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Jill Krementz remembers Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal photographed by Jill Krementz in London, October 1972.

Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.
– Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal
1925-2012
A Man of Wit & Wisdom

Gore Vidal died last week at his Hollywood Hills home in Los Angeles. He was 86.

A man of razor-sharp wit and a keen intellect, Mr. Vidal grew up in Washington, D.C. He published his first novel when he was 19. By the end of his life he had written 25 novels (including Myra Breckinridge and Burr), five plays, one of which, The Best Man, is enjoying a revival at the Schoenfeld Theater on Broadway, two hundred essays, many of which appeared in The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair, two memoirs (Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation) and, most recently, a fine coffee table book (Abrams) which was a collaboration of his text and photographs by Howard Austen, his partner of 54 years who died several years ago. Edited by Ann Schneider, it is one of my favorite photographic memoirs.

When he wasn't busy writing, he was a perennial guest on talk shows with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, and Charlie Rose. He ran for a Congressional seat and later for one in the Senate (losing both times), and appeared in several movies (playing himself in Fellini's Rome in 1972). He also appeared in animated form in The Simpsons and Family Guy.

His friends included Eleanor Roosevelt, Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino, Joan Didion, Tennessee Williams (whom he called The Bird), Jackie Kennedy and JFK, Jane and Paul Bowles, Barbara and Jason Epstein, Joanne Woodward, Rudolf Nureyev, Princess Margaret, Greta Garbo, and Susan Sarandon.

His feuds, however, were as notorious as his friendships and he sparred publicly with William F. Buckley (calling him a crypto-Nazi on the Cavett show), Truman Capote, Anaïs Nin, and Norman Mailer (with whom he later reconciled).

I photographed Gore many times over the years starting in New York in 1968 and later in London and Ravello. He was unfailingly courteous and never patronizing. He'll be missed.
The first time I photographed Gore Vidal was on March 12, 1968 at the WNET TV studios where he and Tom Hayden were being interviewed by Nat Hentoff. Hentoff is an American historian, novelist, jazz and country music critic, and syndicated columnist for United Media.
I had a very brief "portrait session" with Gore in London in October of 1972. He was staying at Claridge's and he was just finishing his breakfast when I arrived. While he was sitting at this desk the phone behind him rang. It was Claire Bloom.
This portrait was widely published. He always wanted to be photographed with the left side of his face toward the camera lens.
One of my photographs taken in his hotel room that morning was used on the back jacket of Myron, published by Random House. It was used by most of his foreign publishers, appeared on the cover of Writer's Digest, and in a double page Random House ad in the New York Times Book Review.

A framed sepia print is on view at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue (along with five other portraits of mine: Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Bill Styron, and my late husband, Kurt Vonnegut.)
Another photograph from Claridge's appears in a book called Words and Their Masters, a collaborative effort with Israel Shenker. Mr. Shenker was on the staff of the New York Times where he often profiled writers.
One of my tattered copies.
Two years later: October 1974 at the Plaza Hotel. Gore always stayed at the Plaza after giving up his apartment on the Upper East Side.
Random House Editor Jason Epstein and Gore Vidal dining in the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel.

It was Epstein who persuaded Vidal to tour for Kalki despite the author's gloomy disinclination. He had told his publisher that he had nothing positive to say about anything.
Portrait from the session at the Plaza Hotel. On the road again ... packing to return to London.
October 27, 1974: On tour to promote his bestseller, Burr, Gore poses outside the Burr house in Washington Heights.

(Note: This is generally called the Morris-Jumel Mansion — Burr married Madame Jumel in 1833 — not the Burr house, which was on Varick and Charlton.)

Whenever I saw him in the early years he would be dressed in a navy blazer and grey trousers.

These photographs would be published in People magazine.
Gore lecturing on Burr to an audience of local historical society members. Vidal enjoyed talking to small groups, fielding their questions and exchanging views with them.
"I'm an active Democrat, small 'd', and an active Socialist, large 'S', and, yes I would still like to be president because you always think you can do it better.

