My waspish encounter with Gore Vidal

News of the author’s death at the age of 86 brings memories of a tingling sensation under the nose

Strange how powerful a sense memory can be. News of Gore Vidal’s death at the age of 86 gave me a tingling sensation under the nose, then I remembered why.

I once had an unorthodox journalistic encounter with him at his beautiful palazzo, built into the rocks above the Amalfi coast in Italy. The interview started off conventionally enough, with him being imperious, and not a little pompous, as he sounded off about world affairs, or rather told me where the world was going wrong, and why it would be much better off if only it paid more attention to him.

But then he opened a bottle of Vat 69 whisky and, as we polished it off between us, he became more gossipy and entertaining. By this stage, five hours had passed and I had used up my tape (it was before the days of unlimited time on digital recorders) but I do recall him being splendidly catty about Evelyn Waugh and Truman Capote.

He then insisted that, before we left, the photographer and I should cool off in his swimming pool, adding: “We have no need of trunks here.” Well, it seemed rude not to. But when I surfaced, a wasp stung me under the nose, which turns out to be a very tender place. My face swelled up and I could barely see through my watering eyes as we left. On reflection, I should have ended my article by describing this sting, an appropriate way to part company with the waspish Gore, and so on. But the truth is, I forgot about it until now.

I have two other reflections upon that encounter, for what they are worth. The first concerns the fact that, almost uniquely among public intellectuals, Vidal was an autodidact who didn’t go to university. One consequence of this seems to have been that his hunger for knowledge never diminished. If anything, it grew, along with his library there at Ravello. So many people give up on education once they have graduated, feeling they have been there, done that. Not so Vidal.

The other thought concerns the palazzo itself, the walls of which were filled with caricatures, photographs and magazine covers featuring his saturnine face. It amounted to a shrine to its owner.

He told me, with a heavy sigh: “Every morning at 10, a tourist boat sails past and I have to listen to a woman telling my life story over a Tannoy.” Pause. “It is followed by another boat which tells the same story in Italian.” But of course his palazzo contradicted him, showing how much he secretly loved being a tourist attraction.

He shared it with Howard Austen, his partner of more than half a century, and when Austen died in 2003, Vidal sold the place and moved back to LA. But it’s curious, this business of an atheist building a monument to himself. A stab at immortality? Perhaps.

Given his reputation as a wit, I asked him if he had thought about what his last words might be. “We all have last words,” he said. “But we don’t know what they are. How about: ‘To be continued…’ ”

When I said that this didn’t quite square with his atheism, he smiled and mouthed the word “no”. But he had thought about his own exit. “All of you will go with me because I’m a solipsist. I’ve just imagined you. When I go, all will be blank.”

Well, he was wrong about that. Things didn’t go blank on Wednesday. But there was the feel of that sting under my nose, and that seems more appropriate. For the briefest of moments, he continued.