Me the Head of Gore Vidal
That No Famous Life Is Complete Without A Bust, A Washington Artist
Set out For Italy To Capture The Visage Of The Noted - And Notorious
sculptor, commentator, and sometime curator William Dunlap appears
on WETA-TV's weekly cultural forum Around Town. Addison/Ripley Gallery
shows his work in Washington. "Outward Bound," an exhibition
of contemporary American art he cocurated for Meridian International,
opens in Beijing in December.
the April 22nd New York Review of Books arrived, I immediately turned
to an article promoted on the cover, "The Essential Gore Vidal."
Christopher Hitchens's brilliant, insightful, at times downright worshipful
essay entitled "The Cosmopolitan Man" was given something
of a sour note: a drawing of Vidal by the artist David Levine. A master
of the satirical form, Levine almost always livens up the pages of
the often ponderous publication with his work. But there, staring
out from page 29, was a cruel caricature of Vidal that, to my eye,
was the visual equivalent of libel. The inflated, disheveled, ruined
mansion of a man depicted was anything but the wise, witty, elegant,
self-deprecating, and, yes, cosmopolitan teddy bear of a man of letters--and
distant cousin on the Gore side--I had known for years.
fax flashed across the Atlantic to Gore's clifftop home in Ravello,
Italy: "Dear Gore, I rather enjoyed the rich valentine Christopher
Hitchens sent you in the NYRofB. (He really does want to be you when
he grows up.) However, the unfortunate cartoon reminded me that your
noble Gore head wants to be better remembered for posterity."
one had yet done a bust of Vidal, and no famous life is complete without
one. We had discussed his sitting for me at some point, should occasion
permit. Now there was a purpose.
letter continued, "To that end, my plans to act on your invitation
to come to Ravello are taking shape." I wouldn't need much time
or space, I assured him. "I work rather quickly--and it's not
as if I haven't been around Gore physiognomy all my natural life."
faxed back: "I'm working on a book. Come to Ravello in May."
generally wake up of a morning thinking myself a painter and spend
the balance of the day in my studio trying to prove it. But I came
first to sculpture. From playing in the mud of my Mississippi childhood
to operating the foundry at Ole Miss, I have always been fascinated
by the alchemy of sculpture. For a thing to be ephemeral wax one minute
and immortal bronze the next is a kind of magic under whose spell
I remain, and any occasion to practice it is welcome.
I began to make my travel plans, I got a call from my friend Karen
Thomas, whose company, Film Odyssey, makes documentaries. Her recent
PBS American Masters program on Robert Rauschenberg is the best film
bio of a living American artist I've seen. She had gotten wind of
the trip and wanted to come along. The timing was serendipitous: She
was producing a film about Isaac Stern and would be in Florence at
the end of May to film an interview with Zubin Mehta.
a flurry of faxes among Gore, Karen, and me, the way was clear for
Karen and her crew to film the sitting in Ravello and capture the
conversation between us. Things were starting to get interesting.
After one of the most unpleasant Washington winters on record (weatherwise
mild to fair, but socially and politically miserable), the prospects
of a week in Italy with a challenging project and in the company of
the Oracle of Amalfi quickened my pulse.
Luther Gore Vidal Jr. grew up in Washington in the household and under
the influence of his maternal grandfather, the blind senator from
Oklahoma, T.P. Gore. The late Washington raconteur Jack Skuce told
me that Vidal and Virginia's future senator John Warner were the bullies
of St. Albans School, pushing the younger boys off their bicycles--crucial
early training for both, given their subsequent careers in the arts
Out of the service in 1946, Gore published one of the first war novels,
Williwaw, based loosely on his experience as first mate on an Army
transport ship. This precocious act was followed by a prodigious outpouring
of fiction over the next five decades--some 23 novels that exhibit
a range, imagination, invention, and scholarship unmatched by anyone
of his generation. His series of historical novels set in America--Burr;
Lincoln; 1876; Empire; Hollywood; Washington, DC; and the current
work in progress, The Golden Age--will be read as the definitive biographical
narrative of our young nation.
