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This story first appeared in the August 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In private, Gore Vidal 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.
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