Legendary writer Gore Vidal sits down with A&U’s Dann Dulin and vents about the politics and conspiracies of AIDS, the Bush Administration, and the losses he’s faced
One recent afternoon, Gore Vidal phoned. What a surprise to hear that unmistakable and distinctly erudite voice. He was responding to my invitation to be interviewed by A&U. “I’m not a virologist,” he plainly stated. There was an extended pause. I thought, Will he turn us down? I mean, Vidal is not known as a “yes man.” Then he added, “But I’d like to help any way I can.” This was my introduction to the prolific author, playwright, actor, screenwriter, politician, social critic, historian, socialite, and activist. He probably wouldn’t appreciate any of these monikers, for he detests labels. “Labeling,” he has said, “is the first step for establishing a dictatorship.”
The following week, I arrive at Gore Vidal’s estate in the hills behind L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl. The Colonial-style house is veiled by a lush assortment of trees, shrubs, ferns, and vines. Built in the 1920s, Vidal has owned it for over forty years, even though since the early sixties his primary residence has been in Italy. In the town of Ravello, La Rondinara, or The Swallow’s Nest, is nestled high in the cliffs above the idyllic Amalfi Coast. He shared this seaside villa with his partner of fifty-four years, Howard Austin, who died in 2003 at the age of seventy-four. There, Gore and Howard entertained a glittering assortment of notables over the years, among them Susan Sarandon [A&U, October 2002], Mick Jagger, Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, and Greta Garbo. After Austin’s death, and owing to Vidal’s health problems (he had knee-replacement surgery a year ago), he has decided to sell the villa.
Today, Vidal’s stellar guests are A&U’s photographer and myself. We are greeted at the door by Norberto, his personal chef and houseman, and ushered into a grand rectangular living room. It is filled with artifacts, paintings, and antiques. The room is tidy, yet the dark wooden floors add to its air of heaviness. It is dominated by a large rattan coffee table, where a lively arrangement of white orchids sprays out over it. Several buttless ceramic ashtrays lay on the table alongside such publications as Mad magazine and an Italian-language copy of Vidal’s 1981 novel, Creation. In one corner of the room, the warm glow of two lamps illuminate a collection of framed photographs of family and friends that sit on an antique bureau. I am drawn to the 8 x 10 sepia tone image of Amelia Earhart which is signed to Gore. Other photos include Gore with Princess Margaret, Gore with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and a group shot of Gore, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Slumped on its side, at the end, is a George W. Bush doll.
Soon we hear the stairs in the other room begin to creak in a measured cadence. It must be Vidal. When he appears, his gait’s slow and he uses a cane. I didn’t expect this lack of vitality. As Vidal nears the few steps that lead down into the living room, I ask if I can help. He quickly retorts with his trademark dry wit: “No, gravity does that.” Looking smart-casual, Gore’s clad in gray slacks, a vivid red-and-blue checkered shirt, a cobalt-blue tweed sportscoat, and Italian house shoes. As we settle, I inquire about the George W. Bush doll. He says it was a gift from Paul Newman, a long-time friend. “Press it where its heart should be,” he instructs. The chatty doll spews Bushisms, which makes us all chuckle. Gore sets himself in one of the swirling red and gold floral wing-back chairs. The truth-monger who courts controversy is genteel, sophisticated, and cool. Though on this day, it seems he is a bit low.
How has the AIDS epidemic impacted Vidal? “I don’t suppose any more or any less than it has anyone else. I approach it more from a political point of view. That’s what interests me,” he says, his arms resting comfortably on the armchair. “How little did Ronald Reagan wake up to it just before his last snooze. So, our government has come late. I thought that was pretty shameful.” Vidal has spoken out about this on many occasions. “I know a thousand people, I suppose, who’ve died from it but the only person that I knew well was my nephew, Hugh Steers [A&U, September 1996], who was a magnificent painter.”
Gore refers to Steers in his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest. Steers was in his early thirties when he died in the mid-nineties. His later works focused on the terror of AIDS, depicting the isolation and horror he experienced with the slow decay of his body. Steers had several large exhibitions before he died. “He did a series of paintings of families sitting around at dinner tables where everybody’s got a paper bag on their head. You remember those pictures,” he presses. “He was HIV-positive for something like twelve years, which was almost the maximum anybody knew of [at the time]. His brother, Burr, lives here [in Los Angeles] and is coming by later.” (Burr Steers directed the film Igby Goes Down, costarring Susan Sarandon.) Sometimes, Gore doesn’t quite complete his sentences, assuming it’s obvious to the listener. But he does have the knack, after he drops a bomb, of pausing in order to see if his audience enjoys the story, then tears into a full grin, his eyes sparkling.
