An American icon: Gore Vidal on Italy, Iraq - and why he hates George Bush

The old fellow, incredibly, is as movie-star handsome as ever; even the lateral cleft that opens in his right cheek when he smiles or (more commonly) winces at the foulness of the world, only seems to enhance his glamour. The baritone voice remains robust and musical. Gore Vidal is not growing slack or fat or even particularly wrinkled in his old age, but instead seems to be taking on the quality of granite; taking up his place on Mount Rushmore even while still alive.

I meet him at the Casa della Letteratura just off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in central Rome, where he has been holding court for most of the morning. He is in Rome to appear at the city's famous festival of literature, under the arches of the semi-ruined Basilica di Massenzio which dates from 4th century AD and stands next to the Colosseum. He is billed to give a pre-reading press conference here, but he has turned it into a series of interviews instead: with a keen awareness of what journalists want from him. He is parked at one side of the desk in his wheelchair, immensely dapper in a tawny suit and matching tie.

As everyone knows, Vidal for many years spent much of the time in Italy - then two years ago he moved out after losing both his long-time companion, Howard Austen, and the ability to walk. He moved back to southern California on a permanent basis. I asked him if he saw things in his homeland differently now that he no longer lived abroad.

"I was never an expatriate," he replies. "I was never considered to be that by anyone except for the far right. I had a house in southern Italy and another house in southern California - but in right-wing circles, that's enough to be considered an expat. America was what I always wrote about."

How is it, then, to live full-time in the United States?

"If you care about America it's dreadful," he said. "If you are making money you don't care.

"Benjamin Franklin was shown the new American constitution, and he said, 'I don't like it, but I will vote for it because we need something right now. But this constitution in time will fail, as all such efforts do. And it will fail because of the corruption of the people, in a general sense.' And that is what it has come to now, exactly as Franklin predicted."

We have arrived in short order at Vidal's core message. As he points out, he has "lived for three-quarters of the 20th century and a third of the history of the United States", and listening to him talk one feels in the presence of history as with few Americans.

Companion to his blind grandfather Thomas Gore, a prominent Democratic senator, when he was still a young boy, backgammon partner of John F Kennedy (to whom he was related), friend and screenplay writer to Fellini, brave pioneer in putting homosexuality at the centre of his fiction ... Even now, aged 80 and though confined to his wheelchair, he refuses to give up his place centre stage.

He remains the Bush administration's most pugnacious and learned and contemptuous enemy. Nobody has put the case against the neocons with more passion or precision.

Why is it so dreadful to live in America, I asked.

"We have been deprived of our franchise," he says. "The election was stolen in both 2000 and 2004, because of electronic voting machinery which can be easily fixed. We've had two illegitimate elections in a row ...

"Little Bush says we are at war, but we are not at war because to be at war Congress has to vote for it. He says we are at war on terror, but that is a metaphor, though I doubt if he knows what that means. It's like having a war on dandruff, it's endless and pointless. We are in a dictatorship that has been totally militarised, everyone is spied on by the government itself. All three arms of the government are in the hands of this junta.

"Whatever you are," he goes on, "they say you are the reverse. The men behind the war in Iraq are cowards who did not fight in Vietnam - but they spent millions of dollars proving that John Kerry, who was a genuine war hero whatever you think of his politics, was a coward.

"This is what happens when you have control of the media, and I have never known the media more vicious, stupid and corrupt than they are now."

Gore Vidal has been lured back to Italy by Maria Ida Gaeta, the director of the Massenzio festival, who has a genius for attracting big names. He told her that the semi-ruined Basilica of Massenzio was the first place he saw in Rome on his first visit to the city at the age of 12. So this return would appear to have the character of a sentimental visit - except that Mr Vidal does not do sentiment.

I asked him if there was anything he missed about Italy since moving permanently to California two years ago. "It's just a place," he says, the disdainful cleft opening in his cheek. "I'm not very sentimental about places."

Come, Mr Vidal, try pulling the other one. For most of the year, for the best part of 40 years, he shared with Howard Austen a villa called La Rondinaia, the Swallow's Nest, rising from the steep cliffs to give infinite views of the hazy Tyrrhenian Sea and the next rocky, serpentine twist of the famously beautiful coast south of Naples; the sort of placewhich spells heaven to anybody who has ever yearned to get out of the rain and the smog.

