Gore Vidal: Memories and Meditations

His extraordinary life story reads like a who's who of 20th-century high society. In politics, showbiz and literature, if he wasn't related to them, he partied with them. And if he didn't party with them, he jousted with them. In an exclusive extract from his final volume of memoirs, the incomparable author, playwright and thinker Gore Vidal looks back at the friendships that shaped his world

Friday 10 November 2006 01:00


Outside my windows here, the familiar clatter of rain on palm fronds transports me to Bangkok. The monsoon is early, I think, moving backward in time. I must get dressed for lunch with Crown Princess Chumbhot. Presently - I'm in past time now - I shall leave the W. Somerset Maugham suite where I stay in the old section of the hotel, while Howard [Auster, Vidal's partner] is in the new tower. Many suites are named for writers who have stayed in the hotel or its predecessor, starting with Joseph Conrad. Neither of us has ever stayed in the Gore Vidal suite with its view of a series of Klong-side cement factories bedecked with orchids.

We meet in the lobby. A hotel car takes us to lunch through heavy traffic. My mood lightens. Better to be back there in memory than linger here in fact. "Let the dead past bury its dead," as my grandfather used to intone with measured glee as he gradually took up final residence in that very same past as I am now trying to do.

In the Sixties, we acquired a new friend in Bangkok, the old Crown Princess Chumbhot, a tiny woman whose palace looks to my Western eye like no more than several highly polished teakwood boxes gleaming side by side in a sunny garden. Since one must never physically tower over a Thai royal, she had placed a series of stone steps beside her front door where she could station herself in a sort of pulpit and thus greet, sublimely, from above, Western visitors. Her father had been Thai ambassador to London where she had gone to school. She spoke with an Edwardian English accent not to mention wit.

Whenever we arrived at the Oriental, the hotel would alert her and she would then invite us to lunch with various interesting folk both Thai and farang, as foreigners are known. Apropos our last lunch I got two advance calls from the Crown Princess (she had married what was to have been a king of Thailand, thus making her Crown Princess; when her husband was passed over for the succession, she retained her title).

"I was very remiss," said the cool voice on the telephone. "I had asked a few people to our lunch but then I quite forgot to tell you who they are." I said I'd be delighted no matter who...

"Don't speak too soon," she said. "One of the guests is a fellow author, a Mrs Barbara Cartland." I was overjoyed. The ongoing pleasure of Bangkok is that people you don't know, but don't mind observing if only briefly, keep showing up. I reassured our hostess that I was ready for Mrs Cartland who was famous for her splendid costumes, intricate wigs, dramatic makeup, Rolls-Royces, and innumerable romantic novels about well-born virgins, male as well as female. A Cartland law of matrimony insisted that the bride be totally virginal and inexperienced on her wedding night while, simultaneously, her groom must be equally virginal but experienced. Millions of Cartland fans were known to debate this contradiction with Talmudic zeal. Later, at lunch, the author herself joined in the debate. "After all, an experienced older lady could have contributed, in the purest way, to the hero's education." This was cryptic, to say the least. Mrs Cartland was also currently celebrated as the mother of Lady Diana Spencer's stepmother and so, in the eyes of the tabloids, an authority on the royal family whom she ceaselessly defends in the press even when they are not under attack. Recently she had objected to hints in the press that her dearest friend, Admiral the Lord Mountbatten, late Viceroy of India, had had perhaps too great an interest in the welfare of navy lads. She was also outspokenly anti-American because she believed that we had not sufficiently aided England in World War Two. Chumbhot was looking forward to a few decorous fireworks at table.

Howard and I arrived for lunch with a relative of the hotel manager's wife; she was another British-educated Thai lady attached to the court. Chumbhot was waiting for us in her stone pulpit. She led us inside where, suddenly, the Thai lady, no young woman, promptly dropped onto all fours in front of Chumbhot who stood very straight like an effigy to herself. The lady then proceeded to writhe like some beached crab across the floor until she arrived at Chumbhot's feet. Then, limbs intertwined, she slowly rose. For a moment I feared that she was going to levitate like Saint Teresa who was so famous for her levitations that the Pope sent for her. But then, just as she was entering his presence, she began uncontrollably to rise in the air, higher and higher. "Oh, Lord," she cried, "not now, not now!" But at the Crown Princess's gesture, the court lady remained earthbound. Also on hand for lunch was Chumbhot's nephew, the architect Tri, whose Royal Yacht Club Hotel has apparently been swept away by the tsunami.

