They told me Gore Vidal would be the interview from #&&!$$ (insert a four-letter word here that describes an extremely warm spot populated by devils).
He was acerbic, they said. His temper could be vicious. He had ridiculed another journalist that afternoon, and then insulted Pulitzer Prize winner Alison Lurie. No matter how he treated me, they said, I shouldn’t take it personally.
That wasn’t exactly encouraging.
I’ve always admired sail-into-the-fray investigative journalists like Woodward, Bernstein and Lois Lane. But that’s not me. However, I too was a journalist, and my assignment was to interview Gore Vidal before he spoke at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar — whether I got verbally flayed doing it or not.
I was nervous enough without the warning from the great man’s assistants and the concerned Literary Seminar organizers.
After all, the 83-year-old Vidal was a legend. He’d written two dozen books, including “Myra Breckenridge” and “Burr,” more than 200 essays, and plays like “The Best Man.” Plus, though he didn’t win, he had run for Congress and the U.S. Senate.
Waiting uneasily for Vidal’s people to call us into his dressing room, I figured only one thing was in my favor: I was a mystery buff, and my pre-interview research revealed Vidal had written three little-known detective novels under the name of Edgar Box.
A word about the Key West Literary Seminar: it’s amazing. Each January it stars a roster of writers — most of them internationally acclaimed — who read their work and share their insights with a small group of spellbound attendees. Featured presenters in past years have included Frank McCourt, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Jennifer Egan, Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and Joseph Heller.
And of course Gore Vidal, whose dressing room Carol and I were finally allowed to enter.
Comfortably seated and reflected in a wide mirror, the author was the picture of a cultured gentleman: silver hair, tweed jacket and elegant yet weathered hands.
This did not make me any less nervous. After introducing Carol and myself, I blurted out a mention of the Edgar Box mysteries like someone tossing meat scraps to a strange pit bull.
Somehow, it worked. All at once, Vidal’s face reflected real interest instead of polite indifference. And from then on, with my tape recorder running and Carol shooting photos, we had a genuine conversation.
He talked about political corruption, the desperate need for American educational reform, and his writing about the Mexican War. He talked about the failings of the media and strongly recommended that I read a book called “A Family of Secrets.”
And he talked in a reminiscent tone about aviator Amelia Earhart, his father’s great friend, who he remembered fondly from his youth.
In fact, with Carol continuing to take photos and Vidal’s assistant standing watchfully by, the world-renowned author answered my questions and chatted in a gentle, courteous way until he was summoned onstage.
I was completely charmed — and completely flabbergasted that, after all the warnings, for some unaccountable reason Vidal took a liking to me.
Only later, as I watched his Literary Seminar presentation from a perch backstage, did a possible explanation present itself.
It had obviously pleased him when I mentioned his Edgar Box mysteries. But there was something more.
Like the late Amelia Earhart, I’m a tall, lanky woman with short blondish hair. I’ll always wonder if, on some unconscious level, Vidal felt comfortable with me because I reminded him faintly of the pioneer aviator he knew long ago.