The phone rings and he contemplates momentarily which line is ringing. Norberto answers it from the kitchen. “I was living in San Francisco where, frankly, everybody I used to know is gone. I didn’t see them every day but I would see them over the years,” he recalls, as his hand grazes through his fine silver locks. “No, it’s the politics that has fueled homophobia, which is always latent in this great land of ours. And I think the politics of it is pretty shameful, but typical. We have to thank our fundamentalist Christians for the war on sex, as we can thank them for the current Presidency. It’s been fueled by their rage and ignorance. ‘It’s the Lord striking back’ as they like to tell us. So to me it’s a political mess, though we would have had the mess anyway—but it just added to the mess.” Vidal looks off in the distance through the French doors that open onto the large red-tiled patio.
Vidal is surprised to hear about the exorbitant number of American youth who are seroconverting. “I had no idea, and I’m fairly well read. I sometimes finish The New York Times,” he says with a giggle. Then, he adds in a flip manner, “Not often, but occasionally. But now I’ve got cataracts so I’ve got an excuse.” (After our interview, Gore had successful cataract surgery and is doing just fine.) I inquire about his health. “It’s good. I’m only eighty, for god’s sake. I’m in the springtime of my senescence.” He grins like Jack Nicholson’s character, the Joker, in Batman.
Could there already be an AIDS cure which is being suppressed? “Well, I love a conspiracy, and everything in the United States—to get that subject out of the way—is a conspiracy. What happened in Florida in the 2000 election was a conspiracy,” he claims, “naked to even the most cat-a-rac-tic [he deliberately stretches the word] eye. Ditto what happened in Ohio in the last election. This is a country based on advertising. What is advertising, after all, but a conspiracy to sell you stuff that is probably not good for you?” Vidal sits forward, crosses ankles, and looks straight into my eyes. This is pure Gore. The man is in top form. “Every child has been warned that everything he sees on television is a conspiracy to make money for someone. Everything is a conspiracy and everybody knows it. We have a country in which no one believes what you’re saying unless you touch hot buttons, like AIDS, pedophilia, incest, and race. Now this makes it very hard for those of us who try to tell the truth. People believe that we’re just selling snake oil, too.”
As a maverick thinker and iconoclast, Vidal pulls our leaders, saints, and heroes off their pedestals and exposes their true nature as flawed human beings, just like the rest of us. In this celebrity-obsessed society, that is refreshing. Eagerly I ask what his take is on Bush and the current administration’s role in the AIDS war. “Bush’s response would be that he’d probably want to execute all homosexuals. ‘No more AIDS,’ he would say....” Gore’s voice trails off. “No,” he adds in a low voice, “if there’d been an earlier recognition of the AIDS threat, the various cocktails would have come along much sooner. I’m sure the signs were all there, but there was just a veil of silence about the subject. It’s not enough to say, ‘Just say no’ or ‘Practice safe sex,’” he barks. “There should have been an all-out attack on it. But remember, AIDS was and still is associated with two hated minorities: the faggots and the Africans. This administration would love it if they all died. And so you’re up against ignorance and stupidity and malevolence, which is how I would describe our current government.”
Though feisty, Gore projects an aura of melancholy. When I express my condolences over Howard’s death, Gore interrupts my “sorry” and tenderly says with a crack in his voice, “So was I.” He pauses. “At my age there is no replacement, you know. You accept absence as what it is: absence.” He whispers this word in a tone of profound finality, then concludes, “And there’s nothing to be done about it.”
Gore nods pensively as he gazes at the bureau behind him which houses the numerous framed photographs. One is a striking portrait of Howard seated, gently leaning on an umbrella with a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers. “There’s what killed him,” he declares, pausing for me to take in the photograph, then utters disdainfully, “Cigarettes.” There’s a brief silence. Howard was a chain-smoker since he was fourteen, and he tried many methods to kick the habit, but couldn’t break the craving. “I was just looking through his drawers upstairs and he even had some kind of disk to help break the addiction. Everything failed after the first lung operation. The moment he was off the operating table he found a cigarette somewhere and was puffing away,” recounts Vidal, his hands folded resting on his lap, as if resigned. “After the second operation for brain cancer, same thing. I made a scene, tried to stop him and I couldn’t. Then I thought, ‘Well, we know where this is going. If he wants to be comfortable, be comfortable.’” Knowing that he is a self-described “born-again atheist,” I query Gore to see if there is any point in asking him about an afterlife. He glumly replies, “Well, when you find it, do send me a note….”
