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Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  297 ratings  ·  63 reviews
An intimate, authorized yet totally frank biography of Gore Vidal (1925–2012), one of the most accomplished, visible, and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century 

The product of thirty years of friendship and conversation, Jay Parini’s Empire of Self digs behind the glittering surface of Gore Vidal’s colorful career to reveal the complex em
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published October 13th 2015 by Doubleday
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3.93  · 
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 ·  297 ratings  ·  63 reviews

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Gore Vidal was hilarious. But he wouldn't have found this book so. His ego was transcendingly enormous and he liked public recognition too. When Parini who knew him very well went into Vidal's writing room for the first time he was surprised to see pictures of the author and peons of praise covering the walls. He asked Vidal what it was all about and was told, "I like to be reminded of just who I am."


I read the abridged BBC version. It was genius. I've just ordered the hardback. Sadly the
A balanced, entertaining, and well researched biography written by a friend, writing peer, and neighbor of Vidal during the decades of his residence in Italy. Having loved Vidal’s “Burr” and “Lincoln”, I became curious about their origins from the man projected to us over the decades in the media as a witty public persona and outspoken political commentator. Many see these two works, along with “Julian” from his Roman Empire set, as his most significant accomplishments. Others appreciate more hi ...more
Dec 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writers, biography
Jay Parini, a long term friend of Gore Vidal, was given full access to his papers and circle of friends for interview. Because this is a posthumous publication, it is more candid than most authorized biographies. It is personalized with chapters introduced with a short reminiscence.

You come to appreciate Vidal’s self-education that began at the side of his blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore. Vidal was with him on the Senate floor and in meetings at home and elsewhere. While he rubbed s
Jan 06, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

- Gore Vidal

Vidal's favourite photograph of himself, by Jane Brown

My first inkling of the existence of a writer going by the exotic sounding name of Gore Vidal (1925 - 2012) came about in a rather circuitous, some would say unorthodox, manner. An odd 8 years ago this tender youth – and budding film geek with a penchant for all things transgressive – got his paws on the fully uncut, 156 minute version of the infamous Cali

Description: The life of Gore Vidal was an amazingly full one; a life of colourful incident, famous people and lasting achievements that calls out for careful evocation and examination. Through Jay Parini's eyes and words comes an accessible, entertaining story that puts the life and times of one of the great American figures of the post-war era into context, that introduces the author to a generation who didn't know him before and looks behind-the-sc
During his lifetime, Gore Vidal established a fine reputation as a very versatile, inventive writer. Novels, tele-scripts (in the early days of TV in the 1950s, Vidal made a name for himself as a scriptwriter for many of the live teledramas of the era), movie scripts, plays (one of them, "The Best Man" was a Broadway hit in 1960), and essays. Vidal was also a wit, polemicist, gadfly, and socio-political critic unlike any other. Whether you encountered him on any of the popular TV talk shows (e.g ...more
I have read a lot of literary biographies, in fact biographies of writers are the ones I read and like the most. And this book is one of the best I have ever read.

I dislike biographies of writers which spend most of their time revealing plots of the novels written and critically examining the books that have been written. I would rather read the books myself to find these matters out. Parini does a masterful job of sticking to the biographical facts. While he obviously mentions Vidal's books, he
MJ Nicholls
Senryu Review:

Bloated windbag or
raconteur and searing left
critic? You decide.
Doubleday  Books
May 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
Empire of Self is a stunner. Jay Parini has managed to collect and share all the most exciting highlights of Gore Vidal’s life, which is no easy feat as the highlights abound. The rich and interesting life of Vidal seems almost unreal—it’s as if from the day he was born each moment he lived was a story in and of itself. Gore Vidal knew everyone and everyone knew him, for better or worse. Parini’s personal experiences with Gore craft the book into a loving testament to Vidal’s character, and his ...more
Oct 14, 2015 rated it liked it
About as fair a biography as we are apt to receive on Gore Vidal--which isn't to say it is fair enough. Mr. Parini eschews the more formal, comprehensive approach taken by Fred Kaplan in his heftier, earlier Gore Vidal, preferring instead to give a series of brief surveys of the more notable incidents and acquaintances of Vidal's life. Unlike Kaplan, however Parini was a friend and common acquaintance of Vidal's over the last 3 decades (give or take) of his life, and that lends his anecdotes and ...more
From BBC radio 4 - Book of the Week:
The authorised behind-the-scenes biography of one of America's great and most under-rated man of letters, the cosmopolitan and wickedly satirical Vidal, from a devoted yet candid old friend.

In Episode 1, the author Jay Parini recalls his first encounter with Gore and describes a privileged, lonely childhood and the birth of the political, social and sexual interests that would last a lifetime.

In Episode 3, despite commercial success, lacklustre reviews of The
Jan 03, 2016 rated it it was ok
this book was the third biography I read in Dec 2015. It is decently written but lacks drive largely due to the insipidity (in there such a word?) of the topic. Mr. Parini knew Vidal, and admired him, which comes across clearly, but the tome lacked "oomph"-- I mean, how many times can you say Vidal was bright, witty, handsome, etc etc, but fail to provide any examples, much less insight? Nevertheless, I am interested in following up with some of Vidal's later works (e.g., Burr) having read "Juli ...more
Howard Cincotta
Sep 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Gore Vidal’s greatest work of art was his own life. He certainly created many great fictional characters — the pagan emperor Julian and bisexual Myra Breckinridge, among others — but none matched the expanse and variety of his own. Biographer Jay Parini, a close friend for decades (no mean achievement in itself) is perfectly equipped to capture both Vidal’s massive egoism and substantial achievement.

Early in his career, Vidal had an uncanny, Zelig-like ability to show up at just the right place
George Ilsley
I wish a better writer had tackled this biography. Parini's lack of insight is just plain annoying. Why describe Paul Newman's attractiveness as his "(vaguely feminine) beauty"? Can not a person acknowledge the beauty of Paul Newman without a heterosexual gloss? I could go on, but these were small moments, interspersed with slices of cruelty and a generous appreciation of Vidal's many many books.
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very good biography. It's written by a friend of his, meaning the author knows his subject well. Apparently Vidal was a bit of a handful, and his pal has no problem acknowledging that. He lived through some eventful times and usually managed to be in the center of it all. He had thin skin and a good taste in enemies (like that steaming pile of shit Mailer), so obviously had the best feuds. I don't think I've ever actually read any of his novels, and probably won't, but that didn't lessen my en ...more
Carl Rollyson
Nov 16, 2015 rated it liked it

The best parts of “Empire of Self” are the brief interludes between chapters, when we are in the moment with Gore Vidal and his friend Jay Parini. There we can see, by turns, the imperious Gore and the charming and friendly Gore — amusing and provocative, and also a kind of emperor, lording it over others. This novelist, essayist, playwright and screenwriter, who saw himself in the days of live television as the king of hacks — as well as a scintillating guest on the David Susskind, Jack Paar an
Oct 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Poet, novelist and biographer Jay Parini (One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner) has written an intimate, clear-eyed and authoritative biography of Gore Vidal (1925--2012). Parini's nearly 30-year friendship doesn't blind him to his friend's faults. "He could be cantankerous, testy, ill-mannered, a terrible snob, a drunken bore," writes Parini. But he was also "a man I admired and valued as a friend."

Vidal wrote two memoirs (Palimpsest in 1995, and Point to Point Navigation in 2006) but
Nov 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bios
Some interesting people sometimes do not live interesting lives. I've been through some of these biographies from time to time, but that is definitely not the case of Gore Vidal. He has been around, traveled the world, met really fascinating people and was a great writer during his time. His books were quite influential to my generation, especially the historical novels and the essays, which I still read with pleasure nowadays. His great fear, of being a writer that would endure, looks very real ...more
The title of this new biography is somewhat off-putting in my opinion. I was unsettled enough to reconsider reading it at all. Obviously, it is a quote Mr Vidal used quite often. Nevertheless, it left a bad after-taste.

Short review to follow.

Need to read Gore Vidal books in 2016:

*Myra Breckinridge
*The Golden Age
*The City and the Pillar
David Bales
Dec 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
The life of one of America's greatest--and most controversial--novelists, essayists and commentators, with detailed and gossipy vignettes from his long life.
Oct 02, 2015 rated it did not like it
Boring, boring, boring!
Oct 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this biography by Gore Vidal's long-time friend, author Jay Parini, very much. It’s a very intimate, no holds barred, portrait of a true Renaissance Man – author of historical novels, essays, screenplays. A man who could pack auditoriums with cheering crowds when he spoke. A man who strove to continually improve his mind until his whiskey consumption got the better of it. A man who was gay in a time when one didn’t admit to being gay, yet who lived openly in love and friendship with hi ...more
Aug 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
My review will be shorter and less flattering than most others here. Not a bad read, told a few tales, and put things into perspective, but overall, I did not warm to it. This bio dealt with the private, private life of Gore, repetitively, but, just how many times do we have to be told of Gore's sexual preferences and foilibles? I have a greater interest in his writing and his politics, and the effect of both of these on the wider world, topics skimmed over. So, a fine read, well written, but no ...more
Nick Van
Sep 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A superb biography, destined to be the definitive one. The author's friendship with Vidal gives him unique access to his subject, but nevertheless, Parini maintains an objectivity throughout, and isn't blinded by their friendship. Exceptionally well-written, quite informative and candid, it is all one could hope for in any biography. The hard-to-please Gore would be quite satisfied, despite the lack of obeisance.
Toby Bond
Feb 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Burr is one of my favourite semi historical novels, the Buckley debates were excellent although i agree with a lot of what Gore says he does seem extremely hard to like and his will made little to no sense. As for the obession with Jimmy Trimble, Howard must have been extremely pissed off. The world would be a worse place without his works, but im ambivalent as to whether its a worse place without him.
I couldn't do it. I tried, but this book was too filled with vile details and smut, without much redeeming historical content. partially my own fault, since I didn't know anything about Vidal's major works, but couldn't more of his life story be told without sharing details of the homosexual life style and how he accessed various erotica in Hollywood? yuck!!
Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Serviceable biography of the novelist and essayist by his longtime friend. Vidal in many ways was a pathetic figure, a man who consciously walled himself off from human love and affection and basked in hatred, contempt, and condescension. To his credit Parini does not gloss over these massive character flaws and indeed repeatedly reminds us (as if we needed it) that Vidal was a preening narcissist. However he lavishes far too much praise on Vidal's one-note political essays (all of which can be ...more
Mar 19, 2019 rated it liked it
3 stars? Hm. Maybe an upgrade from 2.5. I’ve always found Gore Vidal to be an interesting person and a good writer. I’ve enjoyed his essays over the years. I knew he was gay, but who cares? I liked this book, but felt it dealt overly much with his sexuality. Again, who cares? I don’t care that much about anyone’s sexuality, whether they’re writers, politicians or ... anyone.
Jul 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. Delicious.
David Douglas
Way too much about his sexuality which I really couldn’t care less about...the rest is interesting and the one liners and quips are magic.
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Jay Parini (born 1948) is an American writer and academic. He is known for novels and poetry, biography and criticism.