Gore Vidal, who died in July, was sent on his way by obsequious obituarists such as Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, who described him as “a literary, political and intellectual heavyweight of global stature”. It took the American magazine Commentary to correct the balance by reprinting online Norman Podhoretz’s brilliant and blistering essay from 1986, which laid out with scholarly precision the case that Vidal was not just a persistent critic of Israel, as the obituaries dutifully reported, but deeply anti-Semitic.
I had always enjoyed watching Vidal on television chat shows in the long-gone days when they featured the occasional writer and intellectual as well as actors and pop singers plugging their latest movies and albums. However, my one meeting with him caused me to reassess the myth of the urbane wit whose bon mots were endlessly replayed by the ever-adoring media-although admittedly his observation that “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies” was refreshingly honest.
Our encounter came about through a long Review Front article he wrote for the Observer and which I had to edit. It was a nightmare, with Vidal sending reams of faxes (this was long before email) from his home in Italy with dozens of illegible corrections to the proofs. Still, he wasn’t alone among authors in being something of a trial to deal with, and the article read perfectly well when it finally appeared.
His British publisher kindly invited me and my wife to dinner at his home a few weeks later to meet the great man on a visit to London to promote his latest book. To say the evening was a disappointment would be an understatement, which implies no criticism of our generous host. Vidal dominated proceedings, giving us the benefit of his views on everything under the sun-with, however, precious little sign of the famous wit we had been looking forward to. He was no slouch either at disposing of the excellent wine and proceeded to tell one particularly long anecdote which we respectfully listened to. Several glasses later, to the growing embarrassment of his audience, he repeated the story at even greater length but all was forgiven once he had finished. As the coffee appeared, Gore launched on the same anecdote for the third time, at which we thought it was time to leave. By then we had the feeling that we had been in the company not of an intellectual heavyweight of global stature, but of a drunken old bore.