Despite some challenges, Vidal is active as ever. He writes every morning, and, earlier this year, he rewrote and produced his 1960s play, On the March to the Sea, for a run at Duke University. He’s hoping it will move to Broadway. And he is ready to pen his second volume of memoirs, the second forty years of his life. The only problem, he says, is that this time around there are many more obituaries, which is extremely difficult to confront.
As we near the end of our interview, we begin to pack our gear. Gore picks up the telephone intercom and requests his daily shot of Macallans Whiskey. He tilts the phone, looks at us and says, “What will you have?” Surprised by his graciousness, we glance at one another, and select our beverages. During our afternoon “tea,” our discussion touches on Randy Shilts’s book, And The Band Played On. “Randy, I thought, was sort of deranged,” Gore asserts. “He constantly attacked me when I was running for the Senate because I would not run as the ‘gay’ candidate. I said I don’t even use that word, much less identify myself as that. And he was identifying himself as the only gay national correspondent of this or that—some nonsense. He was going around shrieking and attacking people. I explained that I come from a world where we have other ways of identifying ourselves. It’s often by what we do, our work. We don’t have to identify ourselves by our sex lives.” Vidal is passionate in his belief that there is no such thing as a homosexual person. “Homosexual is an adjective, not a noun,” he insists.
In time, he predicts immunities for HIV will develop in the population naturally, as they have over many millennia with other diseases. “I know a lot of people in generations earlier, in my family, who were syphilitic, and none of us have ever been born with any sign of it. We worked out antibodies as people did in the 1300s with the Black Plague, which was far worse than AIDS in that it killed half of Europe. The human body does that by itself,” he explains. “And today, we have ways of helping to make it happen a little faster.” I’m impressed with Gore’s positive outlook. I sure hope this renowned storyteller is speaking the truth.
A million thanks to Matthew Hetznecker for his assistance with the interview.
Dann Dulin interviewed actor and singer Jim Verraros for the July issue.
THE DOOR TO GORE
Do you have a favorite movie of all time?
Well, nobody involved in movies can have that. First of all, I’ve seen so many. [He pauses.] I’d say the one that I like to play and replay is a piece of British propaganda made in the thirties called That Hamilton Woman about Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton with the newly married Olivier and Vivien Leigh. It’s a wonderful movie.
Of the many people you have known, is there one in particular who impressed you or inspired you the most?
Well, the one person that I most admire in an all around way was Eleanor Roosevelt. She was an anecdote, certainly, to my grandfather, and she was my neighbor on the Hudson.
When I ran for Congress she sort of took over my campaign in the District, five counties and I got the most votes of any Democratic since 1910 when Franklin had run for the State Senate from Duchess County. She told [me] a funny story once. Her first campaign was in 1910, and she came home one day to Hyde Park, burst in on Franklin and said [he uses his high register to imitate Eleanor], ‘Do you know, Franklin, that they are buying votes with money here in Duchess County?! ‘Don’t worry, dear, the Republicans are buying them too.’ I began to understand politics.
Do you have a favorite city?
No longer. New York in the 40s, Rome in the 50s and 60s. Paris in the 70s, maybe. Bangkok, many a winter.
What are you most proud of?
I take no pride. I don’t measure things that way. Jackie came up with an answer to that. The question wasn’t asked quite like that but I think it was somebody like Mike Nichols who asked her, ‘What is your greatest achievement?’ And her answer was very quick, ‘After what I have gone through, the fact that I am not insane.’
What is a favorite word phrase?
I don’t use the Internet but there are some fifty Vidal sites and none of them mine. There’s one that quotes witty things that I’m supposed to have said but most of them a) are not witty and b) I never said them. My favorite came out of an English site: Somebody says to me, ‘Have a nice day now,’ and I say, ‘Sorry but I have other plans.’ I know claim that one.
If you had a choice to have a dinner date with anyone from history, who would it be?
[He ponders] Hmmm….. David Hume.
Name one of your bad habits.
Not listening, or incontinent listening. In other words, I’m so busy listening to all the other conversations in the room I miss what’s being said to me. I’m trying to absorb everything that is going on.
Name your favorite screen actress.
Bette Davis, but Garbo was the most beautiful.
Name your favorite screen actor.
Name your favorite current film.
I like Kinsey.
What’s your biggest disappointment?
I suppose being born…. [He laughs.] I liked it so much before.
