Gore Vidal Meets The Dread Ron Base
Gore Vidal in print once called me “the Dread Ron Base, who is appropriately named.”
I’m not sure but I think he dissed me because I quoted him as saying he would invade Alberta for its oil, if necessary (“If I were the federal government, and they held out, I would go in there with troops and seize the oil”)–a threat he later denied. At the same time, he also told me that Creation, the novel we had arranged to talk about, was his last: “I have a feeling the curtain has now come down on a long career.”
He then went on to write five more.
He more or less denied he was gay: “Well, I’ve never said anything about it,” he asserted. “Others assume they know all about it, but I’ve never known on what that was based.”
Then in his autobiography, he boasted of having slept with one thousand men.
The facts, to put it mildly, were elusive that afternoon. I knew it and so did Vidal. Nonetheless, he apparently took umbrage at my interpretation of his loose interpretation of them. Thus the “dread” Ron Base. I was at once thrilled and horrified. After all, how often is it that a writer gets lambasted by the Great Gore? Yet at the same time I admired him tremendously, particularly his articulate, reasoned, deliciously funny, and acerbic essays. The thought of being in his bad books, so to speak, did not sit well.
More than anything, I admired his staying power as a writer, his ability to use all parts of the literary buffalo in order to keep going: he wrote novels (most notoriously, Myra Breckenridge), plays (The Best Man, currently a hit revival on Broadway), screenplays (uncredited Ben-Hur, among many others), mystery novels (quite good, under the pseudonym Edgar Box), not to mention one of my favorite travel books, Vidal In Venice.
He also ran for a senate seat (twice), acted in movies, appeared countless times on TV talk shows (Johnny Carson wanted him as a regular guest host; he declined) in the days when television could still find a place for writers.
He worked tirelessly and managed to live exceedingly well in beautiful houses with great views in Ravello, on Italy’s Amalfi coast, and in the Hollywood Hills of California.The day I visited, I found him in shades of brown mounted at one end of a vast red-walled sitting room dominated by a fireplace the size of a bank vault.
I suspected, though I can’t be sure, that this breath-taking luxury had more to do with the family fortune (both father and stepfather were wealthy) than it did with the business of writing. But however it came to him, Vidal certainly made the best of it–all writers should die and ascend, not to Heaven, but to Vidal’s Ravello villa overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Vidal was part of a literary triptych that in its boisterous heyday also included Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, the self-styled giants of modern American letters who reveled in their celebrity as much as, if not more, than they did their writing.
Mailer, by the time I met him, had mellowed into an amiable old rogue, the youthful pugilist mostly gone, anxious to be, of all things, a movie director (Tough Guys Don’t Dance, with Ryan O’Neal, ensured that would not happen).
Capote, one morning at breakfast, appeared remote and terribly wounded, unhappily enduring his last days, talking at length about finishing the novel he would never finish. Offered champagne and orange juice, he turned it down. I was impressed.
As we ended our curious conversation, we both stood and I blurted out something about how much his writing had meant to me. He suddenly grasped my hand in both of his, and a warmth flooded his face that took me by surprise. For just a moment, his mask had slipped.
Vidal, on the other hand, like The Lone Ranger, kept the mask in place, outlived his rivals, and never stopped fighting–at least the sort of fighting that involves shooting off your mouth in an effortlessly combative and entertaining fashion. He could talk scathingly about others (Truman Capote: “a psychopathic liar”), endlessly about himself as he did the afternoon I spent with him.
But even as he rattled on, he always remained a fascinating enigma, somehow coolly above the fray: the acerbic (that word again),cynical, gimlet-eyed observer of the shortcomings of everything. He disliked so much, I finally had to ask him what he did like.
He liked walking down to Las Palmas to get the morning papers, he said. He liked doing sit-ups beside his pool. He liked lunching with Orson Welles and “toy movies” such as Star Wars (The Dark Knight Rises would have fit nicely into his nihilistic view of the world).
And, he had to admit, he liked himself–or liked what he had achieved as a writer, when compared to his contemporaries. “I’ve known a lot of writers whose energy has gone into marriages, divorces, love affairs, and so on. To me the most important thing was always the work.”
Once, however, I did catch a brief glimpse of another Gore Vidal.
Several years after our Hollywood Hills encounter, I was at the Cannes Film Festival one evening, awaiting the arrival of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, when in breezed a familiar figure. With a start, I saw that it was Gore Vidal. He looked around quickly, and then made a beeline over to where I stood.
Oh, gawd, I thought. He will remember our encounter, he will recognize “the Dread Ron Base who is so appropriately named” and that will be the end of that. Instead, we shook hands, introduced one another and proceeded to have a friendly, lively chat about movies, movie festivals, and the Newmans–“Paul and Joanne have been friends, forever.” (He once was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward before she went off to marry Newman).
By that time, I had come to realize that the celebrity you interviewed one day, seldom recognized you the next, despite anything you might have written. This certainly held true for Vidal. He didn’t have a clue who I was. He was not, for the moment, the Great Gore being interviewed, and I restrained the “dread” part of Ron Base. We were simply a couple of guys adrift at the Cannes Film Festival, relieved to have someone talk to.
I liked that human Gore, almost as much as I was fascinated by the Great Gore I encountered at the end of a red-walled sitting room in that fabulous Hollywood Hills house–the house where he died about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night, the last of the great post-war American literary lions. His momentary, and long-forgotten, nemesis, the Dread Ron Base, couldn’t help but be saddened.
Tagged with: Amalfi Coast
, Cannes Film Festival
, Edgar Box
, Gore Vidal
, Joanne Woodward
, Johnny Carson
, Norman Mailer
, Orson Welles
, Paul Newman
, Ryan O'Neal
, The Best Man
, Tough Guys Don't Dance
, Truman Capote
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