At Gore Vidal’s recent memorial at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Elizabeth Ashley told the story of going on a bender with the playwright Tennessee Williams during which they met up with Vidal at the Carlyle Hotel bar. As they were leaving after an hour spent with the erudite Vidal, Ashley told Williams, “I feel so stupid.” To which Williams replied, “Oh, darling, never mind. He’s just an old smarty pants.” Upon telling the story at the memorial, Ashley fished a drink out of a planter near the podium and gave a toast to “Old Smarty Pants": "Who’s going to speak truth to stupid now?”
Ashley, who recently returned to the role of the role of national committee vice-chair Sue-Ellen Gamadge in the Broadway revival of "Gore Vidal’s 'The Best Man,'" has done a pretty good job of speaking truth to power through the decades. A self-described “tabloid baby before there were tabloids,” Ashley graced covers and was given a forum in which she did not shy away from talking about politics and social issues. She’s been outspoken since 1961 when she took Broadway by storm, shortly after arriving from Louisiana. At age 22, she won a Tony as the ingénue in the comedy “Take Her, She’s Mine,” which she followed with “Barefoot in the Park” opposite Robert Redford. She went on to acclaimed performances on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Agnes of God,” “August: Osage County,” and “Dividing the Estate.” She most recently has been featured on the TV series, “Treme,” and is working on a sequel to her 1978 best-selling memoir, “Postcards from the Road.” She recently sat down with ARTINFO and, in her familiar smoky voice, talked about how sex, politics, and show business converge in the most fascinating and ridiculous ways.
What I noticed about this production was that it captured the sexual energy of the political world. Has that been your experience?
Omigod, yes! All the years I spent on the National Council of the Arts in Washington and at the Kennedy Center, I found that politicians are both intrigued by it and terrified by it. So much of politics has to do with using sexuality to manipulate their constituencies who are frightened or hostile to that aspect of human behavior, whether it’s homosexuality or abortion or what have you.
How does the aphrodisiac of political power compare to that of show business?
It’s probably the same except that in show business it’s overt, and in politics its repressed and consequently more twisted. When I was having an affair with a U.S. Senator [John Tunney], the joke was that he and his best friend Ted Kennedy were the only politicians in the country who were having sex. Everybody tried to keep their public persona asexual, which was total bullshit. At Washington parties, you get a few drinks into these Republican right wingers, and they tried to get their hands all over you.
Do you think they’re aware of the hypocrisy or is it willful blindness?
How can they not be aware of it? What fascinated me is that during the Nixon and Reagan years, the bureaucracy, the civil service, of Washington was gayer than San Francisco! And yet you had these politicians in whose office they worked viciously attacking gays and their civil rights. It was just absurd. My friend Judy Abbott, George Abbott’s daughter, who was a surrogate mother to me, showed me a picture of Nixon and all of his guys that ran in The Washington Post and she said, “I always see these pictures, and there are all these blandly good-looking guys and not one woman in sight.”
How was your political outlook formed?
I grew up in Louisiana politics. My mother ran the department of Agriculture. I was a girl page in the Louisiana Senate, so I knew politicians from an early age. My mother said, “Most of them are damn fools! Don’t pay attention to them. Get them a pencil if you have to but not anything else.” But I could always get those good ol’ boys to get their own coffee and pencils. I just sat in the anteroom and did my nails and read movie magazines.
Of all the politicians you came in contact with whom were you most intrigued by?
Lyndon Johnson. I totally got him. I was going to anti-war protests during the day and dining at the White House at night. I never lied about it. They knew that about me. He was one of the smartest people I ever knew, there was never a better politician, and yet I saw this man literally tear himself to pieces over Vietnam. His tragedy was Shakespearean.
As a liberal Democrat do you find yourself on the defensive in your native South?
Growing up, I’d never met a Republican until I came North. I nearly dropped my tequila when I first heard someone say, “As a Republican….” And then Johnson’s Civil Rights bills, of course, delivered the South to the Republicans. But it also has a lot to do with how the Northern Liberal intelligentsia has dealt with the South on a surface level, that they’re all illiterate cracker fools --which is not the case. The degree that you are demonized makes you go into identity defense.
Did you base your Mrs. Gamadge on anybody in particular?
I think there’s a little bit of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, a drop here and there, don’t you? That absolute certainty that they have, that unblinking, unthinking, unquestioning authority that they have the right answers.
What do you make of Bachmann and Palin?
I think they are tragic. They’re destructive, but they’ve been used and manipulated by people who are much smarter than they are and who hold them in withering contempt. They’re pawns in a game, and the people who bought them and own them have used them in very smart ways. It’ll be interesting to see the trajectory of their lives when they’ve outlived their usefulness and are thrown in the trash bin. It’s sad, really.
What do the Gamadges and Palins of the world want?
Recognition. Fame. Power. The same thing behind the whole degradation of our culture. Everybody wants to be famous. Everybody wants what capitalism promises, the rewards of consumerism and wealth. It’s the oldest story in the world. Why else would people degrade themselves in such a manner? It’s that carrot that’s always dangling in front of people.
As someone who got that carrot early on, what did you learn about fame?
To run away from it as fast as you possibly can! I’m a working professional at 73, and I’m so very grateful for that. But I’ve never had a press agent, and I’ve kept it that way for a very good reason.
What will you miss most about Gore Vidal?
I believe that heretics are as critical to life as air, water, food, and shelter. Without heretics, all you have is the status quo. And that’s not where you want to be — ever.