"I have a state of the union lecture which I give to colleges, and women's clubs. I prefer middle-aged women for lecturing, incidentally, because they're much sharper than men when it comes to politics and they're far more open to ideas and change."
Gore autographing a book for an admiring fan.
... and another
October 29, 1974.

Gore with Barbara Epstein, one of the co-founders of The New York Review of Books, and one of Gore's closest friends.

The dedication of Point to Point Navigation (2006) reads as follows:

"This final memoir is dedicated to Barbara Zimmerman Epstein, 1928-2006, who managed in her final days to keep an editorial eye on this text as she had done throughout the decades of our friendship on so many others; now whom shall I check with to see if the tone is right?"
Still working. Gore at Bantam Books talking to students about his books. Bantam's Neil Applebaum in in upper right-hand corner.
Signs of the times: large communal ashtray, cigarettes, and three old fashioned tape recorders, one with a microphone attached.
Exhausted after a long day of TV appearances signing books, and having a seminar for students, Gore takes a breather on a couch in an office at Bantam. He often did four or five TV appearances in a day.
Accompanied by Random House's Selma Shapiro (head of publicity) and Jason Epstein (his longtime editor). Gore is en route to NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center to do the Today Show with Barbara Walters.
Into the makeup room.
No green room, Selma Shapiro and Gore read the morning papers while waiting for live spot on Today Show.
November 6,1974. Gore being interviewed on the Today Show by Barbara Walters.
Leaving NBC Studios, Jason lights up his cigar. They are joined by Esther Margolis, Gore's editor at Bantam (paperback publisher).
Two years pass. March 11, 1976, New York City. Gore was here to be interviewed by Gene Shalit on the Today Show. He appeared on the cover of the March 1, 1976 cover of Time magazine.
Nine years go by: November 15th, 1985. Norman Mailer was the president of PEN and the two men reunited for a debate moderated by Murray Kempton.
In Mailer's words: "When I became president of PEN, I felt, all right, I've had a number of feuds in my time. Now's the time, since I stand now for an organization that believes in the fraternity of writers, the moment has come to start mending a few fences. Also I needed Gore. We were having a PEN celebration and he was one of the two or three people who were most needed for the celebration.

So from my point of view, out of idealism and self-interest, which always inspires me to move with energy when my best and worst motives are engaged, I wrote to Gore and said in effect that I would like to invite him to the PEN celebration. Would he accept? My recollection is that you then sent back your acceptance, and I wrote, asking 'Who would you like to be on with?' And you said, 'You. Let's have a debate.'

As it turned out, the house was sold out every night. And I remember thinking when I received that letter from you, Oh, shit, now I have to work. Unfortunately, I forgot about that."
Morley Safer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Comden were among the sold-out crowd.
November 17, 1985. My husband Kurt Vonnegut and Gore in front of the Plaza. Kurt and I generally saw Gore whenever he was in NYC. This time it was in conjunction with the International PEN Conference. Same day. After hanging out at the Plaza fountain for a while with Kurt, Gore and I took our time and walked into Central Park for some portraits.
A 12-year lapse between photo sessions although Kurt and I did spend a week with Gore in October of 1993 at the Cheltenham Literary Festival (England) where we all stayed at Sudley Castle.

July 4, 1997 in Ravello, Italy.

My husband and I stayed at a nearby hotel and walked over to have lunch with Gore and Howard Austen at their villa overlooking the Mediterranean.
A sign for our hotel, which was a short walk from the villa. The guest book is signed by Arturo Toscanini.
Kurt on the path to Gore's villa, La Rondinaia (The Swallow's Nest) which he bought on March 24, 1977.

Gore greets Kurt at the front entrance. Gore's guests over the years included Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Luigi Barzini, the Calvinos, Rudi Nureyev, Kathleen Tynan, James Taylor, and Susan Sarandon.
Howard Austen, a former advertising executive, and Gore lived at La Rondinaia for 33 years — until Howard's failing health was the impetus for them to sell the villa and relocate to the Hollywood Hills.
An outside nook of the villa with a window overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. A basket of fresh eggs in the kitchen.
A wall in Gore's study.

