Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Duking It Out on Mount Parnassus



Duking it out on Mount Parnassus, l to r: Gore Vidal, Janet Flanner, Dick Cavett, Norman Mailer

Last night I was thinking of the George Washington article in the NY Times the other day and I remembered the famous 1971 interview on Dick Cavett with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. A small part of it concerned Vidal talking about Washington’s teeth, that they weren’t wood, they were ivory and bone which he soaked in Madeira wine. Cavett commented: “They must have been very tasty..”

The rest of the interview involved (or devolved to, with great comic effect) the famous feud between Mailer and Vidal, with Cavett as witty interlocutor who turned his barbs on Mailer when the late author, violating the cardinal rule of “thou shall never be inebriated on TV,” turned on all of the other guests and the audience. It was a classic confrontation, which Mailer himself deliciously recounts, with mordantly self-deprecating flair in his collection of essays, “Pieces and Pontifications.”


In fairness to Mailer, Vidal had charged in a NY Review of Books article at that time that he was part of “3M – (Henry) Miller, (Charles) Manson and (Norman) Mailer” promoting violence against women. Mailer, a great American author and journalist, was no saint in his personal life, even arrested for assaulting one of his wives, but to charge that his writings were akin to mass murder is an insult to both Mailer and Miller. While I enjoy Vidal’s writing as well, his argument about 3M was an intellectual construct of that era, but it is ironic in retrospect that Gore turned his back on freedom of expression, in accusing Mailer and Miller of fomenting violence against women, while today Vidal feels free to "report" on the wide conspiracies he sees in 9/11. But that was in the 1970s, at the same time complex, and yet more innocent, than today.

Here is a portion of the Cavett interview/debate/verbal jousting match

And finally Dick Cavett’s delightful recounting of the interview in his NY Times blog is here
It includes the following:
Flanner: They’re here, he’s here, I’m here . . . and I’m growing very, very bored. [Throws kiss to
Mailer with her white-gloved hand, getting big laugh.]
Mailer: You still haven’t told me whether you’re Gore’s manager or the referee.
Cavett: If you make history here by punching a lady. [laughter]
Flanner: I won’t have it! I won’t have it!
Mailer: Now, look, you see the sort of thing that goes on. Now you say I make history by punching a lady. You know perfectly well…you know perfectly well that I’m the gentlest of the four people here. [laughter]
Cavett: I just hope it lasts through the next whatever we have left.
Mailer: I guarantee you I wouldn’t hit any of the people here, because they’re smaller.
Cavett [beginning to steam]: In what ways smaller?
Mailer: Intellectually smaller.
Cavett: Let me turn my chair and join these people. [I do.] Perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect. [applause]
Mailer: I’ll take the two chairs if you will all accept finger bowls.
(Mailer wrote later about this moment: “This remark was sufficiently gnomic for Cavett to chew and get to no witty place.”)
Cavett [mystified]: Who wants to grab this on our team? [pause] I nearly have it. It means something to me. Finger bowls. Things you dip your fingers in after you’ve gotten them filthy from eating. Am I on the right track? Am I warm?
Mailer: Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask a question?
Cavett: Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.
[Following this exchange, wild, sustained laughter. Mailer, eager to reply, can only stab the air with his finger until it subsides.]
Mailer: Mr. Cavett, on your word of honor, did you just make that up, or have you had it canned for years, and you were waiting for the best moment to use it?
Cavett: I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?

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