by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
Everyone from Iran to Serbia seems to be bent on letting me know there’s a Gore Vidal biopic in the works starring Kevin Spacey. And while Gore would definitely think Kevin Spacey is hot, one wonders what he would make of another *damnable biopic,* especially about himself now dead since July 31, 2012. He died on my birthday, in keeping with his sour and sweet tone since we met at an event in Beverly Hills.
We had collaborated on a script with his close friend Dr. Hessam Nowzari… who was also his periodontist. You can’t make this stuff up: a story meeting in a periodontist’s office.
That was vintage Gore Vidal, who even in his eighties, had flair. Even offered to play the lead character himself in drag, though was obsessed with Halle Berry playing the role. In fact, one imagines Gore expected Halle Berry at the meeting, but the only other people in attendance were agent/producer Graham Kaye formerly of William Morris Agency, and his producer, along with Dr. Nowzari and myself.
When Graham Kaye described a current project he was working on, which had some relevance to the structure of a cradle-to-grave look at a historic figure, Gore said — and this is a direct quote: “I’d rather watch paint dry.”
Needless to say, that meeting ended with people walking out and Gore gloating, with Dr. Nowzari and I making all the profuse apologies.
Whether he was (my words here) The Forrest Gump of History or a True Literary Lion, Kevin Spacey will decide. But one thing sticks with me the most from having been in Gore’s orbit: Gore Vidal also wept. We’re not talking rolling tears, this was straight-up open-mouthed silent bawling. That happened on the occasion of a live operatic performance of Samuel Barber at his house. The late Ed Lauter (THE ARTIST) was there, along with a tight-knit group of people Gore collected. I had a front row seat.
He leaned over and said “I knew Samuel Barber… All my friends are dead.” It struck me hard because gone was the vitriol for one shining moment wet with tears. Barber had won a Pulitzer for music, Vidal coveted the elusive Nobel till the day he died.
Incidentally, here’s a fact that should also be included in any biopic: Barack Obama was the first US President since Eisenhower who never answered Gore Vidal’s letter. The slight never made the news, but all over the world, his letter did make an impact.
This Presidential snub upset him a lot, even though he pulled the callous sophisticate in recounting the oversight. A year after his death in 2012, Dr. Nowzari gave me a script note change for the opener to our movie… and it was spectacular. Given to Dr. Nowzari from Gore: A woman’s bare back, a pharaoh not by marriage but by her own lights, that should have been Halle Berry… HATSHEPSUT14e.
Here’s an excerpt from my book, “Redlight, Greenlight, Limelight” on the man whom I came to really love, and his letter to Obama.
From “REDLIGHT, GREENLIGHT, LIMELIGHT”
EXCERPT: Gore Vidal in some ways was as famous as he was infamous. He’d been literally kicked out of the Kennedy White House for emotional cruelty. When I met him, he almost bit off my head in a Beverly Hills nightclub during a private screening. I’d just talked to Sharon Stone, and introduced myself and asked if he knew her. “You mean if she knows me?” He spat at me.
A week later, I get a call from one of his people telling me, yes, he does want to do an interview.
Really? At that first meeting, after he ripped Sharon, I’d make the near fatal error of saying “You sound like Truman Capote.” Truman turns out, was his arch rival.
So we met again in Beverly Hills for the interview, and to his ever loving credit, he did not have his guns loaded, nor did he seem fully prepared. Gore was so close to death. So fragile. But he’d been won over somehow, probably because he’d dropped out of Virginia Military Institute, and I’d told him my father, VMI graduate, had been President of the Honor Court, a draft pick for the Chicago Bears too.
Whatever it was, he said “lady reporter, I’m ready.”
Gore Vidal, Friend of the Country, Champions “THE ENEMY OF THE SMILE”
by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
In a recent missive to US President Barack Obama, Gore Vidal urged rapprochement with Iran. While the letter went unanswered, political dominos began to fall in the Middle East as Vidal foreshadowed.
While the text of Gore Vidal’s letter is included at the end of this interview, the subtext is far more complex.
For Vidal, one of the world’s greatest essayists as well as a novelist, screenwriter, and memoirist, raising awareness for the plight of millions of people is second nature and dovetails with his long history of political involvement. Gore Vidal, who still actively writes and is working with a biographer on a personal documentary, even seems to be safekeeping new information about breaching the long stand-off between diametrically opposed regimes (read: US, Middle East).
Here is Gore Vidal on politics, Presidents, and periodontics:
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: I’ve seen the letter you wrote recently to President Obama, do you think he will “get” it?
GORE VIDAL: He’s smart, don’t worry about that. The entire right wing in this country in America wants a war with Iran. They want the Israelis to bomb and kill everybody. Obama isn’t like that, but he certainly can’t go against them. He’s a politician after all.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: You’ve said that most US Presidents have to live with about 30 corporations that are in power. Has that number increased? Is this where the pressure is coming from, the back rooms?
