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Grand theft motto
Or, Gore Vidal as seen on TV
Gore Vidal was a one-of-a-kind copycat.
When a critic called his novel Lincoln meretricious — flashy but without value — he quickly responded with this perfectly absurd pun:
Really? Well, meretricious and a Happy New Year to you!
After his longtime foe Truman Capote died in 1982, he rudely quipped:
Good career move.
And on the numerous occasions he was asked if his many predictions of American decline were coming true, he always found a way to say:
The four most beautiful words in the English language: I told you so.
All of the above were borrowed, adapted, or stolen — from Walter Winchell, about Elvis Presley, and via Lord Stormont Mancroft (thank you, Quote Investigator)— but Vidal earned credit for dropping them at just the right time and place. And that time and place was usually live television.
The only box Gore Vidal fit neatly into was the idiot box. The American wit wasn’t an idiot, but on TV he played a man surrounded by them. He was really, really good at clever quips and petty feuds that unfolded on 1970s talk shows. On everything else, well, it’s hard to say.
Vidal wrote historical novels about a country he called the United States of Amnesia. He played up his establishment connections — a roommate of Paul Newman, a frequent guest at the Kennedy White House, grandson of Oklahoma’s first senator — while maligning the way America was run. He published one of the first gay novels of the post-war era, leading him to be blacklisted by the New York Times; but always rejected the idea that sexuality was fixed and so remained outside the gay canon. Oh, and he wrote the 1968 trans celebration-turned-B-movie Myra Breckenridge, which remains difficult to explain.
The one constant in this career was TV, and it was there that his remarks made his mark. Like all the great wits — and especially Oscar Wilde, to whom he was often compared — Vidal freely borrowed and recycled his great lines. He knew that originality wasn’t nearly as important as timing, especially if your timing was impeccable.
When a long-simmering feud culminated with Norman Mailer punching him in the face — not on TV, unfortunately — Vidal was able to quickly respond with:
Norman, once again words have failed you.
That one appears to be original, as does the maxim Vidal lived by:
Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to be on television.
Christopher Hitchens, who once aspired to be Vidal’s protege before launching a public feud with him (a very Vidal-esque move), questioned that advice:
My efforts to live up to this maxim have mainly resulted in my passing many unglamorous hours on off-peak cable TV.
Which is probably evidence that the thing in Vidal’s life most worth emulating is his ability to copy surface the right line at the right time. Or, just copy the copying.
Link link, nudge nudge
“I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”
— Colson Whitehead, after being spat upon by Richard Ford in 2003. Whitehead had panned Ford’s book A Multitude of Sins, and as per The Streisand Effect, you can read the review here. The incident echoes the Mailer punch-up: If someone calls you inarticulate, a physical attack might not be the ideal rejoinder.
“Now listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
— William F. Buckley’s infamous response when Vidal insulted the right-wing journalist in a televised debate. The best synopsis of this incident is the highly entertaining documentary Best of Enemies, worth watching for the rare 1960s TV footage alone.
“Well, the Constitution has not yet been pregnant.”
— Gore Vidal’s very patient interview with Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G.
There’s the 68th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly compilation of fanciful things to say after you’ve been punched in the face. Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting has yet to inspire a spit spat. Be a lover, not a fighter: tap the ♥️ below.