finding time to run for the House from New York state and the Senate
from California, Vidal has contributed to the public discourse some
200 essays, half a dozen plays, a memoir, short stories, film and
television screenplays--Ben Hur, Suddenly Last Summer, Visit to a
Small Planet, and The Best Man, to name a few. He has of late been
in demand as an actor, appearing in the films With Honors, Gattaca,
and Bob Roberts. And then there have been his televised skirmishes
with the likes of William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote.
life has not been all work and no play. He has traveled to every place
on the planet, experienced lots of high living and some notoriously
low, and since the mid-'60s spent most of his time in the baronial
splendor of self-imposed exile in Italy with his great good friend,
12-acre estate and house, La Rondinaia--which means Swallow's Nest--hangs
from a cliff high above the Mediterranean. Homer's hero Odysseus heard
the sirens' call not far from here. This perch gives Gore a certain
perspective on his native America. Of his homeland he has written,
"Love it or loathe it--you can never leave it or lose it."
Nor it you, as it happens. Gore Vidal will take his final rest in
Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, an eventuality that devoted readers
hope will occur in the very distant future.
of this and more is chronicled in Gore Vidal: A Biography by Fred
Kaplan, just out from Doubleday. Professor Kaplan warmed up for the
task with the lives of Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and Henry
James, which only partially prepared him for Vidal's boundless appetites
and his stamina in pursuit of them.
time for my departure was drawing nigh. I planned to take everything
over with me--clay, armature, modeling tools, plaster, the works.
As I packed, it occurred to me what a nightmare awaited should some
zealous airport security guard decide to take a peek at the contents
of my portable sculpture studio. Such an inspection would reveal several
feet of galvanized pipe, rolls of copper and aluminum wire, and 40
pounds of clay wrapped in cellophane that looked for all the world
like the plastic explosives one sees in the movies. Then there were
the Ziploc bags filled with fine white powder. It was, of course,
plaster of Paris, with a street value of $12.75. But my collection
of ordinary art supplies could easily be mistaken for a narco-terrorist
starter kit. I sealed the box, labeled it FRAGILE--HANDLE WITH CARE,
and hoped for the best.
On the Swissair flight over, I sketched, wrote in my journal, and
looked at the work of Rodin and Manzu for inspiration. Changing planes
in Zürich, I stopped by a duty-free shop and picked up my ration--two
bottles--of single-malt Scotch. The Macallan had flowed freely on
my last visit to La Rondinaia. Well-bred Southern boys don't turn
up at someone's door without a proper gift. It should be, I was taught,
a thing near and dear to their host's heart.
bags collected at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, I was headed for
the exit when a bandoliered carabiniere with a contraband-sniffing
dog approached. The pair veered off at the last moment in favor of
some backpacker's gamier gear. I quickly cleared customs, then rented
a car and a mobile phone, adding a new word to my meager Italian vocabulary:
cellulari--the small electronic communications device permanently
attached to the ear of most Italian men under the age of 50.
the airport I headed southeast on the A1 Auto Strada. Planting myself
in the left lane with lights flashing, I fairly flew through the lush
fields and hillsides of Latium and Campania. I passed signs for Hadrian's
Villa and Castelli Romani. Off to the left was magnificent Monte Cassino;
an hour or so later Mount Vesuvius appeared, shrouded by storm clouds.
There were exits for Pompeii and Herculaneum and, at last, signs for
the Costiera Amalfitana. I crossed over the Lattari mountain range,
started down the winding incline, and got my first glimpse of the
wine-dark Gulf of Salerno.
spectacular landscape is for all intents and purposes vertical--sheer
cliffs rising up from the sea, belted with ancient terraces of olive,
orange, and lemon orchards interspersed with vegetable gardens and
vineyards. Roses and wildflowers abounded alongside the last of the
season's irises and wisteria.
wound my way along the corniche and climbed the hairpin curves up
to the hill town of Ravello, former home to Charles of Anjou, Richard
Wagner, several Popes--and Gore and Howard since 1972. I parked and
began lugging my load across the Piazza Vescovado toward the Hotel
Rufolo and La Rondinaia. One enters Gore's property through a series
of gates, then proceeds through a dark alley of chestnut trees that
opens to breathtaking views of Amalfi's coast, its hill towns, and
the terraces that cascade down to the sea.
light was fading, and I was exhausted. I abandoned my luggage beside
the pool, stumbled up the steps toward the villa with my single-malt
offering in hand, and entered into the sacred ritual of cocktail hour
at La Rondinaia.
