopher Isherwood in the 21st century with UMP.


  1. Who knew Gore Vidal (the playwright of The Best Man) was a good friend with Christopher Isherwood (the author of A Single Man)?

  2. Thanks for this! An important literary friendship, less a rivalry than MOST of Vidal's "friendships" in the literary world. A thoughtful piece.

  3. Good to know their friendship and Vidal was really dashing in that photo!

  4. I thought your piece was fascinating, Jim. I certainly hadn't know about their rich relationship, and even the level of intimacy that is suggested by the nicknames Mole and Rat. Thanks for expanding my horizons!

  5. This friendship between Isherwood and Vidal increases my interest in each of those men. I love to see how pieces of the world move around and combine. Sort of like physics, only cuter! The nickname thing is really surprising. Isherwood seemed like such a curmudgeon towards the end of his life but he wasn't really, was he?

  6. Hi there ! I can clearly see that you deeply understand what you are telling about over here. Do you have a degree or an education which is somehow connected with the subject of your post? Thank you very much in advance for your answer.