Elizabeth Ashley
(© Joseph Marzulllo/WENN)
Elizabeth Ashley
(© Joseph Marzulllo/WENN)
For Gore Vidal's memorial at the Schoenfeld Theater on Thursday, August 23, a photograph of the playwright-novelist-essayist was placed against the American flag. Not surprisingly, it dominated the only somewhat trimmed-down set of the revival of Vidal's The Best Man at the theater.

The placement of the photo was perhaps a comment on what Vidal had against his homeland for most of his privileged life. As was made clear throughout the 75-minute, star-filled ceremony, Vidal's quarrel with what he habitually viewed as the sad decline of the United States was repeated in footage of the man, in quotes from him read by others, and in anecdotes told by the several cheerful eulogists.

Yet, the passion with which Vidal went about doing whatever he could to improve the situation as he saw it also came through. As he said in one video clip, reducing his enormous literary output to one succinct statement, "My subject is the United States."

Host Dick Cavett, who interviewed Vidal "more than five times" on his PBS talkfest, began his anecdotes only after well-publicized Vidal adversaries had their taped say, such as the late Norman Mailer, for instance, caught calling Vidal "shameless."

As the speakers arrived, they mentioned details of their friendships or acquaintanceships with Vidal. Elaine May got laughs on declaring she'd only lately learned she wasn't the only speaker and so had to tighten her remarks which, she implied, would have been more personal. Susan Sarandon, wearing an off-one-shoulder grey dress, passed along advice for new parents she received from Vidal. When she told him she was worried about raising neurotic children, he replied that neuroses are inevitable but she must "make sure they're productive ones."

Dennis Kucinich admitted that when in 2003 he decided to run for President, he called Vidal, who said first, "You must do something about your hair." Filmmaker Michael Moore, in a black suit and no baseball cap, remembered a meeting when Vidal insisted that if the documentarian won the Oscar for Bowling for Columbine and had to address the crowd, "You must quote Thomas Jefferson." Columnist Liz Smith, proclaiming she loved Vidal, mocked herself by saying "I'm the exact kind of person Gore hated."

Elizabeth Ashley, currently starring in The Best Man (for the second time), quipped about a Hotel Carlyle confab that she and Tennessee Williams -- both inebriated -- had with Vidal in the early 1970s. When the two writers' mutual-admiration-society exchange ended and Vidal had "poured" them into a cab, she informed Williams she'd felt stupid throughout the tete-a-tete. He replied of his friend, "He's just an old smarty-pants." Then she raised a glass at the Schoenfeld, probably with vodka in it, and toasted "Old Smarty-Pants."

In addition to May, Richard Belzer, and Moore reading from pieces that Vidal penned for many periodicals, Alan Cumming read from the Esquire article "A Distasteful Encounter With William F. Buckley Jr." In it, Vidal, who lived openly with Howard Austen for many decades yet disdained the notion of same-sex marriages, explained that homosexuality is 'natural."

Candice Bergen, Christine Ebersole, Anjelica Huston and Ashley stood at the two lecterns and swapped pithy, laugh-getting Vidal one-liners. Cavett read a letter from Hilary Rodham Clinton in which she called Vidal "a great icon." Cybill Shepherd (another current Best Man star) read a letter from former flame Peter Bogdanovich, and Smith read one from David Mamet.

James Earl Jones and John Larroquettein Gore Vidal's The Best Man
(© Joan Marcus)
James Earl Jones and John Larroquette
in Gore Vidal's The Best Man
(© Joan Marcus)
Nothing was read from any of Vidal's novels -- not even the best-selling Myra Breckenridge -- but Jefferson Mays and Sarandon delivered an excerpt from the play Romulus and James Earl Jones and John Larroquette played the superb Best Man scene that has former President Art Hockstader and candidate William Russell argue about the pros and cons of power and integrity.

The absolute last Vidal word was excerpted from PBS's American Masters interview, where he addressed a letter to the country's next President and advised that anyone hoping to restore the land to greatness has to understand the military leaders have gotten out of hand. A President must, Vidal said, "rein in the war lords."

Indeed, while many memories got aired, it was difficult not to notice that, perhaps more than at most memorial services, quotes from the deceased were predominant. The point was that Vidal was not only quotable for his wit, sophistication, encyclopedic learning and irascible bonhomie, but that there was wisdom behind the intelligence that will be sorely missed in today's society.