RIP: Gore Vidal

Gore VidalI got a few minutes today, so I went looking for video of Gore Vidal, who died the night before last. He was very important to me when I was a teenager—and beyond. I particularly remember his essay Sex Is Politics, which he published in Playboy in 1974. (Ah, for the days when intellectuals could ogle at naked women! Or perhaps perverts ogle at naked intellectuals?)

It is rare that I care when I learn that someone has died. I felt a little bad about Ernest Borgnine, because he looked so good in RED, I was hoping he’d make it to 100. I like round numbers. But mostly: nothing; I just don’t care. When I heard that Vidal had died, I was sad in a way usually reserved for people I actually know.

I found this video from the last year that shows him in all of his later life glory:

He is already missed.


Gore Vidal always makes me think of this video, even though it is really all about Normal Mailer:

There are a few interesting things about it. One is that Vidal actually takes pity on Mailer. The worst comes from Dick Cavett and Janet Flanner. Another is that Mailer is certainly at a low point—and drunk! (I’m very fond of him and I feel bad about what goes on, even though he is entirely to blame.) Finally, this video cuts off before the best line. Cavett tells Mailer, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.”

After the laughter dies down, Mailer asks, “Mr. Cavett, on your word of honor, did you just make that up, or have you had it canned for years, and you were waiting for the best moment to use it?”

Cavett responds, “I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?”

Dick Cavett discusses the episode at length in an obituary of Norman Mailer. Talking about all of their relationships after that episode, Cavett writes:

All of us still spoke and both men were — singly — on later shows of mine. Not together, but on. Vidal said his relationship with Mailer finally resolved itself into pretty much what it had been for decades: “We pass, and like two old whores on the street, say ‘Still at it, Norm?’ ‘Yep. Still at it, Gore?'”

That’s classic Gore Vidal.

And for the record, Mailer was the better writer. Gore Vidal was a deeper thinker and smarter and more knowledgeable and pretty much anything else you can think about. It is Mailer’s example that keeps me writing after all these years even though I know I’m not deep enough, smart enough, knowledgeable enough or pretty much anything else enough to attain greatness in any objective sense.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “RIP: Gore Vidal

  1. Thank you for this article and the videos. Oddly enough I only heard of his passing on your site, I must not be paying much attention out here?

    I thought he was gonna live a bit longer, but then I saw how he was looking in more recent interviews and he seemed to be deteriorating, too bad too, because him mind seemed as sharp as ever-perhaps not as quick as he once was? But then who is?

    Rest In Peace Mr. Vidal. . .

  2. @vidal – Yeah, I still found him very insightful. He did, however, get a bit conspiratorial there at the end. I’m not saying he was wrong though.

  3. @frank: Mm-hm, yeah I was gonna bring that up, but I thought it too intricate to really ‘get into’. I’ve heard him talk of his opinions on the Sept. 11th attacks, and what he had to say on Tim McVey-he was definitely more prone to ‘conspiratorial thoughts’ in his declining years, a point well taken. . .but I liked knowing he was around. It’s similar to how I liked knowing that someone like William F. Buckley was around (I didn’t agree with Buckley on a lot, and his passing was no ‘great tragedy’ in my opinion, but. . .) they both said exactly what they meant, didn’t beat around the bush about it and you ALWAYS knew exactly where they stood on an issue. Authenticity, I like that and is something that seems to be missing in ‘intellectuals’ nowadays (on both sides).

    In addition, I completely agree with you on the Dick Cavett/Vidal/Mailer clip. One can’t help but feel sympathy for Mailer as they all pile up on the guy (though understandably Mailer could be quite annoying and pugilistic), and I totally agree that Mailer was the better writer.

    One last thing, I always enjoyed the quote that Zizek would site from Gore Vidal, when Vidal was asked: "Who did you sleep with first, a woman or a man?" he answered "I was too polite to ask." which I thought a brilliant response. He was good at that, he will be missed.

  4. @karl – a number of women (!) have told me that they’ve had "sex" with men when there was no penetration where the man thought they had had sex. This doesn’t surprise me. For one thing, I know how clueless I was as a young man and if you didn’t look closely, you could easily mistake a vagina for a couple of thighs. So Vidal’s answer strikes me as very knowing.