That's my framed cover of Writer's Digest, second row center. Movie cassettes line the bookshelf.

When Gore and Howard sold the villa they packed up over 8,000 books in addition to all the pictures.
A poster of Billy the Kid, a 1989 American western which Gore wrote. One of many movies depicting the events surrounding the outlaw during his participation in the Lincoln County War, this film, though little-known, has routinely been described as the most historically accurate version to date.

Val Kilmer stars in the lead role of William Bonney aka Billy the Kid.
There were many beautiful tapestries on the walls.
Framed photographs on an end table. There is one of Gore with Princess Margaret and one of Italo Calvino, a close friend. The photograph was one I had taken of Calvino that he had evidently sent on to Gore. Vidal had read all of Calvino's published work in Italian in order to become more fluent in the language.
July 4, 1997. "My workroom in Ravello: a white cube with an arched ceiling and a window to my left that looks out across the Gulf of Salerno toward Paestum."
Gore's desk.

Writing in Palimpest, A Memoir, published in 1965 and dealing with the first 39 years of Gore's life, the author writes:

"I have always been curious to know where writers are physically situated when they write their memoirs. Their placement during works of the imagination is less relevant because the true geography of a fiction is all in the mind but a memoir is set off by a thousand associations, even by objects in a given room."
Across from his desk, a cozy armchair for reading. Gore with his pet cat.
A portrait in Ravello later signed by Gore.
September 14, 2000, New York City.

Kurt and I were invited by Gore to the opening night of the revival of The Best Man at the Virginia Theater. (The original The Best Man premiered at the Morosco Theatre on March 31, 1960).
The three-act drama, set at a 1960 Presidential Convention in Philadelphia, was directed by Ethan McSweeny.

Taking their bows to a standing ovation are Christine Ebersole, Chris Noth, Charles Durning, a happy playwright, Spalding Gray, and Elizabeth Ashley.

As you know, the play is running once again on Broadway, this time produced by Jeff Richards and starring Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones.
At his play's opening night party Gore chats with Karenna Gore, daughter of 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore. Both Gores (Al and Gore) longed to be President. May 1, 2003. Gore returns to NYC, with a cane and a new knee made of titanium, this time for an appearance at the Museum of Television and Radio.
Gore greets his good friend Paul Newman with a hug. That's Susan Lacy on the right who produces American Masters for PBS. Gore and Paul.
Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Richard Belzer (of Law and Order: SVU), and Paul Newman.

My favorite bon mots from the evening's talk by Vidal which i jotted down:

• "Remember what Socrates said — 'the untelevised life is not worth living.'"

• "I like to circle my subject before I get my knife out."

• "Why become a Senator when you can buy one?"
May 4, 2003. The Society For Ethical Culture on Manhattan's Upper West Side: "An evening with Gore Vidal" sponsored by The Nation magazine. Gore backstage with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation. Gore with Leonard Lopate, the long-time host of WNYC radio and Vidal's interviewer of choice.
May 7, 2003. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders photographs Gore, Norman, and Kurt for Vanity Fair. I asked if it would be okay for me to take some photographs, and Graydon and Timothy were both fine with my so doing.
The photographer becomes stylist.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders with his large 8x10 camera. His new documentary, About Face (about the modeling world), can now be seen on HBO. I liked it a lot. The three lions posing for Timothy.
After the shoot, a drink. Norman was using two canes, Gore one.
October 21, 2009. This would be the last time I would see Gore. He was at Barnes & Noble being interviewed by Leonard Lopate in conjunction with the publication of his last book, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare (Abrams), a collection of snapshots taken over his lifetime.

Projected on the screen above is a photograph of Senator Gore and young Gore in the '30s.
Published by Abrams, his visual memoir of a well-lived life was put together by Ann Schneider.

Ms. Schneider, a good friend of Gore's (and mine), works at Vanity Fair and is responsible for many of the magazine's better layouts.
The opening layout of the book with a photograph of Howard and Gore at Edgewater in the early '50s and this quote from Gore on the right. Strangely, Gore refers to his partner on this page and throughout the book as Howard Russell Auster when, in fact, Howard changed his name to Austen, which is how it appeared in Charles McGrath's excellent obit in the New York Times on August 1, 2012.

