Gore Vidal, that perspicacious paladin of the pen, wielded a sharp nib and was keen to skewer his opponents with it. Those who were foolhardy enough to joust with him orally were soon exsanguinated by a tongue-lashing and should have known better than to engage in a battle of wits only half-prepared. He had a mean streak and was unapologetic about it. “Beneath my cold exterior,” he claimed, “once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. rounded off his well-connected name as he thought would befit an aspiring author. As Gore Vidal, and no longer merely aspiring in 1960, he made his political debut in an unsuccessful bid for a Democratic congressional seat from his home in New York. It’s worth mentioning that his maternal grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, was one of the first two United States Senators from Oklahoma at statehood in 1907. Much later, having established himself in California, Vidal tried politics again, pitting himself against the state’s erstwhile “Governor Moonbeam,” Jerry Brown, in a race for the Senate. Moonbeam wasn’t Vidal’s invention; it was Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko. But the moniker was useful to Vidal in the Democratic primary, given that “Piccolo Pete” Wilson and Maureen “Big Mo” Reagan, the president’s daughter, were his challengers on the Republican side.
Nicknames notwithstanding, Vidal was not content to be a bystander who would be seen as an epigrammatic bon vivant and intellectual gadfly, so he put his money where his mouth was — well, sort of; because the former was overwhelmed by the latter. But Vidal craved the scalp of Republican incumbent “Samurai Sam” Hayakawa, which was covered by his signature (and culturally bizarre) tam o’ shanter adorned with a pom-pom. He, too, was a gadfly, though he only had a right wing and flittered around in circles of contempt for liberal democracy. S.I. Hayakawa was a college professor of linguistics and a demagogue who upset the California election six years earlier and then retired after one term in the Senate. Pete Wilson aimed to be his successor — over Gore Vidal’s (politically) dead body.
The gadfly in the oinment was erudite arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr., whose goat was got some years earlier — still a vivid memory for the electorate — when he snarled at Vidal on live TV, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Ergo, the cat was out of the closet as far as Vidal’s sex life was concerned (for those who hadn’t read his earliest books). And the stage was set. Epithets continued to fly faster than fists. Matters of power, religion, and sex still stirred the thick of things. And I was assigned to cover the Vidal campaign, in pictures, for Rolling Stone.
Brown defeated Vidal in the primary, and Wilson ultimately beat Brown. But let me remind you a bit more about what it was like in 1982 when I was preparing for my portrait of Gore Vidal. Top of mind was the AIDS epidemic; its denial followed by the persecution of its victims during the early reign of Ronald Reagan, whom Vidal described as “a triumph of the embalmer’s art.” Between ignorance and propaganda, any young heterosexual living in LA was reticent to admit having visited San Francisco, that hotbed of unorthodox sexuality and Gomorrah of godforsaken retribution. Imagine dealing with the fear of today’s COVID-19 pandemic but with an utterly mysterious infection vector, yet attributed cynically to “immoral behavior” — or just being anywhere near it. Such was the vile and pernicious message propagated by the federal government. And in that setting, I flew from LA to San Francisco with the world’s most celebrated bi-sexual to kick off his Senate campaign. First stop: the Castro.
Public speechifying was rare at these early hustings, dedicated instead to fundraising receptions in private homes. It seemed like everyone there took me for a duck out of water, which I was; whereas, in reality, they must have given me little attention at all, as it should be for a fly-on-the-wall photojournalist. But hiding behind my camera, I witnessed a world that had been invisible to me. I had no idea about the politics of Pride, an expression that hadn’t yet made its way into public consciousness. And I was self-conscious. I felt like a rube every time I spoke to the man who was urbanity incarnate. I chose each word and parsed each phrase in my head before opening my mouth. I must have been very quiet. I just kept shooting pictures. It wasn’t until we got back to LA that I asked Gore Vidal if he’d pose formally for a portrait.
Now I was speaking my language, confident in my own skin as a photographer. Arriving at the Vidal home on Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills, I had my photo assistant set up lights and camera while Vidal and I had a pre-shoot orientation chat. He spoke about his gravity-defying villa on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, literally a cliffhanger. I told him I had read two of his books, the historical novel, “Lincoln,” and his first one, “Williwaw.” I also admitted how intimidated I was by his penchant for coming up with a perfectly apropos but condescending quip for anyone who came up short of his lofty expectations. He only said, “A high horse is a beast often worth having tethered nearby.” I laughed nervously, telling him I hoped to avoid one of his scathing critiques when I unveiled his portrait.
I think that same “high horse” line was used again, or perhaps quoted years later, by Vidal’s late and later soured protégé, Christopher Hitchens. Vidal must have kept his quips in a quiver, close at hand, for just the right moment. Hitchens once wrote that Vidal advised him never to miss a chance to either have sex or appear on television; to wit, Hitchens replied, “My efforts to live up to this maxim have mainly resulted in my passing many unglamorous hours on off-peak cable TV.” The two men spent a lot of time together, along with their literary buddies, inspired by whiskey to invent fatuous titles for Shakespeare’s plays as if they had been emended by Robert Ludlum; for instance, “Hamlet” became “The Elsinore Conundrum.”
For a long time I’ve studied the different ways classical painters pose their subjects and place them under the spell of light, to apply those practices photographically. I admire how Diego Velásquez painted Spanish courtiers; and, likewise, how Rembrandt van Rijn, renowned for his famous side-lit self-portraits, depicted the deep-pocketed Dutch of his time. When I returned to the Vidal home, a couple of weeks after our portrait session to give him a print, he looked at it and said, “You’ve made me look too patrician.” I think the cleverest thing I ever said to Gore Vidal was, How could that be? Touché! I passed. He inscribed a second print for me to keep: Tom, the Velásquez of the Hollywood Hills. It hangs in my house today.