I interviewed Gore Vidal for Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, the PBS documentary that Michael Pack and I made in 2009–10. We wanted him because he was the most prominent defender of Aaron Burr.
We flew to Los Angeles and shot him in his house in the Hollywood Hills. The living room was basic WASP — lots of framed pictures on table tops. He looked like an old sick bird of prey. He could not walk without assistance and he had just woken up from a nap. There was also, I saw as soon as the interview began, Alzheimer’s — my father and mother-in-law had suffered from it, I knew the signs. He mangled historical anecdotes he had told dozens of times, saying Adams when he meant Madison, and so on. I wondered if we would get anything at all, but three or four times the needle fell in the right groove, which was all we needed. His best line: “Like many young men on the make, Hamilton could make older men fall in love with him. [Look of scorn] I’m not talking about gay liberation.”
Vidal was an attitudinizer who would say anything to be noticed, including shots at his own side. I have only read one of his novels, Burr
. The profiles of historical figures are interesting; anything novelistic — the book is supposed to “about” one of Burr’s illegitimate sons — lies dead on the page. I also read his huge prize-winning book of essays, which, having no characters but the author, are frequently much better, though even there he often, as WFB once wrote, goes “all banshee.” E.g., Howard Hughes was behind the plot to kill JFK, and to shoot George Wallace.
About WFB and Vidal and 1968 — I did not see the famous clash on ABC, though there are clips on YouTube and I read the apologia that WFB wrote for Esquire. God, they hated each other. My speculation is that Bill was enraged because he sensed that Vidal wanted to sleep with him, and Vidal was enraged because he knew that would never happen.
Vidal was hobbled as a writer by the example of Henry Adams. He admired the grandson and great-grandson of presidents extravagantly, and fancied himself to be just like him (Vidal’s maternal grandfather was a senator from Oklahoma — not quite John or John Quincy Adams, but close enough). Adams’s hauteur, his snarls, his anti-Semitism suited Vidal down to the ground. The great difference between the two men is that, beneath the beneath of Henry Adams, there is a populist — read the first six chapters of The History of the United States in the Administration of Thomas Jefferson or the description of women praying in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Take that away, and all you have left is clanging.
Once we finished the interview, Vidal perked up. He had an early supper and graciously invited the crew to join him. We had to shoot reverses and pack up, but I did join him for his cheese course. He told a good story about Henry Adams (gossip was one of his genres). It had been told to him by Eleanor Roosevelt (“we were good friends,” he explained). When Franklin had his Navy post in World War I, he and Eleanor went to dinner once chez Adams, where the Hay-Adams Hotel now stands, opposite the White House. Adams gestured across the way and said, “It doesn’t matter who lives there. The forces of history, etc. etc.”
“Mr. Adams,” said Eleanor, “that is a very discouraging thing to say to a young man who has entered public life to do some good.”
In response, Adams gave her such a cold look, she burst into tears and left the table.
I told that story months later to Norman Podhoretz, who also knew Vidal and tangled with him back in the day. He agreed it was a good one, then added, “He could have made it all up.”
Are there any Henry Adams or Roosevelt mavens out there who can supply the answer?
— Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.