Last week, down on New York’s Broadway, there was a memorial for one of our great American artists, Gore Vidal, who was a friend, and I was invited to attend, but could not, because of previous commitments that took me elsewhere. I offered to write something that could be read. As it turned out, Cybill Shepherd, who had met Gore with me, asked if she could read it, and did, I’m sure beautifully. Here’s what I wrote (with a few small additions):
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A singular fact about Gore Vidal is that he was one of a kind. Brilliant at anything he touched, and he touched just about every literary form: historical novels, essays on a myriad of subjects, screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, modern novels, even detective novels under a pseudonym. He was also an extraordinary conversationalist and raconteur par excellence, who ran twice for high public office, albeit unsuccessfully. He had an extremely patrician bearing and a biting sardonic tongue. He could also be warm in an offhand sort of way.
I first met him around 1981, lounging on a bed in Tony Bennett’s Los Angeles home; how we both happened to be there, I have no idea. And why he was stretched out on a bed, fully dressed, while I sat on the edge of it, near a phone, I don’t have a clue. But I do recall asking him if he’d ever read a book by Robert Graves called The White Goddess, and his very informative and respectful response was, “That’s not a book, it’s an encyclopedia.” Which gave me the way to get into an extremely difficult, but richly rewarding text. As I got to know Gore, I would notice that Robert Graves was one of the only contemporary writers he invariably spoke of with genuine admiration; he had also clearly read everything Graves wrote.
And it is no coincidence that Gore Vidal authored certainly the finest historical novels since Robert Graves, who had pioneered the form with his Claudius books. Of course, among Gore’s greatest achievements is his multiple-volume history of the U.S.A., as well as all his blistering essays on what he often referred to as The Last Empire, or The United States of Amnesia. One thing about Gore, he could be terribly funny, and loved getting a good laugh, which he did often from me. But his grasp of world history and the political scene was intense and all-encompassing; there wasn’t anything Gore couldn’t talk about with erudition and insight.
He also loved to act, and could do devastatingly accurate impressions of various people, famous or infamous. His Truman Capote was viciously dead on. We spent several months together trying to reconcile five different drafts of Tennessee Williams’ last play into a stage-worthy version, and a lot of our days we would just read the play through, over and over, mainly I think because Gore enjoyed acting the parts, always the lead role in any scene, male or female. He was pretty damn good too.
Our first point of contact was a mutual affection for Orson Welles, who was a friend of Gore’s and mine, and we spent a good deal of time talking about him. In fact, Gore reminded me of Orson in his ability to converse on virtually any subject with a good deal of humor and knowledge. And not quietly either. I never saw Welles and Vidal together but that must have been quite a scene! Gore also championed Orson after Welles died, writing beautifully about him and his work, a rarity still at that time.
One venturesome producer came to Gore with the notion of doing a play about the bruising conflict during the Korean War between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur. Being a proud veteran of the Second World War, Gore adamantly took the General’s side. And when the producer voiced an opinion that Truman had his points as well, Gore threw him and the project out the door, yelling after the man as he left. While working on an outline for this, Gore read to me one of MacArthur’s farewell speeches. He read with great compassion and considerable emotion, tearing up more than once, jaw trembling at times as he went through it. This was the one time I saw Gore losing control of his feelings, at his most vulnerable, and very touching to observe. Of course, it was farewell speech, and Gore had farewell on his mind anyway.
On another occasion, he was very pensive and quiet, and I asked what he was thinking. “Death,” he said in a low tone, “seems to be preoccupying my mind lately.” But the last few times I tried to speak with him, while he was in the hospital, and once he came out and went home, he could not talk. An assistant of his would put the phone to his ear and I would rattle off a few statements and then ask a few questions. I would hear him breathing and then trying to say something, but only muffled little noises came from his throat. It was the saddest sound from a great speaker. And he was, without doubt, a great man of letters, one of our finest, as well as perhaps the last of the real American aristocrats. Not unlike his friend Orson Welles. At a dark time in this country, his unique perspective will sorely be missed. And I’ll miss being able to drop in or call and ask, “What do you think about what’s happening?” so as to get the true unvarnished picture, always conveyed with witty succinctness. But his spirit truly lives on in all the amazing writings he accomplished; that voice will never be stilled.