"Hello, this is Gore Vidal," the sardonic East Egg baritone from the receiver rendering identification redundant, "is Richard there?" I stammered a return greeting and his voice continued, "I read your story," and then halted.
That previous Sunday in June 1982, a story of mine about Gore Vidal's campaign for the California Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, had indeed run. The early '80s boom in newspaper classifieds at least partially explained the luxuriant length of my "perspective" piece entitled The Plight of the Writer in Politics which keyed off the upcoming Democratic primary pitting Vidal against soon-to-be-ex-Governor-and-later-to-be-Governor-again, Jerry Brown.
For most of an hour the novelist, screenplay-writer, wit, social critic, television personality, movie actor and, what few seemed to recognize, very much the politician, held forth. We talked about his Senate campaign and the primary election several weeks hence; Jerry Brown, the eventual party nominee and ultimate loser in November to Republican Pete Wilson, was leading. Polls, however, showed Vidal running a noble second. We talked about the premise of my story that in 20th Century America writers seemed institutionally disqualified from serious consideration for political office.
In the piece, I referenced Vidal alongside writer/politicians like Benjamin Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. The bulk of the story was dedicated to a comparison between Vidal and Upton Sinclair, the famed socialist, writer and "muckraker's muckraker", who had terrified California's establishment by nearly winning the Governorship in the deep depression year of 1930.
Tinkling all the right xenophobic keys, the Republican right ran one of history's muckiest campaigns, complete with Hollywood-produced newsreels seemingly featuring every extra in Los Angeles portraying grimy, wild-eyed, boxcar-riding Reds on their way to pillage California and not coincidentally to vote for Upton Sinclair. I tried to make the point that, sixty years later, Vidal was fighting the same prejudice that marred Sinclair's run: "Upton was beaten," one of his opponents famously remarked, "because he wrote books."
Through the course of our phone conversation, Vidal never did expand on his cryptic remark, "I read your story". I decided, however, that this must be writerly shorthand for approval. Bearing the interpretation out, Vidal made what to him might have been simply a pleasantry but to me a grand invite indeed. "Oh yes," he said with the polite diffidence once characteristic of the American ruling class, "if you happen to be in Europe this summer, why not come visit us in Ravello?" La Rondinaia, Vidal's cliff-top aerie on the Amalfi Drive near the ancient city of Paestum. La Rondiaia was also where the “A List” gathered, figures like Princess Margaret, Nureyev, and Tennessee Williams and others of this meeting place for America's shrinking pool of literates and other celebrities. I quickly made up my mind that the coming summer I certainly would "happen" to be in Europe.
During the campaign, I had achieved a certain hanger-on status. Ever the freelancer, I deemed it unnecessary to mime the reductio skepticism of the "real" reporters. Vidal would thus occasionally communicate to me his disappointment at the varying degrees to which other political writers would sup at his brainy banquet and then question his electoral bonafides. Inevitably, a news-desk-pleasing campaign appearance would be chilled by the stopper, "but really Mr. Vidal, are you serious?"
Serious, Mr. Vidal really was. Over the course of the campaign, he repeatedly proved so by devouring Jerry Brown's political lunch at a series of joint appearances and debates. Vidal would convulse the brighter bulbs, and genuinely perplex poor Jerry when he cited the Governor's seven major campaigns in little over a decade as example of what he considered a major shortcoming of American electoral politics; that, as Vidal would retort, "you never get a chance to think."
According to Vidal, "if you sat Jerry Brown down and asked him why are you running, are you mad?" Vidal quizzed this queried one evening that summer in Ravello, "I bet he would go absolutely blank." The proposition seemed to me true enough, because, as Vidal maintained, "you're not supposed to ask them why they run. They run because it's a compulsion."
