Vidal was called all of these, and worse, during his lifetime, and now that he’s dead the criticisms are likely to be recycled for centuries. He wouldn’t have minded — in fact, he’d probably have taken it as a compliment. Just consider his lacerating self-assessment: “I’m exactly as I appear,” he once said. “Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
But as someone who knew him for 37 years, and saw him in high society and low, moments of public triumph and private anguish, I would maintain that most of what I’ve read in recent days shows Vidal’s mask, not the man. A sophisticated role player, he once joked that he intended to title his memoir “An Actor Prepares.” Instead he called it “Palimpsest” — “a word no one will know,” he told me. “But then it’s a life nobody will know, particularly after reading the book.”
So, “What was he really like?” is a question that would have set Vidal’s capped teeth on edge. He was generous, hospitable and amazingly egalitarian, given his reputation for snobbery. When I arrived in Rome in 1975 as a 32-year-old unknown novelist with a wife and infant son, he immediately invited us to dinner. Over the years, at his apartment in Rome, his villa in Ravello, Italy, and his house in the Hollywood Hills, I met stars of stage, screen, the Catholic hierarchy and my literary betters.
At restaurants, Vidal always picked up the bill, explaining that this was to remind him that he wasn’t wealthy: “Rich people never pay,” he said. Of course, he was one of the wealthiest writers alive, yet he puckishly proclaimed as we sat poolside in Ravello, “As you can see, my needs are simple.” Asked whether the setting inspired him, he wisecracked, “Yeah, it inspires me to write a film script to pay my bills.”
Although reputed to be vain, he started referring to himself, at age 50, as “reduced to just another classical ruin.” He wore a blue, dandruff-dusted blazer and rumpled flannel trousers like a uniform, and had shoes run down at the heels. When he crossed his legs, he revealed a sole with a hole in it, “just like Adlai Stevenson.”
By the time he was 60, he decided he was past caring about how he looked, and he ate whatever he wanted and drank Falstaffian portions of wine, scotch and vodka. When he got fat and was warned about his heath, he swore he didn’t care about that, either. But if this sounds like someone who had mellowed and was comfortable in his skin, that’s utterly inaccurate. He could be cruel as well as kind, savagely critical as well as generous.