Sympathy For the Devil: Michael Mewshaw Remembers His 40 Year Friendship with Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal once said of himself: “I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” It is this impression of the great author, political commentator, public intellectual, and giant of postwar American letters that has calcified in the public imagination: caustic, chilly, imperious, even cruel—a provocateur whose famous one-liners were as quotable as they were withering. When Vidal died in 2012, as Michael Mewshaw writes, “the stock footage of his life, many frames of it lifted intact from his own writing, got recycled in obituaries and eulogies. Canned anecdotes, polished quips, lordly pronouncements, and great arias of misinformation set off echoes far too deafening to permit countervailing voices.”
Mewshaw’s new memoir, Sympathy for the Devil, offers a more complex, nuanced, and human portrait of Vidal than what we get from the countless interviews and sound bites, from Vidal’s own memoirs, and even from his full, authorized biography. Mewshaw first met Vidal in the 1970s, when Mewshaw had just arrived in Rome as a fledgling expat writer. A mutual friend put them in contact, and Mewshaw, aware of Vidal’s reputation, had braced for the worst as he approached the senior author’s opulent Largo Argentina penthouse. To his surprise, their meeting turned out to be the beginning of an abiding friendship that would last until the end of Vidal’s life—four decades. Mewshaw remembers a man who could indeed be arrogant, abrasive, and cold, but also generous and surprisingly vulnerable—a loyal friend, a supporter of younger and less successful writers, and a devoted nurse to his cancer-ridden dog, Rat (even as this repulsed his A-list dinner party guests). Mewshaw also witnessed firsthand Vidal’s struggle with alcoholism and severe depression that has been little considered—indeed, almost unknown—until now.
Sympathy for the Devil, by turns sparkling and sobering, is not just distinguished by Mewshaw’s proximity to Vidal. Mewshaw himself is a wonderful writer who brings to his subject a journalist’s sharp eye and a novelist’s gift for storytelling (not to mention an excellent memory—for fans of high literary gossip there is some catnip in these pages). His own prolific forty-plus-year career includes eight books of nonfiction, eleven novels, and hundreds of articles on books, tennis, and travel for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications.
Alan Cheuse has called him “the best novelist in America that nobody knows,” and The San Francisco Chronicle, “perhaps the best American writer you’ve never heard of.” In Sympathy for the Devil, he has written, as Edmund White puts it, “the sort of focused, sober study Vidal himself never would have had the modesty or patience to Michael Mewshaw’s more-than-four-decade career spans fiction, nonfiction, literary criticism, and investigative journalism. He is the author of, among other titles, the nonfiction works Life for Death, Short Circuit, and Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa; the novel Year of the Gun; and the memoirs Do I Owe You Something? and If You Could See Me Now. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews, and literary profiles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Newsweek, Harper’s Magazine, Granta, and many other international outlets. During the winter he lives in Key West, Florida, with his wife, Linda, and he spends the rest of the year traveling in Europe and Africa.