Gore Vidal has known, or at any rate met, nearly everyone of literary, political or cinematic note during his lifetime. A great many of his essays feature anecdotes, always charming and often revealing, about his personal encounters with his subjects: Tennessee Williams, Dawn Powell, Christopher Isherwood, Norman Mailer, Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino, Amelia Earhart, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, the Roosevelts, Luces, Kennedys, Reagans and Gores among them.
I have never met Gore Vidal. But that seems a paltry reason for not beginning this homage in the proper Vidalian key. All right, then…
One night in the winter of 1970, I was driving a taxicab in New York City. Outside a posh club, I was hailed by a tall, handsome gent in evening dress. “Old bores,” he muttered as he climbed in. “Money and brains; never the twain shall meet without giving rise to truly lethal tedium.”
“Where to?” I piped up.
“Wherever I can find some intelligent company,” he sighed.
From a certain lyrical eloquence in the sigh, I guessed he meant literary company. “How about Elaine’s?” I suggested, glancing at him in the rearview mirror.
He winced. “No-o-o, thank you. Norman is probably presiding tonight. I’m not feeling sufficiently…existential.”
“The Gotham Book Mart is probably still open. Lots of writers hang out there, I think.”
The handsome face wrinkled in distaste. “Also a few literary parasites, I’m afraid. I doubt I could control myself if I spotted Truman’s malicious mug leering in my direction.”
“Well, maybe the White Horse Tavern?”
He blanched. “Good God, no. Anaïs sometimes holds court there, fabulating reminiscences and emanating her legendary Life Force. Of course, she’s the source of that legend.”
I looked more closely in the rearview, and this time I recognized him. “You’re Gore Vidal, aren’t you?”
Wary, noncommittal, slightly amused, he murmured: “Possibly.”
I was inspired. “Well, why don’t I just drive you home? Then you can have a nightcap alone, in the company of the most extraordinary assemblage of wit and talent since JFK invited all those intellectuals to dinner at the White House.”
He snorted appreciatively, reached over and patted my head, and when I let him off at his hotel, gave me the biggest tip of my short cab-driving career.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. has always enjoyed a healthy appreciation of his own, indeed remarkable, wit and talent. So have most other people, though approbation of his moral character has perhaps been less close to universal. His successes–bestselling novels, Broadway plays, screenplays, two enchanting memoirs and five decades of scintillating literary and political criticism–would be tedious to chronicle (and superfluous in the Age of Wikigooglespace). But what do they add up to? Is he famous for some more enduring reason than… being famous?