    I really like it when Vidal says, "I understand why you’re upset" or something similar. He gets that Mailer feels bad about the stabbing. (He was drunk–Mailer drank too much.) And so he drops it. I think that speaks well of Vidal. In his later years, Mailer mellowed into a guy I rather liked–at least based on his interviews. I think what I find so compelling about him (same for Hemingway) is that his bravado was just a cover for a very fragile soul. I would say that Vidal was far stronger.

    I will defend Vidal’s conspiracy mongering on two levels (not that you are attacking him). First, he was smart about it. He didn’t suggest that it was a government plot. But I do wonder why the military wasn’t on the planes–that is the normal way of things, even with small aircraft. Second, I don’t want to disregard conspiracy theories: there have been too many that have turned out to be true. Personally, I think you can never go wrong assuming government incompetence. But when it comes to corporations: watch out! (e.g. ADM)

  5. @frank: Haha, yeah I believe that and I’ve heard similar stories from woman too. I was way too ‘visual’, even when young and inexperienced, to have personally fallen for that (at least I think? haha, there were certainly times when: who knows? haha!) However, I’ve had gals who moved me towards their thighs (I presume because they didn’t want to have penetrative sex?) and that was when I was younger, so they may have been ‘not ready’ for ‘vaginal intercourse’? Makes total sense to me.

    But, I also like how the response Vidal gives has an implied condemnation of the questioner-as if to say: "I was too polite to ask". . ."and if you were polite, you wouldn’t ask either." Or at least that’s something I thought after reading the quote a few times. And considering he didn’t believe there were ‘homosexuals’ only ‘homosexual acts’, I think he thought the entire question was silly?

    Yes, yes Vidal completely understands why Mailer started to ‘bristle’-he also says something to the effect of; "Ok, I understand. . ." You’re right, he politely backs away (and I think he also recognized just how drunk Mailer was?), so very true. I admired the way he gracefully backed away from incident. I have more of a problem with Cavett there, not that I blame him, but I seemed to really feel bad for him mostly when Cavett started in (I also find Cavett to be a little ‘smarmy’ at times, I admire what he did, but I have certain issues with him). And was it just me, or did you kinda understand what Mailer meant when he referred to ‘finger bowls? Wasn’t he referring to Cavett asking if he’d like another chair for his ‘enormous intellect’ and Mailer retorting that their ‘intellects’ would only fit into ‘finger bowls’? Maybe I’m totally reading something else into that, but that’s what I thought when I heard it. Of course it wasn’t a particularly ‘witty’ or ‘articulate’ retort to Cavett’s dig, but then I figured Mailer was ‘off his game’ that night, clearly.

    Yeah, Mailer definitely ‘mellowed out’ when he got older. But I also think his writing suffered then. I too liked his macho act, as you say, it’s clearly hiding a very fragile and sensitive underbelly, much like Hemingway.

    Oh, on the conspiracy theories I have nothing to argue with you on that. That’s pretty much exactly what my opinion is as well: it’s always best to assume government incompetence. . . but you’re right, as regards corporations-that’s a whole other ball game. I didn’t necessarily have an ‘issue’ with what he was saying (not that I’m saying you implied that I did), in fact I found his statements on those ‘theories’ to be a fascinating and intelligent slant on the ‘usual theories’, many of which don’t have a lot of intellect behind them. And again, I liked that he would say exactly what he thought without apologies and made no excuses. I really admire that.

  6. @karl – That’s a good guess regarding the finger bowls. It never made sense to me. Whatever Mailer meant, he didn’t think much of it or he would have explained.

    I though Cavett was okay. He was real. Mailer pissed him off. I think it was easier with Vidal because they were equals. When someone you think of as your better attacks you, you attack back. Cavett and Mailer went on to have a friendship after that. All of my best friendships started poorly (mostly because of me–I’m the Mailer).

    I also (or primarily) admired Vidal’s long view. He knew history and his perspective was hundreds or thousands of years rather than "this political cycle." We need lots more of that.

  7. @frank, Right, I have no idea if I’m anywhere in the ballpark of being ‘right’ about the ‘finger bowls’ comment, it was just something that seemed to make sense to me while I watched the show. . .but yeah, even if that was the intent, it stinks as a ‘come back’, it stinks as ‘ball busting’. . .it just plain stinks! so if I were Mailer I would distance myself from that line too.