"During the fifty-four years that Howard Russell Auster and I shared a life, he took a great many photographs of our friends and acquaintances and occasions, with an eye to eventually making his own book based on his photographs and those years. Upon his death several years ago, he left me his photographs and papers. I have now gone through them and as a memorial to him, I am now publishing them, with some notes describing the various occasions that we took part in, as well as a number of pictures from my life and times, now becoming, with time's passage, literally historic. Or, as Wolf Blitzer of CNN so wisely reminds us in his reports to the nation, one picture is worth a thousand Blitzers, or something along those lines."
Gore, aged 13.

"Many years ago an English critic observed to me what a pity it was that the United States had not gone through with an original idea of some of the founding fathers to give eminent families or citizens titles, as they would have been given had they remained on the British Isles, from which most of us had come. The title suggested was margrave, but it never caught on in the absence of a king ...

"Hence, at fourteen, I rid myself of my baptismal Christian name, which was Eugene Luther Vidal, and assumed the family name, Gore, of my maternal grandfather, who organized Oklahoma as the forty-sixth state within the Union and became that state's first senator and so moved to Washington, D.C., where in due course, thirty years later, he died. His state lives on with with a thriving, highly polluted city called Gore, where there also is, I think, a lake and a river and this and that.

"So, in a way, if you go through any of the U.S. states, particularly in the Mid-and Southwest, you'll find out from the names of towns and cities who the founders were. Each has a legend, often highly exaggerated, but none has his title."
"Here is a collection of books I got the authors to sign in 1948 in France and Italy. Although I was never a great autograph collector, for which I was rewarded in my lifetime with an often cramped hand from signing autographs for others, here I got André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and George Santayana, a pretty good haul for a month or two in Paris and Rome."
"The Morosco Theater was a marvelous — indeed perfect — theater for staging plays. The real estate lords of New York decided it should be torn down and not replaced by another theater. So, we carefully wreck what little civilization we do have."
A layout of Gore with friends Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman during a happy week spent in Florence. The Newmans were frequent visitors to the villa in Ravello.
Top: "Kevin Spacey and I in a scene from the yet-to-be-relaeased film Shrink. He wanted me to improvise my part, much as I had done in 'Bob Roberts,' while he kept to his script as star of the film."

Center:
"A picture from the cartoon saga The Simpsons on the occasion of a sort of literary salon presided over by a white suit."

Bottom: "Here I am with a very attractive dog who, in a cartoon series called Family Guy, has been deploring to me on air the dumbing down of talk shows, a sentiment with which I am absolutely in agreement."
"Here I am in an advertisement for Absolut vodka, proving what a healthful elixir it is.

"The photograph was taken by Annie Leibovitz in something like twenty minutes, for which she deserves a Nobel Prize in Photography."
Another layout from the book featuring Gore's work for Vanity Fair including an illustration by Edward Sorel of GV wth John Updike and Philip Roth.
My last photograph of Gore Vidal. The Union Square bookstore was jammed with his fans including Susan Sarandon in the front row.

Susan began her extraordinary career as an actress appearing in a play of Gore's on Broadway called An Evening with Richard Nixon. In this play she acted a number of parts, one of them Martha Mitchell, the slightly crazed wife of the attorney general John Mitchell.

it was was not a great evening. Gore, grieving over the loss of his partner Mr. Austen, appeared tired and frail. Instead of being gracious to Lopate who was doing the Q&A pro-bono as a favor, Vidal was sarcastic and belittling.
In their youth most people worry whether or not other people will like them. Not me. I had the choice of going under or surviving and I survived by understanding (after the iron — if not the silver — had entered my soul) that it is I who am keeping score. What matters is what I think, not what others think of me; and I am willing to say what I think. That is the critical temperament. Edmund Wilson had it, but almost no one else now does, except for a few elderly Englishmen.
– Gore Vidal

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.




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