An afternoon with Gore Vidal
I’ve long been a fan of the multitalented Gore Vidal, as a novelist, dramatist and critic; a politician; a friend of Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Andre Gide and many others.
So, one sunny afternoon in October – myself being in Ravello, Italy – I followed a pathway through the stately Cimbrone Gardens to Vidal’s villa, La Rondinaia, or The Swallows Nest. Vidal met me at his door. He is fairly tall, with gray hair and brown eyes, and was dressed quite neatly in a dark blue sport jacket with a turtleneck sweater.
Ravello, an ancient mountain town, lies not far from Capri on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The magnificent views and peaceful quiet of Ravello have attracted many of the European elite and such noted writers as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill. Gore Vidal settled in Ravello in 1985, although reportedly he has since given up the residence.
His living room faced a terrace that overlooked the sea and held simple and comfortable furniture along with many paintings and antiques. An 18th-century tapestry hung on one wall, Burmese carvings on another; two 18th-century paintings were of Rome, and the painting over the fireplace was a modern Italian surrealistic work.
“Over there,” he said, “those two busts [marble heads of a bearded man and of a boy] are Roman, first century. Now come with me to the terrace.”
The view from the terrace was dazzling. We looked straight down more than 1,000 feet to the cobalt blue waters of the Gulf of Salerno, where three fishing boats floated offshore. In the near distance, a tiny coastal town of buff-colored, square-built, red-tile-roofed Italianate buildings clung to the shore and ascended the steep Lattari Mountains on terraces planted with gray-leaved olive trees, grass-green grape arbors, somber umbrella pines, and green-black Italian cypresses. Far across the Gulf, I could dimly see the shore of Paestum, famous for its monumental Greek temples. Above us, in the clear sea-breeze air, was a cloudless, cerulean sky radiating golden October light.
“This prospect has to be one of the greatest vistas in the whole world,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he said. “This view was chosen and this house was built by Lord Grimthorpe for his daughter. He is buried in the Cimbrone Gardens.”
Carrying drinks, we moved into a handsome writer’s study, with a fireplace of gray stone and colored tiles, a wall of books, more books strewn over the chairs, and a long chestnut-wood desk littered with manuscripts and bearing a well-worn typewriter. There were photos of his father, Eugene Vidal, a West Pointer, a football hero, and Roosevelt’s director of air commerce; and of his grandfather, U.S. Sen. Thomas Pryor Gore.
Vidal proved to be a most considerate host and a fascinating talker – lively and courteous, and with cutting opinions on all subjects.
I began by saying “I like your historical novels very much. I’ve read your `Julian’ [about a renegade Byzantine emperor], and your American novels `Burr,’ `Lincoln,’ and `1876.’ `Lincoln’ is the best historical novel about America that I’ve ever read, bar none. It’s a masterpiece – your picture of the Civil War is so compelling, and above all, every character is drawn so vividly. Lincoln truly comes to life in your book and as a real person, not as a myth.”
“Then you should read my later historical novels, `Empire,’ `Hollywood,’ and `Washington D.C.'”
“I shall. I’ve read your memoir, `Palimpsest,’ too, and I liked it very much. In it, I’ve noticed that you wrote a good deal about politics, and you seem to have known every politico at the top levels – which reminds me that you ran for Congress at one time. Why didn’t you run again, since you almost won that first race?”
“I thought about it, but I would have been just one more congressman among hundreds. As a writer I thought I would have much more influence. It was the right decision.”
At this point, a modest-appearing middle-aged man slipped in quietly and sat down to listen. He made himself so inconspicuous that at the time I thought that he was a member of Vidal’s household staff. Only much later did I realize that this was Howard Austen, Vidal’s longtime lover.
Continuing on the political theme, I said, “I noticed that you don’t care much for Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Overrated and dangerous. He put this country into empire building, which has damaged our nation greatly. And while T.R. gets credit for publicizing conservation, he spent his leisure time killing animals whenever and wherever he could.”
“What about Franklin Roosevelt?”
“I don’t like him, but I respected him. I knew and admired Eleanor.”
“Truman did us the most harm. I blame him for the Cold War, and we’re still carrying on the Cold War. Look at us today, $300 billion a year for the military, hundreds of billions a year for interest on the national debt, and no one says a word. No wonder the government has abandoned its responsibility to take care of its citizens.”
“How about the Kennedys? You knew them personally, didn’t you?”
“Old Joe Kennedy, Jack, Bobby – they were corrupt, every one of them, and involved with the Mafia.”
“Do you mean that Jack and Bobby Kennedy were involved with the Mafia, not just old man Kennedy? I’d be very sorry to think so.”
“Jack’s sexual adventures, which so fascinate the press to this very day, are of no real consequence, except that his affair with Marilyn Monroe tied him to the Chicago Mafia. And it was Bobby who plotted with the Mafia to kill Castro. It was with the greatest enthusiasm that I campaigned against Bobby when he ran for the Senate.”
