|Photo by Carl Van Vechten|
I encountered Vidal just twice -- once by phone, for a story I wrote after the death of Norman Mailer, speaking to other writers on his legacy, and a second time, in person, while he sipped several enormous dry martinis and consumed what I recall as a Dungeness crab salad.
This second, and far more gracious, encounter, was at Musso and Frank Grill, the Hollywood institution dating back to 1919, where I was interviewing various staffers -- including the place's famous bartenders -- and patrons for a history of the place.
Here's a teaser of what I got as we talked about his experience at Musso's going back to the early '40s. I'm in itals.
How long have you been coming to Musso's?
I'd say, since the early '40s. I knew enough old Hollywood hands to know Faulkner comes here, Fitzgerald comes here...
Did you ever spend time with Faulkner here?
It was mostly eye contact -- He'd be at the bar. He'd be sitting there and drinking seriously.
What would he drink?
Did you ever speak to him back then?
Not then. (Laughs.) I wouldn't do that to anybody. Particularly serious drinkers. He went in to get drunk.
Middle of the day, usually?
That was the most fun, because he was still getting paid by the studio.
Vidal and I also spoke about his friendship with Scott Fitzgerald's daughter Scottie. ("She was always upset about the way the Fitzgeralds were being depicted. I said, My dear, it's all true, and because of that you live on a considerable income"), his years writing for TV (he claimed he was for a while the field's highest paid writer), and Sarah Palin (who he described as being "hatched from a gull's egg.")
Here I want to insert one of my favorite of Vidal's quotes: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” I saw that side at times, and when I interviewed him about Mailer he was smug and pompous.
But at Musso's that day, after we walked down memory lane for about 90 minutes, I excused myself, had a brief lunch, spoke to the manager, and prepared to go home. As I was leaving, I saw Vidal, his wheelchair near the bar, telling stories and jokes and completely cracking up a couple of busboys. As abrasive as he could be, his charm was pretty incredible, too.