I read Washington, D. C. the summer after my first year in the classroom, and it was one of those books that engaged me so entirely that I ignored the rest of my life while I was reading it. Eating, socializing, sleeping, bathing--all became irrelevant until I finished it. And for the rest of Vidal's life I was one of the reasons he could afford to live in a villa in Italy. I bought--and read--everything: novels, plays, screenplays, essays. I would have bought and read his shopping lists, his notes to the dry cleaner, his doodles on a doily. I was hooked, and Vidal pulled me along, flopping like a flounder, behind his yacht for more than four decades.
|Paul Newman as the Kid|
Later, in calmer times, I used with my eighth graders the Vidal play Visit to a Small Planet, originally another TV drama for NBC's The Goodyear Television Playhouse (May 8, 1955). Vidal later expanded the play for stage productions--and it enjoyed a good run on Broadway in 1957-1958: 388 shows. It's a play about an alien who arrives here with a sole purpose: to create a global war among us (he loves war!). At the end, other aliens arrive to whisk him away before the holocaust erupts: It seems he was mad, was an escapee from an asylum. War, you see, is madness ...
|Gore Vidal in younger days|
Vidal: The only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself...
Buckley: Now listen you queer, quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.
You can watch this exchange now, of course: Vidal v. Buckley.
Can you imagine calling someone "queer" on TV today? It would be the end of a career. But Buckley and Vidal both sailed on to very celebrated careers as public intellectuals. Vidal, a gay man, wrote often about gay rights--especially in his powerful essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," a 1981 piece about the Nazi persecutions of gays during World War II.
The last time I saw Gore Vidal on TV was sort of sad. He was appearing on the panel on Real Time with Bill Maher, and I can't find in my journal what the exact date was--though it may have been the March 19, 2004, show. But I remember that he looked very old; he was not nearly so quick as he had been; he was a bulkier shadow of the slender young man whose silver tongue had a razor edge that could slice through others' arguments so cleanly and swiftly that even the blood did not seem to know it was time to flow.
Recently, I read the complete works of novelist and short story writer John O'Hara (1905-1970), and I came across a 1964 essay by Vidal about O'Hara. Essay is hardly the word; evisceration is better. How would you like to read this about yourself in The New York Review of Books (as O'Hara had to on April 16, 1964): "Lacking a moral imagination and not interested in the exercise of mind or in the exploration of what really goes on beneath that Harris tweed suit from J. Press, he is doomed to go on being a writer of gossip who is read with the same mechanical attention any newspaper column of familiar or near-familiar names and places is apt to evoke. His work, finally, cannot be taken seriously as literature, but as an unconscious record of the superstitions and assumptions of his time ...."
As we say nowadays, BOOM!