Fast-forward a quarter century. So many things circa 2012 have changed beyond recognition. Include among these was Gore Vidal's departure from the world he loved so to hate at the exorbitant age of 86. No more will the roaring lion-of-the-left grumpily survey the acrid fruits of American political life about which he has so long and so exquisitely complained. Among that bitter harvest certainly count the latest turn in the career of the now once-again California Governor, the-one-and-the-same Jerry Brown, against whose campaign mania Vidal so long ago counseled. From his now heavenly haunt, Vidal must surely be amused but only just the slightest bit.
How different are today's campaigns, including Jerry Brown's latest successful races for California governor from Vidal's 1982 Senatorial run. Now there was a campaign that lived at a level of rollicking thoughtfulness as dodo-dead as it was leagues beyond the expected campaign yuck and yack. Vidal's was one of those gaudy, effervescently liberal crusades, reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson's runs for the Presidency, Gene McCarthy's 1968 "flower-power" campaign and indeed Vidal's own unsuccessful 1960 run for Congress from Duchess County, New York. In that race, the titular head of the campaign was Vidal’s friend and mentor, the sublime Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Mrs. R. who instilled in Vidal the upper-crusty, good-government notion that "one speaks to the people to educate them."
Twenty-two years and a dozen books, screenplays and collected essays later, Vidal was once again testing that goo-goo proposition, although few actually understood how precisely Vidal fit the founding fathers' model for a United States Senator. Raised in Washington D.C., the grandson of the sightless Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas P. Vidal, Gore Vidal – he changed his name in Prep school to the more literary Eugene Luther Gore Vidal- he had literally led the nation's most noteworthy blind politician on and off the Senate floor. Through that familial, familiar lens, Vidal viewed the upper Federal Chamber as had the founders had, as a forum where the nations wisest, most accomplished and secure could serve their Republic, impart lifetime lessons and then, damn it, just go home.
Semi-stepbrother of Jacqueline Kennedy, a Camelot intimate (at least until an-entirely-unclear-on-the-sexual-identity-concept Robert F. Kennedy assaulted the Gay Vidal paying too much attention to Jackie), Vidal had spent the intervening years thinking deeply and writing well about the American polity. In 1982, however, it was once again impossible to ignore that harping inner voice instructing him to do what he was seemingly born to do, run for office.
For Vidal, the campaign compulsion grew more onerous as it rolled along. "It's terrible for the character," he told interviewers about the toll of campaigning. He would then wait that famously precise quarter note beat before adding puckishly, "My own is deteriorating right before your very eyes."
I didn't happen to think so, but someone who did was a writer from the San Francisco Chronicle named Randy Shilts. Randy billed himself as the nation's first openly Gay mainstream newspaper reporter, and would soon gain fame as the author of "The Mayor of Castro Street," as well as "And the Band Played On." The latter, a 1987 deconstruction of the ravening AIDs plague would ironically and tragically precurs Randy's own demise from the disease.
Somewhat blinded -- I felt - by the light of his coming-out-hood, Randy had confronted Vidal over his refusal to declare himself, as Randy insisted he should, as America's first openly gay Senatorial candidate. Vidal had asked me to remain on several occasions as he took Randy aside and patiently explained that “although it’s no secret,” my sexuality was not a thing gentlemen of my generation comfortably advertised and his own Goddamned business.” About his Gayness, and everyone else’s for that matter. All Vidal would puckishly add was that 1) There was no homosexuality only homosexual acts and 2) you should take every advantage of every chances to get laid and to appear on television.”
Randy took it all badly, and then took it upon himself to pillory Vidal with some unnecessarily nasty reportage. I made it my own brief to explain to Randy that his behavior and critique were neither fair nor particularly professional. Between us, several noisy confrontations occurred, though to little effect. His Chronicle reporting continued to damage Vidal's campaign and ultimately helped, I felt, diminish any small chance he might have had to win the nomination. I was again reminded of that confrontation when, last year, Vidal included a piece of mine as a chapter, attributed of course, in his then-latest memoir the well-named "Point to Point Navigation."