Gore and Howard were in fine form, regaling me with stories of the
wettest, coldest winter in memory. The heating system had gone out.
Pipes had burst. The house had been a virtual construction site--La
Niña was to blame. But La Rondinaia, one of the world's great
private homes, looked fabulous to me.
Howard asked if I'd had any trouble finding the place this time. "No,"
I said, "but I need to work on my Italian."
really?" he deadpanned. "I can't wait to meet him."
Thomas and the Film Odyssey crew were staying nearby at the Hotel
Marmorata. She and Peter Nelson--photographer, cameraman, and gourmand--had
flown over from the States and hooked up with their sound man, Marco
Fiumara, a suave young Roman with requisite cellulari. Marco would
prove an able interpreter and fixer, smoothing the way with officials,
getting permits, securing parking in the shade on the piazza, and
most important, helping with menu selections.
the Ristorante Victoria, where we all gathered for dinner, the staff
made a fuss over "Maestro Vidal," a scene repeated often
during my stay. Effusive greetings and gestures of deference were
returned by an indulgent and polite Vidal. Bowing slightly at the
waist, in fluent and precise Italian he would praise Italy for its
timeless hospitality, warmth, and good will. After ample quantities
of Positano Vino Bianco, pasta al vongole, fruiti di mare, and more
laughter and lies than are healthy in these climes, we swore our fealty
to art, repaired to our quarters, and lapsed into the arms of Morpheus.
Up early, jet-lagged and a little hungover, I fortified myself with
cups of espresso and the International Herald Tribune. The film crew
fanned out to scout for location shots; I went to collect my luggage
and find a place to work. The portable atelier was right where I'd
left it--poolside. Here were superb views, cool breezes, tables, chairs,
umbrellas, electricity, and a full bar. We weren't likely to do better.
modeling of a portrait head is pretty straightforward. Earth's
own malleable clay is applied to a rigid armature and then shaped
and formed by addition and subtraction. Details and textures are
achieved with a variety of tools, but none is better than the
fingers and thumbs of the sculptor's hands. There's something
timeless, even biblical, about forming the image of man from clay.
For me, it is a struggle against the forces of nature in hopes
of reaching some acceptable and resonating compromise with the
materials to make the ephemeral definitive. When the modeling
is done, a plaster impression is taken and the original destroyed.
the deck of the pool converted to an alfresco atelier and TV studio,
the film crew and I were set: It was time for lunch. At the Ristorante
Villa Maria there were four-star views and food to match. Some two
hours and several bottles of wine later, we returned to the makeshift
studio. I was determined to make this whole multimedia circus as unintrusive
as possible, given that Gore was deep into the next--last, he says--installment
of his ongoing saga of America.
is a disciplined artist. He works every day for hours, writing in
longhand on yellow legal pads inside a beautifully appointed, photo-filled,
book-lined study with fireplace and a terrace that overlooks the sea.
On a low table in front of a sofa is, among other charged objects,
a life cast of Abraham Lincoln's right hand holding what, according
to legend, is a broomstick.
work in progress, to be called The Golden Age, follows the novel Hollywood
and deals with, among others, FDR, Eleanor, Truman (the President,
not Capote), World War II, and the beginnings of the Cold War.
hadn't been poolside long when Gore ambled over from the house, resplendent
in blazer and open-collared blue shirt. The late afternoon light was
warming everything up. Time to go to work.
has a fine patrician head with high cheekbones, a broad forehead,
and a full crop of hair that at 74 shows few signs of thinning. Most
prominent is the unmistakable Gore nose. It's there in photographs
of his ancestors, especially his grandfather, and we see a version
of it on the current Vice President. There are distinctive indentations--dimples,
if you will--above the eyes, under the cheeks, and on each side of
a full, expressive mouth, around whose corners constantly plays a)
a sly, mysterious smile, b) a dismissive smirk, or c) a cynical sneer,
usually accompanied by an arched brow, a stinging verbal slap, or
I ran my hands over his face to get a feel for the bone structure,
I told Gore how an aging and nearsighted Auguste Rodin often kept
a studio of young nude models moving constantly in front of him. He
would rush from one to the other and probe their nakedness, and then
return to the clay with the warmth of their flesh still in his hands.
