I remember landing at LAX filled with anticipation for my exciting shoot. I had this stellar commission to photograph the fabulous author Gore Vidal. I had been planning this for sometime. I came armed with dozens of things I wanted to chat with him about.
I arrived at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It sits like an architectural flower on Sunset Blvd. A parade of Palm Trees escort you to the waiting valets.
There was a message with the concierge asking me to wait in the (the famed) Polo Lounge until Mr Vidal is ready. I by chance sat at the bar next to Keanu Reeves. I was drinking a confidence glass of scotch, while Kneau attacked his bowl of salad like a frenzied wolf shredding a bloody carcass. He must have been in a hurry. I took my glass on an amusing roundabout thru the hotel until I was called for. I roamed the lobby thinking about the past glories of the hotel, Beverly Hills and more.
If at various moments in the 20th Century you asked someone who or what was the most recognizable American cultural representation…almost every artistic endeavor would take a back seat to Hollywood and filmdom: Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and a future litany of Hollywood celebrities.
Beverly Hills became associated with Hollywood as the home of movie stars. On any given day, (swimming through the portals of various decades) you might see Clark Gable driving his Duesenberg along Sunset Blvd, or Fred Astaire sashay up Rodeo Drive with a pink ascot shimmying around his waist. That was another time, another world. When you combine such novels as “Day of The Locust”, “Hollywood Babylon” and hundreds more morphing into “Less Than Zero”, our eyes begin to open to the eccentricity and capricious nature of our cinematic culture. A wild riff should follow on celebrity, filmdom and more. But the above is merely a canvas of ghosts that live in the dreams of hundreds of millions of people who fantasize about the unattainable.
The concierge motioned me to head to Vidal’s bungalow. I reminded myself about the dozens of personalities who could implicitly define our culture past and present, but there was one true “Zelig”, Gore Vidal. Gore’s east coast west coast DNA is made up of Hollywood/Beverly Hills, Newport, R.I, Wash.D.C and European breeding.
I wanted a one on one photography session with a voice that could share people, politics, cultural stories like no other public intellectual could. I got more than i wished for.
I knocked on the door. When Gore opened and greeted me I immediately felt the grip of a man who has lived to see it all. I had admired his literary power for years. Now we were face to face…and I needed to focus on the task at hand.
A photographer has to find the impulses of a subject to make a pic work. My space seemed limited at first. His companion Howard was in the living area, and here I was in the bedroom. We danced, we sparred and I wasn’t gaining any ground. I wanted to feel what I could do. A photographer has to utilize tools to find the button to push. I pushed the wrong button.
We were discussing his new work and how he was trying to get access to his subjects: The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, Ramzi Yousef, the bomber of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, Timothy McVeigh and lastly the infamous “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski.
Gore was planning to visit the federal penitentiaries where they resided. Of course my first instinct was to ask him if I could shoot their portraits for his articles. He at first ignored my interests. He went on to share with me the theme that linked the three men. He was poised to write some pretty outrageous commentary regarding them. He was essentially sermonizing to me for 10 minutes. I abruptly stopped him when he told me that he felt that Timothy McVeigh was a genius. I objected. I never met the man…the little I knew of McVeigh hadn’t convinced me that there was a genius hiding in the dark. Also it was incredulous to me that one of my literary heroes had just unintentionally undermined his own intelligence. I am smart enough to know when I am out of my element. Maybe I had allowed my own earnestness to cross a forbidden boundary. Maybe I was in the wrong. I had dreamed of having an exchange with Gore for years. But I said what I needed to say. Then it happened. Gore was standing maybe 10 feet from where I stood shooting while he sermoned me. He suddenly lunged at me with his fists and face afire. I backed up against the wall while he yelled at me that he gets paid for his thoughts and “you are standing here disagreeing with me for free”.
”Get out of here!!” he screamed.
I felt helpless and horribly slighted. I almost fought with Gore Vidal. I had zero fight in me. I automatically began packing my equipment. There was this dense fury between us. Our eyes never met. Minutes went by, and suddenly as whispering as a priest offering absolution, he offered, “lets take a walk”.
The Bungalows are not a secret at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But they are like a secret garden. I had been there before with a small party. But following Gore’s lead almost hand in hand…was quite eerie. With Sunset Blvd seconds away there was not a sound to be heard. Maybe I was numb.
We walked just for a few seconds when he turned to me with hand extended and apologized. The conversation we had for the next hour was the one I had hoped for from the beginning. He shared family stories: Jackie Kennedy/President Kennedy stories and movie star stories. It was a ramble that endeared me to him forever. It wasn’t the stories I needed. It was merely the voice I wanted. It was a beautiful embrace as we parted.
I popped into my car and headed west on Sunset Blvd