Last night, at the Aero Theatre there was a showing of a compelling and emotionally moving documentary on the remarkable life of Gore Vidal, “The United States of Amnesia.” (A term Vidal coined.) I doubt the dashing Vidal drank Dos Equis beer but, after watching the documentary, he might have been “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
With a patrician manner and biting wit, Vidal was an essayist, novelist (25 books) screenwriter, playwright and social critic. He consistently lamented America’s evolution from a republic to an empire and attacked decadence in the political ruling class to which he was born.
His overbearing father, Eugene, was an Olympic decathlete, captain of the West Point football team, and FDR’s “Director of Air Commerce.” (As seen in the film, Gore, age 10, flies a plane, saying dutifully to his father upon landing, “It was easier than riding a bike.”)
His socialite mother, Nina Gore, was the daughter of U.S. Sen. Thomas Gore, who was blind from youth. Vidal spent much time in the Senate as his grandfather’s personal page. Vidal’s cousin is Al Gore; and Jackie Kennedy and he shared the same stepfather. (Other than that Vidal didn’t know anybody.)
Actually he knew everybody. A remarkable variety of the most influential people in the world spent time with Vidal and Howard Austen, with whom he lived for 53 years, at his mountain top villa, which overlooked the Mediterranean in the Amalfi Coast village of Ravello, Italy. (The list includes Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sting, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Nureyev, Lauren Bacall, and Johnny Carson, to name but a few.)
An alcoholic, Nina didn’t admire writers and thought less of homosexuals so, as Vidal grew up, their relationship was doomed. Vidal was once asked if he could change one thing is his life what would it be. “My mother,” he quipped. “Whose mother would you have wanted?” the interviewer continued. “I’d have taken Whistler’s mother,” Vidal responded. (Curiously, Johnny Carson’s mother was also affectionless and one wonders if he and Vidal bonded over that.)
My first vivid recollection of Vidal came during the tumultuous and nightmarish Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 at the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement. As portrayed in the film, Vidal, an outspoken opponent of the war, debated the hawkish William F. Buckley, who was pro-war, on ABC’s convention coverage.
At one point the back and forth got so heated and personal that it very nearly turned into a brawl. Buckley made a reference to Nazis and Vidal said, “The only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley came unglued. Despicably, he called Vidal a “queer,” adding, “And I’ll sock you in your God damned face.” (A year later, on Buckley’s “Firing Line” TV show, he threatened to “smash you in the face” to Noam Chomsky. That’s OK, Groucho Marx once told Buckley, “You blush as much as a young girl.”)
In looking back the Buckley-Vidal blowup sounds like intellectual WWE, but it was a memorable moment in a highly volatile and serious time in American history. Apparently, Paul Newman angrily confronted Buckley for “revealing someone’s private life!” Vidal describes Newman’s fury as something to behold.
Unfailingly outspoken, Vidal had feuds with Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, the latter, as in the documentary, on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. I was watching that night when the well-lubricated Mailer seemingly bordered on violence. When Mailer attacked Cavett’s “question sheet,” Cavett suggested Mailer could “Fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.”
After his service in WWII, Vidal was a best-selling author at 21. But his career was nearly torpedoed by the “N.Y. Times” book critic Orville Prescott, who refused to review Vidal’s books following his best-selling “The City and the Pillar” with its explicitly homosexual theme. (How embarrassing now for the Times.)
Vidal ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960 from conservative Dutchess County, New York but did surprisingly well. After celebrated Broadway hits, “Visit to a Small Planet,” and “The Best Man,” and movies, “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Ben Hur,” he settled in Rome to write the novel “Julian” (1964), a huge best-seller. “Washington, D.C.” (1967), was the first of his seven-volume American historical series, written over the next 33 years. (Prodigious is to put it mildly.)
Vidal always stayed true to his political views. Even in Ravello’s village issues he sided with the leftists. But with Howard Austen’s death in 2003 and his own failing health, sadly, Vidal had to leave his beloved Ravello and return to Hollywood. (Vidal referred to this period as the “Cedar Sinai years.”).
On July 31, 2012, the elegant and acerbic Gore died at age 86. He was buried next to Howard in their plot at the serene Rock Creek Cemetery. Vidal had described it as “The prettiest place in Washington, D.C.” He would have known.
Directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall and produced by Theodore James, “The United States of Amnesia” (89 min.) will screen free at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, April 10 at 7:30 p.m. Box office opens at 6:30 p.m. as tickets are first come. Q&A with Jodie Evans, Vidal’s longtime friend, follows the screening. The film will be in theaters in L.A. starting June 6 at the Nuart.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or email@example.com.