Since Bangkok traffic was the worst in the world in those days, one is never on time. But Mrs Cartland, stepgrandmother to the new Princess of Wales, arrived more than two hours late. Chumbhot was royally gracious but seething. The heat of the day, despite fans in the sitting room, did not improve the general mood. But should Cartland misbehave Chumbhot and I had prepared a trap.

While waiting for Cartland, Chumbhot and I talked of Kukrit Pramoj who had been prime minister during many of the bad years of the American war in Vietnam, where he maintained a kind of suave neutrality despite his dislike of our crude imperialism not to mention his simultaneous Thai edginess about the Communist empire to the north, the China of Mao Tse-tung. Kukrit also published a major newspaper while supervising a dance company that he'd founded in order to preserve ancient Thai dances. He had, with brio, played the part of a prime minister in The Ugly American: "It was bliss," he reminisced. "One rests in an air-conditioned trailer, unavailable for a real prime minister, and one's hair is constantly trimmed, no matter how sparse." He was amused by his co-star Marlon Brando.

The Thai royal family number in the thousands and are ranked according to which king they descend from: Rama One or Two or Three and so on. Kukrit and Chumbhot liked to quarrel over which of the two was the most royal.

The current king is revered by all and treated like a living god, even by the sharp-tongued Kukrit who always spoke respectfully of his kinsman though less admiringly of the beautiful queen and her plastic surgeons. Apparently, one day during the Vietnam War, the queen called out some units of the army in the northeast of the country and went to war on her own against Communist rebels. It was said that her troops had also leaked over into Laos. Somehow or other, Kukrit persuaded the warrior queen to come home and peace was restored.

Since Thailand, also known as Siam, has never been conquered or colonised by Europeans, it has developed a society unlike any other in Southeast Asia. There are no resentments of the European powers or the "white race." The Chinese, of course, are regarded with a somewhat beady eye while Kukrit liked to repeat an old Thai saying: "If you are in the jungle with only a stick to defend yourself and you are suddenly approached by an Indian and a cobra, kill the Indian first." But diplomacy and subtlety are the principal Thai weapons of defence; and so they kept the American war party at a distance during the Vietnam episode.

Chumbhot said, "Is it true that Mrs Cartland was not invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana?" How well I thought the late Truman Capote could have handled all this. He lived for gossip and he was also a marvellous liar. No fact ever gave him pause. When truly inspired, like Joan of Arc attending to her voices, he would half shut his eyes and start inventing stories about people whom he had often never known or, indeed, even heard of. Although he felt himself to be the heir to Proust, a reference I once made to Madame Verdurin drew a blank. I saw him perhaps every other decade, usually by accident. Jackie Kennedy, whom he claimed to have known since childhood, actually met him at a lunch in New York just before the 1960 election.

Truman had spun a number of fantastic stories to a table of bemused ladies. At the end of lunch, he asked Jackie if she had a car and, if so, could she drop him off on her way home? She had. She did. In the car, he gave a great dramatic sigh. "Now you've seen me singing for my supper!" He became Pagliacci. Since Jackie had enjoyed him, I warned her, "Just remember all those scurrilous stories you found so interesting about other people he'll now start to invent about you." Luckily, Jackie was never innocent about the Capotes whom she regarded as so many denizens of a zoo which she liked occasionally to patronise. When Jack and Jackie moved to the White House, her stepsister observed that, "This will be the most disdainful administration in history."

Chumbhot is waiting for my answer. Am I to turn Capote-esque? "No," I said, "Mrs Cartland was not invited." I recalled Princess Margaret, cigarette holder in one hand, a gin and tonic in the other. It was her gift to extract some joy from whatever hand, no matter how bad, life had dealt her. "Of course we were going to invite the old thing," she said, "but the bride's family said that if she came, they wouldn't and since you can't have a wedding without a bride . . ."

Finally, Mrs Cartland, escorted by an amiable grown son, made her entrance on a sudden gust of hot air from the garden. As tribute to the heat she wore neither hat nor wig, only wavy tufts of pale hair adorned her gleaming rosy pate.

"The traffic!" Cartland was accusing.

