My Chats with Gore Vidal on the Presidents & First Ladies

Gore Vidal with Mrs. Roosevelt, who held a fundraising tea for him when he ran for Congress in Dutchess County, New York (where Hyde Park is located) in 1960.

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.

At center, Actors Burgess Meredith and Ginger Rogers as James and Dolley Madison – and the real ones, on either side.

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.”

Washington, Adams and 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.”

Hillary Clinton.

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.

Gore Vidal with the President and Mrs. Kennedy at the Washington Horse Show.

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.

Harding Attorney General Harry Daughter (far left) with his companion Jess Smith; Florence Harding, Evalyn McLean and President Harding (far right).

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.

George W. Bush, 43rd President and his father George H. Bush, 41st President. (George H. Bush Library)

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:

Sixth President John Quincy Adams and his father, second President John Adams.

“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:

Categories: Americana, Books, Legendary Americans, Politics, Thomas Jefferson, Warren G. Harding

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21 replies »

  1. Admirable article.

      • Hi Carl: Without a doubt, this is the best tribute Gore Vidal will be getting. U R a very gracious man (from what I’ve seen here, at least), and Gore was known by many to be one of the snarkiest sons-of-b*tches in print or hearing his big and nasty mouth, live (many felt unfortunate to have ever known or met him). Surprisingly, I am very ignorant of his writing, and yet I read lots of stuff that many of his “fans” would also like. I just never got around to reading him. In re to JBK, who can ever forget the night that RFK, another man who was not afraid of being hated, called Gore an SOB (or was it the other B as in Birther word?). . . and ordered him to take his arm off of Jackie, Bobby also called Gore a “fag” & asked him to get the H out of the premisis (I believe it was one of the Kennedy “private” soirees held upstairs, or wherever the Kennedys gave their private dinners). I’m sure he was humiliated, although he would never allow anybody to think so.

        I think back to those daze of the 60’s, gossip is always popular and enjoyed, (not by everybody but many do love it), and this was one of the juciest stories to come out while Jackie was still alive. We think of Bobby Kennedy now, we think of this Liberal,
        a handsome messianic figure who stood for equal rights and all that is good and decent about mankind. I loved Bobby Kennedy, but I also know he had a dark side. I don’t know what he would have thought of gay rights. I tend to think he would have prefered to leave things as “the love that dare not speak it’s name”. I do not think he was real comfortable with a certain style of being gay. I’m sure, Carl, that you have read that very fascinating narrative of Jack Kennedy and his best friend, LesMoines Billings. He became so close to Bobby, after JFK’s death, that this very gay man helped Ethel try to raise her orphaned boys, after 2nd assasination. **

        So, perhaps Bobby was not a fanatic hater of Gay men, rather conforming to the norms of that era in re to homosexuality. Bobby, Jr. claims that LesMoines was like a personal mentor to him, after his father’s death. While I know I have risked going off subject (as usual), I think Bobby’s brutal rejection of Gore Vidal had a huge impact on the writer, perhaps traumatic might be the best word! For him to be rejected & humiliated right in the court of Camelot was the ultimate bad dream for many.

        As always, another fascinating glimpse, this time, of one of the most talented and influential writers of 20th century. Thank you, Carl. I am already thinking about special people I want to send this great article to. In spite of what strikes me as an “awful” personality, I have a few friends who find him one of their fave writers & charactors.

        • You ALWAYS leave such interesting and provocative and insightful notations S. Seriously. Where do I begin? First of all – seriously the best tribute? Oh, I don’t know – just my personal recollections. I left out the part about my telling him that the presumption there is no God or afterlife is as presumption as those who are absolutely certain that there is – and quite typically human – arrogant to presume we know everything about everything. He didn’t like that. Otherwise, I really loved talking “shop” with him. I wish he’d been in better health in his later years here in Los Angeles – I never got to hang out with him in the last years. I never entirely understood the rationale between Robert Kennedy’s resentment of Vidal hanging over the shoulder of Jackie – something was oddly missing about that story, but it was always the way Vidal told it and he’s the only one who ever told it. Perhaps he hit on Bobby Kennedy?! And the thing is – you just have to give him all the A-pluses in the world as a writer…he was mellifluous, no person I know of had such a natural agility with the English language. He was not pretentious in trying to impress people with “big words” because he also nailed so many people and incidents with just “small words” – it was the artful arrangement of those words which did the killing! Thanks so, so much S. I really love your observations and rich tapestry of tales from which you can always pull a thread.

  2. Gore Vidal could be bluntly insightful in ways that both gave me pause and made me laugh uproariously, but I also thought him disconcertingly given to somewhat shallow dismissals of persons and ideas he didn’t like, in ways that did not impress. I really appreciated the fact of his personal association with so many of the historical figures he critiqued and I think that gave him an authority of sorts which many would prefer to ignore–this latter has always bothered me. Your accounts of talking with him here are really great–thanks for sharing them with us, and for challenging him on JBK especially! Altogether an engaging and timely post.

