On Meeting Gore Vidal

by John Robinson

On April 8, 1981, I stood in a long line of literary admirers at the
Harvard Book Store Cafe in Boston. We were queued before a large
table where Gore Vidal sat and autographed books and memorabilia.
An hour earlier he had dazzled a crowd with a speech and Q & A at
the Boston Public Library. The event was a joint library and bookstore
venture that had in the past drawn massive crowds, and this
time was no exception.

The bookstore was appropriately arranged for the occasion with
various small decorated tables featuring punch, canapés, and piles
of Gore Vidal’s books. The bookstore’s large front window, just a few
feet away from the signing table, framed the great author and, as
the procession of enthusiasts slowly diminished, behind him the late
afternoon spring sun disappeared between buildings, and street
lamps illuminated Newbury Street.

It was a long line, but I was patient. I was not going to be deterred
by a wait, however lengthy, to finally meet my hero. Before I arrived,
I had been warned against going. You’ll only be disappointed, I was
told by trusted friends and colleagues—especially if it is an author
with a reputation for his difficult nature, witty but caustic pronouncements,
and ongoing conflicts. That would seem to identify my
guy, Gore Vidal, but friends of his had also articulated a contrary version
of his public persona, describing a man who was loyal to friends,
sensitive to the needs of the disadvantaged, and a charming companion.
Whatever the truth of his character, Vidal had been the single
greatest inspiration in my life as a writer. His iconoclastic novels and
essays had fascinated and delighted me, and I felt that my life was
vastly more interesting for having read them. And although up to
that time I had only produced a handful of theater and book reviews
and one unpublished novel, I was clearly in his debt for the little I
had accomplished, and I wanted to use the occasion to reignite my
creative spirit—a spirit that had in recent months been flagging. If I
could only meet him, I believed, I might receive just the spark needed
to continue the arduous journey ahead.

From the start, the spectacle of this event had the hallowed atmosphere
of a meeting where you were greeted by a holy man—a
bishop or a shaman or a Santa Claus—and some kind of benediction
would be conferred. However, not all in attendance felt that way. As
I tolerantly remained in place, I watched a small flock of scruffy and
assertive intellectual wannabes—all young men—encircle Vidal’s table
like predatory birds, blocking access of anyone to his attention.
One belligerent member of the group wearing a belly bag dropped a
huge cardboard box filled with a couple dozen of the author’s books,
expecting a signature on every copy. Earlier, as I descended the main
aisle of the auditorium at the Boston Public Library where the day’s
proceedings began, I had spotted Belly Bag with his box of books sitting
in the front row and remarked to my wife, Marsha, “Does he
really think he’s going to get all those signed?” Amazingly, that’s exactly
what happened: at the bookstore, Vidal signed every book in
that box. And then, when that task was finally completed, Belly Bag
impertinently told the author of The Second American Revolution that
he should start using more footnotes in his essays. For an author
who was not known to suffer fools gladly, he received the remark
stoically, though he was beginning to look nervously around him
for his publicist, as if she could rescue him from the ever-increasing
number of strange and provocative creatures now gathering in the
bookstore.

At first, things went smoothly. Well-dressed city people, most of
whom had earlier attended his stirring and entertaining oration before
thousands, stopped by to get his signature and exchange a few
words with the great man. Some brought gifts and flowers, and these
started to pile up on the table at which he was deployed. There were
a few unexpected moments. One man brought him a large painting
of a sixteenth-century Guatemalan convent where the twenty-something
Gore Vidal had lived cheaply and wrote extensively during the
late 1940s. Another surprise was the appearance of a Massachusetts
Supreme Court justice who, just the prior year, had his job threatened
by attending Vidal’s address at the Arlington Street Church in Bos-
ton. It was mistakenly believed by some that the lecture examined a
legal issue that was about to be adjudicated in the judge’s courtroom.
It was not. The judge was later summoned to a hearing to explain his
justification for attending Vidal’s speech, to which he testified, “Because
he is our greatest living essayist.”

But as early darkness came, the quality of the attendees sharply
diminished. Soon, strangers wandered off the street and into the
bookstore, and none seemed to have an interest in—or knowledge
of—the guest of honor. A drunk, who appeared as if he had slept in
his clothes for a week, took a seat on the floor beside a small bookcase
and promptly passed out, drool trickling from his mouth. Later,
a group of teenage punkers wearing dog collars abruptly entered,
snatched large amounts of food from the hors d’oeuvre table, and then
knocked over a stack of books on their way out. Things appeared to
be getting out of hand.

