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Gore Vidal was expecting me that day at his flat on the Via de Torre Argentina. He had agreed to an interview for the American edition of Geo magazine (which was about to go belly-up, although I didn’t know it) about Caligula and Caligula’s birthplace near Ponza, where I was headed next, part of the Pontine Islands off the coast of Rome that served as prisons for Rome’s imperial ladies, dissidents of fascist Italy, and then Mussolini himself.
Vidal had initially collaborated with Bob Guccione on the film Caligula but later totally withdrew his name from the movie. It was May 1984 when we met, one of coldest Mays Rome had experienced in a quarter century, according to Vidal, dressed in a tweed jacket and eager to have his portrait taken by the attractive male photographer Geo hired to accompany me.
Upon entering Vidal’s apartment from the elevator, I noticed a wall hanging to the left, an 18th century tapestry of a fox hunt on horseback with all bayonets pointed in the direction of the entrapped fox. Bottles of booze lined the back wall of the room.
I felt as though I was catching Vidal coming off a late night. His eyes were yellow and he was shaking.
There was no espresso or other offering, and ultimately, he resisted the questions. When I reminded him that he’d agreed to the chat and that I’d come all the way from New York — he told me to “have a nice vacation.”
Indeed, adventure did lay ahead beginning in Anzio where my photographer and I spent the night at an albergo, our hydrofoil to Ponza having been cancelled due to a rough Tyrrhenian Sea.
About 1:00 AM, I was awakened by heavy footsteps followed by the screams of a woman pulled from the room next to mine, whipped repeatedly and carried down the hall — orchestrated by the female owner of the hotel then saying something in Italian about the American. That would be me.
My photographer, who had been given a room at the other end of the hotel, heard nothing. And the owner denied all when I confronted her. But the terror-filled eyes of the blonde chambermaid, still crying in the breakfast room the next morning, said everything. I reported the incident to authorities. The glossy magazines wanted none of it.
My chat with Gore Vidal follows.
Suzan Mazur: Did you eventually see the film Caligula?
Gore Vidal: I have never seen the film. I had no connection with the film that was made. I did read the dubbing script and that is all I have to say about the movie. Period.
Suzan Mazur: A good bit of the film was supposedly historically accurate.
Gore Vidal: You must discuss that with the people who made it. I didn’t.
Suzan Mazur: One subject that was not discussed were the years in exile of Caligula’s family — many of whom were sent to the Pontine Islands off the coast of Rome. Do you know what those islands were like then other than that they were probably very barren in 25 BC?
Gore Vidal: They’re still very barren. Capri’s marvelous. Capri had the villas of the Emperor Augustus, the villas that had been added to by Tiberius, who moved the government there pretty much during his last years. It was all very much built up.
Suzan Mazur: What about Ponza, Ventotene? You’ve been to these islands in recent years?
Gore Vidal: Rather barren. Was on a boat offshore once.
Suzan Mazur: The women of Caligula’s family seem to have gotten the short end of the stick. Scribonia, wife of Augustus, on down the Julio-Claudian tree to Nero’s first wife, Octavia, were exiled on Ventotene and Ponza. Why were the women always being sent into exile? Nero was born on Ponza. These islands were where the imperial women were banished.
Gore Vidal: My period is 4th century AD. I wrote a book called Julian and of the 5th century BC, a book called Creation. The rest you can get from Suetonius and Tacitus, the only authorities we have on this period.
Suzan Mazur: But in researching the script for Caligula. . .
Gore Vidal: Suetonius and Tacitus will tell you all you need to know. I’ve not read either book in quite some time. This movie was a mild footnote to my life and the period is not mine.
Suzan Mazur: Can you remember anything about Julia, daughter of Augustus? Her years of exile on the island of Pandataria, now called Ventotene?
Gore Vidal: I’ve read about it and forgotten it.
Suzan Mazur: Julia brought the cult of Venus-Isis to the island.