    I don’t know exactly why (perhaps I should examine it more closely?) but Dick Cavett always irritated me. I don’t know if he reminds me of someone I hated, or if there’s just some ‘vibe’ I’m picking up from him? Regardless, I am able to put that trivial personal bullshit aside (I know I have no ‘good reason’ to not like him-but even if I did. . .) I still respect him as an interviewer, and love those old shows of his. I think I’ve stated this before? I wish there was a show like his on today, it would be refreshing. So, at the same time Cavett irritates me in some way, I also respect him and the show he did. . .what can I say: "I’m a pusher and a profit, partly truth partly fiction. . .a walking contradiction!" haha, J/K, natch. . .and yes, I understand ‘why’ Cavett did what he did-I guess it was just watching him ‘pummel’ someone like Mailer on TV that ‘set my teeth on edge’, but like I said already, I’d have done just as Cavett did (though I’m not as quick with things like that, in fact I often end up looking like Mailer did on the show, maybe that’s why I took so much pity on him?).

    Huh, it’s interesting you say that your best friendships started poorly-my male friendships usually start out great, but end up in bad arguments later on in the relationship, yet still remain friends. However, nearly ALL of the closest girlfriends I had started out absoltutely loathing me. In fact I think some always did and some still do? Yet, with the majority of them, we remained friends. You just reminded me of this fact. In both cases however, like you, I can’t deny that it was mainly due to my own behavior and actions.

    Agreed, Vidal had an excellent ‘long view’ on history. In fact I would say that’ll probably be his lasting impression? Not just on you and me, but I bet, it’ll be his legacy. . .we DO need more of that and less ‘current news cycle’ talk involving ancillary insight of the past twenty to thirty years. . .at best!

  8. P.S.

    I wanted to clarify what I meant about the Vidal quote, after reading it, I noticed what I wrote could be misinterpreted.

    I should have written:

    There seemed to be an implied condemnation of the questioner in his answer to: "Who did you have sex with first, a man or a woman?" His answer being: "I was too polite to ask.". In effect it seemed to me that there was an implied sentiment that: ‘if he (the questioner) were polite, he wouldn’t ask (Vidal, or anyone perhaps?) that type of question’. But I could be reading too much into it, as I’m prone to.

    I don’t know, having read what I originally wrote, I thought it needed clarification?

  9. @karl – I agree about the finger bowls. A better comment would have been something like, "Then you all better get in one chair." But I never knew Mailer to be terribly quick in that way. I don’t think that kind of whit is what makes for a great fiction writer. Think: Dorothy Parker or even to a large extent Oscar Wilde.

    My guess is that Vidal will be remembered as a rather good essayist and a great historical fiction writer. BTW: I really believe that the (small) book length (120 pages–50,000 word) personal essay is going to be a big deal in the near future. People seem to be souring on fiction AND non-fiction. The personal essay has much of the best of both forms. Vidal didn’t write personal essays, but I bring this up because it is hard to say what will be valued in the future. But there is no doubt that his historical fiction is still state of the art.

  10. @karl – I don’t remember exactly what you wrote, but that’s how I took it. I don’t know if you are right either, but it seems very much like the way Vidal would make such a point. So I say yes.

  11. @frank, HA! The ". . .you should all get in one chair. . ." comment would have been PERFECT! Very sharp wit, I love it!

    Ya know, I was gonna argue with you about great fiction writers and their potential for a ‘quick wit’, but. . .honestly, I really can’t think of any. You make great points simply stating Dorothy Parker (I do like ‘some’ of her quips, however others I find sorta ‘cute’ or ‘precious’, if ya get my drift? My favorite quote by her is, without question: "One Martini, I’m under the weather, two Martinis I’m under the table, three Martinis and I’m under the host." Her fiction? Uh, yeah. . .I can’t argue with that. And for the most part, I think it can apply to Oscar Wilde too? there are ‘things’ I like in Portrait of Dorian Grey and Importance of Being Earnest; but a ‘great’ fiction writer? I’d say you make a great point.) and I even tried to think of ‘comedians’ who wrote fiction, but that’s a total ‘dead end’. . .I think you’re right? Maybe I should write more fiction? Because my wit, especially the ‘quick’ variety, is atrocious! I’m constantly the person who has their ‘comeback line’ when the discussion is over. . .sometimes when I’m already back home! But I admire a quick wit, I wish I was good at that.

