In February 2008, Esquire columnist Rachel Cooke met Gore Vidal, giant of American politics, literature and ego, who died yesterday. Here it is in full - a compelling recounting of an extraordinary life.
It is raining in Los Angeles: a grey, determined sort of rain that seems to have come straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. The city feels even more seedy and desperate than usual, a mood that only adds to the vague sense of doom sweeping over me as I approach Gore Vidal’s door. The novelist, essayist, screenwriter and sometime politician lives high on a Hollywood hill, in a perfect Thirties movie-star house.
I stand on the curved drive, listening to the endless hiss of water falling on exotic leaves and hoping that someone, anyone, will rescue me. But, no. I’ll just have to pull on the ancient bell, and wait. A long silence, then a low banging, and the sound of footsteps. At last, the huge, sepulchral door creaks open and I see a bewilderingly young man with a too-broad smile and long hair. Is this...? “Yes, yes,” he says. “We’re expecting you. Come in.”
He shows me into a vast, musty drawing room, then he disappears. The room is filled with elaborate furniture, brooding oil paintings and gilt mirrors. The net curtains look as if they’ve been dipped in weak tea. It’s like the room of a very grand European old lady: a dowager duchess, strangely far from home. Only it belongs to a man. On every surface are photographs of Vidal looking patrician, as is his wont, and of his famous family and friends: his stepsister, Jackie Onassis, and Princess Margaret.
I’m just taking in the predictable awfulness of HRH’s frock, when another man appears: Vidal’s major-domo, Norberto, who is wearing rubber gloves — the surgical kind — and carrying a glass of whisky. He puts it on the table beside me, then he, too, glides away, leaving me to listen to the ominous rumble of movement above. Good grief. Is someone dragging something heavy across the floor? I am now feeling seriously spooked.
What happens next (though something tells me I should probably not turn around and actually watch it happen) is Gore is helped into an old-fashioned lift that descends to the ground floor, while Mr Long Hair runs down the house’s grand staircase to meet it. I hear the lift’s mechanism, then its doors opening and, last of all, the rasping breath of an old man. Only when I sense that he has crossed the room’s threshold do I turn to face him.
Oh my God. He has not been able to walk unaided for some time now, so I am expecting that. What I’m not expecting is how terrible he looks. Vidal was famously beautiful in his youth (“Who is this strapping exquisite?”, as Martin Amis once put it), and even in middle age he was wonderful-looking: Rock Hudson meets the Emperor Hadrian.
And today? The once tawny skin is grey, the conker eyes shot with yellow, the expensive teeth too big for his mouth. His track pants are covered in cat hairs, and his lumberjack shirt (an item his old adversary, Norman Mailer, would have loved, but which I would never have expected the elegant Gore to wear) flaps open to reveal a camembert-like slice of belly. “The approach is difficult...” he says, moving slowly and inexorably towards me, “... the retreat desirable.” I feel — he would despise this — sorry for him. But I’m still terrified. The voice is the same as ever: as dry and deliberate as fine London gin.
He sits down and picks up his whisky. Silence. If Vidal ever did do small talk, he is not going to waste time on it today. So, because I can hear the voice of the TV commentator Chris Matthews in another room, I ask about the election. Vidal, who has twice stood for office (in 1960 he ran for Congress, in 1982 for Senate), first supported Dennis Kucinich, the somewhat unusual Democrat representative from Ohio, who would like to abolish the death penalty and legalise same-sex marriage. But Kucinich pulled out of the race in January.
Now what? About Obama, he is lukewarm, feeling it “would be better if he spent a little more time in the Senate, learning bad habits”. And Clinton? Some years ago, Hillary visited Gore at his former home in Ravello, a visit that some saw as an anointment. Was his support for Kucinich a sign that she has let him down? “I’m never disappointed in anybody,” he says. Why? Because everyone always lets him down in the end? “Yes. She’s extremely intelligent and she would have made a good president, but I’m less convinced now.
They trapped her. This worry that she’s unlikeable. Every politician is unlikeable!” Our obsession with likeability, with judging politicians by their private lives and not their policies, is the biggest change to occur in party politics in Gore’s lifetime: “And it has not been an improvement.” I suggest that no one knew what Kennedy was up to in private, and if they had, they would not have thought him very likeable. But does this change what kind of president he made?
“No,” says Vidal. “Though I helped with that [dishing the details of Kennedy’s private life] posthumously.” He snorts with satisfaction and then, with sudden fierceness, says: “I miss him. He was the greatest gossip that ever lived. He knew everything about everyone, though, of course, [his voice darkens] he had his own sources of information.”
