Most writers fall in love with their words. They greet changes to the text, particularly of a published work, with the blank astonishment of a mother confronted with criticism of her first-born child. This cannot be said of Gore Vidal, who died in Los Angeles at 86 on July 31st. I remember sitting in early rehearsals of the 2000 Broadway production of The Best Man and Vidal asking Jeffrey Richards, the lead producer, “Should I update the international references? Make them more contemporary?” He expected changes in his play and embraced them, but, in fact, there were very few in this production. Prickly references to China were as relevant in 2000 as they were when the play was set in the early ‘60s.
As an associate producer of the 2000 production, one of my responsibilities was make sure that Vidal got back to his suite at the Plaza Hotel after productions that he attended. This was usually after a stop, sometimes a long stop, a one of the nearby restaurants where Vidal downed an astonishing amount of Vodka. Sitting a table, drink in hand, he often seemed like a marble bust of himself, stately and solid, ample in all proportions. Before speaking, it often looked as if he were posing, brow furrowed, contemplating the thought he was about to utter. Never, despite the volumes of vodka he consumed, did the voice ever waver, the thought become anything less than crystal clear. But sometimes when he got up from the table, the great bust would leer precariously to one side of its pedestal and I was always in a panic as to what, exactly, I would do if the bust, perhaps double my weight, were to fall. Though it was always as a pleasure to have a private moment with him, I was often profoundly grateful when the taxi door closed with Vidal safely inside on his way to the Plaza. The wonderful staff at the Plaza would take over from here, I knew, and see the bust safely to bed.
In a moving tribute to Gore Vidal today at the Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, host Dick Cavett remembered Vidal’s drinking habits (among other things) and recounted an incident in which he happened to mention to Vidal that one drink destroyed 10,000 brain cells.
“Gore looked uncharacteristically concerned and I said ‘Don’t worry, Gore, you’ve got billions of brain cells.’”
“But Dick,” Gore replied, “I’ve had billions of drinks.”
Vidal’s wit and wisdom as a prolific writer of historical fiction, with such works as Julian (1964) and Burr (1973), as well as screenplays, plays, essays and memoirs were remembered by a host of celebrities at the Schoenfeld, including actors Elaine May, Jefferson Mays, Susan Sarandon, Cybill Shepherd, and Alan Cummings, Richard Belzer, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and documentary film maker Michael Moore. The theater, currently hosting a new production of The Best Man and decorated with campaign posters and slogans, was filled with friends, family and well-wishers of this “trouble-maker at large” or “nag,” as Vidal called himself. James Earl Jones and John Larroguette performed a scene from the current production of The Best Man which they are both in.
“Gore wrote enough for 10 men,” said Cavett, “and he was the best talker since Oscar Wilde. His conversation could be published without editing.”
Susan Sarandon, who with Jefferson Mays, read a scene from Vidal’s 1962 play “Romulus,” recounted a bit of parenting advice Vidal gave her after the birth of her first son. “It’s inevitable,” she remembered Vidal saying, “that you are going to give the child some kind of neurosis. Just make sure they are productive ones.”
A highlight of the noon-time gathering was a collection of famous one-liners read in rapid fire succession by Elizabeth Ashley, Candice Bergen, Christine Ebersole, and Anjelica Huston.
“Success is not enough. Others must fail…”
“The United States was founded by the greatest people in the country and we haven’t seen them since…”
“I suppose you could call me a narcissist. I’m better looking than you…”
Later in the program, Michael Moore, who read a selection from an article Vidal wrote for the Nation in 1986 on the decline of US hegemony, told a story about the advice Vidal gave him before the Academy Awards when one of his documentaries was up for the award.
“If you win,” Gore told him, “You should quote Jefferson.”
“Why?” Moore asked.
“Because Jefferson has never been quoted at the Academy Awards.”
“What should I quote?”
Moore recounted how Vidal went on for five minutes with a lengthy quote from Jefferson by heart. Knowing it would be impossible for him to remember the passage Moore said he asked Vidal to accept the award for him, if he won.
In the PBS documentary about Gore Vidal, Vidal is asked if he does his own research. He responds that he does, because often he doesn’t know what he is looking for.
While this may be true, Vidal also had the invaluable help of Nina Straight, his half-sister, and her bevy of researchers at the Library of Congress. In the early 1990’s when I was researching a book on maritime China, I happen to share a study office at the library with Nina and was a daily witness to her labors on behalf of Vidal who sent her a steady stream of queries from his aviary in Ravello, Italy. She made it possible for Vidal to live in Italy and yet have the resources of the greatest library in the world at his fingertips. I was enormously jealous because I felt tethered to the library with a ball and chain with my own enormous research needs. But it was maybe this distance, this self-imposed exile that gave Vidal the perspective he needed to write with such searing clarity and honesty about American politics.
Cavett today confessed he has not comes to terms with how much he is missing Gore Vidal. “And, I’m sure,” he added, “Gore hates being dead.”
Christopher Hitchens might have been a successor to Vidal but he too is gone.
Who, then, is the next “trouble-maker at large?”