***

As I was about to approach the table and speak to my master, I overheard
a young woman behind me informing another in a conspiratorial
voice that she was in possession of the original manuscript
of Vidal’s first novel. She kept it, she told the other, safely in a bank
vault; even though she knew it was worth a fortune, she had decided
against selling it, though she had already received some significant
offers. That would be, she explained, an unforgivable betrayal to the
man she loved.

Though she seemed billowed on the purple clouds of superior dope
or emergent madness, I paid little heed to her prattle as I was so concentrated
on what I was going to say to the celebrated author and
stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy. My turn finally arrived. I stepped
forward to the big table and, since all my Vidal books had been previously
signed, I handed him a copy of the day’s literary program to
autograph. I already knew what I was going to communicate, and I
felt privileged because I knew no one in attendance possessed anything
comparable to it. Before this day, I had seen Vidal twice in public:
once in Chicago and once in Boston.

Now I was finally going to have a conversation with him.
As he reflexively signed his name for the umpteenth time, I said—
and suddenly heard my words spoken but couldn’t feel myself saying
them—“I had an interesting conversation with Anaïs Nin about you.”

***

Gore Vidal met Anaïs Nin back in the post-war 1940s in New York
City. As a young impressionable writer, he was very much under the
spell of the older and famous woman. But they parted before the
decade was done, and the separation was both painful and bitter.
Years later, in 1971, she published The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin,
which revealed some harsh, indiscreet, and inaccurate things about
her old friend and confidant. Although she showed him the manuscript
to get his approval before publishing, she apparently omitted
some unflattering details from the early draft. Vidal later read the
finished book and wrote a very hostile review of it for the Los Angeles
Times, her hometown newspaper. The bitter split between them was
complete, and they never spoke to one another again.

I met Anaïs Nin after she delivered a speech at Loyola University
in Chicago. Beside a stage podium surrounded by many admirers, I
handed her a copy of her fourth diary for a signature, and she inscribed
the book “To John—from Anaïs.” When she returned the
book to me, I tremulously asked her if she still felt the same way
about Vidal as she had recorded in her journal. At that moment, I
was totally unaware of the fury that had been unleashed by Vidal’s
response to her book—a fury that was soon revealed to me.

She mumbled something that I mistakenly thought indicated her
enduring affection, but I had not heard her correctly. I then waltzed
right into the fray when I said, “Well, he’s a hero of mine.” Suddenly,
she looked at me with a hatred I’d never seen in my life.

“I didn’t understand you,” she said bitterly. “You say you he’s a hero
of yours? But how can you like him? He’s so cynical!”

At that moment, all the disciples encompassing her at the podium
stopped what they were doing and looked at me with malevolence.
It didn’t matter that none of them had overheard our entire conversation;
her last four sentences were delivered in a stentorian voice,
and they knew I had said something to upset her. That was enough to
merit their collective hostility. Up to that time, they had been regaling
her with fawning testimonials.

Shocked and embarrassed, I quickly retreated, stumbling backward
while muttering something about how Vidal’s work had moved me,
but it was delivered without force. I was shaken. Anaïs Nin was the
first writer I had met—and a legendary one to boot— and this was
going to be my sole memory of that meeting. I felt horrible. It was
as if I had offended a female version of Mahatma Gandhi—though
my estimation of her character dramatically changed in subsequent
years. The following day I finally read Vidal’s famous attack on Nin’s
diary and only then understood the full weight of my faux pas.

***

Gore Vidal instantly looked up after he heard my declaration and returned
the brochure to me. Though his face held a wide smile, his
eyes looked suspicious and aggressive. He had been engaged in some
of the most notorious feuds of the twentieth century and was therefore
always on the alert for an unanticipated assault. He didn’t know
if I was friend or foe, but in his answer he seemed to retreat behind
battlements just in case I was hostile.

“You have to understand,” he began, “she had written a number of
lies about me.”

I could see he presumed Nin had imparted some unpleasant things
about him, but before I could respond and let him know I was on his
side of the dispute, I felt someone roughly grab my shoulders from
behind and shove me quickly aside as if I were some useless and unpleasant
annoyance to be discarded.

The young woman I had overheard only moments before had just
dislodged me from my place in line and was now clasping the back of
Vidal’s head in her hand, saying, “Gore Vidal, I love you, I love you,
I love you!” She then unceremoniously planted her lips on his and
wouldn’t let go until he removed himself from her grip. At that point,
I was embarrassed for him and myself.

