Gore Vidal Dies, Will Likely Write Memoir About It

August 1, 2012

Yesterday evening, Gore Vidal, the man thereafter described by USA Today in its remembrance of him as a “celebrated author,” died. It is understandable that news media might, out of respect for the dead, recklessly bestow laurels like “celebrated.” “Tolerated” might have been more accurate. “Suffered,” more still.

Mr. Vidal was born at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father was an early instructor in aviation. His mother was an actress and socialite, two vocations which became one in her late son: Mr. Vidal acted the public intellectual for the sake of social climbing. For a man possessed of such disdain for the social order as that which he professed, Mr. Vidal made a handsome living for many years on his connections, including the Auchincloss blood he shared with Jacqueline Kennedy.

Though he once swore to avoid writing about himself, the oath was discarded in favor of self-promotion and financial interests: Palimpsest, a 1995 memoir, was followed in 2006 with Point to Point Navigation, another memoir. How many memoirs does one man need? One more, apparently: between those two, he interspersed the humbly-titled Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal.

It was enough to support a home in the Hollywood Hills, where Mr. Vidal was in residence at the time of his death.

Throughout a career in which he pridefully fancied himself a man of belles lettres, he built the majority of whatever name recognition he still possessed at death on smarm, snobbery and effetely effected intellectualism. His was a grand claim – Mr. Vidal saw himself as co-equal with (or, more likely, superior to) the likes of public intellectuals Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Norman Podheretz, Noam Chomskey and the remainder of that celestium.

In either respect, he was entirely incorrect. His was not an incisive, illuminating or productive wit; it was bitter, caustic and devoid of elegance. The man was, intellectually and personally, petty and small. The late essayist Christopher Hitchens, once a promoter of Mr. Vidal’s interests, had recently, before his own death, bemoaned the fact that his later writing sufered from an “utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity.”

If there is one lasting contribution Mr. Vidal made to American culture (which, like any self-respecting artistic egotist, he abandoned for European soil), it was his 1968 televised appearance with Mr. Buckley, whom he repeatedly called a crypto-Nazi, prompting the second most well-known retort in the history of television from Mr. Buckley: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.”

(The most well-known retort in the history of television being Senator Loyn Bensten’s famous line: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)

The New York Times reported today that Mr. Vidal considered himself an Augustan figure, the last of a breed of writers and jocular, urbane men of letters. That paper is likely correct in describing Mr. Vidal as the last of the breed; the real shame is that the breed had to end on such a low note as Gore Vidal.

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The Prince Albert Slipper-y Slope

November 22, 2010

Prince Albert slippers are uniquely situated in the haberdashers’ galaxy for their uncanny ability to do for men what threshers do for farms: that is, separate the wheat from the chaff. Or the boys from the men.

Or, more to it, the men from the much more WASP-ily effete men. But if effected Brahmin effetism is a crime, then your staff is (with apologies to Wm. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII) “the most offending soul alive.”

In our defense, we’re in good company. Specifically, Bobby Kennedy. And Ralph Lauren. And Dean Martin. And, of course, His Royal Highness Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria in 1840 and lent his name to the slipper as his wife lent hers to the era. 

"Specifically, Bobby Kennedy."

Gentlemen of Victorian England, ever exemplars of propriety, refused to wear their shoes indoors. The behavior likely owed as much to the poor condition of Victorian streets as to manners: shoes (and feet) of the period took a daily beating at the hands of mud-slick cobblestones and street grime.

So Victorian men, indoors, changed into house-shoes. And Victorian gentlemen, in shodding, preferred Prince Albert slippers. Today, the slippers are as much acceptable outdoors as in. “Some young people are starting to wear slippers outside,” observed Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, chairman of London’s oldest bespoke shoemakers, W.S. Foster, recently. “A young, dapper-looking Australian fellow who works for one of our graphic design firms came to the office this summer in a pair of velvet slippers.”  

The Prince Albert slipper, above, is loafer-shaped and pulls on; there are no laces. They’re made of velvet and have a raised leather heel, so that they can be worn lightly outdoors. They come either unlined or lined in quilted silk.

The more rakish also come embroidered: monograms across the toe are popular, as are coats of arms. American makers Stubbs & Wootton and Del Toro, both of Florida, offer more whimsical fare: slippers embroidered with martini glasses, skulls-and-crossed-bones, dollar and euro signs, sail boats, and that sort of thing. Del Toro in particular seems intent on cornering J. Crew’s embroidered critter market.

Brooks Brothers offers a model in black velvet, with its emblematic “BB” in gold script across the toe, and couturiers Ralph Lauren and Paul Stuart each sell a take on the Prince Albert.

“We’ve noticed a growing interest in our men’s slippers, especially from America.” That’s Hilary Freeman, managing director of Edward Green & Co., boot-makers of Northampton, England since 1890 and purveyors of Alberts. “This is slowly moving west to Europe, then Russia and onwards. We are even starting to see interest in Japan.”

And there, the defense rests.


