, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Empire, by Gore Vidal
Random House/Vintage, 1987. 486 pp. $17

Caroline Sanford, recently arrived from Paris, where she’s spent most of her life, hits Washington in 1898, and that city will never be the same. It’s not just that Caroline has the requisites to advance in society or make a brilliant marriage — youth, looks, charm, and money. In fact, society bores her, unless it provides the means to a different end, and she’s convinced that wedlock would be even duller. Rather, she possesses yet another trait, worth more than the others put together, an iconoclastic way of thinking about men and women, which therefore makes her difficult to shock. Moralists ascribe this “improper” outlook, and the plans that result, to her foreignness. But Caroline’s American enough to understand that where her countrymen fear to tread — or, more particularly, countrywomen — creates an opportunity, which she’s European enough to seize with panache. As she says, life’s not easy for a woman who wants more than anything to be interested. Her scheme to achieve that takes everyone by surprise: to publish a newspaper.

William Randolph Hearst as a New York congressman, 1906, photo by James E. Purdy (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Naturally, she does not intend to print stories about doilies or the right way to entertain, or even politics, of which she has an innate sense. No; she desires to publish a scandal sheet that outdoes William Randolph Hearst, the king of so-called yellow journalism, whose latest coup, if it may be called that, is fomenting the Spanish-American War for no good reason other than to augment his own power.

Family rivalry plays a key role, here. Caroline’s half-brother Blaise, works for Hearst. Said half-sibling is also trying to deny her the rightful share of the fortune their father left them. So for Caroline, buying and running a successful newspaper means not only fulfilling her dream of being someone other than wife or socialite, but socking Blaise where it hurts — and believe me, he deserves it.

Lucky for Caroline, she’s immediately taken up by one of the first families in Washington. John Hay, former private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and soon to be William McKinley’s secretary of state, has a son, Del, who’s sweet on her. Hay the elder also has significant friends and political bedfellows, the likes of Henry Cabot Lodge, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and his brother, Brooks (descended from two presidents and noted for their historical and political writings), Henry James, and various others.

So Empire offers the reader a close-up view of politics during the McKinley years and after, which is to say much like today: “… it’s the way that things are made to look that matters now,” not the substance of what anybody says. Vidal takes this huge cast of historical figures, just about everyone except Caroline and Blaise, and renders these movers and shakers in their heads and skins. The result is electric, and often very funny. The humor is biting and caustic, and when these famous wits trade ripostes, the dialogue runs away with you. (Theodore Roosevelt provides the butt of many such sprees, even from his daughter, friends, and supposed allies.) Like a latter-day Dickens, minus the treacle or the moralizing, Vidal re-creates these people in their passions, urges, and appetites, as with this portrait of William McKinley at table:

Lunch was as simple and as enormous as the President’s dove-gray waist coated paunch, which began very high indeed on his frame and curved outward, keeping him from ever sitting close to the table, which accounted, no doubt, for the single shamrock-shaped gravy stain on the black frock-coat that hung in perpendicular folds to left and right of the huge autonomous belly, like theater curtains drawn to reveal the spectacle. Quail was followed by porterhouse steak which preceded broiled chicken, each course accompanied by a variety of hot bread — wheat muffins, corn sticks, toast, and butter.

It helps if you’re familiar with the history, but even if you’re not, Empire is a delight either way, and an education. Vidal takes a very dim view of American politics and the influence of wealth upon it, and if perhaps he overstates his case at times, he’s always entertaining. The way most of the characters manage to overcome their scruples—even Caroline, at moments—lends a cynical tone to the proceedings, which may not please everyone. Is nothing sacred? Are there really no heroes and no principles, where power and money are concerned? But readers will immediately see our present day in all this too, and besides, you’ll laugh out loud. Who knew that politics could be so much fun?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.