Gore Vidal 1925-2012
The idea of Gore Vidal being dead almost makes me believe in an afterlife. I don’t want to let go of the man’s mind. If every I’m going to be haunted I would welcome his shade, via dream or hallucination. Of course a lot of Vidal’s mind is on my shelves, and hopefully a worthy portion of his thought has passed into my mind without much transmission loss. I hope my brain will serve as a worthy custodian of whatever wisdom he imparted.
He was simply the best. The greatest mind of his generation, he did not stalk the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, he stalked the Roman forum at dawn, or the hills above Amalfi, or his Hudson Valley farm, and what he was looking for was a more rational sort of fix, wisdom, lyricism and beauty. I remember him vividly from television, handsome and witty. I was watching the coverage of the notorious 1968 Democratic Convention when ABC staged a sort of live debate about what was going on in Chicago between William F. Buckley, repping the right, and Vidal the left. When Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” the conservative TV host had a genuine meltdown. Even in black and white you could see him redden and he sputtered. “Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Watch it here: http://kronykronicle.com/1968/BV4.html
Vidal was one of the literary lions at a time when that sort of lion became an endangered species. Even the Times today lamented that he was perhaps the last of a breed. But Vidal was a true classicist. He wasn’t a modernist show off, all technique and fireworks. He told stories, philosophical stories, and he told them in an easy, eminently readable manner. He was our American Robert Graves in many ways–a great student of history who used to fiction to bring truth to its telling. But Vidal had more Hollywood in him than Graves–whose epic “I, Claudius” went before the cameras but was never finished. Vidal got films done, from The Best Man to Caligula, by any mean necessary. Imdb lists 41 titles as writer (much of it quality 1950s TV), 12 titles as actor. Apparently he didn’t have the stomach for producing. At least in the movies he got to sit in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which he ran for in real life during the Kennedy days, and lost.
Among his more significant filmed works: The Left Handed Gun, 1958, with Paul Newman (who got the part after James Dean’s death) playing Billy the Kid–Vidal wrote the play. (And stayed friends with Mr. and Mrs. Newman for life.) Suddenly Last Summer, 1959, where he wrote the screenplay for Tennessee Williams’ play. Visit to a Small Planet, the 1960 Jerry Lewis as alien picture which began its life as a TV play, then Broadway. The Best Man, 1964, perhaps the best election movie ever, with Henry Fonda, Edie Adams and Cliff Robertson. Myra Breckinridge–he wrote the novel that the acid trip was based on. Caligula, infamously produced by Bob Guccione. And his other Billy the Kid movie, Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer. Although Vidal was often disappointed by the results, everything he touched has at least some luminous aura of intelligence. Even Caligula. And I invite to see Vidal’s revisit with the subject of Caligula in collaboration with the artist Francesco Vezzoli, Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,. I own a copy but you can watch it here: http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/trailer-remake-gore-vidals-caligula/short.
Oh, the copies I own. The Judgment of Paris, first edition inscribed. Messiah, first edition. The Best Man, first edition, price clipped. A Thirsty Evil, first edition, signed. the Golden Age, first edition. Two copies of Kalki First edtiion. Burr, first edition. Romulus, first edition. Two Sisters, first edition. The Smithsonian Institution, first edition, signed. Three By Box, The Collected Mysteries of Edgar Box (Vidal’s mystery nom de plume.) Myron, first edition. Myra Breckinridge, first edition. An evening with Richard Nixon, first edition. Empire, first edition. Creation, first edition. Julian, first edition. 1876, first edition. Two copies of Hollywood, first edition. Duluth, first edtiion. Live from Golgatha, first edition. At Home: Essays 1982-1988, first edition. United States, Essays 1952-1992, first edition. Palimpsest, first edition. Point to Point Navigation, first edition. Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship, first edition. Inventing a Nation, first edition. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, first edition. And that doesn’t count the dozens of Vidal books up in the country where I have many multiple copies of the history novels. When I’d see one for sale I’d think I was rescuing it. I probably have a dozen copies each of Julian, Lincoln and 1876. I think I have a copy of his first novel, Williway, tucked away somewhere. I know what I’m reading for the rest of the summer.
Gore Vidal was and is my hero. In 2006 I had the wonderful opportunity to visit him at his Holmby Hills house and interview him. I had the good luck of being accompanied by the great photojournalist Gilles Peress. I think it was the first time I was ever nervous interviewing someone and Gilles, being a combat veteran, broke the ice for me. Vidal was a lovely, elegant, gracious and gave the impression of being a very kind man. I left him with a copy of my essay book, Soapbox. When I spoke to him on the phone some weeks later I asked him if he had read it. He said he was reading it, one piece at a time. I said I hoped that he got a laugh or two out of it and he replied, “I am chuckling my way through.” I felt like that was the greatest compliment I have ever received. I hope he did chuckle.
Here is that interview in its entirety.
How long have you had this house?
Was it a movie star’s house?
They all claim to be movie star’s houses. There’s a pool up there I just put in and there’s a large garage apartment where the kid lives.
Did you spend much time hear while you were living in Ravello?
Every now and then, when I had some work to do here. Generally I rented it to others.
How long have you been here now?
Half a year.
Has it changed?
I never noticed what it was before.
You must have a lot of friends here.
Not many. They’re all dying.
Is this your forthcoming memoir part two.
It’s just the mock-up. This volume deals with the last forty years.
Does it overlap with Palimpsest?
I hope not. That was the first forty years. This is the second forty years.
Was the writing process the same?
Pretty much. Just different things happened.
Was this also written in Italy?
Actually most of it was written last winter here.
You’re a fast worker then?
Pretty slow, really. I began some time ago. You go by subjects really. You don’t go filling in chronologies, or at least I don’t. You go from point to point—point to point navigation.
Did you consider a natural breaking point between the volumes?
No. One stopped and the other started.
So with Palimpsest it was “Well, that’s enough for a book. I’ll leave off.”
There was more than enough. It was a fight not to make it too long.
Are there out-takes?
No. Look, I’m not my subject. I’m the only American writer I can think of that does not write constantly about himself. People think you do because you give opinions, which you’re not supposed to have. I do say what I think about thing, but they’re not about me. So there are no revelations about me. That’s pointless if you’re not your subject. If you do nothing but write about yourself and how marvelous you are and how put upon by the world you are, that’s a very different kind of writer, and it’s about ninety percent of American writing is like that. That’s why I don’t like most of it. Why not describe the world around you which is a lot more interesting and a lot more difficult to understand.
Particularly now that…well I’m told that novels don’t sell and that if something is marketed as a memoir then everyone eats it up. The whole James Frey incident points that out.
I can’t understand why anybody fussed over that. Why shouldn’t he invent a past for himself? He starts out as nobody. He ends up as nobody. With a little scandal in between. Who’s business is it that he wants to make up a story about himself?
