The American writer Gore Vidal who has died is much discussed today in the media where his fame as a novelist, essayist, political commentator and wit is given the respect that it deserved. There is no point in my adding to the obituary acreage but I did come across the great man on a number of occasions when I was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1994 when I was producing the television documentary series God Bless America for Granada Television (available on DVD http://www.amazon.co.uk/God-Bless-America-Gore-Vidal/dp/B004KM2YGW), directed by my good friend the Irish director, Alan Gilsenan.
We mostly met in the grand surroundings of superior hotels in London and Washington D.C. and then, some years later, at the Cheltenham Festival. First impressions of Gore Vidal were certainly that of a rather grand American patrician very much at home in the circles of power and never shy to let you know that his friends were John and Bobby Kennedy or that he had stayed on close terms with his relative and friend Jacqueline (Kennedy) Onassis.
His grandeur was soon defrosted by the wit, intelligence and lively curiosity that made him not just a great writer but a highly entertaining companion sometimes over diner in his favourite London restaurant at the Connaught Hotel where he was quick to tell me he had regularly entertained his old friend Princess Margaret or over late night drinks in the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. where he could mellow in affectionate and often melancholy nostalgia for some of the people that he had loved – especially Jimmy Trimble, his best friend from school, who was killed at the battle of Iwo Shima in World War Two.
He had insightful and wickedly deflating opinions about all of the American Presidents in his long life and it was apt that whilst I was with him in D.C., the flags were all at half-mast for the death of Richard Nixon. Not something that escaped Gore’s joyful mockery.
We made a filmed documentary essay called “Washington D.C. – Heart Of Stone” that is full of affection but also eagle-eyed observations about the history, achievements and pretentions of the American Republic. It wasn’t, as you’d imagine, always kind and one American executive producer who watched the final cut was reduced to tears saying “How could anyone be so cruel?” Cruel maybe but also brave.
Gore Vidal had some tough things to say about his native country but he came across in some of those conversations as a great patriot, his cynicism born of idealism and his mockery based on affection. I was lucky to have met him – not only was I privileged that he shared his opinions with me face to face but he did me the honour of making me laugh – a lot and often. America has lost a important voice.