GORE VIDAL: No, I think it is misunderstanding the verb, live: you don’t have to “live” with them. You can dominate them. I watched Jack Kennedy do that, and he wasn’t even a powerful President; he was a powerful personality. He was not going to take any nonsense from anybody. I remember he told me, after I asked ‘what is it like to be President?’ He said ‘Well, I’ve heard of all of these famous people all my life, and I’ve met all of them by now. And there is not one with enough intelligence to come in out of the rain.’ He thought they were awful people.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Jack did? And he was a “C” student at Harvard, right?
GORE VIDAL: Anybody who rates anything by their grades in school, that is maniacal. I flunked English all the way through Exeter. Because I was the only one who would write, and they didn’t like that.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: You’ve mentioned that President Lincoln was in control of his generals and that he had the “Lincoln chill.” And I think there was a point where you suggested that Obama should take a hard line — and he just got back from Afghanistan —
GORE VIDAL: I don’t know what line he should take because I don’t know what cards he’s been dealt. I have no way of gauging it. I tell you what Lincoln did, he knew he had some of the goddamn-est bad generals anyone ever had. And if he didn’t get busy he was going to be impeached. If I were Congress, I would tell the President, if they really don’t like what he is doing, to report on Saturday. There is a special committee being called.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: You know today he had a press conference. What are your views on our being in Afghanistan?
GORE VIDAL: It’s ridiculous. General Washington observed as he was leaving office, relieved to be as he was of this ghastly country: “Nations should never have friends or enemies, they have only interests.”
I would think a child of four could understand that, but not (all) Americans.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Speaking of raising awareness, Dr. Hessam Nowzari says that you are working to raise awareness about the issues involved in THE ENEMY OF THE SMILE, which addresses a problem that is a little more manageable than world politics. Regarding the bacteria, AA, I guess? He said you were fascinated that Hatshepsut (1503-1482 BC) died from it.
GORE VIDAL: Hatshepsut, the great Egyptian Queen, had it, this (oral bacteria). I can’t imagine Hatshepsut kissed all of her lovers. Because she only had one who was crazy about her, who was an architect. He painted his own picture on the back of the door to the funerary tomb in the Valley of the Kings where she got herself put.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Was she the only Egyptian female Pharaoh, I’m forgetting, I mean there was Nefertiti.
GORE VIDAL: She was a wife. But Hatshepsut was the Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: How old was she when she died?
HESSAM NOWZARI: She was only 49, very young. She had an abscess. We have a CAT scan of her skull. Clearly, you can see that she was affected by the AA bacteria, there is no way to reject it —
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: To refute it?
HESSAM NOWZARI: Absolutely. You can see her CAT scan in the film. I know it is very interesting.
They found a tooth very close to her body, and they thought it was from a thief, because thieves have raided these tombs all through the centuries. But that tooth fits exactly, in the socket, in her mouth. It was a molar.
GORE VIDAL: That’s what happened to mine!
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Dr. Nowzari is doing restoration on you too. But tying back to Obama’s letter you invoke Darius and other Persian great kings.
GOREA VIDAL: They were great kings.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: In other words there is a sense of unity going back before 600 AD, was that your intent?
GORE VIDAL: I’ve got so many points to make. Isn’t it clear we have our first black president? Which is madness for most Americans — in addition to (terrorism). Saying ‘How do we deal with a country we have nailed, that wants to blow us up? How can they do anything so unpleasant?’ Well we are a nasty country, and nobody likes us, but nobody would ever dare tell us.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: But we are so multi-cultural as a country.
GORE VIDAL: That’s an exaggeration. If we had one culture, you could add another one or two. But we don’t have one, so…
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: I’m just talking about the demographics in the US, from where we stood (in the 60’s and 70’s).
GORE VIDAL: I don’t believe a word of it. How much clout do you think (minority) Americans have? Here’s one behind me.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: In your past letters to the Presidents, what kind of responses have you had?
GORE VIDAL: I have written to them, yes, in the past.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Has Obama come back with response yet?
GORE VIDAL: No. He’ll be teased till he dies by me. He is in a weak position, I am not.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: When he first came into office, you must have been shocked not only by the turn of the election, but the Nobel Peace Prize he received?
GORE VIDAL: I’m always surprised by (Nobel’s selections) because I am up for it all the time. And then something mysterious happens. They always put me up — not for literature, god forbid they should read a book — but for the Peace Prize. Before Bush began his attacks on the Middle East, blowing up countries and so forth, I went to Stockholm, at my own expense. The town hall of the city. There’s the most beautiful throne there that you have ever seen.
If you are there before eight o’clock — which is nice when you are living in a democracy, which is something we never experienced — and the (King of Sweden) has not arrived, you can sit in his chair.
So I went in, sat in the chair of the king — and the king never came.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: That’s a good story. Getting back to the film you are championing about the bacteria, Hessam said there might also be a fictionalized version, a feature film project?
GORE VIDAL: It’s a possibility.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Is there also a remake being done of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE?