Gore Vidal: I would doubt that very much. The cult of Isis arrived in Rome about the 3rd century BC — long before she was born.
Suzan Mazur: Julia called it Venus-Isis, an adaptation.
Gore Vidal: Well Isis-Cybele was the one that came in the 3rd century BC. The temple can still be seen on Palatine Hill. This was perhaps a variation of it. I don’t know.
Suzan Mazur: Do you know what went on in these cults?
Gore Vidal: Mystery cults. We don’t know.
Suzan Mazur: Julia, who acquired a reputation as an adulteress, seems to have been a victim. Her first two husbands died. She then married Tiberius who was extremely cold to her and exiled himself in his splended villa on Rhodes to get away from her with scholars and slaves, etc. Julia was abandoned in Rome, then imprisoned on Ventotene. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Gore Vidal: Imperial women ladies had actually never read Betty Freidan or Gloria Steinem or Masters & Phillips or whatever they’re called. The world was a very different place. They got married for entirely political reasons because of who they were born. To expect them to have a happy, warm, mature relationship is, I think, too much to demand — nor do I think they would have demanded it. It was quite a different world and you have to think your way into it.
To apply any of today’s standards of — Was this a happy marriage or an unhappy marriage? — would never have crossed their minds. Is this a great marriage? — is what they would be thinking about.
Suzan Mazur: Do you recall Agrippina the elder, mother of Caligula? Was she too powerful for Tiberius? Is that basically why she was banished to Ventotene?
Gore Vidal: Suetonius. What little we know he will tell us.
Suzan Mazur: There were a series of exiles — Caligula even sent his sisters away — and there were many other banishments and deaths by starvation in the family.
But let’s move away from the Roman Empire and discuss perhaps one of your more current subjects — the American empire. You’ve called America the last empire on Earth.
Gore Vidal: Well, I was obviously being optimistic that nobody else would try it again, but maybe I was wrong.
Suzan Mazur: Would you say the American empire has caught its second wind with Ronald Reagan?
Gore Vidal: Certainly not. It’s practically bankrupt. This is not what we call a second wind, is it? I pray that we will go bankrupt before he starts the Third World War, which will be the last one.
At the moment, it looks very good that we will go bankrupt and that will save us from extinction — physical extinction. After the bankruptcy and the economy — it might be interesting to see how we reform ourselves. Preferrably not as an empire.
Suzan Mazur: Do you see the Middle East as the targeted area for the beginning of WWIII?
Gore Vidal: Oh, it could come anywhere. It’ll probably come by accident. At the moment, they’re aiming for a conventional war in Central America. So Reagan can be reelected as a wartime president.
I assume he will get us into a war about October, before it’s too late for Congress to investigate just how he did it. And then as a war president be reelected. He thinks that’s a good script. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt did. That’s the president he models himself on.
Suzan Mazur: How does Ronald Reagan compare to Richard Nixon?
Gore Vidal: I don’t see what relation one has with the other. Richard Nixon was driven from office for crimes for which he was then exonerated. This one has not been driven from office — YET. And what crimes there are seem to be mostly of omission.
Suzan Mazur: What do you make of Jesse Jackson, who seems to champion some of your favorite concerns — the disinfranchised, peace, and the environment?
Gore Vidal: I think he’s generally very good. Probably the best of the lot. I’d feel more secure about him if I thought he knew more about the world. Though I don’t suppose he knows any less than the other candidates.
Suzan Mazur: Do you still think the world should be run like a Swiss hotel?
Gore Vidal: What I meant was that it would be good to have somebody like a Swiss hotel management group to run countries like the United States. Then the postal service would work. The country would be much better organized than it is now. It is now incompetent, wasteful and corrupt. These are not good things to be.
Therefore, if you had just a management crew running the country instead of people running for President with highly suspicious motives at enormous cost, bankrupting the country in the process with the military budget. . . . These people are dangerous as they are proving every day. . . .
Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. She can be reached at: email@example.com