Don’t you think there’s a cult of authenticity that has taken over. That’s why people like Oprah Winfrey are popular and books are supposed to represent truth. People want that raw emotion.
Oh sure, but that’s hardly a yardstick.
You had a good line in Palimpsest. You wrote “As fiction ceases to give pleasure biography, that is mega-fiction, sometimes posing as gossip, has come into its terrible own.”
Little did I know what was ahead.
Who started it? Was it Mailer? Who made the obsession with the self the subject of the novel?
I think the whole force of American life does. Narcissism is encouraged at every side. Everybody has feelings and everybody’s feelings are equal to everyone’s else’s feelings. Everyone has different sorts of knowledge, but you’re not allowed to compare that. Because we really want to know. We want to know “Are you a good human being?” And they just babble on and on and on. It’s my impression that nobody’s reading the memoirs either.
Have you read many memoirs?
A few thousand, yeah.
What have you enjoyed, the way a story of a life is told.
I never really kept track. Memoirs have been around forever, starting with Julius Caesar. Who showed many great errors in how to do it. As Montaigne says the only thing really interesting about Caesar is how he came to be such a great general and how he then took his own country, his own city and transformed it from a republic into a principate suitable for himself. “That’s interesting, “says Montaigne, “but what does Caesar tell us in the Gallic Wars? What a great engineer he is! He tells us nothing but the dams he built, the roads he built. He’s lethally boring. And we just want to know “what made you decide to do what you did? To cross the Rubicon?” How do you do this? Don’t you take notes?
I have this little recorder.
Oh that! I thought it was a space ship.
It’s digital. I’ve had bad luck with tape recorders. This leaves less margin for error. If I take notes I can’t read my handwriting afterwards.
I did one interview. With Barry Goldwater back in the sixties. I did it in longhand and I had that problem, not being able to read my handwriting later.
The worst thing is trying to do it on the phone.
I’m not going to do it on the phone. I say fax me questions and I’ll fax you answers because, boy, then the creative writers get going.
I did one recently and something malfunctioned and all I had on the tape was my voice. I couldn’t hear the voice of the person I was interviewing….
That must have been a relief.
I thought perhaps I could salvage it while it was fresh in my mind but I was afraid of not getting the voice right. I didn’t want to paraphrase. And the subject was a person of some influence so I didn’t want to get in trouble.
Gilles Peress: May I ask a question. I’d like to go back to the question of writing about oneself and the obsession with one’s self. If you make an abstraction of the American anxiety to exist, and the best way to exist is to sell yourself, and talk about your feeling and your identity. If you go back to this notion of observing and describing the world and history as it unfolds around you, can one make complete abstraction of oneself as a sum of personal history, point of view? Can one be perfectly objective? There is a distorting prism in every one of us as a witness to history. Isn’t that important, to describe what the prism is for the reader to understand.
I do it in Palimpsest. That’s why I gave it that title. It means writing upon writing upon writing. It’s overwriting, on a printer’s block. That’s what it came from, in the seventeenth century. How memory works, and I’ve studied this as much as I can…if you break your leg when you’re ten yours old and now you’re fifty years old and you’re recalling breaking the leg, you’re not summoning up and old film which will then play in your memory. What you remember is the last time you remembered it. There’s the first time, when it happened, the leg is broken, and then you think about it from time to time over the years. Each time that you think about it you remember it in a slightly different way.
GP: It’s the building of narrative?
Yes. You build a narrative. We’ve always been taught, at least in this century, to think of memory as a lot of tapes, like a film. But it isn’t. It’s more like theater. Each of us has a cast of actors in his head. Some of them represent himself. Some of them represent people he knows. So if he’s going to remember breaking his leg he isn’t going to remember the actual event. He’ll be miles away from it. That’s when stories start to divide from each other. Your memory is not going to be my memory of the same event even though we both attended it. So I made a point of that in Palimpsest. I said this is not an auto-biography. Mr. McCourt wrote me a thankful letter when I issued my ukase. I said I’m not writing autobiography, I’m writing how I remember things and this is certainly fallible at best and evolutionary because your brain keeps evolving with same events, and it rearranges and you see them from different angles. Otherwise life would be pretty dull. So that is how our minds work and I think it’s best to go along with it and not fuss about it.
Calling it a memoir would seem to be an advantage in that you’re not responsible for the facts.
Well I am responsible for the facts. As much as you can be.
As much as you can be.
Well I do it more than most people because I’ve written seven novels about American history and I reach for my dictionary if anybody faults my history. I don’t invent what Abraham Lincoln was thinking. I don’t know what he was thinking. I evoke. I repeat what he said and what he did and then I invent fictional characters who can interpret, but I never go into the mind of the great figures because a you can’t.
When you’re writing a first person novel how close is that narrator to you?
Miles away. How close is Myra Breckenridge to me? Or Duluth? Or what I call my inventions. They are really way out. They’re in outer space.
Do you draw on characters you know, their voices?
We have an unconscious mind and that does a lot of the work of invention. I’d say most writers I know about today, not that I’m much a reader of their efforts…they invent nothing. They tell lies but that’s not invention. They don’t invent a character unlike themselves because they can’t imagine anybody unlike themselves. And now is the chance for them to pay off grudges and get back at people and so on. That to me is a royal waste of time. You have what the surrealists used to call the night mind and the night mind just surprises you with Myra Breckenridge. I had no idea what that book was about when I started it.
When you began writing the historical novels was your aim to correct popular errors?
No scholarly errors. The scholars are sometimes the real enemy of history.
Were you influenced by Robert Graves approach to the historical novel?
No. He’s much more of an inventor than he lets on. The Greek stuff he did and the Roman stuff is Plutarch and Suetonius, pretty easy to do and very vivid. His great work was Wife to Mr. Milton because Milton is one of the great mysterious figures of our literature and the fact that Graves was a first rate poet meant that he was well equipped to deal with Milton and his wife. That’s highly admirable, that work.
It seems that each of Graves’s novels begins with a theory, like Homer’s Daughter begins with the theory that a woman living in Sicily wrote the Odyssey and King Jesus…
That’s a very good book!
… begins with a theory that Christ was an Essene rabbi who was the legitimate heir to the throne of David, among other things. Actually that book would seem to be very current because of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. In King Jesus Judas is Jesus’ right hand man all the way.
There was a Jewish writer back in the thirties when I was a kid, Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the Gospel According to Judas Iscariot. It was a best seller in the United States and I read it with fascination. It caused all kinds of troubles and of course was promptly forgotten. I know very little about his biography. I don’t know to what extent he knew about this Gnostic Gospel. He must have known something. He couldn’t have just invented it out of the air, but I’ve long since forgotten it. It would be interesting to compare what he did in the thirties with what’s being done now. That’s your job.
Have you read the Da Vinci Code?
