A few weeks ago, I finally met Michael Krasny, the genial presence behind KQED’s Forum – though we’d been Facebook friends for some time. He was a kindly and affable man – surprisingly humble and more friendly than I had anticipated.
From his 2007 memoir, Off Mike, I also learned that we have something in common: In our greener years, we’d both interviewed Gore Vidal – and survived. That’s not nothing.
I was a teenage Lois Lane for the Michigan Daily. It was usual for the editors at what was hailed as “the New York Times of student newspapers” to send us out last minute, without warning or preparation to interview grandees visiting Ann Arbor.
So I wound up being shoveled into a taxi with Vidal, knowing little more than that he was a famous author – indeed, his name was a household word at that time. My memories of that event are captured somewhere in the bowels of microfilm records, but the memory is even less perishable.
Michael Krasny, on the other hand, was a young academic in 1976, and had done his homework thoroughly. Here’s how he remembers the event:
“Heading into the interview, I was sure – both of us being literary types with left-wing politics – that we would become fast friends. I wanted to do a professional job and ask good, thoughtful, intelligent questions. I read as much as I could on Vidal and reread early works of his like Myra Breckinridge and The City and the Pillar, as well as his newest novel at the time, Kalki. More impressed by Vidal’s essays than his fiction, I still felt certain that the two of us would have much to talk about and would get on well.
When we met briefly before going to the television studio set to begin the interview, Vidal seemed world weary, as if afflicted with terminal weltschmerz, but more important, he smelled of liquor and his voice was thick with booze. …
Now the amazing thing about the interview was that once we were on the air, Vidal was “on” in a way that took me as much by surprise as his prior world-weariness, condescension and anti-Semitism. The lights and cameras rolled, and he was a different man: he sounded sober and was all performer. I gave him a short but flattering introduction that I had memorized, mentioning that I was an English professor and that Vidal’s real name was Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. He quickly ripped into me for bringing up what he archly called “my Christian name,” adding that, unlike our born-again president, Jimmy Carter, he, Vidal, was a born-again atheist. …
Vidal was animated and electrified, palpably alive as he proceeded to skewer his favorite targets – The New York Times, Republicans, corporations, Reagan, Nixon, President Jimmy Carter. Some of it was clever stuff, refined and caustic humor that I might have enjoyed were it not for the anti-Semitic cracks and the invective against English profs. …
As the interview moved into politics and I asked Vidal about his social concerns, another self emerged. Vidal was suddenly benign, casting himself in the role of munificent socialist. When the interview ended and the cameras were off, he once again became world-weary, cold and aloof, the man I had met before the interview, as sterile as I’d found his apocalyptic novel Kalki.”
Ah, I remember it well. The weltschmerz, the condescension, the weight-of-the-world sighs, as he gazed outside the window of the taxi as we tooled through Ann Arbor to his speaking engagement (though he was thoroughly sober, to my knowledge). I was, of course, thoroughly intimidated, in a way no prep would have alleviated, anyway. Then, at the theater on campus, he spoke to a crowd of what appeared to be mostly well-heeled, well-dressed Republican women, and managed to offend them all in the course of 45 minutes.
Finally, during a question-and-answer period, with written questions submitted from the audience on tiny bits of paper, someone let him have it: he was conceited, overbearing, a snob with an ax to grind… well, you get the picture. So did he.
“That’s right,” he admitted. “I only go out into the world to have all my biases and prejudices confirmed.”
“That’s what makes me different from all of you!”
It was a good line. Even the Republican women laughed.