Hello, this is Gore Vidal," the East Egg baritone announced. "Is Richard there?" I stammered a return greeting as the voice continued, "I read your story . . ." and then halted. On a Sunday in the spring of 1982, my article about Vidal's campaign for the California Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate had appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. Titled "The Plight of the Writer in Politics," it keyed off the upcoming primary pitting Vidal against soon-to-be-ex-Gov. Jerry Brown.
In the piece, I referenced Vidal alongside writer/politicians such as Benjamin Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Upton Sinclair, the famed socialist, writer and "muckraker's muckraker." Sinclair had terrified California's establishment by nearly capturing the governorship in the deep Depression year of 1934. My point was that Gore was fighting the same American prejudice against writers that had disqualified them from political consideration through most of the 20th century and 50 years earlier had finished off Sinclair. "Upton was beaten," one of his opponents famously remarked, "because he wrote books."
For most of an hour Gore, the novelist, screenwriter, wit, social critic, television personality, movie actor and, though few knew him as such, politician held forth. We talked about the senatorial primary weeks hence; Brown, the eventual nominee and ultimate loser that November to Republican Pete Wilson, was leading. Polls, however, showed Gore running a noble second, gaining traction by questioning what, or indeed if, Brown was thinking in this, his seventh major campaign in a dozen years. Gore never did expand on his cryptic remark, "I read your story . . . ." I decided, however, that it must be writerly shorthand for approval, because he made what to him was probably a pleasantry but to me was a grand offer. "Oh," he said with the polite diffidence once characteristic of the American ruling class, "if you happen to be in Italy this summer, why not come visit us in Ravello?" La Rondinaia, Gore's exquisite 1920s aerie on the Amalfi Coast near the ancient city of Paestum, was a prized gathering spot for American literati. I decided I certainly would "happen" to be in Italy.
Fast-forward one year shy of a quarter century. Many things have changed, yet a few have remained the same. The former include Vidal's sale of La Rondinaia and his full-time return, at the age of 80, to Los Angeles. Among the latter is the latest campaign of the now-soon-to-be-ex-mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, whose election mania Vidal long ago questioned, now running against L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. It is easy to imagine Gore, the aging lion of the left, grumpily surveying the scorched earth of modern American politics from his Olympian Hollywood Hills haunt and acidly wondering what in God's name is Brown thinking? Or, rather, if.
Gore Vidal's 1982 senatorial campaign existed at a level of thoughtfulness now as dodo-dead as it was leagues beyond the expected campaign yuck and yack. His was one of those gaudily effervescent liberal crusades, reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson's runs for the presidency, Gene McCarthy's 1968 "flower-power" presidential campaign and indeed his own unsuccessful 1960 run for Congress from Dutchess County, N.Y. In that race, the titular head of the campaign was his friend and mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Mrs. R. who instilled in Gore the upper-crusty, good-government notion that "one speaks to the people to educate them."
Gore's senatorial campaign had been something of an education for me. On the verge of 30, I was beginning to eke out a living freelancing opinion pieces under my name and for others in need of a certain rough eloquence. Having actually read a fair amount of Gore's work, I attracted the candidate's attention with questions perhaps a little more thoughtful than he had come to expect. With no need to impress a grumpy city editor, I deemed it unnecessary to mime the institutional skepticism of "real" reporters. This won me a certain hanger-on status when the campaign came to San Francisco. Gore--we were on a first-name basis by then--would occasionally communicate to me his disappointment at the varying degrees to which other writers would sup at his brainy banquet and then question his electoral bona fides. Inevitably, a newsworthy campaign appearance would be chilled by the stopper: "But really, Mr. Vidal . . . are you serious?"
Serious, Mr. Vidal was. He proved so by devouring Gov. Brown's political lunch at a charged joint appearance in front of a gathering of editorial cartoonists. Throughout the campaign, Gore would convulse the brighter bulbs and genuinely perplex Brown when he cited the governor's compulsion to run as evidence of a major shortcoming of American electoral politics--that, as Gore would say, "You never get a chance to think."
"If you sat Jerry Brown down and asked, 'Why are you running, are you mad?' " Gore queried one evening, "I bet he would go absolutely blank." The proposition seemed true enough to me, because, as Gore maintained, "you're not supposed to ask them why they run. They run because it's a compulsion."
With Gore Vidal, running was more like an occasional fall off the wagon. Twenty-two years and a dozen books, screenplays and collected essays after his campaign for the House of Representatives, Gore once again was testing Eleanor Roosevelt's goo-goo proposition by running for Senate. One thing for sure, very few reporters actually understood how precisely he fit the founding fathers' ideal of a U.S. senator. Raised in Washington, D.C., the grandson of the sightless Democratic senator from Oklahoma, Thomas P. Gore, he had literally led the nation's most noteworthy blind politician on and off the Senate floor. Through that familial, familiar lens, Gore viewed the upper chamber much as the founders had: as a forum where the nation's wisest, most accomplished and secure could serve their republic, impart lifetime lessons and then, damn it, go home.