Vidal raised an eyebrow and did one of those things with his mouth.
It was, I believe, option a).
the better part of an hour I worked while he laughed and gossiped
about family and friends, living and dead. Gore is an accomplished
mimic. We were as likely to hear the voices of Eleanor Roosevelt,
JFK, Truman (Capote, not the President), or "the Glorious Bird"--the
evocative name he coined for Tennessee Williams--as that of our host.
are few topics on which Gore's discourse does not enlighten, charm,
or challenge conventional wisdom. He is very plugged into the US political
and social scene. But on his own terms.
I read the Washington Post and the New York Times every day,"
he told me, "I'd be so mad I couldn't get any work done."
The Ravello grapevine, an international network of sources, provides
a steady stream of mail, faxes (e-mail is seldom checked), and phone
evening drinks were interrupted by a ring. "Pronto. Si . . .
si. . . . Ciao"--and laughter as Gore hung up. "Gianni Agnelli
is having dinner in Ravello," he explained. With David Rockefeller,
it turned out.
piece of correspondence Gore shared with me was chilling--a surprisingly
thoughtful letter from Timothy McVeigh on death row. He had admired
a recent Vidal piece on the systematic dismantling of the Bill of
Rights and America's gradual transformation into a police state.
generally approves of the Clintons' time in office. He hosted a smart
luncheon for Hillary a few years back at La Rondinaia. "She wanted
to know all about Jackie," he recalled. As for l'affaire Lewinsky,
it would be the height of hypocrisy for Gore Vidal to castigate anyone
for sexual acts between or among consenting adults.
approval for Vice President Gore is, however, on hold. Vidal has often
said that the family is "overdue for a president." Given
that he is the nation's biographer, and cousin Al is making a serious
run at that office, it seems inconceivable--but the two have never
met. Intercessions by friends of both camps have proven unproductive.
Vidal's quip, "I've met enough vice presidents," hasn't
helped, and neither have his allegations that the VP suffers from
occasional bouts of impaired veracity.
grew up knowing pride was always at war with principle in the Gore
character, and that any slight was not soon, if ever, forgotten. It
seems that early in his political ascendancy, young Albert Gore Jr.
was sent letters of congratulations by a distant cousin, the famous
novelist Gore Vidal--correspondence that, if received, went unanswered.
began to grapple with the head's proportions, to add clay, take some
away. I pushed, pulled, and poked at the mass until a likeness began
to appear, and then I stopped. Hemingway said he always quit writing
when the work was going well, so as to have something to return to
the next day--sound advice that applies to the plastic arts as well.
got up and started for the house, inviting us all back to the terrace
for more single-malt therapy.
covering the head in plastic for the night, I backed away and took
a long look in the late light. I compared the features in clay to
a life mask that had been made of Gore earlier in the decade. These
were the same familiar physical characteristics I'd seen in aunts,
uncles, my grandmother and mother, and most recently among the congregation
of a Methodist church in Webster County, Mississippi, where the Gores
gathered to bury one of their own. This same profile--the cheekbones,
the prominent forehead, the inevitable nose--are all part of the Gore
grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, and my maternal grandmother, Mary
Elise Gore, were first cousins in the long-ago Mississippi of their
youth. "Mary," as we children called her, often recounted
how the young T.P. lost his sight in two separate accidents and how
in 1894 he left Mississippi for greater political opportunity in the
West. Later, as Oklahoma's first senator, T.P.'s accomplishments and
eloquence were legend in our family, as was the rise to literary fame
of his grandson.
At our first meeting, I introduced myself to Vidal as one of his countless
Gore cousins. He sized me up, smiled, and as much in sympathy as recognition
said, "You do bear the mark of our clan."
morning: more coffee on the piazza and bad news in the Herald Tribune--bombs
and atrocities in Kosovo. In Ravello, it was back to work.