Yeah, I liked it.
I did too, much to my surprise. Had you read the grail sources like Holy Blood, Holy Grail …
I didn’t read that one but there’s so much. The stuff on the Rosicrucians. Henry Miller wrote about them. And the Knights Templar, anybody who’s covered that period is aware of that, not to mention the paintings of Poussin. A lot of them are trick paintings in which he is revealing where J.C. and his wife are buried in the South of France. There will be a mountain that represents their tombs and roads going toward it. He is giving you all kinds of signs in his paintings. There is a very good book on the subject.
It’s interesting that this heretical show business is happening at a peak of religious fervor in the United States. All of these evangelicals are rapturously awaiting the Rapture, while these alternative theories of Christianity are emerging in the public consciousness.
Well we are marinated in mendacity, so everything else is being lied about and reinvented by our rulers, it’s only natural that religious people, literary people and poets would start reinventing this and that to make it more comfortable or alarming.
What got you started on Julian? (Vidal’s novel about the Roman Emperor who tried to reinstitute the old religion after the establishment of Christianity.) Was it horror at Christians in America?
No. Horror at Christians anywhere. I am an anti-monotheist. I regard that as the great curse of the West and the three major religions that came out of it, I wish they would just go away.
It seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
Everything is likely. Don’t rule anything out!
Think there’s any chance of a revival of paganism? I think Julian would have a better case now.
I don’t think it’s ever entirely died. You know what the word means? Paganus means country person. Bumpkin. But you never know. Anything’s possible.
Maybe the Da Vinci Code could be the first step in the revival of the Goddess? The Vatican seems quite concerned.
No. L.Ron Hubbard made a religion out of his imagination. Before that there were the Mormons and Mary Baker Eddy. This is a country full of mad religions.
Mormonism is certainly imaginative.
Indeed it was.
According to L.Ron’s son he decided out as a disciple of Aleister Crowley and he rose very high in his secret society hierarchy before he decided to combine it with his science fiction skills into Dianetics.
We had the same publisher at one time. I vaguely remember meeting him back in the fifties. He was just a science fiction writer published by Ian Ballantine who published a book of mine called Messiah. He made no impression on me.
Did you ever read Dianetics?
A friend of mine went in to the Scientology center and got his free IQ test and they did the e-meter on him. Then they gave him Dianetics to read and he got to the part where gays and lesbians are perverts who are quite physically ill and extremely dangerous to society and I suppose, should be sent to Siberia and he lost interest. (It says “No social order will survive which does not remove these people from its midst.”) Later he told another proselytizer he had trouble with the part about gays and lesbians being sick and dangerous, and the proselytizer said “Well, that could be a problem” and walked away.
Gilles: Speaking of extremism. There is a convergence now among the Christian fundamentalists, the Jewish fundamentalists and the Islamic fundamentalists. They all talk about the same moment and the same place and when you spend time in the middle east you feel their words pushing toward this moment with is “the beginning of the end of time.” Words have an amazing capacity to create facts. We’ve seen it with genocide. So what do you think think of the monotheist push toward this? I apologize…I’ve put a lot in front of you.
No. It is in front of me, and you. These are eschatological times and it all starts with the dropping of the atomic bombs. You can put it further back. Systematic genocide has always existed, but not on the scale that Hitler did it. That was a little picture of what could be coming up. But with the atomic bombs, I was in the Pacific in the Army. We didn’t know what was going on. We had all been lied to by the American government, so we were delighted. We had all been told that if we had to invade Japan one million of us would die. They would fight kamikaze-like until the end. Well, there was not a word of truth to any of this. The Japanese were not even on their own island. They were marooned on the mainland of China and they didn’t even have the ships to get back. Their forces couldn’t have put up that much resistance. There weren’t that many of them left. A story was prepared for the world, and when you see how easy it is to fool everybody…who would believe that Harry Truman just put this out. There is an excellent book on the decision to drop the atomic bomb by Gil Alperovitz. He lives in Washington, I think. Very thorough. Did you know that every American commander from Eisenhower in Europe to Nimitz in the Pacific wrote or spoke to President Truman and begged him not to drop the bombs, that this was a new phase in warfare that could lead to the end of the world. In time our enemies would also get the bomb and drop it on us. What are you setting up?! This is one time where the military was more intelligent than the civilians. Truman, with his short range political views, decided that we had to have a new enemy because the old enemy, Hitler and Japan, had brought back prosperity to the United States. We had full employment. Roosevelt, in 1940, put eight billion dollars into re-armament and that was the end of the depression, which had not ended but was getting worse and worse. So there was no longer unemployment. The war ends. We are victorious. Now what? Was the depression going to come back? Was there enough work? What sort of jobs would people have. So Truman picked Stalin and Communism which is an unholy religion and must be destroyed. Because, of course, they wanted to destroy us…it’s the usual non-sense. And so Truman started the cold war. He divided Germany. We teach in our schools, of course, that the Russians did. They didn’t. We did, after the agreements at Yalta. That the three powers would share Berlin and jointly govern Germany. So Truman broke every agreement that Roosevelt had made with Stalin. Stalin then began to misbehave in Eastern Europe because he’s been invaded two or three times from the West, so he gets a stronghold in Czechoslovakia and so on…so we have Truman to thank for the cold war. And for the dropping of the bomb, which was barbaric. General LeMay, who was a big hawk, he was the one in charge of the 20th Airforce and the B-29 bombers, he told the president that there was nothing left to blow up. His raids over Tokyo had destroyed it. The paper city was gone. They were trying to surrender. The emperor was already writing letters to Truman. It’s in Truman’s diaries. “I got another letter from Hirohito today. They say they want to surrender. I don’t believe it.” Because he wanted to drop his bombs. This is why one has to write history.
He said about the atomic bomb, “I’ll have a hammer on those boys!” Meaning Stalin and the Russians.
Yes. And why would he think they would declare war on us. They had lost twenty million people. Were they immediately going to bomb New York?
Do you think a similar process has led us to antagonize and polarize Islam, because we needed a new enemy after we finally got rid of the Soviet threat?
Yes, of course. Look we have no educational system for the general public, so they are totally ignorant. We have the most poisonous media on earth, because it’s nothing but lies and re-inventions and misinformation. It belongs to the same people who profit by the wars and Homeland Security and FEMA and this and that. The corruption is now so great I can’t see us pulling out of what’s been done to us in two or three generations, and then with great luck.
Do you think we’ll escape Hiroshima coming back on us, having leaders who ostensibly believe in the Rapture with nuclear weapons in their hands?
I think we’ll be saved by the fundamental hypocrisy of our people, particularly those in the political life. They may appear to believe in Rapture but I don’t believe they do. They do that for the helots in the field.
I can see that applying to the Congress but what about Bush. Do you think he’s insincere? That he doesn’t talk to God in the oval office?
