Author Gore Vidal passed away Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at the age of 86. Since his death, a plentitude of biographical articles have been written about his life, personality and achievements. However, I would like to take the opportunity to recall a personal encounter I had with Mr. Vidal while a student at UC Irvine. This post is not a political or social commentary about the writer, but rather a very likely flawed recollection of an event that happened over thirty years ago.
My manager at the university’s Lectures and Publications Department would book guest speakers for the annual lecture series. As an Administrative Intern in the department, it was my responsibility to attend to the menial tasks, such as making dinner reservations for the speaker, those who accompanied the person of note, as well as various administrators from the school. I also had to compose an introduction and present it to the audience prior to each lecturer’s speech.
Gore Vidal must have been one of the first speakers of the year, because I remember being very anxious to be properly prepared to interact with someone of his stature. I researched as much as possible about him, so that it would appear that I knew who he was. I had heard of him before – I think on “The Laugh-In” — as a child. I wanted to converse with Mr. Vidal somewhat coherently, if not intelligently, should he deem me worthy of a comment or two.
Since this was the P.G. (pre-Google) era, it required a bit of effort to look into a person’s history. I don’t recall what I found out about him, other than his blind, maternal grandfather was in politics and Gore used to escort him onto the Congressional floor as a youngster. I did decide to read one of his novels, 1876, to show him that I was familiar with his work.
My manager asked me to make dinner reservations for a small party (probably fewer than a dozen diners) at one of the very rare premier restaurants in the Irvine area at the time. I asked if I should include Mr. Vidal’s wife in the party, and my manager looked at me as though I were nuts, and said that no, that would not be necessary. I did not know then that Mr. Vidal was a confirmed bachelor. (This event occurred just as the gay movement was beginning to be discussed publically, and also at the time when AIDS was still referred to as “the gay cancer”. I later learned that Gore had a long-time companion, and did not care for the term “gay”.)
When the evening arrived, I was a wreck. For some reason, I had to borrow a dress from a roommate, so I was not entirely comfortable in my clothing. At dinner, I miraculously ended up seated next to Mr. Vidal in spite of being the only student in attendance. I did not know that this was traditional for the dinners. Later in the year I found myself seated next to Gloria Steinem and other well-known personalities.
The first question I asked him set the tone for the entire evening. Knowing that he was originally from the East Coast and had come to Irvine from LA, I asked him what he thought of Orange County. His reply? “Oh, it’s just a place I pass through on my trips to Carlsbad.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, or it would have been iced tea (not being old enough to drink alcohol yet), through the nostrils at the dinner table. “Carlsbad??” I asked him incredulously. “Why in the world would you want to go to Carlsbad, of all places?” To which he replied, “That’s where my sister lives.” I then told him that the little town by the sea was my hometown, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone important would ever want to go there. He got quite a kick out of that.
Gore Vidal and I had a wonderful discussion during the meal. I knew that guests were expected to spend an equal amount of time speaking to the dinner partners seated on their left as well as right, but Mr. Vidal spent the entire meal talking just to me. He told me about his childhood, attending Phillip Exeter Academy, his grandfather, and so on. We talked about 1876 and books we both enjoyed. He put me completely at ease.
Later, when presenting him as the featured speaker, I raced through my introduction out of nervousness, and had to repeat it slowly so that the audience could understand what I had said. I was utterly embarrassed by the situation, but he came on stage, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and thanked me for the introduction.
Gore Vidal had gone out of his way to make me comfortable all evening, which was quite extraordinary given that I was the plebe and he was the guest of honor. I will always think of him fondly.
“I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” – Gore Vidal
Not so, Mr. Vidal. Not so.