When most people in years to come think of Gore Vidal, who was widely regarded as America's greatest living man of letters prior to his death yesterday at the age of 86, it will probably be inconnection with The City and the Pillar, his acclaimed 1948 novel that was the first, post-World War II, to feature an openly gay character who wasn't punished for his supposed sins; or Suddenly, Last Summer and Ben-Hur, the two classic 1959 films on which he worked (he was the sole credited screenwriter of the former, which was adapted from a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, but went uncredited for his immense contributions to the latter, which he made under duress after his initial refusals led him to be suspended by MGM); or The Best Man, his 1960 Tony-nominated play that he later converted into an acclaimed 1964 film (and was recently revived on Broadway); or his spats with fellow celebrity-intellectuals William F. Buckley during ABC's coverage of the 1968 Republican National Convention and Norman Mailer during a 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show; or his outspoken protests against virtually every war thereafter.
I, too, will certainly always associate Vidal with those résumé highlights, but also with an interview that I was lucky enough to score with him one day in the fall of 2008, about a week before the historic presidential election of Barack Obama, when I decided to write a piece for my employer at the time, the Los Angeles Times, profiling the greatest movies ever made about American politics -- including, of course, The Best Man. The original interview request that I had sent to Vidal's assistant indicated that I wished to speak with him about that film, but, once he agreed to speak with me, I knew that I would have to at least attempt a broader line of questioning. After all, how often does one get to speak with a legend?
When Vidal answered the telephone at his home, he wasn't especially warm and fuzzy -- in fact, I think he had forgotten that I would be calling at all -- and his curmudgeonly mood didn't improve much over the course of our roughly 30-minute conversation. But he answered every one of my questions, if not gamely then, well, at least colorfully. (His best curt line, in response to my question about whether he writes in his home, or in an office, or somewhere else: "I do it in my head.")
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born on Oct. 3, 1925 in West Point, New York. When his father was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve as the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where they lived in the home of his maternal grandfather, longtime U.S. Senator Thomas P. Gore (D-Oklahoma). It was there, Vidal says, that he first developed a passion for the written word: "My grandfather had a library of 30,000 books, and I tried to read my way through all of them. I read to him because he was blind from the age of 10. So I had a thorough grounding in the classics, and in American politics, and, God knows, in the congressional record. He was still in the Senate until 1936." (It was in tribute to his beloved grandfather that he later began using Gore as his first name.)
Vidal also went to the movies like most other kids, but his cynicism was apparently established very early on. Asked if he could remember any particular favorites, he said that he could not, but did recall that the Washington, D.C. establishment always "sneered" at the naïveté of Frank Capra's "Capra-corn" films, not least of all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). "I liked some of his movies," he said. "I can't say many of them. Certainly when he would touch American politics I would run a mile."
Having grown up surrounded by politicians, socialites, and adventurers (his father was the great love of Amelia Earhart's life), the youngster had an intellect, worldliness, and cynicism well beyond his years, and found an outlet for his thoughts and feelings -- which apparently included, from an early age, homosexual ones -- through writing. Did he enjoy writing, I feel compelled to ask? "I wouldn't do anything that I didn't enjoy."
Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, which was also the first novel about World War II, was published in 1946, when he was just 19 years old. His second, In the Yellow Wood, was published a year later, and revolves around a recently redomesticated American World War II vet who is haunted by a romance that he experienced overseas during the war. But it was his third, The City and the Pillar, published a year later, that really put him on the map. Its subject matter -- open homosexuality presented as a natural behavior -- was so controversial that it led to a virtual blacklist of Vidal's work for the next several years, led, he says, by The Grey Lady herself: "I was blocked out by The New York Times -- they wouldn't review any of my novels... because their critic, Orville Prescott, found me immoral, and he then started an all-out purge of faggots in literature."
Vidal continued to write books under pseudonyms, and also received an offer from CBS to try penning "plays for television," which was still a relatively new medium. He reckoned that he "must have written 30 or 40" of these 47-minute, three-act dramas during his first year, and "tried a lot of interesting things, I think." He converted one teleplay, Visit to a Small Planet (1955), into a Broadway production of the same name (1957), which became a huge hit. That, in large part, is what prompted Hollywood to come calling -- "I believe that there was, you know, interest in what I had to do" -- and, with the financial offers being what they were, he couldn't resist a move out west, where he went under contract to M-G-M. (He once recalled to another interviewer what his outlook was at the time: "William Faulkner told me not to fall into the trap F. Scott Fitzgerald did. He thought you could make something out of a movie. You can't. Go, get the money, go home, write your books." And, after only a few years of writing and polishing scripts, that is precisely what he did.)
When another of Vidal's plays, The Best Man, became an even bigger triumph on Broadway in 1960, his reputation soared even higher. The plot was pretty straightforward, but gripping nonetheless: an ethical man and a man who would do anything to win are competing against one another for their party's presidential nomination in the summer of 1960, begging the question: can the best man for the job still win without compromising his moral compass? It was also, he said, about "the kind of ambition that politics requires -- you have to be a good killer, you have to be a good winner, you have to appear to be all things to an awful lot of people." He added, "In the theater you could be very grown up in those days."
The real Democratic primary that year, in which John F. Kennedy had taken on and beaten fellow U.S. senator Hubert Humphrey, had been equally gripping. Vidal had come to know and like Kennedy through his wife Jackie -- his mother's second husband was her stepfather -- and, moreover, told me that he had written The Best Man to preemptively condition the American public to support Kennedy in spite of his personal shortcomings. "All the stories about his philandering were going to blossom, and I knew that, so I made the good guy -- played by Melvyn Douglas on the stage and played by Henry Fonda in the movie -- a guy who was a philanderer but was going to be a great president." Vidal says that Kennedy himself offered it a rave review: "He loved the play." (A fun fact that I had heard and Vidal didn't dispute: the actor Ronald Reagan was considered for the part of the good man in the play, but was rejected by Vidal, who felt he didn't have a presidential look.)
Naturally, Hollywood clamored for the rights to The Best Man. They were eventually won by United Artists, which released a filmed version in 1964, the year after Kennedy's assassination. The making of that film, though, was anything but smooth. Vidal learned that the director that the studio had hired for the film was none other than Frank Capra, the same man whose earlier films had prompted Vidal to "run a mile," which, as you can imagine, set him off. Capra, he says, was "trying to turn this thing into the most unholy Jesus Christ Christian story that you ever saw, none of which was reflective of what I had written," so "I fired him." How, I wondered, could a writer fire a director? "I had that power, and writers [today] can if they make their contracts carefully," he asserted, adding, "I've found directors rarely much use for anything unless it happens to be their own project."
One might be tempted to dismiss some of these recollections and comments as the ravings of a looney old man, but Vidal's response to the final question that I posed to him -- Can "the best man" still win a presidential election without selling his soul to the devil? -- seemed bizarre to me at the time, but has been proven rather prescient. Barack Obama, he said, is "just exactly the kind of candidate I would have dreamed of, with the added interest of an entire group that has been excluded from the higher politics for all of my lifetime... He's gonna win the election -- there's no doubt of that -- but he will not be allowed to serve. The Republicans are the party of stopping the people's will."
I started to say, "Despite the fact that obviously there's still much to be cynical and displeased about, are you somewhat optimistic--" He quickly cut me off. "No realism is cynical."