    Yeah, again, you said it much better than I could have; Vidal will definitely be remembered for his historical fiction and essays-in addition (perhaps) as a ‘raconteur’?

    Why do you think ‘personal essays’ are going to be a big deal in the future? I totally agree with you about the 50k word 120 page format (oddly enough I just finished a ‘novel’ of almost precisely that length) because I can ‘see’ that coming in this ‘culture’. But what gives you an indication that ‘personal essays’ will be the ‘new thing’? I don’t necessarily disagree, mind you, I’d just like to know what gave you that impression?

  12. @frank, yeah I don’t know what bug crawled up my ass, but for some reason I was obsessed with the idea that my comment wasn’t clear the first time around.

    I thought it seemed the kind of comment he’d have a double edge on. . .based on (what little I know) of Vidal the man. I still find it to be a real ‘classy’ and dare I say, ‘moral’ answer to that question.

  13. @karl – I wonder if Wilde and Parker weren’t better because they were so much in demand at dinner parties. I say this as a joke, but I’m sure there is a lot of truth to it. Wilde died young, but so did Poe, Kafka, and especially Fitzgerald. So maybe being socially awkward just means you get more time to work.

    Why do I think the personal essay is going to be big? Maybe because I really like the format both as a writer and reader. I think that Sarah Vowell is dangerously close to breaking out into personal essay brilliance. (Unfortunately, I’ve always found her books wanting. But her live essay on the Battle Hymn of the Republic that she did for "This American Life" is brilliant.)

    I don’t have any good reasons for thinking that people’s reading will go in this direction, it just feels right. I think what reading is really all about is spending time with another mind–hopefully a great one. If this is true, then the process of trying to teach something (nonfiction) or tell a story (fiction) just gets in the way of the real use of the writing.

    After all, Fitzgerald could have written, "Gatsby is in love with the beautiful but silly Daisy, a rich girl. He has no money so he disappears, makes his fortune, and reappears 5 years later to sweep the now married Daisy off her feet. He does so. But Daisy is still silly and selfish. She kills a friend while driving Gatsby’s car. Daisy’s husband tells the girl’s brother that Gatsby killed her. The brother kills Gatsby." What is important is not the story or even the Gatsby and Daisy characters. What is important is Nick, the narrator.

    But this is just a guess. Oh. Terry Eagleton has been writing these kinds of books and they’ve been pretty popular. I’m not suggesting that they will win out over Dancing with the Stars. But I think more educated people will increasingly choose to read this kind of thing while on vacation.

    Or so I hope.

  14. @frank: I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. I always thought the ‘story’ of great works isn’t as important as ‘the way it’s told’. I think people respond to ‘the way something is told’ more than the ‘intricacies’ of plot or ‘originality’ of a story (I know many people who get hung up on the fact that their ‘idea’ was already told/or stolen by someone else, and I try to impart to them to go ahead and do it anyway, as I believe the ‘story’ really shouldn’t take on that much importance?). I think the best works have almost a pedestrian or banal plot or story and your recitation of The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of this (oddly, I was somehow reminded of Wuthering Heights when I read it). But I agree, I also think one of the most important things in writing is ‘getting inside another person’s head’. I’ve even used that on (always) men who try and convince me that reading ONLY non-fiction is ‘important’. I always tell them, fiction is the best way to get inside another person’s mind and I think the same thing applies to what you’re speaking of regarding the ‘personal essay’.

    From what I gathered here, I think I agree with you that the ‘personal essay’ is almost a distillation of a really great novel (when done right). So, I think I understand what you mean?

    You’ve convinced me, I too find the ‘personal essay’ format to be an extremely interesting form of writing. Whether it be funny, morbid or just imparting an experience.

    I think you’re guess is probably right? And no, I don’t think that ANY type of writing is going to win-out over Dancing with the Stars or America’s Got Talent. However, I agree educated people will very probably choose to read that variety of writing more and more. It makes complete sense-I’m sold.

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