“Hmm … well, I see from your bookshelves that you favor Dickens and Hazlitt, among others. What do you think of American writers, let’s say Hemingway?”
“Hemingway is not a good novel writer. He is basically a short-story writer. His characters don’t develop or change in the novels, so his novels are overrated. But his short stories, some of them are quite good.”
“What about Henry James? I’ve just finished reading `Washington Square,’ and I thought it was wonderful.”
“Yes, it is, and they made a marvelous movie of it many years ago called `The Heiress.’ Do you remember when the timid and betrayed heiress is accused of cruelty? She pauses and says, `I was taught by masters.’ Wonderful line, don’t you think? A well-done movie, a good cast, especially Sir Ralph Richardson; he was superb. Not often does a first-rate novel become a good film. Martin Scorsese didn’t succeed with `The Age of Innocence’; it’s not his genre. Nor did `The English Patient’ work for me.”
“You’ve written quite successfully for television and the theater, I know, but I’d like to hear about your film writing. I seem to recollect `Suddenly Last Summer’ and `The Best Man.'”
“Yes, and I’ve been doing a fair amount of acting for films, as well. I acted in `Bob Roberts’ and I enjoyed that very much. I’m expecting a Hollywood producer here in a few minutes. Stay and listen.”
“Well, in the meantime,” I said, “what do you think about current American writers, let’s say James Salter [author and part-time Aspenite]? I’ve met him a few times, he seems a very decent guy, and he’s a talented writer, I think.”
“James and I had dinner once, it was a reasonably sober evening for two writers, and we talked about his life. He has an unusual history – fighter pilot, screenwriter and novelist – but there are some gaps in his story that I don’t understand. But he writes well.”
“He deserves a best seller don’t you think?”
“He may deserve one, but he won’t get one,” Vidal said. “Literary writing is in deep trouble these days. Now that business conglomerates have taken over the publishing houses, publishers are only interested in promoting blockbusters, or books they think will become blockbusters.
“Publishing is now just another industry run by accountants, and accountants don’t know or care about literature; all they want is a product that sells. Moreover, people are not only losing the desire to read, but losing even the ability to read. I’ve seen actors that had great difficulty just reading a script. Their teachers taught them by the look-say method, so now they can’t sound out a word from its letters if the word is new to them.”
While he talked of other writers, the phone rang and Austen called out, “It’s The New York Times.” A long phone conversation ensued, with Vidal frowning. He hung up and turned to me.
“They want me to do an article about the big charitable donors like Ted Turner. I told them the only reason for these huge donations is that our government is no longer doing its job, which should include taking care of its citizens. But I don’t think I’ll write for the Times; I don’t like the way the Times covers literature. They give books some space, but they really don’t know what they’re talking about.”
A few minutes afterward, Austen returned leading a short, wiry, white-haired man wearing a sport shirt and slacks – the Hollywood producer. He chatted for a bit with Vidal about recent movies and other trade gossip, then made his pitch. As far as I could tell he wanted to turn one of Vidal’s older novels into a movie, but his proposition was made in another language – in show-biz speak – with “1 million … 2 million … 30 million … my money … bankers’ money … right stars … big director” floating over us like bubbles in the air.
Vidal was cool to his proposal. Vidal had in mind a movie about the formidable and talented Byzantine Empress Theodora, who began life as a prostitute in Constantinople, yet became the wife of the Emperor Justinian. The producer’s response was evasive. He said such a movie would cost a lot for the costumes, the sets and the location shots. So he finally left, wafting many good wishes to Vidal.
“What does this guy want,” I asked, “money, prestige – or what?”
“He’s a Southern banker who made a lot of money. He retired from banking, got himself a new, attractive wife, and went into movie production. He likes the life. He has made one or two movies that weren’t too bad, but I don’t know that I’m interested in his proposal.”
At this point, after two hours of talk, I felt I might be imposing on such considerate hospitality, so I made my excuses, a decision I now very much regret. It being dark, Mr. Vidal kindly accompanied me out. We walked along a lengthy stone terrace with a swimming pool and beautiful plantings of shrubs. A stately row of columnar Italian cypress trees rose above us; below us terraces descended steeply to the sea.
“I have 12 acres here,” he said, “and on the terraces below I grow olive and chestnut trees, lemons, figs, and arbors of grapes.”
At the gate I said, “You live here in the same style as the Roman emperors on Capri.”
“Ah … but I have no empire,” he said. “Good night.”
Larry Ladin is a trustee and past president of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation and has been a captivated reader of Gore Vidal’s literary output. Ladin also produces the program “Aspen Profiles” for GrassRoots TV and has been a full-time resident of Aspen/Snowmass since 1996. He loves it here.
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