Gore Vidal – the man who kept secrets

How Amelia Earhart came to wear men's Jockey underwear

Gore Vidal
  • Gore Vidal
  • Image by Jane Brown

What fun! Gore Vidal is coming to speak at UCSD on April 16, and I get „ . to write about his talk, which seems to be entitled “America First? America Last? America at Last?” and which, if Vidal runs true to form, promises to be a scandalizing yet tony romp through the nations — excuse me, the Republic’s — darker secrets.

Amelia Earhart and G.P. Putnam, c. 1937

Amelia Earhart and G.P. Putnam, c. 1937

Before ringing up Gore at the posh North County resort where he’s relaxing and reducing (“They’ve got me on 700 calories a day”), I think about a handle for the interview. Let’s see — “America First.” Didn’t Vidal head up an America First chapter back when he was at Phillips Exeter? Or maybe I’m thinking of Kingman Brewster at Yale. Hell, they all ran America First chapters, circa 1941, these Eastern aristocrats with blue blood and generations of governmental service in their veins. Well, not all — not George Bush. He was too busy playing baseball and prepping for Wall Street down at that other Phillips Academy.

Forget about the relevant angle. I want to ask Gore about things with universal appeal. I want to ask him about — Amelia Earhart and the Jockey shorts! Amelia, you see, liked to wear men’s underwear.

Sometimes she wore the boxer shorts of her husband-of-convenience, George Palmer Putnam. Other times she slipped on Y-fronts belonging to her heartthrob, Bureau of Air Commerce chief Gene Vidal.

“Was your father really having an affair with Amelia Earhart?” I asked.

“I never said they were having an affair,” said Gore. “But she was in love with him. I saw them together so often over a period of years — it was unmistakable. My father’s feeling for Amelia — well, it was different. He had great affection for her, but it wasn’t romantic. He said being with Amelia was just like being with a boy. Amelia was having a very bad time emotionally. She hated being in the public eye. She really hated G.P. [Putnam]. She married him because — well, Amelia was an actress, and all great actresses marry their manager. But she was always falling in love with very handsome men, and my father was very handsome, a trim ex-football star who was always being put on the list of the ten best-dressed men. He was the first to get Jockey shorts, because clothing manufacturers used to send him samples of all their new items. They came in around ’36. The manufacturers sent him some free pairs, and that’s how Amelia got them.”

I move on to another family connection — the Kennedys. (Gore and Jackie O shared a stepfather.) Has Gore seen JFK?

“I feel.. .that I have seen it. I had a long argument with Oliver Stone some time ago on the subject. Stone won’t listen to reason and believes all kinds of nonsense. Now, I have some expertise in the matter because I knew Clay Shaw quite well, and he was about as political as my great aunt Sunita. The man was totally unpolitical — a great party-giver, though. And an enemy of [Jim] Garrison. Garrison, of course, thought he could set him up because [Shaw] was a faggot.... As for the argument that Kennedy was going to withdraw from Vietnam, well, this shows a complete lack of understanding of Jack’s character. I mean, the man just loved war and insurgency. I once saw him with designs for military insignia on his desk. ‘Jack, what is that?’ ‘Oh, uh, we’ve got this new thing, something called the Green Berets/’ ” (Vidal here did a flat, honking imitation of Jack Kennedy.)

“My father was in secret weapons when he was teaching at West Point, around the same time that that great statesman-general of Vietnam” (sarcastic tone) “—what was his name? — was a student. Ah yes, Maxwell Taylor! And it was Maxwell Taylor that sold Jack on counterinsurgency, using these old theories that had been around when he was a student at West Point: What you do is, you organize guerrillas — hence the 16,000 advisors that Jack sent into Vietnam to organize the countryside. As for that famous removal of 1000 troops that Stone goes on so much about — meaningless. What I remember is Jack Kennedy saying,” (impersonation again) “ I’ve got to go all the way with this one after Cuber!’ ”

Twice Vidal has run for elective office. There was a brave bid for a New York Congressional seat in 1960, when he was 35 and best known for two recent Broadway hits (Visit to a Small Planet, The Best Man). In 1982 he tried briefly in California for the Democratic nomination for Senate (and we all know who handily won that seat). Gore doesn’t think he’ll try again. “I mean, why bother to subject yourself to the process when you can have real influence upon the system in other ways?”

“Pshaw,” said I, more or less. “Writers are marginal.”

Not so, Gore countered; he's not marginal; he recently had a one-hour conversation with Jerry Brown. Jerry had caught some of Gore’s remarks at a National Press Club oration and rang him up prior to giving a stump speech near the General Dynamics sub plant in Connecticut. Jerry worked some of Gore’s ideas into his act, particularly the suggestion that we retool our defense industries into making usable and needed commodities (the bullet train solution). “Now, isn’t that having influence?” Gore concluded.

Before entering his starvation regimen near Carlsbad, Vidal was making a movie in Pittsburgh.

He’s been connected with pictures for 35 years (he worked on the screenplays for Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer, to name two oldies), but this is one in which he co-stars with Tim Robbins, who also produced and directed. “I play a liberal, ineffectual senator from an Eastern state,” he says. “So you can see the role was tailor-made.”

The speech at UCSD is an event not to be missed, Gore assured me. “I’m going to go back to the founding of the Republic and tell some secrets that need to be told. I won’t tell you what they are here — it’ll be a surprise. There is something basically wrong with the Constitution, something that’s been there from the beginning. You’ll find out what I mean.”

— Margot Sheehan

Lecture by Gore Vidal 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16 Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD Free 534-3400

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