"Good afternoon." Chumbhot was demure. In Bangkok, "The traffic!" is almost a greeting. A stickler in print for etiquette, preferably royal, Mrs Cartland did not curtsy to Chumbhot, so different from the court lady's beached-crab number: Autre temps as E. Nesbit's Psammead liked to murmur at such moments. Mrs Cartland and son were apparently in the neighbourhood in order to check on the distribution of her books throughout Southeast Asia, a formidable task, they sighed, considering her alleged popularity.

In the dining room. I sat on Chumbhot's left, Mrs Cartland, a monument draped in damp pastel colours, on her right. Conversation did not flag, Mrs Cartland was indignant at the way the press had been treating "Dickie." Dickie Mountbatten. "All this nonsense about his . . . private life. Perfect nonsense! And then they dare to write about Nehru and Edwina [this was Lady Mountbatten], too vile, really." Mrs Cartland was beginning to shake with indignation. I couldn't help but think that if the diarist of that period, Chips Channon, was reliable in these matters the press was surprisingly accurate and rather mild. What was common knowledge in a certain world was plainly not to be shared with Mrs Cartland's virginal readers. Chumbhot, who knew the same gossip that the press was working from, said, innocently, "Have you no laws in England to protect the royal family? Don't you have . . . what is the phrase?" She turned to me.

"Lèse-majesté, which you have in Thailand," I added.

"Yes, we do. But what, Mrs Cartland, do the English do to journalists who attack the Queen?"

"Since Her Majesty does nothing but good, they never do."

I turned to Chumbhot. "What do they do to the press in this country?" was my contribution.

"Oh, I think we still kill them." This made for a more serious mood. As Mrs Cartland restlessly stirred her soup, she began on the American influence on the British press, getting it somewhat backward, I thought. She expressed outrage that Charles and Diana were being persecuted by the press when she had never seen a more loving devoted couple. She was, she confessed, very close to them and knew how hurt they were with the press telling ridiculous stories about them. "From that glorious moment in the abbey when they were pronounced man and wife, the troubles began in our press. Or, I should say, the American press."

Chumbhot picked up our previously agreed-upon cue."How lovely the abbey must have been. We saw it only on television, of course, but you were there." She smiled her gentle tiger smile. Cartland stammered "Yes yes yes... then to read in the dreadful press-"

"Do tell us what the abbey was like, with the divine music, the service..."

Mrs Cartland was having trouble with a quail's egg. She coughed and cleared her throat. Chumbhot looked at me. I nodded, "Go!"

"You were there?" she asked directly.

"Well, it was for young people, really. So I gave away my tickets-"

"Surely," said Chumbhot, "the revered Queen Mother is hardly in her first youth." And so it went but not before Mrs Cartland, perhaps suspecting an American plot, described the inadequate military materiel that the United States had sent to poor beleaguered England, fighting its lonely battle to save civilisation. "I know. I was there for Lord Beaverbrook. He taught me how to write. He would have me go down to the docks as those shoddy insufficient arms arrived."Definitely a hot day in Bangkok.


During the war years Princess Margaret was awed to meet an American giantess, Eleanor Roosevelt. At 6ft she was, literally, to the small Hanoverian, a giantess. Eleanor was a permanent ambassador for the President, making her reports, giving advice that was not always welcome to that consummate games player. Princess Margaret (PM for short) had an eye for detail and an ear, too, if, for nothing else, absurdity. The great family figure of her childhood was Uncle David, briefly King Edward VIII, thereafter, lengthily, aka Duke of Windsor. Neither he nor "the woman he loved" was welcome in England. Although PM and her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, were curious to meet this crown-crossed couple their mother saw to it that no such occasion would arise. "It's all a woman's show now," said the Duchess of Windsor to me, bitter that her husband had been given no proper work to do other than the governorship of some Caribbean islands. Finally Uncle David died and his remains were brought back to be interred: only then did the Queen Mother relent and allow the Duchess to attend the funeral.

