Tuesday, November 9, 1999

The Day I Asked Gore Vidal a Question

I attended Breakfast at the 92nd Street Y in November 1999. Gore Vidal was appearing with his biographer Fred Kaplan. I had a bagel with cream cheese and a couple of cups of joe to wake me up. Gore was as witty as you could be considering the hour was 7:30 a.m. Over 100 people attended. I screwed up the courage to ask, "Richard Eder in the daily Times book review called you a minor writer. I think most people in this room would disagree. If you're not a major writer, then who is?" Gore said, "I read it too and don't understand it." He then talked about how the Times picks favorites, such as Jerzy Kozinski in the 1970s. All you saw and read about was Jerzy Kozinski, in the Magazine, in the Book Review, in the news sections.
Gore is not one of their favorites. After my question, other Times-related questions came up. Gore finally said that their dislike all began with his ground-breaking novel THE CITY AND THE PILLAR, the first best-seller with a homosexual theme. I find it hard to believe that a paper could maintain any consistent stance against one person for over 50 years. He does get some good reviews but in this case it looks like Richard Eder had an axe to grind. Biographer Fred Kaplan had us laughing. He said when he started interviewing Gore for the book he thought Gore's remarks about the Times's years of personal dislike of Gore might have been exaggerated. But, said Fred, when he saw Eder hammer Gore and Kaplan too as author of the bio, he thought there might be something to what Gore said. Some asked if he still had contact with William F. Buckley. Gore said no, not since their famous televised debates during coverage of the 1968 elections. I remember them appearing on ABC and with Dick Cavett on his morning show.  Gore talked about the friendship of Christopher Lehman-Haupt and Buckley--famous friends. Gore ranked out "hyphenates" such as Lehman-Haupt for their bad character, probably insulting many in the audience. He said you see the two together everywhere on the society pages, going yachting, attending events, and then you see Lehman-Haupt write a glowing review the next day of the latest Buckley book.
Almost all of the hour was devoted to questions from the floor. Gore referred to "Cousin Albert," i.e. presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore but was unexpectedly benign. I think Gore is holding out hope for a political appointment. How about head of the NEA? I read that Al avoids him at family reunion picture taking time. But after Al Gore recently sucked up to Don Imus by appearing on video at a celebrity roast of Imus, in an Imus Bros. mail order cowboy hat and denim workshirt, I think Al Gore would embrace Cousin Gore if he thought it could get him elected President.
After the breakfast Gore was kind enough to sign my copy of his autobiography PALIMPSEST. The woman ahead of me was monopolizing him and as he tuned her out he slowly turned his head to his left, smiled, and reached toward my book and signed it. I didn't get a chance to say anything except thank you very much. It was a warm smile. I didn't expect him to exude warmth but it was there. It must be a good feeling to fill a room of admirers at 7:30 in the morning and have them hang on your every word. He returned the bon homie by signing books for at least a half hour and letting the fans approach him. A class act, Gore Vidal.

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