Vidal's life in La Rondinaia was the long culmination of his Italian period, which began in 1959 when the Hollywood director William Wyler hired him, along with the British playwright Christopher Fry, to work on the script of Ben-Hur. He moved to Rome to do the job.

"Further down the corridor from my office," he recalls in an extract from a new and so far unpublished volume of memoirs which he read to the audience at Massenzio, "Federico Fellini was preparing what would become La Dolce Vita. He was fascinated by our huge Hollywood production... Soon he was calling me Gorino (little Gore) and I was calling him Fred.

"Neither Willy Wyler nor Sam (Zimbalist, Ben-Hur's producer) wanted to meet him because both were aware of a bad Italian habit which was to take over the expensive sets of a completed American film and then use them to make a new film. I think this had happened with Quo Vadis. To prevent the theft of Ben-Hur's sets, guards were prowling the back lot long after production had been shut down. But before that I had sneaked Fred on to the set of 1st century Jerusalem. He was ecstatic..."

Vidal played a cameo role as himself in Fellini's Roma and for the same director wrote a screenplay on the life of Casanova, later filmed. He and Austen first lived in Rome then snapped up the 5,000 sq ft Swallow's Nest, built by the daughter of Lord Grim-thorpe, a 19th-century British lawyer and politician who owned the far more pompous Villa Cimbrone a few steps away.

"I end up with big houses because I have so many books," Vidal says. "If I didn't have the 8,000 volumes, I'd be in a one-room flat somewhere."

"Despite the terraced acres," wrote one visitor shortly before Vidal's departure, "La Rondinaia seems all house and no land, rising abruptly from the narrow end of the property, where the last ledge tapers into a cliff. The house is aerial, not stately, relating to the sky and the view more than to the earth. It is the rare European villa with virtually no façades announcing an elevated social status."

No article about Vidal is complete without a mention of his stellar friends, and it is true that the Swallow's Nest welcomed many fancy guests during its 30 years in the hands of Vidal and Austen, including Rudolf Nureyev, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Princess Margaret, Tennessee Williams and many others. Yet one old friend saw loneliness - productive loneliness - in Vidal's Italian perch, rather than society.

"Gore is always working, but with the door to the big study wide open," says Barbara Epstein, editor of the New York Review of Books, remembering her visits. "At night, after you have this wonderful pasta-infested dinner in the small but beautiful dining room - Howard was a wonderful cook - you listen to music in the salone and have a little of the very good local wine. It's very relaxed, even cosy...

"He's such a fabulous host because he loves company. It's really a house where he works - and he works hard - through the winter, and imagine he longs for company, as though he were saving up for you to come and be entertained..."

He was working in Italy, but, as he told me, it was always America that was on his mind. Inducted into politics so young - thanks to the senator grandfather who had an obsession with the United States constitution - America and its ills is a subject that has never given him any peace; one suspects that, climate and food and views apart, Italy's chief merit was in keeping him at arm's length from his homeland and its problems.

Fellini, Vidal says, explained that he had picked "Gorino" to play himself in Roma "because he is typical of a certain Anglo type who comes to Rome and goes native." But that was nonsense. "As I never spoke Italian properly, much less Roman dialect, and my days were spent in a library researching the fourth century AD, I was about as little 'gone native' as it was possible to be."

"I'm not sentimental about places," Gore Vidal says - yet what seems more likely is that, behind his granite face and those dry, beautifully enunciated judgements, sentiment too painful to expose is festering. "I grow homesick when I read where I was in 1992, my work room in Ravello," he tells the audience in Rome, and quotes a passage from Palimpsest, his earlier memoir: "A white cube with an arched ceiling and a window to my left that looks out across the Gulf of Salerno toward Paestum; at the moment, a metallic grey sea has created a white haze that obscures the ever-more hostile sun.

"As I quote these lines, I will myself back to then, when Howard was still alive and our world had not yet cracked open."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Content Manager - Central London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Central...

HR Business Partner - Banking Finance - Brentwood - £45K

£45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: ** HR Business Partner - Senior H...

PA / Team Secretary - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: PA / Team Secretary - Mat...

Mechanical Lead

£65000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Mechanical L...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on