While the family was duly assembled, PM reports that: "Lilibet and I were so fascinated to see and hear this legendary figure in the flesh that we stationed ourselves at either end of the sofa where, side by side, Mummy and the Duchess sat, at peace at last, or so it seemed. I am rather good at eavesdropping, my sister not. So I heard more of what was said. The Duchess was a well-preserved old lady from the 1930s. The first thing that she said to Mummy was, "Do you have an upstairs or a downstairs kitchen?" Mummy looked a bit alarmed. Not only does she not know where the food comes from, she only knows that it is on the table three times a day. Luckily, the Duchess was quite prepared to fill any gaps in the conversation: 'We tried both and I prefer the upstairs as there is so much less moving about. Naturally, it depends upon how many guests you are entertaining.' At this point they were interrupted." The family was to assemble for the funeral service. The Duchess remained behind and watched from a window. After the service, the Queen Mother returned to the sofa, radiating charm and condolences to the family's ancient enemy. PM again took up her place at the listening post only to hear the Duchess ask, yet again: "Do you have an upstairs or a downstairs kitchen?" Not long after when PM was in New York she got orders from the palace to pay a call on the Duchess. She was greeted at the door by several yapping dogs and Wallis Windsor. As PM dutifully patted the dogs she said, "Now I know the reason why you come so seldom to England." "Well," said Wallis, "they are one of the reasons."

PM spoke of the Royal Family with expectable reverence not unmixed with humour and the occasional surrealist note: "The Queen is uncommonly talented in ways that you might not suspect," she proclaimed. Suspecting nothing, I asked, "In what way?" "Well, she can put on a very heavy tiara while hurrying down a flight of stairs with no mirror."

One bright hot summer PM organised a house party at the Royal Lodge near Windsor. "You can easily recognise it. It is very pink." And so it was, set among tall trees. The lodge had been built by the Prince Regent whose portrait by Lawrence scowled peevishly at us in the terrace sitting room. I was assigned to what I think was called the blue bedroom. There were three or four other house guests and PM had got King George's cook out of retirement for the weekend. The Queen Mother who often lived at the lodge had retreated from the unusual heat to Scotland. We swam in an ancient pool full of drowning bees.

On the 75th birthday of Jack Heinz his wife, Drue, gave a grand evening party at Ascot where they had rented a house. There was a tent with an orchestra for dancing. Another tent for those invited to dinner. A Ferris wheel. A pond. Swans.

I should note that no one is supposed to attend an event after the Queen's arrival but PM and I, at the lodge, lingered over gin and tonics. On the lawn of the Heinzes' house the Queen frowned at her sister, who said within my hearing, "How's it going?" The Queen replied: "We have shaken many hands," which meant many Americans were on hand; the sovereign is not supposed to be touched by subjects: males incline their heads as in a bow, females curtsy. PM presented me, I did the nod. The Queen said: "You are staying at the lodge. Which room?" I said I thought it was called the blue bedroom. Suddenly the Queen's girlish voice was replaced by the voice of Lady Bracknell: "My room!" she boomed. Then she fled across the lawn.

At dinner I sat next to PM. Across from her was Senator John Heinz, Jack's son, soon to be killed in a plane crash. "Isn't he beautiful," PM muttered to me. I complimented her on her taste. As dinner ended, after-dinner guests poked their heads through the tent flaps: the first head belonged to Rex Harrison. When, finally, the Queen rose I ended up on the lawn where Rex, querulous as always, said, "Who was that awful-looking man sitting next to the Queen?" I said he was in charge of the Heinz interests in Ireland and so he was the largest single employer in an island that was not to become prosperous until the premiership of Charlie Haughey.

After the dancing was done we returned to the lodge where PM gave us a reading from a book of mine called Duluth. Some of the descriptions were very graphic but the several young men who had come back to the lodge with the house party were, happily, clueless. As PM shut the book, she said, "I don't know what there is in me that is so low and base, that I love this book." I can answer that now that years and death have separated us: she was far too intelligent for her station in life. She often had a bad press, the usual fate of wits in a literal society. "Also," she said, "it was inevitable: when there are two sisters and one is the Queen who must be the source of honour and all that is good, the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister." She was stoic; nothing to be done but one can note her kindness to friends, to those employees whose pensions she paid out of fairly meagre resources, not to mention her steadfast loyalty to a system that never in the end did as much for her as she sacrificed for it.


I read somewhere how odd it was that although I ran for public office twice I have never really written about either race or, indeed, why I ran. Well, part of the why of 1960 was Jack Kennedy who had married Jackie whose mother had taken the place of my mother as Mrs Hugh Dudley Auchincloss. After my mother and I had moved out of Auchincloss' Virginia house Jackie's mother and sister moved in while my half brother and half sister became Jackie's stepbrother and stepsister. So many divorces and remarriages in our interconnected family have made for numerous weird connections as well as non-connections: I have four stepbrothers, sons of my mother's last husband, General Olds: I have not only never met them but I don't even know their names. Oh, what a tangled web is woven when divorcées conceive.

