Vidal Kicks Up Dust Again

Trouble was on the agenda when the aging provocateur, infamous for his tough remarks on Israel, visited a Jewish cultural hub last night. But as Lloyd Grove reports, Vidal charmed the critics.

10.21.09 9:06 AM ET

There were moments at the 92nd Street Y Tuesday night when Gore Vidal was just a sweet old man, reminiscing.

“What do you miss most about Ravello?” asked his literary executor, Middlebury College English professor Jay Parini, reading an audience question about the Amalfi Coast palazzo where Vidal had lived with Howard Austen, his companion of 53 years.

“Hmmm, Howard, I suppose,” Vidal mused sadly—and the answer just hung there, a cloud of muted grief.

Austen died six years ago. At 84, Vidal himself is nearing the end. He is white-haired and wheelchair-bound. The skin on his face is like rice paper. When he tries to smile he manages a grimace. Could he really be the same imperially slim, beautiful young man projected on the big screen behind him, whose photograph was taken 65 years ago, on the occasion of his first novel, Williwaw?

There had been a spot of bother concerning Vidal’s visit to the Jewish cultural center to promote his autobiographical coffee-table book, given his history of remarks about Jews and Israel. The lion, so to speak, was in Daniel’s den.

“It’s a brilliant book—I loved that book,” Parini cooed.

“I loved hearing you say that,” Vidal retorted, in a moment of comic relief.

“I’ll say it again,” Parini offered.

“Oh no, I’ll repeat it for you,” Vidal said, to rising laughter. “I want to spare you the monotony.”

Most of Vidal’s friends are dead and gone. His pop-cultural references seem to stop at Johnny Carson. When he was rolled onstage at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, he wasn’t the razor-tongued fencer, poised to cut and thrust; instead, he seemed vulnerable, in need of protection.

There had been a spot of bother concerning Vidal’s visit to the Jewish cultural center to promote his autobiographical coffee-table book, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare, a handsome collection of private photos, personal letters and commentary. "Those who invited him are, as Jews, either most forgiving, or schmucks,” former mayor Ed Koch had opined in the New York Post’s Page Six column. Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, echoed that view: "It is appalling that a Jewish institution would make a reckless decision to give a podium to Gore Vidal. He has continually displayed enormous antipathy towards Israel and Jews."

The waspish Vidal, who has always made much of his noble bloodlines and aristocratic connections (grandson of a senator, confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt, friend of JFK, step-something-or-other to Jackie, and so on and so forth), has a history of being rather tough on the Jewish people and especially the state of Israel. At various times and in various venues, he has called Judaism “an unusually ugly religion,” claimed that President Harry Truman decided to recognize Israel after “an American Zionist brought him two million dollars in cash, in a suitcase, aboard his whistle-stop campaign train,” suggested that some American Jews, notably pro-Israel neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, have divided loyalties, and decried "the hatred and fear of women that runs through the Old Testament (not to mention in the pages of our justly admired Jewish novelists)."

Now the lion, so to speak, was in Daniel’s den.

Actor/comedian Richard Belzer, for one, had come to the Y to offer his support. “I’m here as a Jew who knows he’s not an anti-Semite,” Belzer told me about his friend.

And if anyone says different?

“I’m going to kick their ass,” he vowed.

Happily, ass-kicking was unnecessary and good manners prevailed. Just how good? The name William F. Buckley Jr. didn’t even come up. And Vidal, perhaps wisely, punted on a request to discuss his views on religion. “Well, as a forgotten president used to say, ‘Hard work never hurt anybody,’ but I say, ‘Why take the chance?’” he parried.

The old man got off to a slow start, telling a long and hoary anecdote about Franklin Delano Roosevelt—“as far as I’m concerned we’ve never had more than one president in my lifetime,” Vidal declared majestically—and a mishap involving the presidential wheelchair and a young Navy enlisted man. “Anyway, he got out of it and the boy is probably an admiral by now,” was Vidal’s punch line, which might have been plausible decades ago when he first told the story; now it’s more likely that the boy is a late admiral.

But Vidal gathered steam as the evening progressed, and Parini showed slides of photos from his book—which Vidal, with some difficulty, turned around to glimpse. In one, a skinny, dysentery-suffering Vidal was sitting against a wall in Guatemala, where he lived for a time—in sin, it is said—with the erotic writer Anais Nin.

“What was she like?” Parini asked.

“Come on,” Vidal parried, “gentlemen don’t answer those questions.”

Another photo showed him standing with Charlton Heston on the set of Ben Hur, on which Vidal worked as a script doctor.

Parini asked about Heston’s acting skills. “He was rather wooden, wasn’t he?”

“Well,” Vidal replied, “if you count balsa as one of the woods.”

In another Hollywood anecdote, Vidal recounted how one of his film projects fell apart when the prospective director, Hal Ashby, “decided to snort all the cocaine in Malibu.”

By this time the audience was fully on Vidal’s side, rooting for him, even prompting him when he had trouble remembering the names of Kevin Spacey, Dalton Trumbo, and President James K. Polk. “Polk, yes!” Vidal said. “His great granddaughter is married to George Stevens Jr. What does this mean? Nothing!”

By the time of the audience Q&A, he was positively on fire. When an audience member wondered why Christopher Hitchens, the formerly left-leaning columnist for The Nation, had become a neoconservative, Vidal gleefully took aim. “Ask him—leave me out of it,” Vidal said, to laughter. The crowd was in stitches for the rest of his answer. “You know, he identified himself for many years as the heir to me. And unfortunately for him, I didn’t die. I just kept going on and on and on. ‘There he is, Mr. Good Guy Liberal, and he just wouldn’t croak.’ So if you don’t like that, he thought, ‘I’ll be Mr. Bad Guy.’ And boy, he is. He’s made a real place for himself.”

More questions:

“Would you rather write a novel of historical fiction about George W. Bush or Barack Obama?”

“Well I’m at my best with comedy.”:

“What do you think of Obama?”

“I like him. I certainly voted for him. He gives a good speech. Shows he has a working brain.” Vidal, however, fretted that the current president was pursuing a military adventure in Afghanistan.

“Here’s a question about your relationship to Al Gore.”

“I could make up something for you.”

“Should Hillary Clinton run?”

“Well, I hope so. It would be nice to have her hand on the tiller.”

“Please talk about how you see sex in America today?”

“Have you got some to show me?”

“If you could change anything about your life, what would it be?”

“My mother.”

“Whose mother do you want?”

“I’ll take Whistler’s. I’ll take anyone’s!”

Over the course of the evening, Vidal also performed his repertoire of impressions, favoring the audience with his surefire imitations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Federico Fellini, “Old Joe” Kennedy, JFK (with a special demonstration of how the 35th president tapped his teeth with a fingernail “when he was deeply bored”), Saul Bellow, Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan, and Tennessee Williams. The nice thing, for Vidal anyway, was that none of them was in a position to correct him.

In the end the crowd gave the old man a heartfelt standing ovation. Vidal sat there in his wheelchair, looking out from the stage, maybe a little misty-eyed. And then, with great effort, he pulled himself to his feet. He stood for a moment, and grandly waved before sinking back into the chair and being rolled backstage.

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.