GORE VIDAL: I hope not. I never saw the original, and I don’t want to see any more. Now that you are looking back down memory lane, I should tell you that “The Best Man” is going to be revived on Broadway for the fourth time — for the (next) election.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: I think you were, at the time of the first production around 1960, on the cover of one of the New York newspapers, I think a version of the NY Daily News with Jack Kennedy backstage shaking hands.
GORE VIDAL: You are an expert on trivia. I can’t remember; Jack certainly doesn’t remember — he can’t. Why should I remember?
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Because it is a great photo.
GORE VIDAL: Well, you certainly are a master of trivia.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: When you look back now, Jack Kennedy is gone, Bobby, Jackie, even Teddy — how do you feel about the myths that have sprung up?
GORE VIDAL: I’m not interested in PR. That’s all public relations.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: But there is that flame at the Kennedy library, that has been made into an eternal flame —
GORE VIDAL: All right. It’ll burn down the house one day. They could cook something with it — make a barbeque out of it.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: You’ve said Jack was charming, but not a good president, that is a bold statement on the one hand — but he was only eight years older than you were, and you were the same age as Bobby, isn’t that right?
GORE VIDAL: Yes. And I was smarter than either. Which isn’t saying much.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: You stayed alive.
GORE VIDAL: Which isn’t much.
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: As far as your sojourn in Hollywood, I believe you wrote BEN-HUR, part of that script.
GORE VIDAL: I did write it. This is a crooked town, Hollywood. They hated me because I was a famous writer — a famous writer from New York, the East Coast.
So, when it came time for the credits, one of the local writers who had been an officer at the (then) Writer’s Guild said ‘I wrote it. I wrote it all myself. I mailed myself a carbon copy. The script they used was all mine.’
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: Was the credit ever restored?
GORE VIDAL: I didn’t want it. But I didn’t ever want to have it stolen. That’s the difference. I said ‘this is the worst form of commercialism.’ Trust somebody at the guild not to know what commercialism is. I said ‘commercialism is to do well that which should not be done at all.’
QUENDRITH JOHNSON: It’s called a blockbuster.
GORE VIDAL: It’s easy to write a blockbuster, as I have proved.
Gore Vidal’s Unanswered Letter to President Obama
30 November 2010
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President,
I was recently reminded of the letter that I wrote to you when you were first nominated by our party to run for president. At that time, as the echoes of your Republican counterpart’s battle cry haunted me like tinnitus, I recalled my book, Creation, about the Great King Darius. I thought then and continue to believe it would be good politics in the truest sense for you to meet with the Parsi leaders of what used to be called the Persian Empire; strike a note of solidarity with them, one empire with another. Meet them at the Great King’s tomb at Pasargadae, establish a union between the Persian population and the American. I brought up this subject not weeks ago in an interview on Pars satellite television, beamed to millions across present-day Iran, to the seeming delight of the local hosts: we need not always be alone on the lonely planet. I can only see good coming from your leading in this fashion: bring together the heirs of the Great King that are still considered great in that part of the world.
Best wishes to you, Sir. And as a Washingtonian may I say, not surprisingly, that I do delight in your presidency.
* * *
Well, to survive Gore Vidal is an accomplishment according to my friends in journalism that had the misfortune to be made a meal of during their chat. I saw him as a very sad man who had lost the love of his life, and who was like a ghost among the living for the final years. Gore told me he had even gone to Sweden to personally make an appearance in support of getting the Nobel Peace Prize. “I sat my ass on the King’s Throne, it’s a big chair, they let anyone sit in it.” To no avail.
When even Obama got it, a junior statesman compared to Gore (in his mind), it stung the old Literary Lion like a thorn in the paw. For me, it would have been the height of irony to give a “Peace” prize to someone on the daily warpath against man and beast.
His anger didn’t really diminish in dying. Gore didn’t want a funeral, no wake, no remembrance since all the people he really loved had preceded him in death. I remember the onion soup, how much he wept that night, and how the actor who played the Chauffeur in The Artist, the French-made silent that won a couple Oscars, was the only other person in the room in rapt attention at the incredible experience of hearing opera singers do their thing live.
I left my special piece of Gore Vidal stationery at his house that night, out of respect. There had been such a significant typo in the printed program for the evening, that I couldn’t let it leave with me lest I be tempted to write about it.
Someone called Gore “The Forrest Gump of History,” being in all the right decades at the right time in the twentieth century. As if anyone with his access and privilege would have become a figure of note. But just the effort to write the many thousands of pages, speaks volumes for Mr. Gore Vidal.
GORE VIDAL celebrates a fifth anniversary of his death, or would if he were still here with us, on July 31, 2017. Kevin Spacey is now on location shooting his biopic for Netflix. Let’s hope for the best, because Gore would make a lousy ghost, haunting the whole project for grins.
And no, Gore Vidal went to the grave having never won the Nobel. Here’s to posthumous afterthoughts, Nobel Committee…
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