What next historical figure would you like to write about?
Theoradora and Justinian, this hooker and this politician who become the Emperor and Empress of the East, and together with her girlfriend, who marries the great General Bellasarris, they put together the Roman Empire, West and East. They unite the two churches for a little time. [He sighs.] They were the most interesting couple probably in history. I have a lot of material on it. I’m toying with the idea. It deals with everything I rather like to deal with: religion, Imperial notions and manifestations, how to govern, and every aspect of sex. So I think that’s a possibility.
Of your material possessions, what do you cherish the most?
A book of matches. I’d like to burn them all and be a Buddhist with a cup filled with Uncle Sam’s rice.
What would you like to be doing in ten years from today?
I won’t be too busy ‘doing,’ I’ll be in Rock Creek Cemetery with Howard.
How do you define love?
Oh, I would never try [he says with impish delight]. I avoid people who talk about it though. That was one of the things drove me away from Anais Nin. Boiling with hate and envy, she talked about nothing but love. That’s one of those signs. “Watch Out.” When you hear, ‘I’m a very loving person’ -- just run! [He chuckles and gives a sidelong glance.]
How do you want to be remembered?
Oh, good heavens. Not at all.
Gore Gives His Thoughts On Those Who’ve Touched His Life
Paul Newman – a friend forever
Jack Kennedy – great charmer and wit, wonderfully funny. One thing that he and I and Jackie, the three of us had in common was the same black sense of humor; a very somber sense of humor and I will not give you any examples. Well, I’ll give you one. We were sitting at a horse show in a big amphitheatre. Jack liked to talk about assassination. He was rather hipped on it and how easy it was. We got stuck at this horse show, thanks to Jackie, and he was ready for murder because we couldn’t get out for an hour. So we’re side by side, and we’re gossiping. Several thousand people are staring at him, horses are going by and Jackie is staring back at the horses, and I said, We were talking about a book of Edgar Wallace, 24 hours, where they threaten to kill the Prime Minister at Downing Street within twenty-four hours. Jack gives me the whole plot. We have plenty of time to exchange plots. Twenty-four hours comes and goes, and the Prime Minister’s still alive. Jack said, [he dons JFK’s Boston accent], ‘Then the phone rings and he picks it up and he’s electrocuted.’ And Jack thought that was a merry ending to 24 hours. And I said, speaking of assassination, Look how easy it’d be to shoot you. I mean, just somebody sitting over there. Then I said, They’d probably miss you and hit me. [Gore mimics JFK again] ‘No great loss.’ [Gore laughs.]
In the Capote league. They even looked alike.
Glorious. I laughed more with him than with anyone I’ve ever known. We had the same kind of humor even more than Jack, because Jack’s humor was more on one line. “The Bird” [Gore’s nickname for Tennessee] could just go flapping off in any direction because he was all the characters he wrote.
Ah, she was great! Paranoid, absolute paranoid. One day she saw two grips, a mile away at the end of the studio, chuckling over something about playing the horses. [Gore imitates that raspy Davis voice] ‘They’re laughing at me! They say I’m a bad actress.’ She’d really go into tirades like that. And she never believed that we all didn’t know that she was the greatest film actress. Ever. That to one side, she was what she played in a funny way.
Well, a pretty good friend. It’s the best I can describe him.
Her first play was my last play on Broadway, An Evening With Richard Nixon, 1972. And you knew she was something even then. She was very young. None of us realized that no one in the New York audience wanted to spend an evening with Richard Nixon! This is where a title can do you in.
There he is [Gore indicates a photograph on the mantle taken in Ravello]. That’s the last time we saw each other. He came over to say Goodbye. He had an island off Positano and once a week he’d come see us and swim in the pool, have lunch. Once a week we’d go to the island. This was the last trip to the house. He was going back to the hospital in America. He had murderous feelings toward the gay community and I could quite join him. He was criticized for not blabbing, blabbing, blabbing that he had AIDS. He said first of all, I don’t talk about these things in public. It’s no one’s business. Then he said, ‘Remember, all my property is in America.’ He had owned horse farms in Maryland, outside Washington. He had a lot of property, which he had a sister and a brother-in-law look after. Anyone with AIDS was not allowed into the United States, so he couldn’t say that he had it. He had to keep denying. Nobody would take that into account. That was too sensible a reason. Once again, the United States government was doing its unpleasant job.
Name one word to describe Gore Vidal.
Lee-baaaa-raaaa [he playfully elongates the word, Libra]. That’s for your horoscope fans.