I did not know Gore Vidal well, but I’d read some of his books, and he’d read some of mine.
We met three times: once at the National Press Club in Washington, a second time at the White House, and a third time at a Hollywood party during the 2000 National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
The first time was in 1994. I’d gone to hear Vidal lecture about his new book Screening History. With my passion for the study of the personalities of those holding the presidency and those married to them, it was natural that, among the numerous and wide range of books he’d authored, my three favorite ones were Burr, Empire and Hollywood. Each of them was a work of fiction based on his rigorous fact-based research.
So when my turn came to have my copy of Screening History autographed by him, I couldn’t help but ask him his sense of whether Aaron Burr had loved Dolley Madison, before he introduced her to the future fourth President, whom she married.
“Ginger Rogers and Burgess Meredith would have us think so,” he quipped, as if to stunt me like some gameshow whizkid.
“The Magnificent Doll,” I retorted. “One of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made about a President.”
[The Magnificent Doll (1946) was a movie loosely based on the role of Dolley Madison at the time of her courtship and then marriage to James Madison. It starred Rogers and Meredith as the Madisons.]
“Absolutely! I mean, Ginger Rogers? Dolley Madison had famously big breasts and black hair. I mean at least they could have given reason for so many pallid men to be drawn to her,” he engaged further. “All of this apart from the fact that, structurally, the story was dull. It was a bad screenplay.”
And for a minute or two, I even managed to become unconscious of all the other people huffing and puffing on line, waiting to get their books signed. After all, I wasn’t keeping him; he was keeping me.
“There’s never been a really good film or television depiction of Mrs. Roosevelt. They always show her with patience and fortitude. She was also tougher than Pussycat Delano [FDR]. He avoided all conflict. He had such a compulsive aversion to it he became a master manipulator. Not her. Cousin Darling often went for the jugular. I mean, she demeaned Adlai Stevenson for being so ineffective and ambivalent in 1960 [when he considered making a third run for the Democratic Presidential nomination]. She bared her teeth like a shark. Cut-throat. I mean, just plain vicious. I liked her but, hmm, vicious.”
It was sort of funny to me that he called Eleanor Roosevelt “Cousin Darling.” That was what her first cousin Alice Roosevelt sarcastically called her as well. Whether he got it from Alice or not, or whether he used it in reference to Eleanor’s more distant cousinship to her husband the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I never knew.
By then, the others waiting on line had gathered around to listen.l I have no doubt that if one of those highly-starched and utterly-efficient Washington public-relations women hadn’t been there to keep things on schedule, Gore Vidal would have given a second lecture. And yet, in reflection, one realizes that he was subtlety promoting his book by talking about the role of popular feature film and television in shaping Americans’ view of their history.
As I was leaving the table he looked up at me in mock horror and surprise, and couldn’t help gasping with sarcasm twice more: “Ginger Rogers? I mean – Ginger Rogers? Can you imagine? Oh, what have we done.”
The second time was entirely unexpected – it was meeting him in – of all places, the White House. It was in 1997. He was with his friend Barbara Epstein of the New York Review of Books. We’d all been invited for an East Room preview of a then-forthcoming Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson, in which Vidal had been interviewed. “He had the most orderly mind of those men, but the cabinets in his head was filled with expandable folders, not boxes. You might nod off next to [George] Washington at dinner, nobility and honor and all that, not Jefferson.”
But what about John Adams, I asked? “Short, fat, frustrated, bitter little New Englander with these two monumental Virginians on either side of him, Washington and Jefferson, casting their shadows over him so he couldn’t get the attention he craved.”
This struck me because the second part of his remark about Adams was practically the same language I’d used to describe Adams, based on a visual allusion of all the historic Presidents perpetually standing in a long chronological line, next to each other. I offered that William Howard Taft, another one-term President like Adams, was similarly overshadowed by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two-terms like Washington and Jefferson. He went into a monologue of outrage about how Wilson was “the beginning of the end for the United States. He was a worse egomaniac than Roosevelt. Either of them.”
Then he took a breath when something dawned on him, resulting in a quizzical smile: “Taft?!” he piped up. “What on earth are you doing studying Taft?! You do know your Presidents.”
Just then, First Lady Hillary Clinton was greeting guests in the hall which connects the three colored salons, the Green Room, the Blue Room and the Red Room. “Did you see the new carpet? Let me know what you think…” she called out to me, as everyone began moving towards the East Room for the film preview. A snarky smile grwe on Gore’s face. “Such a mind she has, but every one of them [First Ladies] ends up pressured into wanting to be Jackie. And of course all Jackie wanted to be was rich.”