I unwrapped the sculpture, yesterday's dazzling likeness was but a
faded memory. The features were distorted, elongated, as though the
ghost of El Greco had given everything a good stretching. Gravity
was the culprit--the dense wet clay had sagged. I began to knock the
clay back into place roughly, slapping cheeks and chin with the heel
of my hand. Gore, on his way to town, stopped to watch. Detecting
a slight wince, I asked if he was experiencing a sympathetic reaction.
he said. "I don't feel a thing." As he strolled off he said,
almost as an aside, "The eyes are too close together."
banter followed as to where the inevitable inbreeding had taken place,
in the Vidal family or the Gore. The sculptor's plight is not unlike
that of the cosmetic surgeon: We aim to please.
the gaze corrected and the face lifted, the clay Vidal was back to
its old self. I have since learned from Kaplan's biography that the
young Vidal was an accomplished painter and sculptor, a talent abandoned
but not forgotten.
of the axioms of Modernism is that all art is essentially about other
art. It's not much of a stretch to fit my quest for the head of Gore
Vidal into the rule.
life cast of Lincoln's hand in the study had been much on my mind,
as had the life mask of Gore's face that was proving so useful to
me. The mask had been a gift from George Plimpton. The Santa Fe artist
Willa Shalit (Gene's daughter) has made a career of casting the notable
and not-so. She's done more than a thousand faces, from Zubin Mehta
to Muhammad Ali, with five presidents thrown in for good measure.
Plimpton commissioned Willi to come to Rome in 1992 and fix Gore's
visage in plaster.
origins of casting from life go back to ancient Egypt's Middle Kingdom.
The Victorians liked taking impressions of the Empire's monuments
that were too large to be transported back to the British Museum.
The whole business got something of a bad name during the 1960s when
a gaggle of groupies calling themselves the Plaster Casters applied
their cold craft to the genitals of rock stars. The whereabouts of
these cultural icons are unknown.
couldn't contemplate Mr. Lincoln's firm purchase on his broomstick
without thinking how different our ghastly Civil War might have turned
out had he spent more time manipulating that lever and less those
at the War Department. But alas, I was getting too close to my subject.
That's just the kind of thought that would have popped into the pretty
head of one of Vidal's greatest inventions, Myra Breckinridge.
more cocktails, I proposed to Gore that we make a life impression
of his right hand holding something only slightly less Freudian
than Mr. Lincoln had--say, a lemon from Vidal's own grove. He
was game, and before I left, we did.
spent the third morning applying the finishing touches. The sculpture
had become heroic in scale, which seemed fitting. I was striving now
not for anatomical correctness but for a kind of spontaneity in the
modeling that I had achieved but was in danger of losing. It is in
my nature to overwork a thing, and I was just about to when Gore emerged
from the chestnut trees with the day's mail. The film crew swung into
told Gore that if he would spare me a little time, I could finish.
As I worked, he and Karen talked on and on about New York in the 1940s
and '50s, the early days of live television, Norman Mailer, Tennessee
Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore's aborted dance career. Karen asked
about the marriage of her next subject, Isaac Stern, to the dancer
Nora Kaye. "I was at the wedding," Gore recalled. "Isaac
and Nora looked as though they needed to be introduced to each other."
was all coming together now. I held up the mask and compared it to
the clay and then to the man. There were many similarities and some
disparities. Gore: amusing, animated, and very much alive. The life
mask: glaringly white, every pore in place, but for all its accuracy,
lifeless and pale. The portrait fell somewhere in between--into what
Robert Rauschenberg calls the "gap between between life and art,"
I hoped. One never really finishes a work of art, it's just abandoned.
