Gore Vidal in Chico

Remembering the late writer’s sojourn here

News last week that writer Gore Vidal had died, at the age of 86, brought back memories of the time, 30 years ago, when he visited Chico, staying a couple of days and making himself remarkably available to local folks.

He was at the height of his powers then; two of his great historical novels, Burr and 1876, had come out and been bestsellers, and the third, Lincoln, was on its way. Vidal had become the quintessential American man of letters. Why he’d agreed to spend two full days schmoozing with the good burghers of Chico was a mystery.

This was in mid-February, and word was that he was planning a run against Gov. Jerry Brown in the June primary for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Asked at one point whether he was running, he quipped, “I’m hardly standing still.” Some of us surmised that he was inoculating himself against the ordeal of campaigning among the hoi-polloi.

But that was before we saw him in action, “scattering about his pungent observations and insightful drolleries with Attic elegance,” as I later wrote.

“In Chico, these were by no means pearls cast before swine,” I continued. “If at times Vidal seemed to overwhelm his listeners, even—through no fault of his own—intimidate them, it mattered not. They may have been slightly awestruck, but they knew what they wanted to know. So for two days they asked this visiting luminary, this raconteur of caf” society in the global village, the questions that most concerned them—questions about war and peace, about people and nations, about this country’s rulers and the world of the future … if there is to be a future.”

It resembled “a game of intellectual slow-pitch baseball,” I suggested, “with the people of Chico rotating at the pitcher’s mound, serving up one curiosity after another as Vidal took batting practice in his ‘maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won’t’ run for the U.S. Senate.”

What struck me was how much he seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the frequent banalities and sometimes hostile questions he had to endure. And he was gallantly patient as he was trundled like a piece of precious cargo from event to event, ending on the first night at a downtown restaurant for a late-night gathering of the Chico Democratic Club.

By then his voice was giving out and he looked tired, but his wit, so quick and sharp all day, hadn’t deserted him. Seeing the hastily arranged tables, which “resembled a dominoes game after about four moves, and the 20 or so people sitting around them, waiting tensely for The Great One to speak, he quipped: ‘Looks like three Last Suppers.'”

The following evening he spoke at Laxson. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Rereading my account of it, I realize that what he said then—about how war has been the business of America for half a century because, as he put it, “war or its threat is one of the ways those who control the economic life of the country can make maximum profits"—remains as true and relevant today as it was then.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.