In this weeks TLS James Campbell reviews Sympathy for the Devil, a memoir of Gore Vidal by novelist Michael Mewshaw. The review mentions a 1978 dinner party in Italy to which Mewshaw invited Vidal and his partner Howard Austen. The occasion was to honor John D’Arms, newly appointed director of the American Academy in Rome, and his wife Teresa, Waugh’s daughter. Campbell does not start well on this anecdote when he refers to Teresa as a novelist, confusing her with her sister-in-law, Auberon’s wife, Teresa Onslow Waugh, who is, indeed, a novelist.
Vidal began the evening by ordering vodka, sending up warning lights for Austen who gently urged him to switch to his usual choice of wine. Ignoring Austen’s advice, Vidal raised the subject of “how alcohol affects different writers…Whenever I read Faulkner and he rambles on about ‘the ancient avatar of the evening sun slipping down the crepuscular sky’ I know he was hitting the sauce. On the other hand, your sainted father,” he said, nodding to Teresa, “became meaner and more concise the drunker he got. Every sentence had a dagger in it.” Teresa’s response, if any, is not reported.
Campbell at this point refers to Vidal’s own memoirs, Palimpsest, 1995), where he had mentioned that Waugh “once claimed not to know who [Vidal] was at someone else’s dinner table.” In those memoirs, Vidal explained that he had “read with pleasure all of Waugh” but found him “singularly detestable.” He went on to describe Waugh as “that self-invented English Catholic gentleman…proud esquire of a smidgen of English dirt.” (Palimpsest, pp. 204, 312).
Both writers loved this sort of feud, and Waugh, if he had still been alive, could certainly have given as good as he got. Vidal’s claim to an elevated social standing came through his social-climbing mother’s second husband, his step-father, Hugh Auchincloss, not his own forebears, so he was no less an arriviste than Waugh. And as demonstrated in Mewshaw’s memoir, Vidal could be as mean a drunk as Waugh. On the evening in question, after Vidal insulted another woman present, Howard quickly rose to the occasion and took him home.