He’s not there. The only president is Cheney and he’s not terribly active. He can do disastrous things like push for the invasion of Iraq, which was not only no danger to us but we could have easily gotten along with them. But no, we had to pretend that they were working together with Osama Bin Laden. It’s just nonsense.
Osama Bin Laden is Bush’s dream come true…
If he exists. I sometimes think he was just made up. Al Qaeda certainly sounds made up. “The Base?” What the hell is “The Base?”
I think Al Qaeda is certainly fictional. But what about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. He seems to be another apocalyptic. An End Timer. What happens when we have one on each side of the nuclear fence?
He’s a politician. He’s appealing to his people.
Gilles: It’s good business to challenge the U.S.. Iran is doing very well. The geopolitical influence of Iran now stretches from the Western half of Afghanistan to the two thirds of Iraq. I was looking at some of my pictures from the revolution recently and one of the posters says “You can do nothing!” He knows there is very little we can do and it’s very good business for him to challenge us. We are powerless because of the mistakes of their own president. It’s all benefit.
Glenn: It’s a benefit up to the point where the nukes get dropped in the suburbs of Teheran.
Maybe the desperate Europeans will stop us.
Gilles; If Chirac is talking about bombing Iran at a military school in France I’m not so sure.
Germany has come back to its senses. And Italy is re-arranging itself.
Gilles: But the nuclear option is clearly there. But I think the Iranians have realized we are weak and have a tendency to give in. Remember the arms for hostages deal. The benefit is not only to their street but in negotiation with the U.S..
One thing that’s chilling is the rush of the Democrats to outdo the Republicans in religious zeal. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton talking about religious faith. Do you think there’s any hope for opposition to this mania?
The only real opposition to the regime that’s in power in the United States is the people. The people of the United States don’t like their government and there is no reason why they should.
Well the people are very concerned with the high price of gasoline and the lack of health insurance, but they are also very concerned with fashion and sports results.
They are very concerned with the price of oil and the fact that they are going broke and losing jobs and don’t have medical care. We are very highly taxed, as a first world country, and the people get nothing back. A dreadful public educational system, no public health, a bare grudging social security, where we pay all our lives and then don’t get much back. No first world country would put up with this. But we are in an unfortunate bubble in the Northern Hemisphere. We have no interesting neighbors. In Europe, Switzerland is sort of like us. It is rich and has an extremely good federal system, the cantonal system,. Why are they so good at it? Because they have got French—Romanche, my family, and German and Italian cultures, all loathing each other but all getting along up there in the Alps. They understand how the world operates. We don’t understand anything. We have Canada, which doesn’t like us and turns their backs when we appear. And Mexico which is a source of sweated labor. So we are without neighbors, we are without languages, we are without history and we are without civilization. This is a bad place to be in the twenty-first century.
I have always thought the best thing that could happen would be for the United States to devolve, to do what the Soviet Union did and the opposite of what Europe did and break up.
I would certainly recommend a redrawing of boundaries. I ran for the Senate in ’82 and the feeling in Northern California about separation is tremendous. From San Francisco up through Oregon, through Washington and British Columbia would make a new Sweden. One of the richest, most advanced countries on earth, without having to carry all this other stuff.
New York up through New England would make a pretty good nation too.
It would be more interesting and give you more opportunities. You don’t want to be stuck when a bunch of thugs like the gas and oil junta grabs control of the government through duplicitous media and through very wealthy corporations, the rest of us shouldn’t have to suffer for what is done out of Texas. We have a Texas government. the United States is a lot bigger than more interesting than Texas.
But I wonder at what point there will be a real, tangible reaction from the people? Is it when it costs one hundred dollars to fill up the pick up truck? When does push come to shove? And what do they do? Just vote for a Democrat for Congress?
It doesn’t matter who they vote for because with Diebold voting machines the votes aren’t going to be counted. The last two presidential elections were stolen. John Conyers, the ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat, went to Ohio to explain to the people with some researchers and several other Congressmen and he broke the whole story. To help him out on the Internet I wrote a preface, so I happen to know the details of his book. No major newspaper in the United States reviewed Conyers book about how the election was stolen in 2004 in the state of Ohio, as it had been stolen in the year 2000 in shte state of Florida, with very much the same machinery. The secretary of state of each state had stolen it in each case. With new electronic devices like Diebold, Triad, S-Net. I wrote one of the earliest studies of these machines ten years ago. I saw the mischief they could cause. Now it’s systemic. They are out there. States have been bribed to take these machines. Now if Kerry wins Cincinnati by ten thousand votes you’ll suddenly find that Bush won it by ten thousand votes. It’s exactly the same amount. The only contradiction would be the exit polls.
The exit polls were overwhelming for Kerry in Ohio, and they have never been wrong before. The president of Diebold had guaranteed victory for Bush. The fix was in.
I know. He ran his campaign. I printed his letter.
I think a good slogan for the next campaign is “Re-elect Gore.” (laugh) Don’ you think he’s our best hope?
They could do worse.
Gilles: I like Edwards. I was on the road with the candidates and he’s the one who impressed me most standing next to him.
He seems invisible since the debacle.
Vidal: He’s around. He was on C-span two nights ago. He was the one who tried to give a coherent picture of what’s wrong in the country. There are two nations and until it’s one there’s going to be trouble.
What about your cousin?
Yes. I don’t know if it was growing his beard or wearing a lumberjack shirt, but I now find him, someone I never cared for since the days when his wife campaigned for censorship of music lyrics, to have matured greatly. He seems almost wise. And what he says about the environment is pretty strong.
He’s been very good on that from the beginning.
Don’t you think that’s something you can run on now?
I don’t think you can raise money that way. And it comes down to nuts and bolts like that.
But as you said it’s the people who are going to have to change things and the one thing that Howard Dean did, before he was set up as a maniac by the media in collusion with the Democrat establishment, was to demonstrate that considerable money can be raised from people who are not super-rich.
Oh sure. But the super-rich are now the majority (laughs) and they pick the candidates and the policies.
There are three million millionaires in the United States now. And they probably vote. They probably vote at their country houses too.
Gilles: I apologize for saying this, but you seem sad. Do you have hope that we can make it better?
Well who is “we?” What is “better?” What is our time frame? Everything changes. I tell people I was born in a country and I live in a homeland now.
I was shocked when that terminology was taken up almost without comment. Why don’t we call it the Fatherland?
Well it’s the Fourth Reich.
