When a mortician appears on television to declare that death is infinitely preferable to life, he sparks a religious movement that quickly leaves Christianity and most of Islam in the dust. Now available in a Penguin Classic edition, Gore Vidal's deft and daring blend of satire and prophecy, first published in 1954, eerily anticipates the excesses of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and the Heaven's Gate suicide cult.
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I have decided to grieve over Gore Vidal. We will be poorer for the loss of his wit. So it seems the right, or rather, the left thing to do, as I don't imagine there will be many that weep. And he deserves at least a whit of regret and an Alas, because he was so clever.
Gore was a major bone of contention between me and my husband, Don, arguably the sweetest man in the world, whom I was lucky enough to partner for a moment in time. But he said to me in Rome, after a dinner in Gore's company, not easily come by, "It just shows what a pervert you really are, that you enjoy the company of Gore Vidal."
And did I ever. Even when he made me uncomfortable, which was obviously a Literary Lion's share of his pleasure, I felt honored to be with him. I understood how smart he was, and the fact that he was interested enough in me to have me in his company was a tribute.
I can't remember when exactly I met him for the first time, but I do remember being thrilled at the connection, especially because he seemed to more than tolerate me. I was having a struggle keeping a foot in two worlds, the first, the one that made you famous, the second in which people understood you were genuinely smart even though you had a popular bestseller. THE PRETENDERS topped the list in 1969, right after THE GODFATHER, and though Mario Puzo had called me to say "You wrote that for the same reason I wrote The Godfather: you wanted a bestseller. But the good writing is undisguisable," which, obviously, elated me, I still needed the imprimatur of an intellectual, which Mario, though a nice fellow, was far from being.
So when Gore very obviously liked me, I was excited, which really seemed to upset my darling husband.
We were in Rome, and Sue Mengers, then still a friend, a situation that was not to last too long, arranged for us to meet Gore. We were invited to his palatial apartment for drinks, and then, apparently, passed the audition, as he suggested we go on with him to dinner. Also at the table at whatever restaurant it was was Ultra Violet, one of Warhol's discoveries. Although my memory is still sharp, I can't remember exactly what the conversation was, though I know it included enough to be offensive to Don, who was adorable but fairly square, and did not list on his conversational program sexual conquests or tastes, which Gore very easily and, -- this I DO remember-- often did.
But it was after that evening that Don made his comment. I thought it pretty funny and, in fact, witty. And it was true. I did enjoy the conversation and company of Gore.
When Don died, much too early-- he was just 45-- I went to visit my darling friend the actress Betty Garrett in the hospital, where she often was. Betty had also lost her husband, Larry Parks, much too soon. And she said to me "Now you have to do the things you wouldn't have done if Don were alive. So I went directly from the hospital to a department store and bought a hat-- Don didn't think I had "a hat face." Then I bought perfume.-- He didn't like me smelling of anything besides clean.
And after that, after time and my beloved Sandy Burton had given me an interlude that really ruffled me-- I went to visit Gore Vidal.
"Gore didn't tell me you were coming," Howard Austin, his longtime partner-- though maybe not sexual-- whined, when I showed up in Ravello. So Gore thought it would be better if I stayed in the local hotel, which I did. But I dined in their house, and all through dinner Howard studied me fiercely. I was bleeding openly from an unfortunate alliance I'd had in Hong Kong with a very naughty Brit. And Gore said
"Men understand that sex means nothing, that it's just for fun. The trouble with women is they think their feelings matter."
Gore was still drinking at the time, and I remember meeting him for dinner in a Ravello restaurant-- Howard clearly did not welcome my presence in their magnificent home-- (for the rest