My Uncle, Gore Vidal

Screenwriter/director Burr Steers on the private life of the novelist, screenwriter and provocateur, who died July 31 at age 86: "He loved conversation, and he loved people who could really bring it."

In private, Gore wasn't really that different from his public image. Gore was Gore. He was always great company and very witty. He definitely was energized by crowds and by being on camera. He would click on like a klieg light when things focused on him.

I didn't see him that much when I was a kid. But in my late teens and early 20s, I began to see more of him when we were both living in Los Angeles. We would discuss books, politics. I grew up in D.C., as he did, going to the same school, St. Albans, so we had a lot of the same touchstones. And he was very affectionate toward my two kids, sweet and grandfatherly. He spent every holiday with my family ever since he moved back to Los Angeles in 2003. He'd done voiceovers for The Simpsons, and he'd gotten a Simpsons letter jacket with the characters on the back, and he'd wear that to every holiday event, knowing that my kids would like it.

When I wrote Igby Goes Down, I sent it to Gore. He called me up New Year's Day. I had been celebrating the night before, and he called at the crack of dawn, because he was in Italy. I picked up the phone, and he started going on about how great he thought it was. I was completely in no shape to discuss it. Finally, he caught on to the fact that I was unable to converse about it and let me get off the phone. But he was really positive and really supportive, pushing me to accomplish things, and basically on my case when I didn't.

It took a long time to get the movie made. When it came closer to getting made, it made sense to get him to play a part in it. Not only to have someone of his stature in a small part, but also because he completely understood the tone of the movie. We had a similar sense of humor, and so he was perfect for it.

He'd done some acting on live TV, where he worked in the '50s, so talk about a baptism by fire. But he thought he was much smoother about reading his lines off of a cue card than he was. Invariably, you'd look at him in a movie like Gattaca, and his sight lines are askew.

I asked him once if he enjoyed taking acting roles, and he said, "God, anything not to write." That's what he was driven to do and would do. Every morning, no matter what, no matter what had transpired the night before, you'd hear the Olivetti hammering something out. By 9, 10 o'clock, it would start clicking away.

He was very proud of a picture he had taken with Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut that was in Vanity Fair. Contrary to popular belief, he had great affection for them. He would say things, like about Mailer, that there were things only Mailer could write. And the same about Vonnegut. He was very generous, actually, about all of them in private. But all those guys were incredibly competitive. I've just been looking through inscriptions in Gore's books, and there are notes from Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden that are really affectionate toward Gore, like older brothers.

He loved movies. In his book Screening History, he talked about how England used movies so that we would feel they were our motherland and we had to defend them. It was a calculated effort to win America over. It's an interesting book.

Older movies were really his thing. He liked classic Hollywood movies and classic Hollywood actors. He was always contrary. He fiercely maintained that Ronald Reagan was an A-list actor. He'd point out which roles Reagan had done well, even though that's not a popular opinion. And he loved Nancy Reagan. She had grown up in D.C., too, so they had that in common.

He had an incredible partnership with Howard [Austen, his companion of 53 years]. When Howard died in 2003, Gore really lost a huge chunk of himself. They complemented each other, the way they functioned together as a team. Howard enabled Gore to fully focus on his writing and his career by taking care of the human side, their homes and their social lives.

Gore had the usual complaints people have about living in Los Angeles. He loved conversation, and he loved people who could really bring it. I don't think he had as much of that as he got older in Los Angeles. A lot of his peers were dying.

His was a tough final act. The saddest thing was when he stopped writing. He suffered from dementia, a brutally cruel disease not only to those who are afflicted by it, but also to those who love them. On top of everything else, dementia robbed my uncle of his soul-saving sense of irony, without which he was unrecognizable.

Back when Howard died, Gore and I took Howard's ashes to Rock Creek Cemetery in D.C. Gore and Howard have a plot there, next to the statue that Henry Adams built for his wife, Clover. It's a statue of Grief, a stunning, incredibly moving statue. And so is the garden around it. Eleanor Roosevelt used to go there to think. Rock Creek Cemetery is like a walk through American history. To go there with Gore, you'd walk around and he'd know everybody as if they were old friends. Gore's idyllic first love, Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in Iwo Jima, is there as well. After we buried Howard, we wandered over to Jimmie's grave. There are Gores buried all around as well -- such a big clan, such a beautiful place. 

♦♦♦♦♦

HIS FRIENDS RECALL HIM

Susan Sarandon, actress

"Everyone thinks of Gore as being so caustic and dry and intellectual, but in fact he was so emotional about the Republic. He knew so much about history and what was intended for this nation in its purest form. And as the Constitution disintegrated, as our civil liberties deteriorated into perpetual war, it just broke his heart. That's really what was the base of his anger, the sadness and the outrage over these things happening, because he loved this country so much. I think it all stemmed from a feeling of betrayal. When he talked about the Republic, he would say, 'This is what our forefathers meant, and it has been completely corrupted.' I admired his bravery and the purity of his heart. He was an incredibly loyal person, too. If he cared for you, he would not tolerate any harm or any bad-talking about you. How he chose those people he decided to love, I don't know, but when he did, you just could do no wrong. Underneath, he was so sweet and so dedicated and such a romantic, really. All of his gruffness, all his different fights about what was going on, was because he cared so deeply."

Peter Bogdanovich, writer and director

"I loved working with him [on a Broadway production we hoped to mount of Tennessee Williams' unfinished play, Of Masks Outrageous and Austere]. He was a brilliant technician as well as being a brilliant mind. I think he was the last great man of letters of the 20th century."

Anjelica Huston, actress

"He was a staple of a certain level of aspiration for all of us. He was a man of letters, a man to be respected, and also a man who gave great parties and was very socially aware. The thing he loved to talk to me about was being a Gore. My grandmother on my father's side was a Gore. She was a newspaper woman and she worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Gore loved that. He always said we were related. At the time, Gore loved to point out that our vice president had the same Gore nose. I have happy memories of spending several days working at his house in Ravello when we were filming Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic. It was right after he had left it, but everything was still there. Wonderful photographs on the walls of the times with Princess Margaret, Rudolf Nureyev, Fred Astaire. One can only imagine how great the parties were and what a fabulous time they all had."

comments powered by Disqus