An American icon: Gore Vidal on Italy, Iraq - and why he hates George Bush
Friday 23 June 2006
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."
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