In 1956 Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for president, decided to throw the convention open in order to choose a vice-presidential candidate. Jack, the junior senator from Massachusetts, placed himself at centre stage, battling with Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee senator with a record for fighting crime. When Jack lost, I wrote him a note congratulating him on not being Stevenson's running mate since that eloquent figure was clearly not going to beat Eisenhower; and did not.

As Jack began his long campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, I decided to help out with a play called The Best Man whose successful run on Broadway did him no harm. Some years later, I wrote another political play, An Evening with Richard Nixon: in this case my Nixon character, wonderfully played by George Irving, spoke only Nixon's actual recorded words; this decision to use his actual words as recorded over the years cost me more money in research than I was ever to make out of the play. But with Irving as Nixon the result was wildly comic because Nixon seemed to have no conscious mind. He said whatever was milling about in his overwrought subconscious. In speeches he often turned to Pat, his wife, loyally seated nearby, and, shaking his finger at her, he would intone, "We here in America can no longer stand pat." The producer, an old friend, suddenly succumbed to a fit of megalomania: instead of opening at a small theatre like the Booth where my Visit to a Small Planet had done so well, he opened Nixon at the Shubert, a vast theatre that only something the size of Oklahoma!, the musical - or indeed the state - could ever have filled. Needless to say, as always, in Nixon land, there were death threats for many of us, while The New York Times outdid itself by headlining the review "A play for radical liberals", certain death for a Broadway play. Actually the play was a sharp preview of Watergate, already unfolding in the wings. A dance critic, Clive Barnes, reviewed the play which had done well with tryout audiences. Clive conceded that it was very funny but, by the third paragraph, he knew that he was supposed to attack and did. I think his exact line was: "Gore Vidal has said mean and nasty things about our President." I ran into him not long after and told him, kindly, that in Clive's native England one might refer to "Our" Queen but in the US we never say Our President. The best aspect of the play was a sort of limbo to which George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and JFK have been assigned, quarrelling with each other as they watch with wonder Nixon's inexorable rise to the presidency. As it turned out, aside from revivals, that was to be my last new play on Broadway, made memorable by a young actress who played several different parts. In due course, I became godfather to one of Susan Sarandon's sons by Tim Robbins. Yes: I did say: Always a godfather, never a god.


Politics now interrupts my return in memory to that happy time in Rome. So I must leave Myra Breckinridge, all aroar on her lined yellow pages, while I ponder the film that I saw last night; The Deal stars David Morrissey as the real-life British Labour politician Gordon Brown, currently Chancellor of the Exchequer. The deal is the one allegedly made between him and Tony Blair - two ambitious young politicians - before the election of 1997 that would make one of them Prime Minister with the understanding that after one or two terms he would step aside and let the other take his place. Though British journalists discuss "the deal" as though they themselves had been witnesses to it, the film looks to be accurate, unlike most American attempts at political dramas of this sort. In the matter of the deal itself, the film shows the studied ambivalence of Tony Blair as he sets forth from Glamis, armed only with a toothy rictus smile and bright vulpine stare; in a telling scene with Brown, he does not quite admit that there ever was such an agreement other than he had felt that Brown was their party's natural leader: unfortunately, too many others preferred Blair's easy managerial style to Brown's old-fashioned seriousness, so he had no choice... At the time of the late election which won Labour a third term, a unique event in that party's history, Brown was not only the party's favourite but was also admired for the contribution his chancellorship had made to the United Kingdom's economic prosperity; while the Prime Minister, thanks to his passion for the Bushite illegal wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, had appalled many Britons who thought Blair should have stepped aside for the less tarnished Brown; also, Blair was generally believed to have lied to the nation when he maintained that his own attorney general had assured him that his decision to join Bush in the preemptive war on Iraq was legally sound when it was plainly not, according to the attorney general's actual memo as finally revealed.

