Matt Frei recalls a night of drunken excess at the Amalfi coast villa of a major 20th century literary talent and contrarian.
Please wait while this video loads. If it doesn't load after a few seconds you may need to have Adobe Flash installed.
We were living in Rome and when a friend of mine heard that my wife and I were visiting Ravello on the Amalfi Coast, he asked if we wanted to have an audience with its most famous, yet rarely seen attraction: Gore Vidal. Of course. The meeting was arranged.
An early pre-dinner drink on a Sunday in Vidal's spectacular house La Rondinaia, the Swallow's Nest. Ravello, if you haven't been, is one of those truly unforgettable places. It is perched on top of a cliff high above the Amalfi coast. Richard Wagner came here to convalesce and compose parts of Parsifal. Henrik Ibsen came to convalesce and write A Doll's House. Gore Vidal came here to ruin his health and entertain his friends.
His home was a residence which could only be seen from below. A white villa that clung to the lip of the cliff –more bat than swallow - you caught glimpses of it as you negotiated the perilously windy road up to Ravello.
We rang the door bell, which is on an unassuming metal gate close to the village square and Vidal's laconic yet edgy voice – molasses with shards of glass - told us that if we managed to find his house through the maze of terraced citrus groves we would have passed "the first intelligence test". I swallowed hard. This was going to be fun. What else did he have in store for us?
We took our seats, gawped at the view and hit the gin and tonics. I can honestly say that I have never drunk more in one night in my entire life.
After five minutes of gingerly groping our path through the lemon terraces and past the ominously dark blue swimming pool we came across the house – phew - and were initiated into what seemed like a well-oiled reception routine. On the door-step was Howard, Gore Vidal's long time partner, flanked by two magnificent looking great danes. They sniffed us haughtily and opted not to bark or bite. Was this another test?
The writer emerged from his study. "I have bad news and I have good news", he declared. "There will be no food tonight because the chef is off on a Sunday and Howard and I can't cook. The good news is that there's plenty to drink". There was a brief tour of the house. "This is the bedroom that Paul (Newman) stays in…this is (Princess) Margaret's bed…this is where Brad (you guessed it) stays."
Did Gore think we were working for Hello Magazine? Our final destination was the terrace. It was breath-taking. A royal box overlooking the Amalfi coast.
We took our seats, gawped at the view and hit the gin and tonics. I can honestly say that I have never drunk more in one night in my entire life. I must have had twelve very sturdy G and Ts.
My wife, who is not a big drinker, clocked up an astonishing six. Gore was on Olympic form. He was heading for his own personal best. I lost count after sixteen.
And Howard was poleaxed after an amount that cannot be measured in glasses. The booze was accompanied by half a carton of Malboro cigarettes. As we drank and puffed we kept hearing the voice of the Italian tour guides on the ships below eulogizing our host: "Li vive lo famosissimo scritore Americano Gore Vidal…."
Every few minutes his name wafted up from the glistening waters of the Med below and Gore seemed to inhale the never-ending chorus of adulation with the cigarettes. As you'd expect we did all the listening as the man who had delivered more witty aphorisms than any writer since Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde treated us to a tour de force of his acerbia.
He was scathing about the Italian political scene – no surprises there - and mildly indiscreet about his distant cousin Al Gore, then the US Vice President.
"The trouble with Al is that he never really wanted to be a politician. His father – a US Senator- pushed him into it. It was the family business. But what Al really loved was theatre and painting. He would have been a good painter."
I had not heard that before or since. It was 1995. Monica Lewinsky's blue dress had not yet been discovered. 9/11 had not yet happened and George W Bush was still happily installed in Texas as governor. This meant that we were denied and spared some of Gore Vidal's sharpest slurs and loopiest conspiracy theories.
He was for many years adamant that 9/11 was engineered by the US itself thus putting him on a par with the editorial team of the Quetta Times in Baluchistan.
To be honest I can't recall too many of his very many remarks. The quotation marks are approximate. I was simply too drunk to remember. At midnight the cigarettes had run out and the last bottle of Beefeater was left to its empty aftermath.
Gore got up and rang our mutual friend to deliver a verdict. It was alarmingly sober. Was the real intelligence test still to come? I had by now assumed that it was my liver not my brain that was being subjected to scrutiny. I heard Gore's voice say: "I think that went well….we will have them back".
He was talking about us and then turned to me with the earnest expression of a loan approval officer. "We would like to have you back," he said. "Out of season you can stay in the house. During season the house will of course be filled up with Paul, Margaret and the others. But you can come for meals. If that goes well, we will take it from there…"
Gore Vidal had presented us with a five-year plan but I was barely able to think five minutes ahead. We left the villa and groped our way back to the main gate, past the pool, now ominously black reflecting the moonlight and the sweet-smelling citrus groves.
There were only two questions vexing us. Where are those cliffs and will we plunge to our deaths?
Matt Frei is Channel 4 News' Washington correspondent
01 August 2012