Rugby: Dartmouth Hosts Granite Cup

September 15, 2010

Fall rugby season got underway at Dartmouth College this past weekend as teams from the University of New Hampshire, the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College, Franklin Pierce, Keene State, and Plymouth State converged in Hanover. British cologne maker Royall Lyme sponsored the tournament, and also sponsors the Dartmouth Rugby Football Club.

Ted Kennedy at the Dartmouth-Harvard match, 1964.

Despite injuries and pre-season commitments, the DRFC fielded three full sides, each of which performed strongly. The Green side took the pitch at 10 am and quickly notched 12 unanswered tries against UNH, a fair number of which were carried in by co-captain Paul Jarvis ’12.  By the final whistle, Dartmouth was up 76-0 on the newly unveiled scoreboard. The scoreboard is dedicated to the 1959 DRFC’s tour of California and will be officially dedicated at the club’s 60th anniversary in October.

A less experienced DRFC side took the pitch next to put St. Michael’s away, 53-0.

After play, the club was generally optimistic about its performance. “There were definitely positives to take away from all of the games,” said Jarvis. “A lot of guys were able to get playing time, often working in new positions or new combinations, and the boys responded well …there is a lot of room to improve, but it was a very promising day for the team and built on the good foundation this team had established the week earlier [during tour] in Canada.”

Official season Ivy League play begins September 25th and 26th, against the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, respectively.


Prof. Jeff Hart on WFB

August 15, 2010

Dartmouth English professor emeritus Jeffrey Hart wrote this essay, “Understanding William F. Buckley,” shortly after Mr. Buckley’s death. It appeared first in The Dartmouth Review, the collegiate newspaper inspired by the late intellectual’s National Review and to which your editorial staff briefly and poorly contributed. In it, Professor Hart offers a glimpse, frustrating in its brevity, of what made Mr. Buckley so indespensible a man: his intellectualism and curiosity and determination, but equally the joy and tenacity with which he experienced life.

The essay is re-printed here slightly abbreviated; the Professor’s analysis of National Review’s political stances has been sacrificed to afford his memories of summers in Gstaad with the Buckleys more room.

I did not meet Buckley until the summer of 1962, and then almost by accident. I was teaching a Columbia summer term course in the Victorian novel. One of the students in this course came into my office for a conference. She noticed on my desk a copy of The Fabric of Society by Ernest van den Haag and Ralph Ross, a brilliant and comprehensive summary of the social sciences, economics, psychology, political philosophy, sociology. The student asked me if I would like to meet Van den Haag, and when I said yes invited me to a cocktail party at her apartment in Greenwich Village.

William F. Buckley, Jr. at work.

There I found that she affectionately called him “Ernie Pooh.” He certainly did not seem Pooh-like. He seemed very European, dark, with a sharp nose and a black comb-over, smoking a thin European cigar, wearing tight European trousers, and narrow shoes made from the skin of some reptile. Anyone less Pooh-like would be hard to imagine. At the cocktail party he had a friend with him, Anatole Broyard, a man famous in the Village and later an incisive book critic for The New York Times. Friends soon told me that Van den Haag and Broyard cut a wide swath through the female population of the Village and were the opposite of discreet about their adventures. Broyard later wrote a memoir of life in the Village with the humorous title When Kafka was the Rage.

Van den Haag and I became friends and it developed that he was a talent scout for Buckley. “Would you review books for National Review?” he asked me, and I said I would be glad to. This led to some extraordinary experiences, including work as a speechwriter for Reagan and then Nixon in 1968.

Soon I received a phone call from Buckley’s secretary and agreed to meet him at the National Review office, then at 150 E. 35th Street, and go to dinner with him. I did not know at the time that this secretary Gertrude Vogt had been a passenger on the Orizaba and had seen Hart Crane jump off the stern of the ship and disappear.

When I arrived I met Buckley in his office evidently doing some last-minute things to the magazine before it went to the printer. He was bent over a table with pages of typed copy scattered over it. The tail of his J. Press shirt hung out as he worked hurriedly. His tie knot was down to his chest. Finally, he pulled himself together and we headed out to a local Chinese restaurant. He was excellent company and I had a preliminary glimpse of what many would later experience as his genius for friendship, which transcended differences of opinion. As I would discover, he was passionate about enjoying life, sailing, skiing, playing the piano harpsichord, paining, good wine and cigars.

Some astounding characters wrote from National Review, at least one of them, Willmoore Kendall, a Yale professor and genius. He was a political philosopher in the Leo Strauss tradition, and advocate of “majority rule” democracy. That meant that we governed ourselves according to the Constitution. He was suspicious of “rights,” which could de-rail majority rule.

A couch still exists at National Review, The Willmoore Kendall Memorial Couch, on which he had been caught inflagrante with one of the secretaries.

Of the major figures at National Review, I learned most from Kendall and James Burnham: constitutional theory from Kendall, policy analysis from Burnham. I also developed a friendship with Buckley that would last until his death in March 2008. Buckley had a way of drastically changing peoples’ lives, and it was fascinating to be connected with his magazine as it went on to change its leadership twice, and with that the value of the magazine itself.