Back in 1997 when the BBC invited me to the United Kingdom to cover the election, I went, first, to each party's initial announcement that it would fight the coming election for control of the House of Commons. The Labour Party met in a handsome 18th-century hall. TV cameras were everywhere; print journalists, too. We were led into a sort of back room where on a low dais, faced by rows of folding chairs, sat Tony Blair and his Shadow Cabinet. I sat at the centre of the first row a yard away from the Shadow Home Secretary David Blunkett, a blind man with a large black seeing-eye dog. The dog and I made immediate eye contact. The dog was an old hand at political meetings. He was also bored, chin resting on outstretched front paws; he gave me a friendly yawn. I yawned back. He shut his eyes. Almost directly across from me was Blair, looking smaller than life. According to the press his handlers had ordered him to ration his tic-like smile. So, solemnly, tight-lipped, he stared, one by one, at the TV cameras all around the room. But, apparently, my yawn to the dog had set off a Pavlovian response in Blair who managed three yawns in a row with mouth firmly shut, forcing air uncomfortably through his nose and suggesting to me that he has a deviated septum. Back of him, to his right, was Gordon Brown darkly morose as he endured the first phase of the deal: the party leadership of Tony Blair and Labour's almost certain majority in the next Parliament followed, presumably, by the premiership of the other dealer.

As I recall, Blair took questions from the journalists, who raised their hands; I raised mine, too, but he only took questions from parliamentary journalists whom he already knew. The questions were perhaps more interesting to a foreigner than the answers which were intricately banal. Yet when a mildly sharp question was asked, the ghost of the rictus smile, like a negative undergoing slow exposure, would appear and Blair would say, gently, "Trust me!" That was that. But interesting, even dramatic changes were being made that day. If I had inquired more deeply, I might have unearthed the deal; in itself of no particular interest except to the dealers; yet, politically, Blair versus Brown represented the end of the old class-based party and the rise of a new managerial apparatus that represents administrative numbers rather than any specific class interest.

After Blair and Labour won in 1997, the journalist-politician Roy Hattersley wrote that Blair had "taken the politics out of politics": he'd made New Labour out of Labour. Once elected, Blair called in Hattersley for a chat. Blair was sunny. "I didn't, as you wrote, take the politics out of politics, but I was one of the first to notice that politics had already been taken out of politics." Why? Because a majority of the voters now believe that they are middle class. Since this is demonstrably untrue (today many "poor" Americans think of themselves as in the top percentiles of income), Blair's analysis is as applicable to the United States as it is to the United Kingdom. Particularly when he made the point that in political systems like ours you cannot have a real political party without a class base. Old Labour was real; it was made up of real working people. While FDR's Democratic Party coalition lasted triumphantly until his heir Lyndon Johnson did the one saintly thing of his chequered political career and intoned: "We shall overcome," knowing, as he said to friends at the time, that by enfranchising African American voters he had lost the white Southern vote to the Republican Party - perhaps for all time. FDR's party of northern city machines plus organised labour plus repressed African Americans in the South was unbeatable for decades until Johnson - well, no good deed, et cetera.

The UK has no bloc of potential power quite like the African subjects of the old Confederacy. Even so, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can now claim a class basis for their incoherent factions, only a possible collision between Bush imperialists and Dean anti-imperialists. So, as things fall apart, only the centre appears to hold . . . barely. Good luck, Britannia. Good luck, Uncle Sam.


On October 3 1975 I turned 50, an event that I wanted to keep secret. I cannot imagine anyone willingly celebrating time's ruthless one-way passage. But that year friends decided to do something and Kathleen Tynan, second wife of the critic Kenneth Tynan, and my old friend Diana Phipps decided to give a party in London where over the years I had come to know more people than anywhere else. A club with a good cook was the site. Howard and I flew to London and stayed not as always before at the Connaught but at the Ritz. I remember I had letters to answer and so the morning of the 3rd I was up early answering them in longhand. Then Howard and I took the lift down to the lobby. It was a small lift lined with mirrors. Halfway down it stopped to admit another passenger, a woman in a white trench coat. Our eyes met in mute shock: it was Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Relations between us had broken off after my row with Bobby in 1961 and time certainly had not improved my mood. First, the IRS went after my father with a long pointless audit. Then I heard from Mississippi that someone from Bobby's Justice Department had been snooping around trying to dig up scandal about Senator Gore while several court journalists were always available to think up items about me. I never blamed Jackie for taking his side in a complicated unbecoming row but her contribution was that we had not known each other until a chance encounter at a horse show, the last place I would ever be found unless it was after dinner at the White House when Jackie dragged Jack and me there. With that in mind, to Howard's horror, I turned my back on her to discover in the mirror a smudge of ink on my brow. As I used a handkerchief to remove the ink the lift door opened and she sighed in her best Marilyn Monroe voice, "Bye-bye" and vanished into Piccadilly.

These are extracts from 'Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir' by Gore Vidal, published by Little, Brown at £17.99. To order it for £16.50 including postage, phone Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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