Saturday, August 04, 2012
By Carol Memmott and Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
Gore Vidal, the novelist, essayist and playwright, will be remembered as much for his outspokenness and scorn for popular culture and politics as for his 60-year writing career. His nephew, Burr Steers, said Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills of complications from pneumonia. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for "quite a while," Steers said. Vidal, whose best sellers included Myra Breckenridge and Burr, was proud to be a political and literary troublemaker.A half-century ago, he outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American writers to describe and embrace unambiguous homosexuality. In 2008, he said, America is "rotting away" — and not to expect President Obama to save it. Doubleday's Gerald Howard, Vidal's editor for more than a decade, called him "the last surviving giant of a postwar crop of American literary giants," adding, "The world just became a duller place."
Vidal was born into the establishment on Oct. 3, 1925, at West Point, N.Y. His father, a former West Point football star, was the military academy's first aviation instructor. He also was one of the founders of TWA, the airline giant, and had a love affair with Amelia Earhart. Vidal's mother was an actress and socialite who, according to her son, had an "on-and-off affair with Clark Gable." As a boy, Vidal lived in Washington, D.C., with his namesake, his maternal grandfather, Oklahoma's legendary blind senator, Thomas P. Gore. After prep school, Vidal didn't attend college, but said he received a great education just by reading to his grandfather.
Vidal also was a distant cousin of former vice president Al Gore, whom he avoided, as he put it, "on the ground that one day plausible deniability will be useful to each of us." His awards included the National Book Award in 1993 for United States: Essays 1952-1992 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982 for The Second American Revolution and Other Essays. Though he once swore he would never write about himself, his first memoir, Palimpsest (1995), covers the first four decades of his life in which he ran for office and worked as a scriptwriter and playwright.
His second memoir, Point to Point Navigation (2006), is a Who's Who's list of celebrities including JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Rudolph Nureyev, Elia Kazan and Francis Ford Coppola. In it, he also wrote about the illness and death in 2003 of his partner of five decades, Howard Austen. They lived in self-imposed exile in Ravello, Italy, for more than 30 years. Of their relationship, Vidal wrote, "It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does."
During World War II, Vidal joined the Army at the age of 17. He drew upon his experiences as the first-mate on an Army supply ship in the Aleutian Islands for his debut novel, Williwaw (1946).Fame came later with his third book, The City and the Pillar (1948), the first American novel to deal frankly and positively with homosexual love. He was viciously criticized for it, but he attracted the notoriety he would rail against and savor for the rest of his life.
Vidal resisted being called gay, saying there was no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual acts. His life was filled with connections to the rich and famous. His mother married Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather. He was friends with John F. Kennedy and actors such as Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman and Eli Wallach. In November 2009, when he received a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards, Vidal was introduced by Newman's widow, actress Joanne Woodward. She recalled what Vidal said when he became the godfather of Woodward's and Paul Newman's first child: "Always a godfather, never a god."
Twice he ran unsuccessfully for political office: for Congress in Upstate New York in 1960 and for the Senate in California in 1982.
Some of his best known novels grew out of his fascination with politics and history, including Washington, D.C. (1967), Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), which is about Vice President Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. His political plays include The Best Man and An Evening with Richard Nixon. But he'll be best remembered by many for events that had nothing to do with his books. In a 1968 TV appearance, he goaded conservative William F. Buckley, who yelled at him, "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in the god---- face and you'll stay plastered."
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (October 3, 1925 – July 31, 2012) was an American writer known for his essays, novels, screenplays and Broadway plays. He was also known for his patrician manner, Transatlantic accent and witty aphorisms. Vidal came from a distinguished political lineage; his grandfather was the senator Thomas Gore, and he later became a relation (through marriage) to Jacqueline Kennedy. Vidal ran for political office twice and was a longtime political critic. He was a lifelong isolationist Democrat. As well known for his essays as his novels, Vidal wrote for The Nation, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Review of Books and Esquire. Through his essays and media appearances, Vidal was a long time critic of American foreign policy. In addition to this, he characterised the United States as a decaying empire from the 1980s onwards. Additionally he was known for his well publicized spats between such figures as Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Truman Capote.
Vidal's novels fell into two distinct camps: social and historical. His best known social novel was Myra Breckenridge; his best known historical novels included Julian, Burr and Lincoln . His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), outraged conservative critics as one of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality. Vidal always rejected the terms of "homosexual" and "heterosexual" as inherently false, claiming that the vast majority of individuals had the potential to be pansexual. His screenwriting credits included Ben Hur, which he conceived of as a subliminal gay love story.
At the time of his death he was the last of a generation of American writers who had served during World War II, including J D Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller. Perhaps best remembered for his caustic wit, he referred to himself as a "gentleman bitch" and has been described as the 20th century's answer to Oscar Wilde.
More on Gore Vidal.
Writes Jay Parini in The Guardian:
Despite his output as a novelist and playwright, many critics considered Vidal's witty and acerbic essays his best work. Often published first in such journals as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, they were collected at regular intervals between the novels. In 1993, his volume United States: Essays, 1951-91, received the National Book award. As Stephen Spender wrote in a review, "Vidal's essays celebrate the triumphs of private values over the public ones of power. They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one. At the same time, their seriousness lies very largely in his grasp of the conditions and characteristics which make up the public world." Vidal liked to present himself as an insider – a man who understood the world and how it worked. This knowing quality, registered in the tone of his prose, permeates the essays. Their edge and vitality derive from his complete mastery of the scene he described, whether ridiculing Ronald Reagan as "a triumph of the embalmer's art", reassessing the presidency of John F Kennedy, outlining the theory of the French "new novel" or reconsidering the importance of Montaigne or Somerset Maugham.
Vidal's critics disparaged his tendency to formulate an aphorism rather than to argue, finding in his work an underlying note of contempt for those who did not agree with him. His fans, on the other hand, delighted in his unflagging wit and elegant style. Probably no other American writer since Ernest Hemingway lived his life so much in the public eye. His father was Eugene Vidal, Franklin Roosevelt's director of air commerce from 1933 to 1937. His maternal grandfather was the senator Thomas Gore, a commanding figure in Washington politics for many decades. His mother, Nina Gore Vidal, divorced his father in 1935, then married the financier Hugh D Auchincloss, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, thus establishing a connection between Vidal and the Kennedy clan that persisted through the presidency of John F Kennedy. Vidal's unflattering view of the Bouvier sisters was registered in Two Sisters (1970).
Writes Charles McGrath in The New York Times:
Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, put-down or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.
Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office — in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate — and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Mr. Vidal was an occasional actor, appearing in animated form on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” in the movie version of his own play “The Best Man,” and in the Tim Robbins movie “Bob Roberts,” in which he played an aging, epicene version of himself. He was a more than occasional guest on talk shows, where his poise, wit, good looks and charm made him such a regular that Johnny Carson offered him a spot as a guest host of “The Tonight Show.”
Television was a natural medium for Mr. Vidal, who in person was often as cool and detached as he was in his prose. “Gore is a man without an unconscious,” his friend the Italian writer Italo Calvino once said. Mr. Vidal said of himself: “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.”
Mr. Vidal loved conspiracy theories of all sorts, especially the ones he imagined himself at the center of, and he was a famous feuder; he engaged in celebrated on-screen wrangles with Mailer, Capote and William F. Buckley Jr. Mr. Vidal did not lightly suffer fools — a category that for him comprised a vast swath of humanity, elected officials particularly — and he was not a sentimentalist or a romantic. “Love is not my bag,” he said.
Fond memories of going gaga for Gore.
Mailer and Vidal: The Big Schmooze.