This is pure Vidal, reducing Kennedy to a mere gossip. The writer surveys the world God-like, as if from a cloud. Even at 82, and now so dependent on others, Gore is still in possession of, to steal from Amis again, an “auto-crush” that would have him walking (if only he could still walk) a thousand miles for one of his own smiles. “My critics resent everything that I represent: sex, wealth and talent,” he once said, meaning every word. But about the Republicans, you sense something beyond disdain: pure disgust.
He is active in the campaign to have George W Bush impeached over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the legality of which he believes was dubious. “The Republicans are not a political party in any sense that you might understand [the term] political party.
It’s a behavioural disease: ‘All the money in the world is mine because I’m a Republican and I went to a grand school, and I’m beautifully trained to collect it and I don’t want to have to make any bids on the contracts I get from government. I don’t pay tax, and I get away with murder.’” He pauses. “I think they’re dangerous. They really are for totalitarian government. Wise people don’t use the word fascist any more, but they are totalitarian-minded. They’re war-minded. Wars are good for their businesses.”
He thinks that Obama, if he wins the Democratic nomination, can beat a Republican in the battle for the White House; but ask him if government will then, in his terms, improve, and he’ll look at you as though you’re quite mad. “The Republic has gone. We lost the constitution several years ago. Bush got rid of that. We lost due process of law. We lost Magna Carta, the only nice thing England left us. So now we’re... unprotected.” Even if you agree with him, this is also a speech straight out of HBO’s Rome.
Vidal has not, unlike most old men, grown more right-wing with the years. Rather, he has grown more radical. “Yes. But I come from the heart of the empire! From West Point [the military academy in New York State where his father was a cadet, and in whose hospital he was born]. What higher natal ribbon can one wave in the air?” When still recognisably a lefty, the British journalist Christopher Hitchens used to be Gore Vidal’s number one fan, and Vidal regarded Hitchens as his dauphin. No longer. “He’s been abandoned by his parent. I haven’t spoken to him in years, nor have I responded to any of his attacks on me.”
To what does he attribute Hitchens’s hawkish flight to the right? “He couldn’t get anywhere doing liberal chat. He wanted money! He wanted to be on television all the time! He never had any [principles] anyway. He had faux principles. When they didn’t pay off, he could always announce that he was my dauphin. It started, I assume, as a joke. Then, suddenly, it got very serious. I didn’t die. How was he going to succeed me if I was still in business? The next thing I knew, there he was, seriously on the right. These people, these foreigners. They wander in, read one issue of Rolling Stone, and they think they know everything about it [America].”
So now, when it comes to slagging off — he would call it “telling the truth about” — America, it’s just him and Professor Chomsky: a club of two. Isn’t it lonely? “No.” Is that because he doesn’t, as his own father once said, give a shit what other people think of him? “That’s one reason. I don’t care. But if I lived in a country filled with intelligent people, I’d have more fun with this. As it is, to live with some of the stupidest people on Earth: who feels flattered by their attack? I find it boring to have no [intellectual] class around me. Chomsky would tell you the same thing. All he gets are teachers of linguistics [Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics]. And all I get are people who want to know my genealogy.”
Ah, genealogy. His, as he has already told us, is absolutely the best. His love of politics comes from his maternal grandfather, the blind Senator Gore from Oklahoma, after whom he is named (he is also a distant cousin of Al Gore). Vidal lived with his grandfather until he was 10. The senator lived in a grand house in Rock Creek Park, Washington, but, at 10, Gore moved to another, grander Washington house, Merrywood, when his mother married Hugh D Auchincloss.
The house had white servants, which the young Gore had never seen before, and was amazed by. It was Auchincloss’s stepdaughter, Jacqueline, who went on to marry John Kennedy, which meant that, in later years, Gore had a close-up seat for Camelot and many of its comings and goings (he and Jackie were especially close; in his brilliant memoir, Palimpsest, there is an extraordinary account of the wedding of his and Jackie’s half-sister, Nina, in which he has Jackie hitching up her skirt in a Merrywood bathroom to show the innocent Nina how to douche post-sex, “one foot in the bathtub and the other on the white tiled floor”).
Later, there was a spectacular falling out with the Kennedys: Gore despised Bobby, and Bobby despised Gore, and he and Jackie broke off relations accordingly, never to speak again, not even when they were once caught in a lift together (Gore does love a feud).
Anyway, it was a glittering kind of childhood, one way or another, for all that Vidal’s mother was a bolter and a drunk whom he strongly disliked. He was closer to his father, a pilot who started three airlines (one with Amelia Earhart), and at weekends his son regularly went flying with him; aged 10, Gore flew one of his father’s planes, a feat captured on Pathé newsreel for all the world to see. From 17, however, after his mother left Auchincloss for a lover, Vidal was pretty much on his own in the world.