In Yeats’s A Vision he lays out a rather complicated theory, one that was allegedly dictated by his invisible spiritual teachers through his wife’s automatic handwriting, but wherever it comes from it’s very interesting. It’s a metaphysical theory of history as as intersecting gyres. The dominant personality of the culture goes through a series of phases over the course of a two thousand year cycle, which phases he bases on the phases of the moon. At one end is complete Beauty, and the Apollonian ideal, and at the other end is complete plasticity. According to his sketch of history we are now at the extreme end which is characterized by complete plasticity. It resonates with me because our culture now seems plastic, that is manipulable. How can people give up principles that have stood for centuries? You can say we have no culture, but we come from culture and we had something resembling a culture and ideals and ethics. It’s almost as if we are caught up in some cyclical dynamic, grazing the ground zero of character. It can’t all be television…
Television is a manifestation. We got into the empire business. That had to do with politicians and mercantile interests. It seemed that we had to make all the money in the world, even if we had to steal it. I saw the logic, I thought, of Iraq and Afghanistan and Caspian oil. We need the oil; grab it. Everyone’s always done that. I’m not so delicate minded that I don’t understand that powerful societies take what they need, just or unjust. I mean I saw the logic of it. I don’t like it. And then I saw that we were too stupid for that. We haven’t even turned on Iraq’s oil so they can use it. Did you see the story of the pipeline across the Tigris that we wrecked? They were trying to repair it and nobody knew high. So now there is no oil for Iraq’s internal life.
Meanwhile the Brazilians have figured out how to run their cars on rum!
Yes, ethanol. I was in a traffic jam in Sao Paulo a few years ago. The most astonishing thing. There were about fifty cars, the usual big city jam up. The air was clear as crystal. Sea breezes were blowing through the piazza. Everyone’s engine was going but there were no vapors.
It’s so interesting what’s going on in South America now, except to the press not much in the news…people are finally getting control of their own countries after centuries of Banana Republic.
We’re out of it pretty much. We can still make a mess of it in certain places like Columbia. With the great Hugo in Venezuela it’s a whole new change in the world. I love the fact that he offered to provide cheap gasoline to the victims of hurricane Katrina.
No. I just had an invitation from the Minister of Culture down there about a week ago. They want to talk about publishing books of mine in Spanish, which otherwise are done in Spain or Mexico, but not that I’m lame it’s very hard to get around. I’m in the throes of canceling things I really should be doing. Gorbachev’s holding a forum in June in Venice4 and I’m supposed to speak and I don’t think I can. Just getting on planes and getting off, with all the security, I just can’t do it.
Does your knee problem go back to your experience in the Aleutians during the Second World War?
Yeah. It was hypothermia. It got wet. I was first mate on an Army ship and I went around with a wet knee on a freezing evening. They misdiagnosed it. They said it was rheumatoid arthritis and it wasn’t. It was osteo-arthrosis. Finally the knee was replaced about a year ago. This is all titanium now.
Did you ever write about the Kennedy assassination?
In the new book. I end with that, actually.
So who did it? Not to give away the ending of your book, but who did it?
The mob. Marcello.
Was Johnson in on it?
Hoover? The CIA? The Watergate burglars and the crazy right wing Cubans?
No. It was three mafiosi, Marcello, Trafficante and Roselli. They had put a contract out on Jack because Bobby was going after the mob. Marcello was the boss of New Orleans and also pretty much of Havana before Castro. Bobby was trying to build up his reputation, which was not very good, and so he went to war with the Appalachian bust of the mob leaders and arrested some of them. He deported Marcello to the jungles of Guatemala and left him there. Marcello was not a happy man. Trafficante who was a mobster from Tampa, Florida was complaining about Bobby, how they had to get rid of him. This was a phone conversation the FBI picked up. And Marcello said “Well if a dog bothers you, you don’t cut off the tail, do you?” That was the death warrant for Jack.
I always thought E.Howard Hunt, Frank Sturges and the renegade CIA types who were involved in the Bay of Pigs and then later Watergate were involved in it as well.
They crop up. Because Kennedy was out to kill Castro. Both Kennedys were after the missile crisis when everything was supposed to be relaxed. They couldn’t stand the fact that Castro had really won, so not knowing that there was a contract out from the mob against Jack, they organized, not through the CIA this time but the Department of Defense, to kill Castro using the mob, using Trafficante. Even minor figures like Jack Ruby, who was part of the Chicago organization, were going to be involved in it. And it worked. It was the most secret thing in the country. They tried once in Chicago and failed. They tried in Tampa and failed. And they got him in Dallas.
Do you think the assassination of Bobby was part of the same thing?
Who knows, by then, what connections were being made. Bobby sounds more like an outraged Palestinian got him after his speech in Orange County.
Sirhan belonged to the Rosicrucians. Not some elite secret society but this kind of corny group that advertised in the back of the National Enquirer. They were big on self-hypnosis, so I wondered if he was one of those mind control robot Manchurian candidates.
We heard in Italy…I lived near the Second Fleet, a big naval installation, and they were experimenting with hypnosis at the big Naval Hospital, so it was said. Do I know this? No I don’t know it. But I certainly heard quite a lot about it. There was a period during which all the secret services believed in hynosis. You get some suggestible person and hypnotize them and you get a Manchurian candidate. It was believed Sirhan may have been a victim of that but who knows?
Did you stay friendly with Jackie throughout her marriage to Onassis?
Did you fall out or not have anything to say to each other?
No, we had a lot to say to each other. It was when I broke with Bobby. She had to take his side. Which was quite normal and acceptable.
Did you know Onassis?
Yes. He sort of made the weather, wherever he was.
Was he a crook?
I don’t do gossip.
Well the Gemstone File, a document much beloved by consipiracy theorists, supposedly the inside dirt from a CIA agent who knew everything, said that Onassis didn’t make his first fortune in Turkish tobacco, but that he was importing something more powerful. I don’t know if that’s any more gossip than connecting the Kennedys with rum running.
Except that Onassis is a private person and the Kennedys are public people
Where do you draw the line?
Why go after Onassis? He means nothing to our political process, to our lives. He was an adventurer. He did well.
Do you have any feeling about where the new Supreme Court is headed?
Nowhere good. But the election of two thousand demonstrated the amount of damage you can do if you get enough bad people on the court. I don’t think it makes any difference who appointed anybody or whether they are Republicans or Democrats. They are cut from the same kind of cloth.
Don’t you think the whole gerrymandering issue is the most crucial issue that will come up before them?
No, I think the electronic balloting machinery is all important in deciding every election now. Gerrymandering is unpleasant but districts change sometimes on their own.
It seems that there should be a formula for it. Not “we won so we get to draw the lines.”
That’s the formula.
Did you see the film Capote?
What did you think of it?
It’s actually pretty well done considering the difficulties that you’re dealing with a pathological liar, someone who could not stop lying, and always for the purpose of damaging others. How they pulled it off took great discretion on the part of the writer. And the actor was pretty good.
You think he got his personality?
No. How could he? But it was a good superficial imitation.
Was Capote’s lying something that came over him spontaneously or did he have an agenda? You’re the one who said “Success isn’t enough. Others have to fail.”
