Gore Vidal, that perspicacious paladin of the pen, wielded a sharp nib and was keen to skewer his opponents with it. He was unapologetic about the mean streak that ran through his erudition. “Beneath my cold exterior,” he warned, “once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
The scion of an upper crust and politically engaged family, Vidal made an unsuccessful bid as a young man, in 1960, for a Democratic congressional seat in New York. His gambit was that he thought the government could and should provide better healthcare and education in exchange for the big chunk it took out of his and everyone else’s paycheck. He tried again, in 1982, pitting himself this time against California’s incumbent “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 during his Democratic Party primary campaign, given that his challengers on the Republican side were “Piccolo Pete” Wilson and Maureen “Big Mo” Reagan (the president’s daughter).
Nicknames notwithstanding, Vidal was not content to be a bystander, to be portrayed as an epigrammatic bon vivant and intellectual gadfly, so, he put his money where his mouth was. Well, sort of; because the latter overwhelmed the former. But he craved the scalp of the incumbent Republican senator, Sam Hayakawa. “Samurai Sam” was a gadfly, too, although he only had a right wing; and it made him flitter around in circles of contempt for liberal democracy. Hayakawa had been a college professor of linguistics and a nasty demagogue who upset the California election six years earlier, then announced his retirement after one term. Pete Wilson aimed to be his successor — over Gore Vidal’s (politically) dead body.
Another gadfly in the ointment was equally 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.” Therefore, the cat was, more or less, already out of the closet when Vidal’s campaign began. And the stage was set. In addition to debates about of money, power, and religion, homophobic epithets and innuendos flew faster than fists. I was assigned to cover Vidal’s senate campaign in pictures for Rolling Stone.
Brown defeated Vidal in the primary, and Wilson beat Brown in the main event. 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 crisis; 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 chat. He talked about his gravity-defying villa on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, literally a cliffhanger. I told him I 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 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 Vidal’s 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 could hardly come off better than half-prepared in a battle of wits with Gore Vidal, but I think the cleverest thing I ever said to him 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.