She wore a light flower print dress and had shoulder-length blonde
hair, and she stared at him intently as he began, unflinchingly, speaking
sotto voce to her. He held her forearms as he slowly spoke, their
heads only inches apart. Though I was only a few feet away, I could
not hear a single word he disclosed to her, nor her to him. Yet I could
clearly discern the game of chess being played before me: She would
advance down one avenue of thought, and he would block her advancement.
Then another route was tried by her, only to be halted
again. After a time, she desisted, and only he talked. She was silent,
but her eyes never strayed from his steady gaze.

It was remarkable. At that moment, I was viewing a side of
Gore Vidal not found anywhere in all the public babblings on his
character. Frequently portrayed in the press as aloof and unapproachable
(Vidal didn’t help to disabuse this perception; instead, he
adopted it as his own shtick—“Beneath my cold exterior,” he once remarked,
“once you break the ice, you find cold water.”), the scene before
me bore no resemblance to any standard portrait of him. Though
she was obviously unstable, he never treated her with anything but
calm concern and unstinting deference. And like a practiced therapist
who had done this many times, he allowed her to express herself and
then responded as if everything she said were worthy of his attention
and concern. All during this ordeal, I wondered how Vidal had
acquired this skill. Was it used at a young age to subdue and control his
alcoholic and sometimes unstable mother? Whatever the source, he
deployed it at the right moment; there was no one present in the
bookstore who could intervene and extricate him. Only he could free
himself.

Finally, after much strenuous negotiation, she relented, and exasperated,
released her grip on him. Suddenly, and without a word,
she quit the bookstore. Outside, she stood for a long moment on the
sidewalk alongside the bookstore’s large window before smashing
her hand against it. The window shook for a few seconds, but held.
Then she vanished.

That ended it. Without preamble, Vidal gathered his belongings
and, with his petite publicist in tow, proceeded to leave the bookstore
through a rear exit where, I presumed, a car waited in a backstreet. A
plan must have been in place for an escape route from the premises
as a contingency, and given Vidal’s history of receiving death threats
because of his leftist political activities and writings, it was not a
surprising stratagem. As he cautiously moved through the small remaining
cluster of attendees, I extended my hand as our paths intersected.
At that moment, I could see the residue of mortification
in his eyes from the contretemps he had just endured, but despite
the awkwardness that lingered in the air, he reached across his body
with his one free hand (the other held flowers and wrapped gifts) and
grasped mine. Since I was never able to inform him of my allegiance
in the Anaïs Nin dispute, I was grateful at least to insinuate my solidarity
with a handshake.

Meeting my literary hero was not, as I was warned, what I had
hoped. But although I was unable to have that engaging dialogue
with one of the world’s greatest conversationalists, I received something
unexpected and invaluable. Despite my high regard for Vidal’s
writing, I had to admit I had been less certain of his character. Too
many negative attributes had been ascribed to him (though mostly
by his political adversaries) for me not to harbor doubts. And it bothered
me. I know I was supposed to be able to separate the man from
his ideas and believe that if the convictions of his arguments were
valid, then I should not worry about the creator of them. But I still
had difficulty accepting that. How could I fully believe in the virtuousness
of those convictions if the originator of them was corrupted
and fraudulent? Was I so easily seduced? How could I be his loyal
reader and ardent spear carrier for what he had written and espoused
if it turned out he was—in real life—a scoundrel and a fake?

My first and only meeting with Gore Vidal ended those doubts. I
had become privy to another side of him, a flattering side, and one
that few, except perhaps his closest friends, knew. It was revealed
that night at the bookstore: I discovered that not only was he a kind
man, but he also was one who could be counted on to act with calm
and compassion during an emergency. These traits were important
because they reinforced the lofty humanistic ideas he championed in
his writing. He was not cynical, as Anaïs Nin told me. He believed in
the importance of the better side of human nature, and in the scene
I’d witnessed, summoned forth that side when it was required.

Though that day was the last time I saw Gore Vidal, my com-
municationwith him continued. Eighteen years later we started a cor-respondence when I wrote him a letter of appreciation and then
received a small blue envelope from his legendary villa, La Rondinaia,
in Ravello, Italy, containing his erudite, charming, and kind letter.
Though his last years were increasingly difficult as he suffered the
debilitating effects of alcoholism and dementia, in 2012—the year
he died—his powerful political play, The Best Man, was revived on
Broadway for the second time, and later, on the announcement of
his death, marquee lights were dimmed in his honor along the Great
White Way.