That was Delaroche Foucault, but nobody recognizes him, so I claim it now.
Gilles and I got into an argument this morning. He said “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” was said by Marx. I said that you said that it was Santayana.
That was Santayana. Tolstoy said “History would be a wonderful thing if it were true.”
Gilles: I thought Marx said that one has to study history or is condemned to repeat it and generally the second time it is as a farce.
The first part is Santayana. Marx added the farce.
I can’t argue it.
They were a generation apart. Santayana was a great writer. Marx was not.
Gilles: I would dispute that.
You must read Santayana. He was an extraordinary philosopher, not only of aesthetics but of religious belief. He was a Spanish Catholic with a puritan Boston mother named Sturgis. When he was a professor of Harvard it was asked what is Santayana’s religion. William James said “Santayana is an atheist. There is no God, but Mary is his mother.” That’s the pure Latin point of view.
I just discovered Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods which an extraordinary book.
I don’t know that.
Basically it’s a manifesto of atheism. I found it surprising that someone so visible in America and so popular could express that point of view.
He had the Mercury. Baltimore didn’t have to know he was Godless.
He had a great line about Christians. He said “A Christian is one willing to serve three gods but who draws the line at one wife.” While we’re on atheism, what do you think about September 11th. There seems to be a growing movement of dissent from the orthodox faith of 9/11. New York Magazine recently ran an article suggesting there was controlled demolition of the World Trade Center and there has been much discussion of whether or not an airliner actually hit the Pentagon. Do you think there are fictions involved?
What happened to the remains of the plane is the great question.
There don’t seem to be any remains.
No there don’t.
And also the number seven World Trade Center building, a huge building, suddenly collapsed and it wasn’t even hit by anything, which building was coincidentally the headquarters of the FBI, the Secret Service, the Securities Exchange Commission. Could such a stupid administration possibly be involved in carrying out something so complex?
I think you put your finger on it with the word stupid. Since they can’t do anything else well, how on earth could they do 9/11? But they certainly knew how to take advantage of it by pretending there was a war, then demanding wartime powers to get rid of the Bill of Rights. Oh no, it was artfully done.
Every generation has its official pantheon of artists and writers. Are there any artists or writers of your generation whom you feel didn’t get their due?
The few good ones didn’t get much of a shake from the American media. Let’s forget about Academe which is systematically wrong about everything. They have to think about tenure and getting ahead in their careers so they always put their money on the wrong writer, the wrong composer, the wrong this, the wrong that. James Purdy was very much mistreated by two generations now. The New York Times is always the leader in trying to destroy anything interesting that comes along in the arts. Their destructiveness is very, very great because it isn’t just by ignoring or being unpleasant about the original person. It’s by praising mediocrity; that’s how they kill. That’s how civilizations die. And boy they know how to do it. At a time when there were quite a lot of interesting writers in the country who did they admire Jerzy Kosinski, who was a plagiarist and nothing he wrote was tgrue about his sufferings. That was the New York Times idea of a great, great writer. And even he was ashamed of what they did to him and he committed suicide. This is a country that was never going to be interested in the arts. We produce great artists in one field or another, but certainly they are not much appreciated. We like actors and entertainers.
We are at a point where novels are seldom read, with the exception of “chick lit,” I guess, and painters have become the object of financial speculators. If you asked the average American they could probably name ten fashion models but they couldn’t name ten painters.
They couldn’t name ten novelists.
Do you think that will ever change or will it get worse and worse? Have we reached cultural entropy?
Now that you’ve gone to physics lets say it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics taking place. Everything’s running down.
Gilles: So there is no hope?
I guess we’re screwed Gilles.
Gilles: I learned that a long, long time ago.
Hope is an attitude that’s all.
Gilles: If one has to fight for history, for the meaning of it all, there is a battle going on, how does one wage that battle?
Gilles: Erase them?
Yes, the marks they make are not terribly permanent. Individually. Now the whole bunch of them, yes there can be a class mark which can be deadly, but they have no staying power either. They’re not coherent. They are not a movement. Some idiot on television I was on television talking about how the oil junta was in the Cabinet and the White House and some idiot said to me, “You don’t think Condoleeza Rice would talk to Dick Cheney about the oil business in the White House!” I said, “Well what else do they have in common? Certainly not an interest in the United States or its governance.” I didn’t get much of an answer on that.
I think few people know she was on the board of Chevron for ten years.
Yes, there’s a tanker named after her. (laughter)
Is there no tanker named the Gore Vidal?
No. There is a suite at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok named after me.
I loved your collaboration with Francesco Vezzoli on A Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula.
It’s crazy isn’t it?
I think artists need to reclaim an audience instead of being….
Well that and jesters for the rich. Someone said artists and writers are the highest-ranking members of the servant class….
That’s about right.
But this film reaches at least an MTV sized audience anyway, which is pretty good for a fine artist. I think it’s time for artists to infiltrate entertainment. So why did you stop writing plays?
You can’t write plays from Italy. You need a city for a play. My city is New York. I can’t write for Rome. I can’t write even for London, although I’m pretty popular there. I’m on the wrong wavelength. I’m not British and I was not around New York for twenty or thirty years.
You seem to have had happier results in theater than in film, although I suppose film must have been profitable for you.
You can’t win in film. In the old studio sense it’s their film, literally. The first thing you do is waive your copyright when you start to write a script for MGM. The studio has written the script. Period. That’s the state of authorship under law. I did four or five movies at Metro. I took Faulkner’s view. Of course I found movies interesting. Faulkner never did. But he said, “Take the money. Go home and write your novels.”
Did Faulkner ever write a good script?
Oh yes. The Big Sleep.
What about Fitzgerald? Did he ever write a good script?
No talent. I went down into the cave, the basement of MGM at the Thalberg building. They have all the scripts down there and I got out every script he had ever written for Metro, about three or four. Three Comrades or something. Just awful. He had no gift at all.
His novels aren’t strong in the dialogue department. His descriptions are marvelous.
He’s a romantic writer and like most great romantic writers he’s essentially a tone of voice. That’s the one thing movies cannot put on the screen. Look at all the times they’ve tried to put Madame Bovary on the screen and each attempt is worse than the last.
Gilles: Maybe if Fitzgerald had worked with European film-makers he would have had better results.
No. He tried plays on his own and they weren’t any good either. I worked with Joe Mankiewicz who worked with him on Three Comrades, (one of the only films where he was credited as a writer, ) and Joe is always portrayed as the Hollywood vulgarian who destroyed Fitgzgerald. He kept him on knowing he wasn’t any good at all, and paying him a large salary because Fitzgerald had such expenses with Zelda in the madhouse. Mankiewicz is sort of the hero of that story and he’s been made the villain.
Do you have un-produced scripts?
I have a few floating around.