It had reached that definitive state of incompleteness; I could do
nothing more than ruin what was done.
thanked Gore for his indulgence and hospitality. He rose to leave
and walked slowly and deliberately away from us toward La Rondinaia.
at the house," he said over his shoulder. "And dinner tonight
will be in the States in November for a bit of eye surgery--"Not
cosmetic," he assures--and to finally accept his election to
the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Initially elected decades
ago, he demurred: "I'm already a member of the Diners Club."
is also more than a little interested in the public reaction to his
official biography. I asked if he planned to read it. "Only for
libel," he replied.
is made in Kaplan's big book not just of his but of his entire generation's
fondness for drink. Late of an evening at La Rondinaia, as one bottle
of Scotch gave way to another, my tongue thickened and my words began
to slur. But Gore, the old pro, grew more expansive, lucid, and articulate,
coming up with extraordinary political and literary associations and
recollections. Or so it seemed.
day he lamented, "My liver is about gone, I suppose."
so, I thought, but not the mind.
carefully hand-carried the still-wet plaster molds on the plane to
Berlin and then back to my McLean studio, where they now lie curing
in a corner. This winter I will cast them in wax, as I have Gore's
hand, and make any necessary alterations before transporting the positive
wax impression to Baltimore's New Arts Foundry for transformation
Gore Vidal's head, like his work, will belong to the ages.
ALBERT" AND OTHER POLS
a recent telephone conversation, William Dunlap asked Gore Vidal for
his impressions of the current presidential contenders. Vidal told
Dunlap he would get right back to him and, minutes later, faxed the
following assessment in longhand.
presidential election provides us with new depths to plumb. Bradley
is being turned into Abe Lincoln, though like all the rest of the
field, he can't make a speech. This is something very odd in the TV
era: incoherent, dead-tone voices, stumbling while amateurishly reading
off TelePrompTers. On the other hand, Bradley's self-love is reassuring
when one looks at his competition. Because he could play basketball
he feels taller--he is--than the others. I also love the gracious
way that, after a time in Gethsemane, he finally decided he was at
last ready to govern us. To what end? Don't ask. He can't tell.
he's beginning to deal with the problem of an infantilized electorate.
He is slow, repetitive, but, recently, on Larry King, he did respond
to a redneck caller (hired for the occasion?) that he was not undone
by gays in the military, since they had always been there anyway.
This was a breakthrough. He is neither father- nor uncle-figure, he
is Boy Scout camp counselor. He will probably be President.
Albert, after 30 years in politics, still cannot make contact with
the folks. He is confident that they are very, very slow, so he delivers
his slow, slow messages in a trance-like voice. I emphasize performance,
which many think is just showmanship when it is all that the founders
had in mind for the president. Through regular speeches to the Union
(written by each President himself until Harding) the President was
our common voice--proposing, advising, warning.
what little G.W.B. has to say, he is as incoherent as his father,
whose lips, when read, had only one message in four years: Cut the
capital-gains tax. That's what big money hired him to do and that's
all he tried--failed--to do.
has withdrawn from the great spelling bee: He will be missed. I mean
half-useful with his half-reformation of campaign financing, seems
to embrace every myth our corporate masters want us to believe. That
Pearl Harbor was unprovoked when FDR, eager for us to go to war in
Europe even though 88 percent of Americans wanted no part of Europe's
wars, maneuvered the Japanese into attacking us. This story is now
told in Day of Deceit by Robert B. Stinnett (The Free Press).
a St. Albanian, I look down from our huge social height in the seedy
old Fairfax Hotel upon Pat Buchanan from Gonzaga High, a center of
Catholic grievance and furious acne in my youth. Yet of all the candidates,
Pat has a comprehensive view of the US and its highly un-American
imperial history during the last 50 years. In fact, many of his better
arias on the crimes of corporate America against the people at large
could spell out the basis for a powerful party of a majority of the
nation--the 80 percent: from poverty, to poor, to the middle class
that is now skidding down the economic slopes. He could have made
a major party for the next century as Bryan almost did in 1900. But
Pat's Gonzaga lip lost him Jews, gays, blacks and left him open for
total distortion by cynical corporate America who, every time a populist
leader emerges, quickly smear him. Remember Jesse Jackson, a real
contender until "Hymietown" was hung around his neck and
that was that?
Pat were to drop his lumpen Christian rhetoric, he might pick up the
various groups he has offended. Most people understand the nature
and extent of the money that governs us, distorts our history, buys
our politics. Anyway, there is always Crossfire for him and nothing
for the few who vote. He could have been a true national voice, not
a showbiz snarl.
2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
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