It thus happened, however, that on a quiet, torrid Sunday afternoon in July 1982, I "happened" to be standing on the Piazza Garibaldi outside Naples' Centrale train station looking for a car to drive me up to Ravello. As we climbed the stony, scary Amalfi Drive switchbacks, my cab driver ascertained my destination as La Rondinaia. This knowledge caused him to shout out in great mirth "ah ha, you go to see Il Gorino!"
I learned that Ravellans liked to refer to the man they thought of as their very own celebrity American writer as what roughly translated into "the Great Gorino." The following year, in fact, Ravello made Vidal an honorary citizen. That week in July, I discovered a different Vidal from the glossy, self-consciously measured Senatorial candidate I had covered.
Staying at the house that week were two guests, Kathleen Tynan, widow of the recently deceased theater critic, Kenneth Tynan, and New York Review of Books co-founder, Barbara Epstein. In the evening, Howard Auster, Vidal's long-time companion, filled our glasses in La Rondinaia's vaulted book-lined study, while Vidal asked us to fill him in on happenings in the "States". Unsurprisingly perhaps, one of the world's great talkers turned out to be a highly accomplished listener.
Rather than hold forth, Vidal would sit quietly on a couch in the study, and insisted “we entertain him". This could be daunting. The library opened onto a deck beyond which was a heartbreaking view down the Amalfi coast. It was a stretch to keep your logical train on track while the smoldering Neapolitan sun extinguished itself behind Capri.
One afternoon, Vidal hired an ancient vaporetto and its nearly as-ancient skipper to transport us up the coast. The little yellow-canvas-canopied craft languidly putt-putted along, we swam, and dined on fruite de mer at a restaurant carved into a cliff on the Gulf of Salerno. Vidal, who as a candidate hid his physique inside of exquisitely cut suits, was a good swimmer and led us into a fantastical, cobalt-dappled grotto etched out by the sea. When we returned, Vidal noticed that Barbara Epstein was having trouble debarking and literally cradled her in his arms as he carried her ashore.
The nights were devoted to outdoor bistros on the plaza in Ravello, where the tomatoes were luscious and the local green wine viciously unfiltered. Seated at the table's head, Vidal played every bit the seigneur, greeting the townspeople, dozens of whom would come by to pay their respects. It was hard not to reference his acting in the final scene of Federico Fellini's 1972 film, "Roma," which catches an effusive, younger Vidal seated in a cafe along the Via Veneto. "What are you doing in Rome?" the off-camera voice of the filmmaker queries in English. To which Vidal shouts back, "If the world is coming to an end, what better place than Roma?" The mornings in Ravello just felt like the end of the world, lost as they were to the hot-poker-to-the-forehead result of matching Il Gorino glass for glass of the deadly local brew.
Irrespective of hangover, Vidal would descend the steps down the Ravello hillside for his daily sea swim. On the final day in Ravello, Vidal walked me down to the sun-drenched piazza in front of the Positano cathedral. As I waited for my taxi, Vidal spoke about his now-completed California campaign, my nascent career as a pundit, the fate of California and the ongoing wages of empire. About to depart, I posed a question that stilled puzzled me about the campaign. As an author, I asked him, did he mind that his writings had been fair game for the opposition. Il Gorino smiled a tight, regretful smile, and responded just a little dreamily, "wouldn't that have been wonderful."
As a veteran investigative journalist who loves biography, RICHARD RAPAPORT inhabits a realm in which poetry, culture and politics not only coexist, but inform and strengthen one another. His latest book, California Moderne and the Mid-Century Dream: the Architecture of Edward H.Fickett, was published earlier this year. He is currently at work on Joe’s Boys, about the friends and enemies of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s Red Scare, due out in 2016. He has written extensively for national magazines, including in-depth stories about high-tech and culture in Ireland, China, Israel and Bosnia for Forbes Magazine.