Although I was able to observe him at close quarters many times at parties in the 1970s when I lived in Rome, to say that I knew Mr Gore Vidal would be stretching it a little. He was immensely grand, with the sort of impenetrable carapace of superiority that was the result of pure and unadulterated feelings of self-esteem. He clearly loved being Mr Gore Vidal - as well he should, as he was an almost entirely self-constructed social and sartorial phenomenon as well, of course, as being one of the sharpest critics and polemicists in America for most of his adult life.
What was especially endearing was the fact that he really didn't care how people reacted to him and in this, as in most things, he was entirely WASP. I was young then and, although not exactly naïve, I was certainly impressionable and I greatly admired how his effortless urbanity suffused the room. I remember him from where I was standing, always at a respectful distance - one did not wish to be pierced by one of Mr Vidal's famous verbal barbs but you didn't want to miss them either - in perfectly cut suits of light grey flannel or cream linen in the summer, looking cool in every sense, and in the winter wearing a look that was entirely Ivy League, mainly grey and usually with a pullover. His dress code was a perfect example of the Mr Beau Brummel adage that if people look at you twice you are not well- but overdressed.
One did not wish to be pierced by one of Mr Vidal's famous verbal barbs but you didn't want to miss them either
Whatever he wore, Mr Vidal neither looked studied nor mannered as the great so often do when they think too much about their appearance, although I suspect that he spent a fair time in front of the mirror before leaving home. I am sure that nothing that went on his back or around his neck was lightly, casually thrown on. But as anyone who is dressed by a good tailor will tell you, the object is not to hit the onlookers in the eye (and Mr Vidal always had onlookers) but to look so effortlessly right that people always said to him, "Gore, you look so well." That is what having a good tailor is all about and the relationship is very similar to that between a good groom and a thoroughbred racehorse. It is about cosseting into perfection.
Mr Vidal was always playing a part and, like Mr Oscar Wilde, he knew it was important to dress for it. As the part - acerbic wit and fearless critic - never changed, neither in essence did Mr Vidal's appearance, without ever becoming fancy dress as Mr Tom Wolfe's white suit and hat did. He would have had no truck with such blatant costume dressing. He would have rejected it on the simple grounds that it was vulgar and childish.
Mr Vidal pictured at his home in Los Angeles, 1981
So what was his dressing about, really? I would suggest that it was his way of effortlessly saying Vive la différence! between the nobs and the yobs. He was an elitist, of course, and that, for such a fearlessly modern man, made him rather charmingly old-fashioned at heart - just like an old Southern gentleman, sipping his Mint Julep on the stoop in his immaculate white suit and bemoaning the decay of the world. There was much more of Mr Vidal's ancestors in him than just the desire to dress appropriately for one's class and position, at all times and in all countries, but he also knew that there are rules, and if that meant wearing uniform then it meant wearing it better than your fellows.
You would expect nothing less of Mr Vidal, who never allowed starry eyes to cloud his judgement, even when it came to himself, as the following comment - one of my all-time favourites of his - makes very clear: "I'm exactly as I appear," he once said. "There is no warm, loveable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water." The man who said that clearly knew the score.