Semi-stepbrother to Jacqueline Kennedy and a Camelot intimate (at least until Robert F. Kennedy, who was unclear on the sexual-identity concept, attacked him for paying too much attention to Jackie), Gore had spent the '60s and '70s thinking deeply and writing well about American life and politics. In 1982, however, Gore was again listening to the inner politico instructing him to do what he was genetically programmed to do, run for office. "It's terrible for the character," Gore would mockingly tell interviewers about the toll of campaigning. He would then wait that famously precise quarter-note beat before adding puckishly, "My own is deteriorating right before your very eyes."
I didn't happen to think so, but someone who did was a San Francisco Chronicle writer named Randy Shilts. Billing himself as the nation's first openly gay reporter at a mainstream newspaper, he was gaining fame as the author of "The Mayor of Castro Street" and would soon begin "And the Band Played On." The latter, a 1987 deconstruction of the AIDS plague, would ironically foretell his own tragic death from the disease.
Somewhat blinded, I felt, by his own coming out, Shilts had noisily confronted Gore about his refusal to declare himself America's first openly gay senatorial candidate. After a news conference at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins hotel, Gore had asked me to stick around as he took Shilts aside and patiently explained that although his sexuality was no secret, it was not something gentlemen of his generation comfortably advertised, and in any event, it was his own damned business.
Shilts took it badly, and then pilloried Gore with unnecessarily nasty reportage. In several discussions, I pointed out to Shilts that he was being unfair, if not unprofessional. This only seemed to egg him on. His Chronicle reporting continued to damage Gore's campaign, and ultimately diminished any small chance he might have had to win the nomination.
It was thus, on a torrid july afternoon a little more than a month later, that I "happened" to be on the Piazza Garibaldi outside Naples' Centrale train station looking for a ride to La Rondinaia. As we climbed the stony, scary Amalfi Drive switchbacks, my cabdriver ascertained my destination. "Ah ha, you go to see Il Gorone!" he shouted.
I learned that Ravellans referred to the man they thought of as their own celebrity American writer as "the Great Gorino." (The following year, in fact, Ravello made Gore an honorary citizen.) That week in July, I discovered a person different from the smooth, self-consciously measured senatorial candidate I had covered.
Staying at the house were two guests, Kathleen Tynan, widow of theater critic Kenneth Tynan, and New York Review of Books cofounder Barbara Epstein. In the evening, Howard Austen, Gore's longtime companion, filled our glasses in La Rondinaia's vaulted, book-lined study, while Gore asked us to fill him in on happenings in the States. Unsurprisingly perhaps, one of the world's great talkers turned out to be a highly accomplished listener.
Rather than hold forth, Gore would sit quietly on a couch in the study and insist we entertain him. This could be daunting. The room opened onto a deck, beyond which was a heartbreaking view. It was a stretch to keep your logical train on track while the smoldering Neapolitan sun extinguished itself over Capri.
One afternoon, Gore hired an ancient vaporetto and its almost-as-ancient skipper to transport us up the coast. The little yellow-canvas-canopied craft putt-putted languidly, and we swam and dined on fruits de mer at a restaurant carved into a cliff along the Gulf of Salerno.
Gore, who as a candidate hid his physique inside exquisitely cut suits, was a good swimmer and led us into a fantastical, cobalt-dappled grotto carved by the sea. When we returned from the voyage, Gore noticed that Barbara Epstein was having trouble disembarking and cradled her in his arms as he carried her ashore.
The nights were devoted to outdoor bistros on the plaza in Ravello, where the tomatoes were luscious and the local wine viciously unfiltered. Seated at the table's head, Gore played the seigneur, greeting the townspeople, dozens of whom would come by to pay their respects. It was hard not to reference his acting in the final scene of Federico Fellini's 1972 film "Roma," which catches an effusive, younger Gore seated in a cafe along the Via Veneto. "Mr. Vidal, what are you doing in Rome?" the filmmaker's off-camera voice asks. To which Gore replies, "If the world is coming to an end, what better city to be in than Roma?"
On my final day in Ravello, Gore walked me down to the sun-drenched piazza in front of the town's cathedral. As I waited for my taxi, he spoke about his unsuccessful California campaign, my nascent career as a pundit, the fate of California and the ongoing wages of empire. About to depart, I was reminded of a question I had asked him during the campaign. As a writer, I had queried, had he ever worried about his writings being exploited by the opposition? The Great Gorino smiled a tight smile and responded dreamily, perhaps imagining a vigorous, ideas-driven campaign in a perfectly Vidalian democracy: "Wouldn't that have been wonderful."