Memory: Gore Vidal in the Beverly Hills Hotel

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

When I learned of the death of Gore Vidal last night, the painful memories that flooded me were immediate, but there was also the memory of affection and humor. I saw myself twenty years ago, a frantic and terrified young interviewer pacing awkwardly in a Beverly Hills Hotel hallway, outside Gore Vidal’s room, waiting to meet Him.

Gore Vidal, the novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and talk-show regular. Gore Vidal, easily the most articulate of his generation who could make John Updike, Truman Capote and even Susan Sontag cower. Gore Vidal who had answered so shatteringly so many questions from broken journalists in what he called book-chat land, Gore Vidal who had traded blows with Norman Mailerand icily eyed William F. Buckley who had called him a queer on television, what would Gore Vidal do with this radio man, this Silverblatt, this me? Maybe eat me for breakfast. Maybe bite my head off.

Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt at the LA Public Library (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gore had exercised the right of the famous: he didn’t know me, had never heard of “Bookworm” – surely we would be willing to come to his hotel room to do the interview. Surely we would not require that he come all the way to Santa Monica. Oh surely, surely we would go/would not make him come all that way. That, or endure the wrath of the Great Khan.

Like children waiting for an appointment with the school principal, my co-producer Melinda Siegel, a KCRW engineer, and I cringed and swallowed nervously until an irate Gore Vidal opened his door. He was in a fury, how could his publisher have put him in such a tiny room? It was an insult! How could he be expected to hold interviews here…there wasn’t even a reception area, he and his companion were still in bathrobes.

We knew we were in for it, my quaking colleagues and I, but I didn’t know that what we were in for was a life altering experience.

That interview can be heard in the KCRW archive. It’s good enough for a first time interview. What you can’t hear is Gore’s response afterward: one of the weirdest feelings of relief I can remember. The recording done, Gore looked grave. He pleated his fingers. “You have asked me,” he intoned slowly, “many questions I have heard before.” Painful courtesy was his gift. Was he readying himself for the kill? “That is inevitable. Also many I have never heard. These were very good.” My innards started to unwind.

“Henceforth,” he predicted, “you will not need to come to my hotel room. I will come, escorted, to your studio, where I will treat you with the respect I afford to the members of your profession I take seriously, people I look forward to talking to, and speak to with pleasure.” I dimly recall that he mentioned Larry King in this regard.

Gore was a great teacher of the rituals orbiting the exacting and paying of respect. These rituals included earning respect — that is, having a work ethic, doing one’s homework diligently and well. You do not talk to Gore Vidal without reading his books, without thinking of the questions he has not heard before.

You negotiate respect with Gore Vidal. Over the subsequent years we arrived at rules of proper decorum: in public auditoriums I would ask him the questions he liked to answer, questions he had heard before that he answered wittily and well. In the privacy of the studios of KCRW he would answer any of my questions, he would improvise and, as he often liked to do, dazzle.

Gore seemed to have an implicit rule: I will not treat you as an equal unless you are my equal. He would pay respect, sometimes elaborate respect, with dinner invitations and intimate early morning phone confidences (6 am or even earlier), but he administered tongue-lashings with some regularity, quite harsh ones. I honestly think he couldn’t help it. You see, for all his faults, he knew he was superior. He was exasperated by stupidity, exasperated by America, by American stupidity, by bad thinking, bad writing, illness, mortality, sometimes life itself. And yet this man had perfected a generosity and regard that alternated with his perfect knowledge of his intellect, his beauty, and his gift.

I think he grew impatient with an America and an American people who couldn’t be criticized, who didn’t like judgment. Criticism was his gift, his passion. For Vidal, stern judgment is the necessary method by which we better ourselves. Yes, he became more demanding of others, but also more demanding of himself. These painful and difficult lessons are my life-altering lessons of the magnificent, the aloof, the ridiculously high standard bearing, deeply missed Gore Vidal.

Why did he have to leave when we still need him?