Gore Vidal was at best a snob, at worst a snot, depending on how you assess his patronizing demeanor. He looked and sounded patrician, but stopped short of being a dandy (witness his perennial gray pants and blue blazer). He was, however, a lot of other things, as two new biographies attest.

They are Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini, his friend and literary executor, a responsible, solidly researched, traditional biography; and Michael Mewshaw’s Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship, breezier, sassier, more anecdotal. Taken together, as they should be, they constitute a fully rounded portrait of a witty, trenchant, mischievous, talented but often superficial and arrogant writer and man.

Compelling essayist but uneven fictionist, he did also have his good sides:...


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