Brain Pickings

No Dream-Laden Adolescent: Anaïs Nin Meets Young Gore Vidal, 1945

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“Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.”

Last month, we lost celebrated screenwriter, author, political activist, and professional contrarian Gore Vidal. Though much has been written about him both before and since his death, by far the most poignant and revealing portrait of the man beneath the icon comes from an unlikely source — Anaïs Nin, specifically the fourth volume of her diary, 1944-1947 (public library), from whence this beautiful letter on the importance of emotional excess in writing and creativity came.

In November of 1945, 42-year-old Nin met a young Gore Vidal, aged 20, at a lecture. Even their first encounter exudes Vidal’s unswerving and purposeful character:

Kimon Friar asked me to attend his lecture on love at the Y.M.H.A. so I went yesterday. I was in a depressed mood. I wore a black dress with long sleeves half-covering the hands, and a small heart-shaped black hat, with a pearl edging, shaped like Mary Stuart’s hat. Kimon lectured at the head of a long table. At the foot of the table, one chair was empty. I took it. Maya Deren sat a few chairs away. Next to me sat a handsome young lieutenant. During a pause I leaned over to speak with Maya. She said: ‘You look dramatic.’ I said: ‘I feel like Mary Stuart, who will soon be beheaded.’ The lieutenant leaned over and introduced himself: ‘I am Warrant Officer Gore Vidal. I am a descendant of Troubador Vidal.’ Later he admitted that he had guessed who I was. He is luminous and manly. Near the earth. He is not nebulous, but clear and bright, a contrast to Leonard. He talks. He is active, alert, poised. He is tall, slender, cool eyes and sensual mouth. Kimon was lecturing on Plato’s symposium of love. When it was finished, Vidal and I talked a little more. He is twenty years old, and the youngest editor at E. P. Dutton. His own novel is appearing in the spring. He knows Under a Glass Bell. He asked when he might visit me.

And visit he did — at first, timidly, shortly after their initial encounter, and then with persistent regularity that gave Nin keen insight into both his intensity and his vulnerability:

He came another time, alone. He tells me he will one day be president of the United States. He identifies with Richard the Second, the king-poet. He is full of pride, conceals his sensitiveness, and oscillates between hardness and softness. He is dual. He is capable of feeling, but I sense a distortion in his vision. He has great assurance in the world, talks easily, is a public figure, shines. He can do clever take-offs, imitate public figures. He walks in easily, he is no dream-laden adolescent. His eyes are hazel; clear, open, mocking.

Gore Vidal at age 23, November 14, 1948 (Library of Congress)

He embodied, not without self-awareness, the way in which our early experiences of attachment shape our adult relationships:

Gore said: ‘I do not want to be involved, ever. I live detached from my present life. At home our relationships are casual. My father married a young model. I like casual relationships. When you are involved you get hurt.’

Nin, herself trained in psychoanalysis, was quick to dissect Vidal’s emotional patterning:

Gore came. We slide easily into a sincere, warm talk. He dropped his armor, his defenses. ‘I don’t like women. They are either silly, giggly, like the girls in my set I’m expected to marry, or they are harsh and strident masculine intellectuals. You are neither.’ Intellectually he knows everything. Psychologically he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children. The insecurity which followed the second break he made, at nineteen, after a quarrel with his mother. His admiration, attachment, hatred, and criticalness. Nor is it pity, he says. He is proud that she is beautiful and loved, yet he condemns her possessiveness, her chaos, her willfulness, and revolts against it. He knows this. But he does not know why he cannot love.

[…]

He moves among men and women of achievement. He was cheated of a carefree childhood, of a happy adolescence. He was rushed into sophistication and into experience with the surface of himself, but the deeper self was secret and lonely. ‘My demon is pride and arrogance,’ he said. ‘One you will never see.’ I receive from him gentleness and trust. He first asked me not to write down what he would say. He carries his father’s diplomatic brief case with his own poems and novel in it. He carries his responsibilities seriously, is careful not to let his one-night encounters know his name, his family. As future president of the United States, he protects his reputation, entrusts me with state secrets to lighten his solitude. Later he wants to write it all down, as we want to explore his secret labyrinth together, to find the secret of his ambivalence. To explore. Yet life has taken charge to alter the situation again. He, the lonely one, has trusted woman for the first time, and we start the journey of our friendship, as badly loved children who raised themselves, both stronger and weaker by it.

But Nin’s greatest wisdom shines, once again, in seeing past the hard intellectual edge of the public persona and into the soft core of the private person:

Gore fights battles with threatening forces, faces critics, is vulnerable. Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.

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