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From the Archives: Bring Me the Head of Gore Vidal
Believing 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—author. By William Dunlap
William Dunlap sculpts while Gore Vidal sits poolside at Vidal's home in Ravello, Italy. Vidal grew up in Washington, where Dunlap lives now, but their Gore family ties go back to the artist's home state of Mississippi. Photograph by Karen Thomas.
Comments () | Published August 6, 2012

When the April 22 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.

My 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."

No 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.

My 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."

He faxed back: "I'm working on a book. Come to Ravello in May."

• • •

I 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.

As 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.

After 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.

• • •

Eugene 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 and politics.

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.

While 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.

Gore's 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, Howard Austen.

Their 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.

All 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.

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Posted at 12:55 PM/ET, 08/06/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles