He was 86.
Author, playwright, and commentator Gore Vidal died on Tuesday from pneumonia, his nephew confirmed. Vidal was 86. The controversial author began his writing career at the age of 19 and wrote 25 novels, including Lincoln, Burr, and Myra Breckinridge, as well as several essays. The winner of the National Book Award in 1993, Vidal was famously rebellious and caused a stir with 1948’s The City and the Pillar, which featured openly gay characters. The New York Times even refused to review Vidal’s next few books. Vidal occasionally popped up in films and twice ran unsuccessfully for office.
Fans, friends, and acolytes from Dick Cavett to Liz Smith to Elaine May remember the late writer, historian and sometime politician at a New York City memorial where he was lauded as an American treasure.
It’s tough work eulogizing a wit as acerbic, clever, and ruthless as the late Gore Vidal. So most of those luminaries who paid him tribute at New York’s Schoenfeld Theater on Thursday were content to take the safe route: they quoted him. They read from his essays, performed scenes from his plays, and recited his most quotable quotes. No author could ask for more.
Watch our video mashup of the notoriously strident author's most explosive comments
Nor could most audiences, because Vidal, whatever else he was, was an entertaining man who honored the imperative of singing for his supper pretty much wherever he went.
So the audience was regaled with old favorites from the Vidal canon (“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”) and some not heard enough (“I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”)
Most such memorials take place in august churches. Vidal’s was staged, appropriately, in the Broadway theater where his play, The Best Man, currently is in revival. Decked out in campaign posters, bunting, and the placards with the names of states that get hoisted on the floors of political conventions—all part of the paraphernalia of The Best Man—the “set” of the Schoenfeld underscored the bi—and sometimes trifocal nature of Vidal’s enterprise—he was never strictly, much less merely—a writer, or a performer, novelist, historian, or politician (grandson of a U.S. senator and himself a candidate for both House and Senate, and on opposite sides of the continent, though being merely mortal, not at the same time). He was all those things and usually more than one or two at once.
In an unspoken—and perhaps unintentional—tribute to Vidal’s eclecticism (surely no major author of our time was so equally at home in the pages of The New York Review of Books and the banquettes of the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel), the people who came forth to testify were not literary folk. Most sendoffs for famous authors are mobbed by fellow writers, editors, and critics. That crowd will get its turn later in the fall. But in the meantime, there was plenty of class and gravitas at the beautifully executed Schoenfeld event (a big hat tip to Jeffrey Richards Associates and all who helped mount this thoughtful memorial). This hurrah clearly reflected Vidal’s show-business side.
Speaking of sides, there was little to do before the show started but celebrity-spot (Salman Rushdie, Griffin Dunne …) and stare at the enormous photograph of a handsome, middle-aged Vidal that graced the back wall of the stage, a sight prompting the recollection that Vidal, perhaps alone among American authors, knew which side he photographed best from—the left, if memory serves.
Dick Cavett presided with that strange, weirdly charming affect that is peculiarly his—part reflexive TV host, complete with that inverted introduction style so peculiar to television (“We’ve come to the part in our celebration where you’re going to get something absolutely free that’s quite wonderful. But before you do, with some thoughts on Gore as well as a message from David Mamet, here’s Liz Smith…”), and part self-aware personality at war with his own slickness (“And now the best quartet since the Mills Brothers … the Mills Brothers were a quartet, right?”).
In 1982, Gore Vidal ran for the U.S. Senate in California. Robert Chandler describes his experience as the campaign’s advertising copywriter and, in this realm at least, the writer’s writer.
In 1982, when Gore Vidal was running in the California primary for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, he was backed by Max Palevsky, a former UCLA professor of symbolic logic and mathematics, who became a multimillionaire computer mogul, and then wealthier still after he invested some of his first fortune in a Silicon Valley startup called Intel.
But Palevsky's real passion wasn’t digital, it was political. And he wielded a goodly chunk of his fortune in support of liberal causes and candidates that included Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, and Tom Bradley.
So, when Vidal entered the California senate race two years into the reign of Reagan, for Palevsky, his considerable intellect notwithstanding, choosing Gore was a no-brainer. The opposition in this primary would be formidable--the sitting Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, coming to the end of his second term, and looking now to go national.
But, while Brown may have been "Governor Moonbeam" to the Republicans, he wasn't nearly left enough for Palevsky. Not when the laser-tongued and arsenic-inked paladin of letters, Gore Vidal, was stepping forward with both pen and sword.
What the big money in politics is mainly needed for, however, is to cover the immense expense of media. And what fills the blank pages, billboards, airwaves, and screens that media is, is advertising.
A friend of mine was friends with Max, and she recommended me to create the ad campaign for Vidal's run.
Gore Vidal in 1984, two years after his failed campaign for U.S. Senate in California. (Gerrit Fokkema, The Sydney Morning Herald / Getty Images)
I was young, but having started my career in the mailroom of a major international ad agency at age 19, had considerable experience. Unusually wide as well—for airlines, high tech, oil companies, wine and booze, cars and motorcycles. I'd also done scores of movie campaigns like Jaws and All the President’s Men. And, relevantly, two winning campaigns for California initiatives.
The literary icon who died this week is remembered by Morris Dickstein as a critic and personality in the mold of Henry Adams who also yearned for a vanished age—while embracing our celebrity culture.
Gore Vidal liked to style himself a populist but despite his political leanings this hardly fit the man at all. Populists in America come in many shapes and sizes, from William Jennings Bryan to Frank Capra, from Thomas Hart Benton to Sarah Palin. Vidal didn’t resemble these would-be common folk prone to idealize the salt of the earth. He was a patrician radical, a type more common in Europe than here, since we have never had a formal aristocracy. His prototype was Henry Adams, the grandson and great grandson of presidents, who felt that he had been born to public service but found that the corrupt, rough-hewn America of the Gilded Age had no use for his talents. Becoming a writer instead, he turned his disappointment into cutting irony and wit, surveying the details of American history—and his own life—from an eagle’s perch. After his death in 1918 his autobiography, written largely for private consumption, became a surprise bestseller, evoking a vanished era.
American author Gore Vidal at home in Rome on July 1, 1993. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Like Adams, Vidal lived in swiftly changing times, which produced a far more leveling culture. A growing ethnic diversity eroded old traditions of Wasp privilege and authority. The traditional elite was giving way to more meritocratic elites but also to a messy democracy and a boisterous popular culture, including movies, pop music, and television. When Vidal started out as a writer in the mid-1940s, the great field of a young man’s ambitions was the novel, then the crown jewel of the arts. After publishing a Hemingway-style war novel when he was barely twenty, he attracted unusual attention in 1948 with his third novel, The City and the Pillar. The book was a bold step forward in its touching, explicit treatment of homosexuality but an otherwise conventional coming-of-age story. The dazzlingly good-looking young author became an instant star, and over the next five or six years, though he remained extremely productive, his fiction went nowhere. Later he would insist that he was blacklisted for writing sympathetically about the gay demimonde and about love between men but at the time he felt that the culture itself had changed: the novel itself was no longer the royal road to success.
Unlike most patricians Vidal was a consummate professional who also had to support himself from an early age. Seeing that movies and TV were supplanting fiction in the shifting galaxy of popular culture, he patiently taught himself to write dialogue, crafting effective small-scale dramas for stage and screen. Even more momentously, he began investing himself in reviews and essays that gradually evolved a distinctive voice and, even more important, a recognizable character behind them. It’s fascinating to see them develop from a flat, impersonal objectivity toward an engaging conversational voice, not exactly intimate but coolly inviting. Other novelists were testing their wings in essay writing, dipping into their own experience in direct ways, including Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Mary McCarthy, but Vidal, like Mailer began doing more. He had noticed that the public, though no longer so captivated by novels, had grown more preoccupied with authors, less as writers than as recognizable, sometimes notorious public personalities. Vidal instinctively understood how the nascent celebrity culture could envelope or sideline the literary culture, and he exploited this opening. Mark Twain, with his iconic head, white linen suits, and irresistible platform manner, had been there before him. So had Hemingway, whose self-cultivated myth had begun to overwhelm his literary conscience.
Vidal created a character quite different from Twain or Hemingway. He took on the role of a sardonic observer, the witty, acerbic outlier commenting on the foibles of the literary scene, the follies of popular taste, and, as time passed, the depredations of the plutocracy and the political class. Where Mailer, partly inspired by the Beats, but also by his own literary frustrations, dabbled in transgression and presented himself as an outlaw, Vidal came out like Adams as the remnant of an older America, its conscience and historian. He ran for public office, quickly making his failed effort a part of his gathering myth, and he began writing political novels, the first of them, Washington, D.C., plainly modeled on Adams’s satiric novel Democracy. Soon he was locking horns with William Buckley at the 1968 Democratic convention.
As a nonfiction writer, turning the crisis of the novel to his own advantage, Vidal never approached the fictional density of Mailer’s finest work, from The Armies of the Night to The Executioner’s Song, but he bested him in a medium Mailer failed to master and came to loathe, television. Vidal’s coruscating wit, epigrammatic clarity, good looks, and feline hauteur proved perfectly camera-ready, whether he was chatting with the plebeian Johnny Carson or basking in the fan’s gaze of an adoring Yalie, Dick Cavett, and crossing swords with his other guests. No matter what the subject, he came up with a sound bite that could curdle milk. He could be unbearably glib, but his patrician persona and acid tongue, his radiating sense of superiority, made for good showbiz. Despite becoming a public character he survived as a writer as well, chronicling the fate of his own generation and the changing cultural scene in essay after essay, even as he chronicled the earlier history of the nation in his novels. Mailer showed a quirky brilliance in his fiercely competitive takes on his fellow writers, but no one wrote better than Vidal on his friends and contemporaries, among them Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and John Horne Burns. A legion of Forties writers lives on vividly in his evocative essays.
His political novels, his novels in general, proved less memorable. Their greatest virtue is their uncluttered directness, their fluid mastery of well-researched detail. They sparkled with the effortless clarity of his conversation. Like Robert Graves before him, Vidal cleared out the fusty antiquarian machinery of historical fiction, playing off real and invented characters, and providing a feeling of lived reality to the American past. With Burr he had the kind of scoundrel he could identify with, a troublemaker demonized by history for killing one of the founding fathers. But only in Burr’s duel with Hamilton, when one of them is momentarily blinded by the sun, did one get an inkling of some higher imaginative ambition, a place where the novel chose not to go. The book’s perfectly workmanlike sequel, 1876, offered no such exalted moment at all. Vidal had successfully returned to fiction, taking possession of a large slice of American history, but he had chosen the popular route where no real innovation was possible.
In his last decade, beset by old age and illness, the loss of his longtime partner, Howard Austen, Vidal in a way became the despised Burr, finally a marginal figure. He once said that his goal was to seize the spotlight and hold on to it forever, but now the spotlight turned away from him or else shed an unpleasant light on his bitter mix of conspiracy theories after 9/11. He had always loathed the “American Empire” and its neoconservative apologists, especially Jews. Once Bush and Cheney added real substance to the term, Vidal’s cold fury gave cynicism a bad name. His political criticism, once so poised and witty, slid into a sour misanthropy that reminded me of the elder Mark Twain, who was justifiably incensed by our earlier imperial adventures. But no writer should be judged by the diminished work of his last phase. Vidal in his prime was never less than fun to read. As an indelible character and a fine essayist, he added something of his own to the drama of American life that he portrayed with such zest and élan.
The late Gore Vidal was in his prime when books were central to the culture in a way they no longer are, and to mourn him is to mourn the world of which he was a part, writes Malcolm Jones.
Did all the pundits and critics rush to say something about Gore Vidal’s passing because they thought it might be the last time they got to do something like this? You couldn’t blame them for thinking so. To call Vidal the last grand old man of American letters, you would have to first back up and explain to that portion of your audience under, say, 40, what a grand old man of American letters is. Eulogizing Vidal was to eulogize the now long-gone epoch he typified.
Do great writers still walk among us? Of course. Toni Morrison published a new novel just this year. Lately it seems that Joan Didion publishes a book every year. Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo—all productive writers, but every one of these authors is at least a little bit reticent, and all of them are private people. Reporters don’t call them for quotes, or if they do, they don’t call twice. These authors seem to think a writer’s job is to stay home and write.
When Vidal hit his stride as an author in the middle ‘60s, writers had the cachet of rock stars. People who never read a word he or Truman Capote wrote knew who they were, because they, along with Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and a few others, took the trouble to promote themselves at least a little bit. They lived out their spats and quarrels in public and in the papers. They hustled their books on Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, where they were at least as entertaining as Buddy Hackett and Phyllis Diller.
Vidal had the best of all this because he was quick-witted and by far the funniest. Mailer was mostly bluster, and Capote was just catty (“That’s not writing, that’s typing”), but Vidal could make you laugh, as he does—and always will—every time, for instance, that I have reason to remember his telegram responding to a request from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward that he be godfather to their child: “Always a godfather, never a god.”
Thirty or 40 years ago, books and the people who wrote them were at the center of the culture in a way they no longer are. People argued fiercely about whether In Cold Blood was nonfiction, fiction, or some weird hybrid, and whether it was right to blur genres like that. Newsweek put Capote on its cover. About the only way a writer makes the front page today is if he gets arrested for plagiarism.
Vidal liked the spotlight, liked to perform (fascinating question: in all the interviews he ever gave, is he ever there or is it always just the public man putting on a show? He would have been the first to say that there was no inner man, that what you saw was all there was). But could he have had the same success in an era where people didn’t care if they saw authors in public or not? Maybe not. He wasn’t a great novelist, and that was his one bitter pill, since the culture then still craved a Great American Novel and authors were still trying to deliver some version of that chimera. His historical novels are good; Burr and Lincoln are very good. But everyone says his essays are what he’ll be remembered for, and this time everyone is right. He was an exquisite stylist. But he was also an excellent playwright and screenplay writer and script doctor. A man of letters, a man who made his living off what he wrote. Not many people can make that claim.
I interviewed him once, over breakfast at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. He admitted that Lincoln mystified him. He showed me the bungalow used by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. This, I remember thinking, is where the stars hang out. He seemed completely at home.
As Vidal grudges went, it wasn’t major, but Stephen Schiff did incite the ire of the dazzlingly gifted writer, who died Tuesday, with a respectful but not worshipful Vanity Fair piece. He remembers the insider who insisted on being an outsider.
To say that I was the object of a Gore Vidal grudge is to place me in loftier company than I deserve. Norman Mailer, William Buckley, Robert Kennedy, Truman Capote, the entire United States government in all its incarnations for the better part of the last century—all these and many more were at the receiving end of The Great Gore’s scorn. Scorn was his stock in trade, and it is hard to think of anyone who wielded it with such energy and perseverance, or with such a glittering array of verbal weaponry.
Author Gore Vidal on Dec. 9, 1974 (AP Photos)
My crime was relatively small. I wrote a profile of him for Vanity Fair some years ago, and in it I quoted his old friend Joanne Woodward, who told me she had acted as his beard. This, to Vidal, was infuriating because he maintained, in his eccentric way, that he was not homosexual in the first place—well, not exactly. He insisted that he was a homosexualist, that there was no such thing as homosexuality, that everyone is bisexual, and so forth. (Elsewhere on this website, Andrew Sullivan has brilliantly designated these convolutions as a “tic of his generation.”) The piece I wrote was respectful, but not worshipful, and that, too, was never good enough for Vidal. He had always felt himself to be improperly regarded as a penultimate, rather than the ultimate he so clearly was. A grudge was born, and revivified with the full force of his invective whenever my name was mentioned to him—which, blessedly, was not often.
Although he was one of the most familiar and celebrated figures of his era, Vidal always seemed convinced that he wasn’t held in sufficiently high regard. Did one know that, though uncredited, he was the true writer of Ben-Hur? Did one know about his connections to the Kennedys—not least that his mother later married Jackie Kennedy’s stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss? Did one know of his contributions to the Golden Age of television—he was an important early writer of teleplays—and of his friendships with Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra? Was one fully aware of his noble birth?
One was. Born at West Point into the American aristocracy—the grandson of a senator—Vidal was regally handsome and dazzlingly gifted. He could not but think that he was born to rule, but he soon came to see that he never would. Neither his sexual nor his political orientation would permit it—and, though he never entirely realized it, neither would his nature. With every cell of his being, he longed to outrage, to incite, to stir controversy, and from the moment he began writing and speaking, that’s exactly what he did. Although his most lasting contributions to fiction will prove to be his formidably accomplished but somewhat stiff historical novels—particularly Burr and Lincoln—Vidal’s earlier career as a novelist was dominated by path-breaking books that were often regarded as shocking, particularly The City and the Pillar (1948), a very prescient and frank study of homosexuality, and Myra Breckenridge (1968) a now almost forgotten comedy of transsexuality that caused a sensation in its moment and was later made into a noisome bomb of a movie starring Raquel Welch and, of all people, Rex Reed. Vidal would eventually run for office, twice, and was very proud of his showing as a Democratic candidate for Congress in a New York district, the 29th, that was a longtime bastion of Republicanism. Running as a Democrat at all in the 29th was typical of Vidal’s resolute perversity. He was an insider who insisted on being an outsider—and then on griping about it.
But oh, he was funny.
This has not been a good summer for the survival of the national wit. First Nora Ephron, now Vidal, two of the sharpest comic nibs America had seen in recent decades—though Vidal’s, unlike Ephron’s, was dipped in acid as much as ink. It is a commonplace to say that his essays were greater than his novels, and no one but Vidal himself could possibly think otherwise. But great those essays were—not just funny but gorgeously styled, stunning in their erudition, piercing in their invective. He seemed perpetually annoyed that we did not all see what he saw—the obviousness, to him, of American perfidy, of the folly of our global ambition, of the injustices to which those ambitions gave rise. And as he aged, that annoyance soured into a kind of world-weariness, as if he felt terribly taxed to be asked once again to don the heavy robes, to pontificate to the benighted about what was so blitheringly evident to him.
Vidal was born to be in the thick of the fray, and never could have been. But as a sniper from a very great height, he was incomparable.
Gore Vidal lived a prolific life, but few knew him as well as Scotty Bowers, who was his close pal for 64 years. From dancing with Jackie Kennedy to writing ‘Ben-Hur,’ Bowers shares what the author really was like.
The last public appearance Gore Vidal ever made was on Feb. 8, 2012 at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. It was at the book party for my memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Life of the Stars. After that, Gore went in the hospital with pneumonia. He spent a month and a half at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, got out, had an emergency, spent another month and a half at Cedar-Sinai, then he came home, in a coma for most of the rest of his life. He died at 86 Tuesday night.
Leonard McCombe / Getty Images
Gore was such a dear friend. There aren’t many people living who had known Gore as long as I’d known Gore, who stayed friends with Gore for so long. He wasn’t easy to get along with—to have a friend for 64 years without a cross word! I met him right here in Los Angeles. After World War II, he came into my gas station.
I worked at this gas station on Hollywood Boulevard. And Gore would come from time to time, when he was available. To be honest, he came in quite often. He liked to look at all the attractive guys I had there. He would come and hang out in the evening. His type was the all-American guy next door. Sometimes he’d go off with someone and sometimes he didn’t. As I said, we were buddies. I was fixing up probably at least 20 guys or girls at the gas station back then, mostly gay clients, who couldn’t be out in Hollywood. Gore was such good advertisement for me. He would tell all his friends in Europe about the gas station.
He was always writing something, either a play or a movie or a book. He always got the last word in every conversation. Gore talked intelligently. He’d been that way since I first met him so many years ago. I think it was a combination of his grandfather being a senator from Mississippi and his father being a bright guy. His mother was bright too; she lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel and would run around with Clark Cable. Gore had a good education. A lot of people have a chance to go to school, but they fuck it up. Gore read a lot. He read a lot, and he knew a lot.
He used to have a lot of girlfriends back in the day, but for much of his life, Gore lived with a very nice guy by the name of Howard Austen. I’d say they were together for about 45 years. They split their time between Los Angeles and their villa in Italy. Howard died of lung cancer in 2003, and it was very hard for Gore. Howard was a professional singer with a fabulous voice, and Gore had all these tapes of him singing popular show tunes. Gore would want me to come over late at night, so he could play these tapes over and over and over again. He would play this thing 10 or 15 times with tears in his eyes, because he’d miss Howard so much. All of a sudden it was 5 a.m., and there we were, still listening to Howard’s tapes.
Gore liked to sing, too. Suddenly at midnight, he’d ask for a piano player to come over and play his upright piano. I’d often send someone to the house. Gore would be downstairs, singing along to the music. He liked to take a song and add words to it, and the words he added would always match and rhyme with the song. That’s how clever Gore was. I recall that music was always part of his life. I remember Gore being tall and trim, with his shoulders out, his stomach in, his chest out, dancing with Jackie Kennedy at parties around town.
One of his favorite stories was about the time he did Ben-Hur. He always used to say how the studio stole it from him. He was over in Europe, writing it. He’d write a chapter and send it over. By the time he’d written the whole thing, they were already making the picture. But he took them to court with the help of a sharp attorney, and had them finally admit the story was his.
The literary lion fell for a baseball prodigy when they were teenagers, but they were separated by the sport, Trimble’s love for the beautiful Christine White, and his fatal service in World War II. But now Vidal will be buried a few strides from the boy he always wanted to grow up with.
Gore Vidal chose to be buried beside his partner of more than half a century—but he picked the cemetery to be just a few strides from the one great love of his life, a golden-haired baseball prodigy who joined the Marines and was killed by a Japanese suicide bomber when he was just 19.
Carol Tedesco / AP Photo
Vidal had known James Trimble only briefly during their earliest teens, when they both attended St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C. Young Vidal devoured books and loved classical music and detested his mother. Young Trimble was a star athlete who loved jazz and adored his mother.
“What I was not, he was, and the other way around,” Vidal later wrote.
Vidal would suggest that what bound these two seeming opposites was that they were both already on the way to becoming what they were so clearly meant to be, he a writer and Trimble a professional athlete.
Vidal would also say, “His sweat smelled like honey, like Alexander the Great.”
When they were 14, Gore was sent off to prep school and the two did not see each other again save for a single encounter at a Christmas holiday dance party, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when they were 17. They trysted in a downstairs men’s-room cubicle and Vidal would remember it as anything but sordid.
“We were whole for what proved to be the last time for the two of us,” Vidal would write “And for me, if not for him, for good.”
It turns out that Gore Vidal was mortal after all. Late in life, he revealed his private anxieties and personal heartbreaks. By Nathaniel Rich.
When I was writing my first novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, I wanted to create a villain who combined in himself all of the most intimidating qualities of every great American writer of the 20th century. He would be a world-famous author of not just novels but short stories, essays, dissident manifestos, plays, memoirs, screenplays; he would possess the high erudition of Saul Bellow, the self-regard of Vladimir Nabokov, the political yearnings and preening grandiosity of Norman Mailer, the corroding wit of Dorothy Parker, the charisma and physical attractiveness of a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the wary, war-tested bravado of Ernest Hemingway. After spending much of his life in Manhattan and Hollywood society, he’d flee from American culture and politics and exile himself in a small village in Italy. He would be a terrifying presence: a magniloquent, more than slightly mad, extremely charming monster. Then it dawned on me that such a person already existed, and his name was Gore Vidal.
His obituaries have emphasized his work as a critic, quoting his most memorable slights and sneers. (Truman Capote: “a much loved television performer”; Hemingway: “the great careerist” who is “our time’s most artful dodger”; Susan Sontag, whose “intelligence is ... greater than her talent.”) Vidal particularly despised writers whose legacies he felt were inflated by English professors, The New York Times Book Review, and other arbiters of conventional wisdom. But his approach is not to be confused with writers like Nabokov who, baiting publicity, made a pastime of disparaging celebrated writers. Vidal was persuasive because he read closely and with empathy, even when he despised his subject; and because he was a vocal champion for the unsung and passed over. He singlehandedly revived the legacies of Dawn Powell and, at least briefly, William Dean Howells, and introduced American readers to Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia, and Yukio Mishima.
Publicly he was all haughtiness and chill, but later in life, in two memoirs—Palimpsest (1995) and Point to Point Navigation (2006)—he revealed an aspect of his character that, to his faithful readers, seemed shockingly alien. Vidal, it turned out, suffered from embarrassment, regret, and insecurity; he was mortal after all. And in passages devoted to his first, lost love, and Howard Austen, his platonic partner of five decades, he wrote beautifully about loss and death. Yes, he grew up as Washington royalty, lived like an emperor (closer to Caligula perhaps than Julius Caesar), and held forth as if from a mighty perch in the clouds above Olympus. But he also knew heartbreak. There is, as he mentioned in a brilliant 1973 essay on bestselling novels, a Russian phrase that describes this condition. It’s pronounced “goré vidal” and it means “he has seen grief.”
Despite his reputation as a cold-hearted, aloof patrician, Gore Vidal was a man of contradictions—refusing to be “gay” but living with a man; a haughty WASP who wrote movingly about working-class themes—writes Lee Siegel.
I first discovered Gore Vidal as a 14-year-old in my grandparents’ Kingsbridge, Bronx apartment, in the form of Myra Breckinridge. From transexuality I didn’t know, as my Russian-Jewish grandparents would have put it, but I was drawn to the slightly clad woman on the front cover of their slightly creased paperback edition. I read the novel furtively, in a fever of expectation, and I don’t think I ever realized that Myra was actually Myron. Heaven knows what my immigrant grandparents made of the book, if they read it at all.
Gore Vidal at home in Los Angeles, 2006 (Steve Appleford / Corbis)
Vidal himself I first met at a party in LA. Another writer introduced us, and the seasoned provocateur threw his arms around me, exclaiming “the great Lee Siegel!” It was only later that I realized he had no idea who I was. Once again, I had, in a manner of speaking, mistaken Myron for Myra.
Much is being made in the wake of Vidal’s death, at the age of 86, of his coldness, his unflinching disdain for sexual, social, and political convention. He did indeed have a thoroughly pagan, materialistic, unforgiving eye. There was not a hint of transcendence in him. But at the heart of Vidal’s iciness lay a fertile confusion about who he really was, sexually, socially, politically.
He was drawn mostly to men, but sometimes to women: I would have loved to be a centipede on one of the bedroom walls of the house he once shared with Paul Newman—reputed to have been bisexual himself—and Joanne Woodward, allegedly Vidal’s erstwhile lover. He liked to pose as a radical Democrat, but volubly relished his membership in the American aristocracy through his grandfather, a U.S. senator, and his stepfather, who was also the stepfather of Jackie Onassis. And his politics, outraged at American imperialism and abuses of power, occasionally tipped over into xenophobia and even racism in his tirades against what used to be called “the yellow peril.”
Out of this confusion, which really was the result of a vulnerability to all types of experience and of a profound susceptibility to other people, Vidal constructed the unsparing Olympian casting his cold, withering, caustic eye on life, on death.
His persona had a fascinating effect, most of all, on the Jewish intellectuals who dominated the literary world he inhabited. Some of them were drawn precisely to Vidal’s anti-Jewish qualities: the WASPish hauteur, the seeming utter lack of sentimentality, the pedigree that provided his ego with that “characterological armor” Jewish intellectuals once flocked to the psychologist Wilhelm Reich to try to acquire. Another, opposite, group of Jewish literati enjoyed striking Olympian poses themselves as they exposed what was often the parochial quaintness of Vidal’s social and political attitudes. And it was true that Vidal’s isolationism mixed poorly with his cosmopolitanism, the result often being an imperious anti-imperialism that verged on self-parody.
Both groups were right in the particulars, but they were wrong about the fundamentals. The cold patrician’s companion of 53 years was Howard Austen, a Jewish former advertising executive from, not Beacon Hill or Park Avenue, but the Bronx—in this Vidal resembled W.H. Auden, whose longtime companion was also his opposite number, a Jewish librettist from Brooklyn named Chester Kallman. Vidal himself wrote a film adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay about working-class life in the Bronx—recently revived as a musical play—called The Catered Affair that was strikingly empathetic and true to its characters’ lives and milieu. The patrician-seeking Jews didn’t grasp how tedious Vidal’s own background could be to him.
Vidal's personality was his supreme production, David Frum says, and his theme was the wrong done to him personally.
"Peace" is the thing that Gore Vidal is least likely to rest in. He was an angry old man, whose anger led toward 9/11 Trutherism among many other conspiracy theories. He wrote that the Roosevelt administration had consciously provoked the Pearl Harbor attacks, and that Timothy McVeigh—with whom he maintained a long friendly correspondence—had acted from an "exaggerated sense of justice." His obituarist in the Nation wanly pleaded that Vidal upheld "the milder version [of 9/11 Trutherism]—that the Bush administration had advance warning, but let the attacks happen—rather than the view that the towers were blown up from the inside on Bush’s orders." But that's hardly an improvement.
The late-life Vidal presented himself as a national conscience, a vindicator of small r-republican ideals against imperial excess. But like one of his heroes and models, Henry Adams, Vidal seemed even more intensely animated by the defeat of his aristocratic expectations of an inherited role in the government of the country—although, unlike Adams, it was never clear with Vidal on what these expectations rested. One of his grandfathers was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. He shared a stepfather with the future Jacqueline Kennedy. He was distantly related to Al Gore.
While Vidal was much admired by progressives, his politics (to the extent that he had politics as opposed to exasperations) were actually distinctly reactionary. Even as he ridiculed almost all the country's early heroes in his historical novels, he insisted that he preferred that old republic to the post-1865 iteration. On the one occasion I met him, a shared panel on the Bill Maher show, Vidal argued that 19th century elections were more honest than today's. (I answered that it took an enormous amount of ignorance of 19th century political history to say such a thing—an act of lese-majeste for which I was scolded by some viewers.)
I've never been sure how seriously to take the odor of anti-Semitism that pervaded so many of Vidal's public utterances. He was capable of calling American supporters of Israel a "fifth column." He wrote an introduction to a crackpot book of anti-Semitic propaganda, in which Vidal accused Jews of buying Harry Truman's support for the founding of Israel for $2 million in campaign cash.
On the other hand, as William F. Buckley shrewdly observed, there was always a lot of sham and play-acting with Vidal. Vidal may well have thought that expressions of anti-Semitism somehow distinguished him, validated his self-image as a truth-teller—and, incidentally, confirmed his claims of aristocratic distinction. Vidal did live much of his life with a Jewish man for his companion. He may have imagined this relationship immunized his words. Or—like Strom Thurmond fathering a child with a black woman—Vidal may have lived two lives without feeling any need for consistency between them.
Will the literary work live?
I'm inclined to guess no, with a few exceptions: his novel Lincoln, maybe. Vidal's personality was his supreme production, and minus fresh journalistic provocations, minus the tart malice of his television presence, the words on the printed page will not, most of them, summon new generations of readers by their own unaided strength. Too many of his writings have as their theme the great wrong done to him personally by a neglectful country. As his presence fades, so will his aggrieved theme—and then what will be left?
Jon Wiener of The Nation opens his Vidal remembrance with a funny anecdote involving ex-Nation editor Victor Navasky, who brought Vidal in as a contributor in the 1980s:
Gore wrote an essay for the magazine’s 120th anniversary issue. Shortly after it was published, Victor was invited to lunch by the publisher of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione, at his East Side townhouse famous for its $200 million art collection. “We had barely consumed the amuse gueuleswhen Bob asked me how much it cost to get Gore Vidal to write his essay,” Victor recalled. “When I told him we had paid each contributor to that issue $25 and Gore got the same $25 that everyone else got, he almost choked on his Chateau Margaux and told me he had offered Vidal $50,000 to write an article forPenthouse and Vidal declined.”
I'm not sure that even makes a point, or if it does, it's about Victor and his many charms. But it's amusing, and I suppose it does reflect well on Vidal insofar as he was happy to turn down fifty thousand clamshells to have the fun of shocking and traducing an ass like Guccione.
Gore Vidal, 1959. (Bettmann / Corbis)
Vidal took some highly arguable positions, especially late in life—his defense of TImothy McVeigh, his increasingly conspiracy-minded takes on the post-9-11 world. I stopped reading him somewhere in there. And there were problematic issues before: Many critics (Alex Cockburn chief among them, as it happens) saw outright racism in Vidal’s warnings that America and Russia (then the USSR, i.e. our arch-enemy) would have to link arms against the Asian swarms). Not to mention of course the Jewish issue. His interpretation of American history contained elements both nobly populist (in a kind of Jacksonian sense) and dubiously nativist, and it showed, and he didn’t appear to care what anyone thought.
Inarguably, he was a great novelist. Myra Breckenridge and The City and the Pillar and of course the historical novels all stand up extremely well. Burr and Lincoln, I think, are masterpieces. Palimpsest is a lovely memoir, his collection United States contains some brilliant essays, and his literary pieces in The New York Review were often towering. Off the top of my head I remember being floored by pieces on Dawn Powell, V.S. Pritchett, and (interestingly) L. Frank Baum, among many others. Really staggering stuff.
I think his most meaningful political contribution, wherever he may have wandered in his sunset years, concerned the post-1947 American national-security apparatus. These were radical writings, no doubt about it. He was an unforgiving critic of Republicans and Democrats alike. I read those works in my late 20s, maybe, and I didn't always agree, but I most definitely always walked away from his essays forced to reflect on why history went the way it did. I guess I would say that one learned in school that American world hegemony was: inherently good, in some way natural, and completely inevitable. Vidal believed insistently that it was none of those three things, and you didn't have to agree with everything he said to appreciate the perspective and admire the luminous prose, and the mind one saw at work on the page.
The author and playwright was known for his politically and socially controversial novels and essays, as well as his quotable quips. The Daily Beast recalls some of Vidal’s most memorable comments.
"I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television."
"Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels and sex certainly gives no meaning to anything in life but itself."
"There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices."
"Envy is the central fact of American life."
"It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."
"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."
The controversial writer died Tuesday at 86 and even in old age, he wasn't afraid to throw verbal punches. Here, Vidal takes a look back on his career—and doesn't mince words directed towards the government, TIME Magazine, and other writers.