Gore Vidal was a kind, sweet man. His gruffness masked his vulnerability,
We first met in 1976 in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was meeting the producer of the film “Shampoo,” Lester Persky, who was taking me to the Oscars. Lester had not yet arrived, and so I was left alone with the infamous, handsome Gore Vidal, whom I was to meet while waiting for Lester.
Gore put me at ease immediately and asked about my career. At first I thought I was on a casting session, but then I realized he was just trying to assuage my nervousness. His voice was mellifluous and had a one-of-a kind timbre that resonated long after he had spoken. That timbre touched your heart.
His longtime companion Howard Austen was a friend of mine as well, and we began to chat about him.
“Howard tells me you dated Peter Sellers,” Gore said.
“That was where I first met Howard. We all hung out and liked to laugh.”
“Howard could make one laugh,” Gore, who loved a good joke, said.
Years passed until Gore and I would meet up again.
I was now living in New York and read that Gore was in town and staying at the Plaza. M Magazine was my client, and I was doing a series of interviews with writers, so I dropped off some of my interviews at the Plaza with a note to Howard asking if Gore would grant me an interview.
My most recent interview had been of Norman Mailer, and M had put Norman on its cover with the logo “The Power of Sex.” I knew this would pique Gore’s interest. Sure enough, Howard called within the hour.
“When did you become a writer?” he asked.
“When I left Hollywood and quit auditioning,” I said. “So will Gore do an interview with me? M would love to have him.”
“Problem — we are flying to L.A. in a few days.”
So, in a few days I was on a plane to L.A. courtesy of M and put up at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Gore’s publicist coordinated the interview and arranged that Gore would take me to lunch at the Polo Lounge, where ironically Gore and I had met some 14 years before.
Gore was the perfect gentleman, while I felt like Eliza Doolittle. We had a delicious lunch of Cobb salads which he graciously paid for — even though I offered as I was on an expense account. We then moved to his suite where we did the interview, and to the gardens where Gore allowed me to be photographed with him.
During the interview, Gore referred to Norman several times, and it was apparent he knew about Mailer and me and our clandestine (or not-so-clandestine) love affair. When I returned to New York, Norman was eager to read the transcript, as he had been eager to see the questions I had prepared.
Norman was like a child with each new interview I conducted and loved to see the written words morph out of a few questions. And I had brought his nemesis — whom he secretly worshipped — Gore Vidal to the table on my own and this made Norman proud.
It was now 1990. While Norman was teaching me writing and journalism, he was also using me as his publicist in that I would query magazines on his behalf, get the assignment and do the interview.
One night I had an idea.
“Norman, why don’t I interview you with Gore Vidal in a conversation?”
“He’d never do it,” Norman said.
“I want to try. I’ll write to Howard at their home in Ravello.”
“What good would that do?”
“Don’t be negative. It would be planting the seed. Gore and Howard come through New York a lot.”
“Go ahead,” Norman said. “It’s your dime. He’ll want money.” (Gore never asked for a cent.)
And so I wrote to Howard Austen, and nothing happened. Months passed.
Then one day Norman called excitedly. “I’m going to see Gore tomorrow night. It’s Paul Newman’s birthday party. He’ll be there.”
And so Gore agreed to do the interview the following morning. Fortunately, I had prepared my questions and read most of his work. The Plaza loaned us a suite and I arranged for a friend, Bettina Cirone, to take photos. Still, I had no magazine attached and was producing this on my own.
Terrified that I would fail, I just pushed forward and realized Gore was a nice person who would show up and be gracious. And that’s just what happened. While Norman, who was so excited, said, “You won’t have to say a thing. Just turn on the tape recorders.”
I was insulted, but Norman was always telling me to develop a thick skin and helping me to develop it at the same time.
When I asked them, “Do either of you have any regrets due to your drinking?” Gore said, “Oh, Lordy.”
I knew Jacqueline Kennedy had thrown Gore out of the White House one night when he had had too much to drink, and I knew that Norman had stabbed his wife, Adele, one night when he was in a drunken blackout. Both parties basically said they had no regrets as I watched Norman shuffle his feet under the table.
When the interview eventually was published in Esquire, I dropped it off with Don Hewitt, producer of “60 Minutes,” who wrote “Good job” in a note. I was proud that someone had seen my journalistic talents. This interview was about taking responsibility for one’s life, and they had the choice of their words. I couldn’t protect them. I didn’t want to. They were literary lions and I was not out to slay them but to reveal them. And I did.
Now that Gore has gone, I recall these times with pleasure and feel like I truly was Eliza Doolittle who had the privilege of knowing two of the greatest writers of our times.