Given that Gore Vidal was not just a playwright, but during his 86 years dwelled in many spheres, both literary and political, the list of speakers at an Aug. 23 celebration of his life was unusual for a memorial held in a Broadway house. There was a good share of actors found on the Schoenfeld Theatre stage, including James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Elizabeth Ashley, Candice Bergen, Jefferson Mays and Cybill Shepherd (all of whom star, or have starred, in the current Broadway revival of Vidal's The Best Man), as well as Susan Sarandon, Richard Belzer, Christine Ebersole, Alan Cumming and Angelica Huston. (Vidal died on Aug. 6. Here's the Playbill.com obituary.)
But there was also the documentary maker Michael Moore, the playwright Elaine May, the gossip columnist Liz Smith, the politician Dennis Kucinich and talk show host Dick Cavett, who acted as host. In addition, letters from filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were read.
Kucinich, who praised Vidal as "brilliantly impolitic" and "a connoisseur of foreboding," told how, when he decided to run for President in 2003, his first call for advice was to Vidal. Expecting some sage political counsel from the writer, who was famously a student of American history and politics, he instead got a grooming tip. "He said, 'You've got to do something about your hair.' 'My hair,' I said, 'what's wrong with my hair?' 'It's horrible. I can't stand to look at it.'"
Many commented on Vidal's capacious wit and ability to produce an elegant phrase out of thin air, or quote famous writers and statesmen at great length. Cavett called him "possibly the best talker since Oscar Wilde." Belzer, who enjoyed a "five-hour lunch" with the author at his home in Italy, called him "the only person who could make 'pass the salt' sound interesting."
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Elaine May characterized him as an idealist whose disappointment had soured him into a cynic. "He had the wit and intelligence to conflate that disappointment into outrage," she said. "We don't have much of that outrage in this country anymore, and now we have less."
Michael Moore remembered how, when he was nominated for an Oscar for his documentary "Bowling for Columbine," Vidal urged him to quote Thomas Jefferson in his acceptance speech, should he win. "'You must quote Jefferson,' he said. 'No one's ever quoted Jefferson at the Oscars.'" When Moore asked Vidal what quote he should use, Vidal rattled off a four-minute piece of Jeffersonian prose by heart. Moore then suggested Vidal accept the award for him.
Sarandon, after performing a section of Vidal's play Romulus with Jefferson Mays, recalled a piece of parenting advice the deceased had given her. "I was running around at the time trying to be the best mother in the world, and Gore told me, 'Dear, it's inevitable that you will give your child neuroses. Just make sure they're productive ones.'"
Liz Smith introduced herself as "just the sort of person Gore Vidal would hate." Yet, Vidal loved gossip—and also liked to use Smith's column to score points against literary rivals such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote—so the two became friends. Still, the novelist would often called Smith to chide her for the coverage, usually beginning with call with, "Goddamit, Liz!"
Smith then read a letter from David Mamet, who called The Best Man one of the "ten great American plays," even if it partook "in the melodrama which, when all is said and done, was Gore's strength." The centerpiece of the event was the gathering of a quartet of actresses—Ashley, Ebersole, Bergen and Huston—who read a long list of Vidal's many famous acerbic quips and aphorisms. Among them:
"Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so."
"Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half."
"Whenever a friend succeeds, I die a little."
"What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway, and not see the joke?"
Following this barrage of witticisms, Ashley told how she met Vidal through Tennessee Williams in the 1970s. Midway through a shared bender, Williams suggested to Ashley that they go to the Carlyle Hotel, where Vidal was staying, and visit him. "We were not in any state to go to the Carlyle, but we went anyway," she recalled. "When we got there and went to the bar, Vidal saw us and rushed to us with arms open and kissed Tennessee full on the mouth, much to the consternation of the Carlyle patrons."
Once Vidal "poured" them into a cab, Ashley admitted to Williams that the erudite conversation between the two men has made her feel "so stupid." Williams replied, "Oh, don't worry. He's just an old smartypants!"
Ashley reached under the podium at this point and produced a shot glass, presumedly filled with liquor. She raised it to Vidal's portrait, which was projected on a screen behind the stage. "Here's to you, you old smartypants! We're going to miss the hell out of you!"