What is your apocrypha, or whatever you’d call it?
I have a version of Kalki. I worked on it with Hal Ashby who then cooled it. It was for Mick Jagger who was the producer and was to be the actor. And I think there’s Julian, sitting around somewhere. Producers are currently interested in it again. That happens about every other year. That came pretty close to being produced. Peter O’Toole owned it for a long time.
I don’t know if you saw the little piece I did on Caligula, but after I spoke with you I spoke to Malcolm McDowell. He was a bit…I don’t know if defensive is the right word…
He should be.
He said “Gore would call me late at night after he had been drinking and say all these terrible things. I had to get up early in the morning.”
I never rang him late at night. The script was a bit long and I gave him the3 script and said to him, “Since you’re going to be playing the lead, just indicate in your parts things that you like or don’t like, where we might cut.” He gave me the script back a couple of days later and he had cut out 90% of O’Toole’s part as Tiberius. I said “this is very collegial, isn’t it? You’re trying to eliminate him from the film.” That was our last conversation.
What did you think of Brokeback Mountain?
And the Aviator?
Not good. Howard Hughes was a slob and my father was involved with him in a couple of airlines. He was just deeply stupid. And very deaf. He was really out of things. The only thing for which he’ll forever be known is that he fired Greta Garbo when she was making her return to the movies after the war. He said “I don’t want any Garbo movies! Cancel it!” She was so horrified by that she never let anybody get near her again. So he deprived us of a great deal.
It seemed like a pretty thin account for someone with a wild life.
It wasn’t about anything. He was a sort of autistic guy. His life at nine years old might have been interesting.
Are you writing a book now?
Any plan to?
Do you miss Ravello?
You don’t miss the food?
Not particularly. I’m diabetic. I can’t eat pasta. That was almost as important as the leg in getting me out of there.
I love the peninsula where you lived.
It is very beautiful there.
I’m addicted to the white wine from Furore, up the hill from Amalfi. Fiorduva. Marisa Cuomo.
Yes. The make a fairly good red now too.
Did you know Andy Warhol?
He was my first boss.
At the Factory?
Yes. I worked there in the early seventies, editing Interview. He was my best teacher.
You could certainly learn publicity from him.
He also taught me that going to parties was work.
What’s happened to Paul Morrissey?
He hasn’t made a movie in a long time, but he made a lot of money in real estate.
I heard he made billions from that Montauk place.
He seems quite happy now. When I worked there he was grumpy and he was always trying to fire me.
Did he have a reason?
I had made the magazine somewhat successful was full of myself and I ignored some of his orders. One of them was not to print any more nude photos. He was making films with nude mean and women and people shooting up but he didn’t want me to show any breasts. And I had an interview with Rudi Gernreich and it seemed senseless not to run Elliot Erwitt’s picture of Peggy Moffit in the topless bathing suit. So he tried to fire me. It happened again when I ran an interview with Ed Sanders about his Manson book. I didn’t know he was negotiating with Roman Polanski at the time. I guess I was a loose cannon.
Howard was a friend of Andy’s. More than I was. He came to see us up in the country and later in Ravello with Paul Morrissey in tow. And Mick and Bianca Jagger. Andy was making movies then and I was quizzing him and I said “What do you about editing?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t edit.” I said what do you mean and he said “Oh we take some Scotch tape and tape the ends together.” I kept quizzing him and getting very simple answers. I said did you find no difficulties? No problems with establishing shots? I was trying to get at his theory of film-making. Finally he said “Well, the really tough thing is putting the film in the camera. Those big discs. That’s really hard.”
That’s Andy. Paul actually had a very good rap on film-making. He was the arch-enemy of the auteur theory and took every opportunity to attack the French and Andrew Sarris.“Movies shouldn’t be about the director. They’re about stars. We’re bringing back the star system.” He said The Factory was the new studio, the new MGM.
He had a point, but he had no stars. You can’t just call them that.
I know what you mean but the drag queens really had some talent. Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Joe Dallesandro looked really good but he was a kind of silent film actor. Dialogue was not his forte.
Viva was not so silent.
No, Viva was really amazing. It’s a shame she never really made it. She was a very, very funny person and a terrific comedienne.
I was amused by your account of going to visit Paul Bowles. How he didn’t have a phone so you just show up and knock on the door.
And he tottered over and opened it. I wrote a lot about him in the new book. They recently published a very interesting book of his letters. He’s very strange.
He said something nasty about Duke Ellington and I was really taken aback by that. Someone asked me to take part in a benefit for Bowles’ music and I couldn’t bring myself to do it because that was fresh in my mind. I actually liked some of Bowles’s music but it really bothered me that he would say bad things about Ellington.
He gave me an hour’s lecture on the Girl from Ipanema. He said it was the perfect melody. It tracks back on itself, like a snake swallowing it’s on tail. He was absolutely brilliant on it. He even played a bit of it.
Do you listen to music?
I loved my Roman period. We went to the opera once a week and to see various orchestras from around the world at Santa Cecelia. Do I put on music? No I don’t. I’m either reading and I have to concentrate, or writing, ditto. And as you know I have never known a composer yet who could stand being in a room with music unless he was there to listen to it. Music as background is loathsome to them. Every time you’d get into a taxi with Bowles there would be a long negotiation to get the radio turned off.
I often hear music I like in taxis in New York and I’ll often ask about it. The drivers always say the same thing: “This is music of my country.” They usually don’t want to tell you any more than that.
The photographer looks ready. He’s smoking.
I’m sorry if I haven’t been a good interviewer.
Who said you were not a good interviewer.
I’m generally fearless but I was a little intimidated talking to you.
No! I’m a spent force.
Whatever is spent was well spent. A lot of your force has been absorbed into me. I have read as much of your work as I could. I’m still working on it. And greatly looking forward to the next memoirs. I’m sure certain of your works have been called post-modern. Live from Golgotha…
Duluth has been called post-modern by some academics the ultimate post-modern novel.
I was wondering what you thought of Donald Barthelme.
I didn’t like him. It’s too easy. You get the trick. Barth was even worse, I thought.
Did anyone every try to get you to be a chat show host?
I had one in New York in 1961. It was called Hotline, produced by David Susskind and I was the host. It was the first program where people could telephone in and they did.
And it was live?
It was live.
And it wasn’t necessary to screen the callers? Nobody would say “Fuck you, Vidal.”
I think there was a button you could press but it wasn’t really necessary. It was a very popular program. I quit after about three months.
That was before he became an on-air personality?
He already was, but on other shows. We did it out of the building where the New York Daily News is located. A friend of mine, Fred Dupuy who taught at Columbia, a great Henry James man, watched it once and he said, “You really ought to get out of there.” I said “Well, it’s sort of fun.” I was in politics then. He said, “I never thought I’d see a friend of mine on television talking to Ed Sullivan. Just get out.” So I went to Europe.