“No,” I piped up. “That’s not the whole story.” Rolling eyes added to his snark, as he sought to put me in my place. “That’s the only story.” This angered me. He was indulging in his subjective resentment of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy., whose mother had married a second time to become the third wife of a man who had been the second husband of Gore Vidal’s mother.
I heard the words as if I wasn’t saying them, but simultaneously realized I was saying them – and that, nervously, I had just kept going:
“Now you’re just being a wiseass. You know better. She sought to bring history into public spaces, like Lafayette Square and Grand Central Station. She organized items and objects here and put out books as First Lady intended to give Americans a sense of their own strong intellectual beginnings, to take pride in native culture, instead of always looking to Europe for it. She had a deep sense that getting involved in Vietnam would become trouble – and that was before she married Kennedy when she was a reporter. I have a copy of that column, when she posed that question. She helped draft his statement on Stevenson in ’56, and his speech declaring – -”
Gore Vidal waved his hand across the air. And I shut up.
Then he raised his formidable brow – and held it there. I was ready for a whipping from the sharpest tongue in the west. Instead, he cocked his head and shook it a moment. “You seem to know what you’re talking about. Send me a copy of that column.”
But he did get in one competitive dig good – intended either for me, or for her. “I was much closer to Fellini than she was.”
I did send him that column she wrote, but he never mentioned it when he met for a third, and final time, in Los Angeles at a party held in a private home.
This time, Vidal approached me. It would have been a flattery had my excitement at unexpectedly crossing paths with one of those who shared my passion for decoding and deconstructing the President and the First Ladies not overwhelmed any other consciousness The true flattery was his asking about on one of my books which had come out in the interim since we’d last met – and which he had read, indicating he’d read several (perhaps even the oral history biography of Jacqueline Kennedy, As We Remember Her – from which the facts I confronted him with were drawn).
This book he referred to was titled, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President.
“Well, can you really still stay that about Harding, can you – most scandalous?” he quipped, at this point a year after the Clinton impeachment. I shrugged my shoulders, seeming to give him his point.
“And what do you think about Jess Smith? I don’t think it was a suicide. I think he was killed. In one of your books, you quoted Mrs. McLean about her suspicions he was killed.”
And we went on and on about one of our mutual passions, as arcane as it was, the Warren G. Harding Administration. He’d done quite a bit of extensive research for his novel Hollywood (2000) which involved President Harding and First Lady Florence Harding, as well as their circle of friends, some of whom became mired in political and personal scandals,including the Attorney General’s companion Jess Smith who shot himself ( I think so, at least). I quoted some parts of Harding’s civil rights speech in Alabama, to an African-American and white audience – who were segregated by a fence. He didn’t know much about that, he admitted, except what he’d read in my book.
Then he veered into current politics, the nomination that week of his distant cousin, then-Vice President Albert Gore as the Democratic presidential candidate. I offered that the thriving economy under Clinton might lead to Gore winning his own term as, after Reagan’s two term, his Vice President George H. Bush had won a term.
“I’m not sure that The Son,” he cracked sarcastically about Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, “won’t win simply on the dynasty factor, America being a nation primarily interested in being entertained at any cost.”
We’d had other political families with more than one member in the White House, I said; at least there would be some familiarity if Bush the son was elected. “Come on now, get real.” He was pre3tty agitated, and went back to the Founding Fathers:
“John Quincy Adams was not only Secretary of State, but he had studied and lived in Europe, then came back, then returned as a diplomat. He traveled throughout Europe and Russia – and this was all by crossing the sea in dangerous ships and taking stagecoaches across thousands of miles. I don’t think the Cowboy’s ever left the greatest country. Even our pretensions of dynasty have coarsened, compared to two hundred years ago.”
And all through the George W. Bush Administration, Gore Vidal was consistently among its sharpest and most sarcastic of critics.
One can’t say anything about God or heaven in connection with Gore Vidal’s death since he abhorred the very ideas of both, considering it all wishful human fantasy. But along with the rigor of his intellect and his truly gifted artistry of words, Gore Vidal sure knew his Presidents.
I never saw Gore Vidal again, but I recently found my scribbled notes on a crumble of cocktail napkins, on the backside of a White House invitation and the back cover of my signed copy of Screening History. And, while we had been talking during our last encounter, a documentary film crew then following Gore Vidal swooped in to film some of our conversation. Here is an excerpt:
- Gore Vidal, 1925-2012 (boingboing.net)
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- Best Obit Correction Ever: NYT on Gore Vidal (my.firedoglake.com)
- Celebrated author, playwright Gore Vidal dies at 86 (todayentertainment.today.msnbc.msn.com)
- Gore Vidal Dead At 86 (huffingtonpost.com)
- US author Gore Vidal dies aged 86 (bbc.co.uk)