Someone once asked Vidal if his first sexual experience was with a man or a woman, to which he replied, “I was too polite to ask.” At school, he was in love with a boy, Jimmy Trimble, who was later killed at the battle of Iwo Jima — a ghostly relationship that he records in Palimpsest, and which he tries hard to suggest was the one great passion of his life. After his own time in the Navy, he woke up in 1948 to find himself a literary sensation. Vidal had already published one novel, Williwaw, in 1946, but it was The City And The Pillar, about gay life, that made him famous (though it also temporarily put an end to his political ambitions and led, he believes, to a critical blackout on his next five novels). How does he feel about the book now?
“I admire it very much,” he says, with utter seriousness. People think that he was brave to publish it at all. “I was brave to bother living in the country. That took more courage than writing a book.” Does he think that life has improved for gay men since? “How on Earth would I know? I know nothing about it.” He sighs, crossly. “The fags found a movement. They got gay liberation. Gay sensibility. I said: what a stupid phrase.
If there’s such a thing as a gay sensibility, then there’s also a hetero sensibility, and what do Lyndon Johnson and Bertrand Russell have in common apart from heterosexuality? Oh, it’s as dumb as dumb can be, but [gay men] began to hiss at me in the streets.” Still, his new reputation gave him the keys to the doors of a whole new literary beau monde: he travelled with Tennessee Williams, slept with Kerouac, bitched about Truman (he hated Capote, of whom his impression is far better than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s) and endured the somewhat crazed attentions of Anaïs Nin.
Later, he made a name for himself as a Hollywood scriptwriter: Ben Hur (a rescue job), The Best Man and Suddenly, Last Summer.
But by the end of the Sixties, he was again a novelist, and it’s for his historical novels that he’s now best known.
Until 2005, Vidal lived mostly in Ravello with Howard Auster, his companion — but not lover — of 53 years. They lived in a magnificent house and were visited by everyone from Nureyev down (or even up). Then Howard, a great cook and an even better singer, died of cancer, and it was time for Gore, himself ravaged by diabetes, to return to Los Angeles to face what he calls the “Cedars Sinai years”, in reference to the hospital where Auster was treated.
To an outsider, what was perplexing about Gore and Howard was not only that their sex lives did not appear to involve each other, but that Gore was always saying he did not know “what other people mean by love”. He would not elaborate, except to say: “It is easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible when it does.” In interviews, Howard was off-limits. But then, in 2006, he published a second volume of memoirs, Point To Point Navigation, which includes an account of Howard’s final weeks, during which, he reveals, the couple kissed on the lips — at Howard’s behest — for the first time in 50 years.
These pages are devastatingly detached, but also piercingly honest, like nothing else Vidal has ever written. He reveals that while Howard’s carer wept when he was gone, he remained dry-eyed. “I envied him; the WASP glacier had closed over my head.” To me now, however, he denies that Point To Point Navigation is “intimate”; it seems to be almost a point of pride. “I talk about people dying, like Howard. It isn’t about my personal life.”
Does he hate being old? “No.” Is that a rude question? “Well, it’s a question you should give a bit more thought to before you utter it.” But he must feel... lonely. Vonnegut died last year, swiftly followed by Mailer. “Yes, everyone’s dying. Do I feel like the last troubadour?”
He points at a portrait of him with Vonnegut and Mailer, taken for Vanity Fair. “Have you seen the photograph?” How pugnacious Mailer looks, I say. “Well, it was all play-acting.” Hmm. So what about him? Is it play-acting, his famed chilliness? “They don’t know how chilly I am! When I read that, I get icier. Someone once asked me to comment on [my iciness] afterwards.
I said: ‘Well, you should have hung around longer. Once you break through the ice, you get to the cold water beneath.’” Is he kinder now he is so reliant on others? He ignores this. “I have a lot of godsends,” he says. “It’s a good thing to accumulate them as you get older.” The young man with the long hair, it turns out, is one of his seven godchildren. Quite a few, then. “Yes.” A beautifully timed pause. “Always a godfather, never a god.” He watches me, indulgently, as I laugh. But when I recover, and ask him if he is prepared for what lies ahead, he says with vehemence, “Nothing lies ahead.”
He is growing weary now, or bored. The funny thing is that when I turn off the tape, his manner warms, which makes me think, after all, that he is acting, at least some of the time. He asks me — bizarrely — how Nicky Haslam, the society decorator, is. I’m not sure, because Nicky Haslam is not really — how shall I put this? — of my world. But I have heard some gossip... At this, he looks like an ancient pointer that has seen a grouse fall from the sky, but is unable to dash after it.
We talk some more about certain macho British writers, two of whom are engaged in a prolonged spat, and he refers to them as “those girls” and says he hopes they will kill each other. He mentions Howard several times, and the air in the room feels even heavier. When my taxi arrives, he puts his hand limply in mine. “Fly safely,” he says, regally. Not for the first time, he is the emperor to my hapless centurion, bound for the land beyond his front door where the barbarians roam.