Matthew Hart, the youngest of my four children, is Buckley’s godson and now lives near Lake Tahoe in California; when he heard that Buckley had died he sent me an e-mail:

I just wanted to send you my condolences about Mr. Buckley. I know you have been friends for a really long time. He was always nice to me as a kid and still wrote to me on my birthday up to my 20s. He didn’t have to, but he did. It really shows class when someone like him takes time to engage us as kids. He could have spent the time talking with adults who were around (and probably wanted more of his time) but he didn’t. For some reason he seems like the type of person who doesn’t exist anymore. I’ll always have the memories of Switzerland and skiing with the A Team and being reminded not to pass the Leader but being led off into some sort of gulch we had to hike out of in three feet of snow. Well, what can you do? We made it out after all. That’s what happens when you leave the trail I guess. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Matthew was in Gstaad only once. I went several times beginning in the 1970s – I had been a senior editor at National Review since 1969 and a few impressions of life at Gstaad provides a sense of the joi de vivre that was characteristic of Buckley’s life.

At Gstaad, the Buckley schedule ruled our social life, and his schedule was always the same. We all skied in the morning while Buckley worked in his chateau on some writing project. Then all the skiers met for lunch at one or another restaurant at the base of one of the mountains. After lunch, fortified by plenty of wine, we followed the leader to another mountain and skied there until late afternoon.

At the top of one of the mountains was a restaurant called The Sky Club, members only. One morning Buckley and I were skiing together, and he decided to have lunch at the Club. As we were putting our skiis on the rack outside Buckley indicated to me an elderly man in a one-piece blue ski outfit also putting his skis on the rack. Buckley whispered to me that he would tell me about him when we found a table.

Over lunch he said that he had stayed with this man, the Count von Something at his castle in Germany to do some research for a novel he was writing. The first night they sat down in front of the fireplace and had some drinks and there above the fireplace on the wall were life-sized oil portraits of Josef Goebbels and Herman Goering. Came the obvious question: Why were those portraits there? “Because they were my godfathers,” said the Count. Oh.

Buckley’s chateau, which he leased annually, was an enormous place located at the base of one of the mountains. It was in Rougemont, a few miles from Gstaad. You could finish a day by skiing right to its rear entrance.

On my first visit to the chateau I entered through the front door, which seemed the normal way for drive-up guests to get in. But I found myself in a large kitchen with a stone fireplace for cooking a large piece of meat on a spit. All it needed was a dwarf cook, preferably with a leather apron.

On the second floor of the chateau, up stone steps of course, was Buckley’s office where he worked in the morning, and also his studio. He painted in oils, when the creative urge moved him mountains, sailboats, unrecognizable portraits. Buckley had many talents including being the most influential journalists of his time, but painting was not one of his gifts.

I heard that once, before I had begun to go to Gstaad, David Niven had told Buckley that Marc Chagall was coming to Gstaad, that Chagall enjoyed Buckley’s spy novels and would like to stop to say hello. “Fine,” said Buckley. “I’d like to meet him.” “Wait a minute, Bill,” said Niven. “Chagall is a real artist. World famous. You wouldn’t take him to your studio, would you?” “Of course not,” Buckley replied. Niven and Chagall showed up at the chateau, Buckley took him immediately to his studio, and Chagall, gazing at Buckley’s paintings, said in French, “The poor paint.”

Another time, Ted Kennedy visited the Buckley’s in Rougemont, skiing and partying. On one occasion he asked, “Mind if I borrow one of the cars and drive into Gstaad?” “Hell no,” Pat Buckley said, “There are two bridges between here and Gstaad.”

I doubt that Kennedy considered that thigh-slapping funny.

Social life at the chateau resembled that at the Buckleys’ 73rd Street and Park Avenue duplex: interesting and civilized people, usually accomplished in one way or another; conservatives but not only conservatives: Kitty and Ken Galbraith, David Niven, Taki Theodoracopolis (a glamorous multi-millionaire, great skier, and good enough at tennis to compete at Wimbledon).

Other guests included: the latest actor to play James Bond; “Swifty” Lazar the agent; Arthur Schlesinger. Once I asked Arthur about Jack Kennedy’s off-the-charts womanizing to see how he would handle that question. Everyone knew that Kennedy’s behavior made Bill Clinton look like a monk in comparison. Of course, Arthur professed to know nothing about it.

David Niven was one of the pleasantest people you could meet, witty, debonair, civilized. One year when he was ill with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, we were instructed not to say anything funny, since if Niven tried to laugh he might choke. Since at the Buckley gatherings, wit was the coin of the realm, this inhibition tended to produce near silence: “Good skiing today.” “I hear Ali Khan is in town . . .” “Looks like snow tomorrow.”

But with the illnesses of Pat Buckley and then Bill, the good times in Gstaad had to end.