Gore Vidal, who died yesterday at the age of 86, will be remembered by most for the crackling prose of his novels, plays, and essays. But he will also be remembered by television history buffs for the 1971 Dick Cavett Show appearance in which Vidal and rival novelist Norman Mailer engaged in a quarrel so heated and uncomfortable that it puts the staged squabbles of modern-day reality shows to shame.
The altercation, which Slate television critic Troy Patterson detailed in 2007, got its start off-camera when Mailer head-butted Vidal in the green room. But the physical violence between the public intellectuals had nothing on the rhetorical violence; Mailer went on to announce in front of host Cavett, journalist Janet Flanner, and a live studio audience that Vidal was “absolutely without character or moral foundation or even intellectual substance.” Patterson explains:
At issue was Gore’s New York Review of Books piece on Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex, that pot of crock about feminism. The review had said that Mailer’s thoughts on sex “read like three days of menstrual flow,” but Mailer as much as agreed with that. No, he had found it unreasonable that Gore had likened him to Charles Manson and that it was low of him to mention the thing with Adele and the penknife—“We all know that I stabbed my wife many years ago”—and then he went gunning. He didn’t turn everyone against him at once, instead gradually modulating his courtliness with Flanner (“Angel, it’s my turn now”) and deepening his casual disdain for Cavett (“Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?”). When the audience booed, he started yelling back—his accent, formerly professorial-patrician, slipping around from Texas sheriff to white Negro. He turned a swank salon into a churning saloon. For a coup de grace, Mailer called out Gore for lifting a bon mot from the previous week’s Times Book Review. (For evidence that Mailer’s point, however loutishly made, was a sharp one, note that the offending passage does not appear in Vidal’s essay as reprinted in United States.)
Patterson suggested that the argument would make excellent fodder for a one-act play starring Jude Law as Cavett, Frank Langella as Vidal, and Dame Maggie Smith as Flanner. Unfortunately, after Vidal’s death, Dick Cavett is now the only participant in the exchange who remains alive today.