Gore Vidal, J.F.K., and Tennessee Williams With a Gun

John F. Kennedy, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams shooting targets on the patio in Palm Beach.

Gore Vidal was with us in January, 2009, and I began preparing by reading Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (1999), an anthology of his previously published work “on sexuality.” The title is a bit misleading. The subject of these essays, dating from the 1960s to the 1990s, is arts, letters, politics; elements of sexuality figure in regularly but tangentially. No matter. It’s good reading, and gives a sense of evolving editorial politics surrounding sexuality at the publications where these essays were first published.

In a 1985 piece from The New York Review of Books, “Tennessee Williams: Someone to Laugh at the Squares With,” Vidal describes a visit he and Tennessee paid to John F. and Jackie Kennedy in Palm Beach in 1958. According to Vidal, “the Bird” had never heard of “Jack,” and repeatedly asked him whether he were a governor or a senator. “Each time, Jack, dutifully, gave name, rank, and party. Then the Bird would sternly quiz him on America’s China policy, and Jack would look a bit glum. Finally, he proposed that we shoot at a target in the patio.”

“While Jackie flitted about, taking Polaroid shots of us, the Bird banged away at the target. … At one point, while Jack was shooting, the Bird muttered in my ear, ‘Get that ass!’ I said, ‘Bird, you can’t cruise our next president.’ The bird chuckled ominously: ‘They’ll never elect those two. They are much too attractive for the American people.’ Later, I told Jack that the Bird had commented favorably on his ass. He beamed. ‘Now, that’s very exciting,’ he said.”

Vidal is quite vicious toward many of the subjects in this book. In Tennessee’s case, however, this seems to result from his affection. It’s clear he wishes Tennessee had taken better care of himself. “I remember him best one noon in Key West during the early Fifties… Each of us had finished work for the day. We met on South Beach, a real beach then. We made our way through sailors on the sand to a terraced restaurant where the Bird sat back in a chair, put his bare feet up on a railing, looked out at the bright blue sea, and, as he drank his first and only martini of the midday, said, with a great smile, “I like my life.”

Thanks to Dr. X’s Free Associations, where I found this image.

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