The Lion in Winter: Gore Vidal

I first saw the lion in autumn, and he was magnificent. This was in Edinburgh in 2001, and Gore Vidal was still living in Italy, still on his feet, lucid, passionate, speaking compellingly about American military installations in the UK and of the Oklahoma bomber.

I was mesmerized. Here was a subversive man speaking with authority. This was a gay outsider who personified patrician privilege. We should stop going around babbling about how we're the greatest democracy on earth when we're not even a democracy,” he told the great Australian radio host Ramona Koval, who was interviewing him on stage that day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “We are a sort of militarized republic.”

Koval, the host of ABC Radio National’s The Book Show -- let me note in passing the fact that Australia has a daily book show – has conducted some of the best on-stage conversations with writers ever recorded. Some of these were staged in Edinburgh where, for about ten years, she and I would meet every August. Here is a transcript of her account – this was at a public event at this year’s Perth Writers Festival -- of the trepidation she felt before the Gore interview:

He and Howard, his partner…were so pissed that they had to be taken off the plane in wheelchairs, and they'd been drinking Bombay gin all the way from Ravello or somewhere. And there it was at eleven o'clock in the morning and I thought, aw, how is he going to be with a sore head, as well. So I was a bit nervous, and something had just come out in Vanity Fair, a big article that morning, and I thought, 'Oh God, I'm not going to have to read something else – because I'd read a lot. And I read this thing in Vanity Fair, it was all about the Oklahoma bomber, and I thought I'll just take that in with me, and I made a few notes.

Anyway I met him and he was just magnificent, because he's such a handsome man, and he was quite old, but terribly handsome and done up in this suit. He looked fantastic, and he walked very, very slowly. And he sat down in front of this huge audience of maybe a thousand people, and he was just marvelous. His brain worked incredibly well, until one point where he wanted to quote something, and he said, 'I don't know if I've got this right...' And I just went, 'Oh, I think it could be this...' And I thought, oh, he's going to go, 'What are you doing?' But he took it and went, 'Why don't you follow me around all the time?' Because it was just that piece from that article I'd read and I'd taken in with me. It was just absolutely lucky, but when he realized that I was kind of on his wavelength he was marvelous. He was really fantastic.

That moment when Koval interrupted him with the very information he was looking for was the pivotal moment of their conversation on stage under the big tent in Charlotte Square Gardens. It was also one of the great moments in the history of literary interviews.

I met Vidal after the event and of course invited him to Montreal. Which is where Howard came in, and Howard was not encouraging at the likelihood of their travelling from Italy to Montreal for the 4th Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival the following April. It was one of the few regrets of my career as Artistic Director that I had not been able to bring Gore Vidal to Montreal.

All of which explains my delight when I met with Media@McGill last fall -- we had been working together for several years already on the Writers in Peril series – to discuss programming plans for events at the 13th Blue Met in April 2011. M@M director Marc Raboy happened to have seen Vidal in Turkey over the summer and had been impressed. I told him about Edinburgh. We agreed to try to get Vidal to Montreal.

I sent out the invitation, and was thrilled when Vidal accepted to participate in two events, one to be hosted by Raboy at McGill and the other a CBC Blue event to be hosted by Michael Enright at the festival hotel (the recording of which is here).

So it was that on Friday, April 29, 2011, Gore Vidal was rolled onstage in a wheelchair in a packed McGill auditorium. He had become a wide, bulky man, but he is still a good-looking man at 86, with the profile of an eagle.

Billed as the Beaverbrook Lecture, it was really an on-stage conversation, with Raboy prompting Vidal with questions (streaming video here). Raboy asked many questions, and the answers were terse. Vidal had been to Montreal before, on skiing holidays long ago. He had met Trudeau, though not in Montreal, and had liked him. When left to his own devices, Vidal spoke with some of the eloquence he had shown in Edinburgh; when asked a direct question, though, he often responded with a one-liner. Raboy was unflustered, the audience rapt.

Only then Vidal told the story about meeting Trudeau a second time, in the same words, forgetting he had already told it. Oh, dear.

When Raboy passed the torch to the audience, a young woman went up to the microphone to ask Vidal, “What is the most important thing in life for you?”

Vidal thought for a moment before saying a single word, “Anaesthetic.”

Anaesthetic there had been and anaesthetic there would be. The tales of his drinking have become Montreal legends.

I was in the fortunate position of being one of those invited to the dinner that followed the event. Most of us walked the short distance along Sherbrooke Street from McGill to the restaurant, but arrangements had been made to drive Vidal and his wheelchair over. And then he fell asleep and had a nap in the car while the rest of us cooled our heels, sipping chardonnay. When he eventually rolled in, wearing big black shades, he was like Hamm in Endgame, a massive wreck in his chair, asking painkillers.

Which he got. A large glass was set in front of him, filled with what looked like neat whisky. This was not a double; it might have been a quadruple. The rest of us ordered our meals, and his glass was filled again. By the time we were on dessert, he was picking at a light meal.

There are rumours that some of our literary lights were disappointed by him, and there can be no doubt that Vidal has declined since that memorable Edinburgh morning in 2001. Montreal saw the lion in winter. His memory is uncertain, his stories old. But there is still something magnificent about him. He may be down to one-liners, but a single line – a single word -- from Gore Vidal is worth more than reams from most other writers.

Linda Leith

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