You were on well before William Buckley’s Firing Line. Did you ever watch that?
I never watched it.
I have a few memories of it. It could be amusing, especially when he had someone radical on the show like Stokely Carmichael. When it would get heated his mannerisms became more pronounced, his tics like his eyebrows popping up and his eyes bugging out and his lockjaw accent became more…locked.
I can’t imagine Buckley being much good. He’s so slow.
Well he’s slow with that exaggerated way he drags his syllables out. I never thought of it, but maybe that’s to give him time to think. Anyway he was quite explosive. He exploded on you. He started stammering.
Yes. You had a confrontation on the coverage of the Democratic National Convention. Do I remember this correctly? You called him a “crypto-fascist”….
No. Pro or cypto-Nazi. He was accusing the young people who were being beaten up by Mayor Daley’s police in Chicago. He said (imitating Buckley): “They’re like the Nazis…” (laughter) I said “they are not like the Nazis. The only one I can think of is you.” And then this old queen started to blabber all over the place.
I seem to recall him turning red and sputtering “you…you…fag.”
No, he didn’t say that. I couldn’t really hear. He was babbling.
And then you wrote a very funny people in Esquire. “An Unpleasant Encounter With William F. Buckley, Jr.”
Quite right. He’s trying to get it banned right now. Esquire brought it out again in an anthology and (Buckley voice) “he tried to sue.” He said he had been libeled by this piece. Which is perfect nonsense. He’s a figure of no interest to me.
Have you met any of the current Democrats, like Howard Dean?
No, I haven’t met Dean. McGovern was over here the other day. He was in good form. He and I have been campaigning for a couple of candidates out here, like Marcy Winograd.
I read that the great Democrat hope Barak Obama now says, like Hillary, that the United States can’t pull out now. Could anything worse possibly happen if the U.S. did pull out immediately?
Nothing. Of course we should pull out. That’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we always do. When wiser heads prevail. Barak Obama is a very conventional politicians who has been told “you can’t desert our brave boys” as though our brave boys had gone over there all on their own on an expedition. The way to support them is to end the war. Otherwise they will be killed.
Veterans are leading the peace marches now. They seem less likely to be accused of not supporting our troops.
I wonder what’s happening with the march today. Today is May Day and the immigrants are marching in Los Angeles.
Although the school children have been warned to go to school by the mayor of Los Angeles. As if they might miss something.
He has their best interests at heart.
How did you meet Fellini?
Put it the other way around. How did he meet me? (laughter)
Well I know you weren’t on the set of Caligula.
No, but I was on the set of Ben Hur and his office was next to mine at Cinecitta. He was desperate to get on the back lot to see our sets so I took him back. It didn’t please the producer, since the Italian directors were known for stealing sets. He was making La Dolce Vita while we were making Ben Hur?
Do you like his films?
I like that one.
Gilles: Was life then like that?
Pretty much. Italy had just come out of the war and fascism and by the fifties it was coming back to life again. Suddenly there was this great rush in the arts and in the movies.
Fellini did all his sound recording later, right? But in Roma you seem to actually speaking on camera.
I dubbed myself. That was the deal. I said I don’t want you dubbing my voice withy anybody elses. He said “Oh Gorino….eees necessary…we do French, Italiano, Inglese.” I said “I’ll do all three.” “Oh…you don’t trust me Gorino?” I said “No I don’t Fred, I’ve never trusted you.” So I did it in three languages. It took all day.
What happened to Fellini’s Casanova?
It disappeared, deservedly.
I liked it. I loved the sea made out of black plastic garbage bags.
Oh there are nice things to look at but what a perverse point of view to take on Casanova. I describe this in the new book. I did the English version for Fred. It was supposed to be acted in English in direct sound, but Fred didn’t do it. Fred didn’t understand the history. It would have been alright if he’d had a better idea, but he didn’t. Casanova was an extremely brilliant man. He was not only a friend of Voltaire, but he was perhaps the most greatest economist, even though they didn’t have economists in the eighteenth century, in the world,. He was the Lord Keynes of his time and very famous for how to collect taxes. He set up whole economies around Europe. I know that sounds a little dry, but if you get some of that in then you have a better story than somebody who just wants to fuck all the time. Which he didn’t. It was much exaggerated.
Wasn’t Fellini working without scripts at that time?
Well he had to have a script to get the money to make the movie. He needed a million dollars to start out of Paramount. There had to be a writer that they wanted and whose script he would use faithfully, so they got me. He never used the script. I knew he wouldn’t. They didn’t know he wouldn’t.
Did he tell you he would use it?
He would tell you so much you didn’t always listen to what he was saying. It wasn’t my movie. I didn’t care. It was his movie. But I thought he did himself a great disservice by disdaining scripts. His best movies were written. The best were written by Ennio Flaiano, who did 8 1/2, which was Fellini’s best movie. He just couldn’t understand. He wanted to make pictures. I always said “You think it’s a pinacoteca, a movie, but it isn’t. It is a moving picture,but it’s a narrative also.
Wasn’t 8 1/2 written day to day? It is a movie about pretending to have a script.
I don’t know. I was around. But the one question he most hated was why. If you said “why” it was like Count Dracula had appeared on the scene. Fred would flee.
Gilles: Don’t you hate that question too?
Oh no. I went to a tough New England school and the whole educational system at Exeter was based upon “Why do you say this? What do you mean?” It’s the only way to educate anybody, to see what it is that they are thinking.
Gilles: I don’t know. When I came to this country, I was struck by the need for justification. Each time somebody did something or said something as an artist or a writer there was the question of why. To me the idea of always justifying yourself is extremely Anglo-Saxon.
It may be extremely Anglo-Saxon but it’s very good as an educator. It good in a school. Kids heads are stuffed with nonsense, which they bring from their parental homes and pop culture, and to say why do you say that or what do you mean, well most people can’t answer. The usually start by saying “I feel…” Nobody wants to know what they feel. As an educator you don’t want to know what they feel but what they know.
Gilles: Did you study history?
I read history.
Glenn: He’s the great autodidact of our time. He’s self taught.
Gilles: Autodidact. What is that in English.
Autodidact is English. From Latin.
Gilles: Do you believe in schools?
No. I believe in them for a lot of other people. But for somebody who’s used to reading and has always read and has taught himself as best he could, that’s all there is to it. There’s no great secret. School is so you’ll think like everybody else. That’s why they were invented and that’s a mistake. But it’s useful because you find out how everybody else thinks. That’s why I watch television occasionally.
May I have Gilles take our picture together.
You’re not smiling.
Yes I am.
Gilles: You have nice dimple.
Well that’s the beginning of the end. (laughter)
Adios, Maestro. And you know what dios I’m talking about. Tonight the libation is for Vidal, the latest greatest shade of the haute underworld.