    • Thank you – I wish I had gotten it out a week earlier, but I couldn’t find the three sets of notes I had taken – and currently overwhelmed in trying to sort through literally thousands of books, and boxes of clippings and files, etc. Too much chronicling for one human – but I am finding the gems every 4000 pages or so…..

      • Honestly get an assistant, have them transcribe and scan and then put it in a Wicki. There are free Wickis out there that you can purloin legally and use. One day you’ll be so overwhelmed you can’t deal with it at all. There’s lots of great software out there that can do the translation from a graphic image to a text file of some kind. A lot of my family are interested in family history and it’s one really bad fire away from being just ash. I keep trying to tell them but I guess as a friend’s grandmother says so often, “you can’t tell grown folks nuthin'”. So apropos.

        • You have no idea how much I appreciate your suggestion – too often, however, I find that something is somewhere and only I know what it is and where to access it. As for an assistant…that can come if and when I am able to eventually monetize what is now more a website magazine rather than a blog. Now if you have any advice on what steps to take to turn a WordPress site into a monetized one, apart from the WordAds feature that is offered….do let me know. Regardless, I appreciate your taking the time to even write.

  3. Carl, I found the entire article to be a fascinating read. I felt I was right there with you during your moments of conversation with Gore Vidal. A truly remarkable piece. Just posted it for others to enjoy on Facebook!

    • Thanks so much Jan- he was quite a character, but underneath it all I think it wasn’t a matter of him feeling nothing for others but feeling too much. I think he had a lot of damage from his mother’s drinking, his parents’ divorce and so forth – and he showed so much love and care for his blind grandfather, leading him around, taking care of him. I think he wanted a feeling of being needed, of having a purpose too, like others did. I think he made himself important by proving he had talent and intelligence.

  4. Absolutely wonderful story Carl. It seems as if he pulled a bit of Eleanor out of you at the White House meeting, but it does feel good to have a bit of “cousin darling” in us.
    You are so blessed to have met and talked with so many amazing people in your life, and we are so lucky to have you share them with us.
    Now may Gore’s spirit be less lonely, like a grain of sand joining so many other grains of the past that have drifted by a breeze around the beach berries on the dunes in Provincetown.

    • As I think I indicated in one of the responses I wrote, I believe Vidal was really cut adrift emotionally as a child by his alcoholic mother and his preoccupied father and their divorce – and that caring for his blind grandfather gave him a sense of purpose. I was sort of thinking the other day how if, when Gore Vidal walked through that same ancient doorway everyone before him has and everyone of us all will, he suddenly saw his grandfather again, and his first love, and his many old friends, and Eleanor and the Kennedys, etc. how quintessentially ironic it would be, a capstone to a life of irony, to suddenly realize that there was an afterlife. His certainty that there was none seemed, to me at least, to be as arrogant as those who presume to know that there is one.

  5. Vidal once gave an interview in which he told an hysterically funny story about Mrs. Roosevelt and Carmine de Sapio and if you can find the clip it’s worth the search effort just to watch.

  6. Honestly Mr. Anthony it must be said that the reason I think Mr. Vidal spent time with you is because he found in engaging in every conceivable way. These anecdotes are not only kind but well deserved. He was a brilliant man but he could be boorish I’ve heard – particularly if I didn’t like you. He appreciated the “beautiful people” as much as he said negative things about Jacqueline Kennedy I’m quite certain that he probably cooed in her presence. Gore Vidal strikes me as a brilliant man whom, shall we say loved the reflection. A bit of a Dorian Grey is my impression. In any case it must have been wonderful to be able to share insightful moments with him and with so many you have known. I’ve had much more limited experiences but ones that I will never forget. It would be interesting to find some of his many paramours and get their impressions of him. I think you would do a fantastic biography of him if you chose to do so.

    • well thanks Kevin, but I think it was one of those things were it was so engaging to encounter someone else with so much passion for understanding the Presidents and First Ladies as human beings – and someone with so much knowledge, that I pretty much forgot he was a renowned author and sharp social critic. And I think that whenever we all become impassioned in conversation with like-interested people, that overrides everything else…even remembering to eat or talk to other guests around. In some respect, I was left with a feeling of poignancy for Vidal – perhaps that he doth protest too much in terms of his more emphatic existential opinions – as if he was just waiting for someone to come along and logically talk him into changing his mind. At the end of the day, he was exceedingly kind towards me – and thoughtful of what I said. Whether or not someone is celebrated or famous in any way, when someone treats one that way, you always remember it. As far as a biography….I just finished one that took several years. It’s the last sort of project I would take on right now.

  7. This was such fun to read. It is obvious that the both of you enjoyed your intellectual encounters. This article could have been entitled “Dueling Historians.”

  8. Carl darling, I have read too much about Mr. Vidal not to know that he was as captivated by your handsome face as he was by your intelligent words. He was brilliant certainly but he was also no fool. Neither are you. Thank you for a marvelous article.

  9. FASCINATING read, Carl — thank you so much for taking the time to write this — and for giving it right back (in your gentlemanly way) to Mr. Vidal.

    A brilliant writer but, I think, perhaps an unhappy man.

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