A Roaring Literary Lion: Remembering Gore Vidal, 1925–2012

From 'The Best Man' to 'Myra Breckinridge,' nothing was out of bounds in the work of this famed man of letters

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Jerry Cooke / Time & Life Pictures

Gore Vidal at age 21, in 1974.

Is there a 2012 equivalent to the honorific “man of letters”? (“Male of email” won’t do.) The phrase used to refer, with a blithely unconscious sexism, to a writer who took all the world as his page in novels, plays, screenplays and essays, and whose political opinions found listeners beyond the ghetto of the intelligentsia.

The years just after World War II produced a host of these public savants: Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William F. Buckley and — brawling with and outliving each of them — Gore Vidal, who spent nearly seven decades as a roaring or purring literary lion before dying today in Los Angeles at 86. His rivals may have written finer, deeper, more penetrating or influential works, but no other writer could claim Vidal’s sheer, breathless breadth: authorship of best-selling historical novels (Burr, Lincoln), a scandalous transsexual jape (Myra Breckinridge), a classic play on American politics (The Best Man) and the most expensive pornographic film ever made (Caligula).

(MORETIME on Vidal: Five Decades of Writing and Reviews)

The son of Eugene Vidal, a West Point quarterback who became an aviation executive, and his socialite wife, young Gore was closest to his grandfather, the Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore. The boy would often read to the blind Senator, stoking a lifelong fascination with literature and politics. Attending the poshest schools, Gore skipped college to enlist in the Army, serving in the Aleutian Islands — the setting for his first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946 when he was just 20.

Mailer trumped him with his own war novel, The Naked and the Dead, but Vidal earned his own form of notoriety with the 1948 The City and the Pillar, one of the first novels on the subject of homosexuality. This coming-of-age story was also a coming-out confessional. Though he tallied many lovers of both sexes, Vidal championed “same-sex sex” and lived for 53 years with advertising executive Howard Austen. Even in that realm he was a maverick, averring that he and Austen were not sexual partners. Asked a few years ago about gay marriage, Vidal replied, “Since heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why on earth would anybody want to imitate it?”

(PHOTOSAmerican Writer Gore Vidal Dead at 86)

Briefly exiled from the literary community for the boldness of The City and the Pillar, Vidal turned to the infant medium of television, writing Visit to a Small Planet, later a Broadway play and a movie, and The Death of Billy the Kid, whose film version, The Left Handed Gun, helped make Paul Newman a star. He adapted Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer into a film for Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, and worked uncredited on the script of the Academy Award-winning Ben-Hur, the biggest hit of the 1950s. He later took credit for whatever homoerotic electricity may crackle between Stephen Boyd’s Messala and Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur.

The 1970 film that Michael Sarne made of Myra Breckinridge — with Rex Reed as Myron transformed by surgery into Raquel Welch as Myra — was gamy enough to earn an X rating—and the contumely of most reviewers. (“Myra Breckinridge,” wrote TIME’s critic, “is about as funny as a child molester.) To Vidal, X was just another letter of the alphabet; but his next screenplay became a movie that had too much sex even for Vidal. That was Caligula, produced by the publisher of Penthouse. At first excited by the project — “Just think of Bob Guccione as one of the Warner brothers,” he told the film’s star, Malcolm McDowell — the writer later soured on the film, as his witty dialogue took a back seat to hard-core frolics. Like so many Vidal disputes, this one ended up in court.

He may be best remembered for The Best Man, produced in 1960 and revived in many election years (including this one). This pièce-à-clef imagined the Presidential primary faceoff between an Adlai Stevenson type, ethical but dithering, and a venal Richard Nixon surrogate. The winner of the real election in 1960 was John F. Kennedy, whose wife was Vidal’s kin by marriage and whose presidency was a frequent butt of Vidal’s essayist venom. This man of letters always wielded a poison pen.

(MOREA Gadfly in Glorious, Angry Exile: GORE VIDAL)

That same year, Vidal ran for a Congressional seat, losing to his Republican opponent in Duchess County, N.Y., but earning more votes there than JFK did. A superb, acerbic orator, Vidal was more suited to the home screen than to the House; his luscious Mandarin visage and practiced scorn made him a compelling, polarizing guest on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show (where Buckley also appeared). For the next half-century, in addition to disgorging several novels each decade, Vidal continued to tangle in pubic with Buckley (whom he called a “crypto-Nazi”) and Mailer (they almost came to blows on The Dick Cavett Show), all the while playing coroner to the American body politic in essays and on radio and TV.

Though the dominant talk-show noise was now right-wing, Vidal had in a way created the Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks by establishing the tone of Olympian belligerence and absolute certitude—a tone unmodified even as he prepared himself for death. Asked in 2006 by TIME’s Richard Lacayo what he would like his last words to be, Vidal replied, “Like my living words. ‘I told you so!’”

6 comments
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poconos4slums
poconos4slums

no use trying to say anything bad about facist anti-semite gore vidal---it'll get CENSORED off the site.

(3rd time wont be the charm, but i'll take a screenshot of it before it disappears)

poconos4slums
poconos4slums

I guess I have to REPEAT what I wrote yesterday, after it was obviously CENSORED, removed by today...

Vidal was a fascist anti-semite.

Vidal was on Larry King when Reagan was president and actually said, without joking, very seriously,  that the USA economy would collapse any day, and a new constitution have to be written.

Nobody under age 30 ever heard of Vidal.  Vidal, and the other nutcase, Norman Mailer are already fogotten by readers under who are younger than 30.

Some liberal or somebody gay CENSORED the above that I posted here yesterday.

Liberals and gays love censorship.

Bobby Wong
Bobby Wong

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Charles
Charles

Gore Vidal was our American Cicero. He valiantly stood as our golden shield of republican virtue against the brassy sword of empire yielded by plutocratic militarists and their vulgar plebeians.  

He was the national conscience, unrelenting in reminding the citizenry of its lost historical memory in this "United States of Amnesia."  

Something great has gone out of the world with his passing.  

In the noble tradition of his stoic grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, Vidal eloquently spoke truth in the face of power. When in 1933, FDR confiscated the people's gold, Thomas Gore said, "Why that's just plain stealing, isn't it Mr. President?"  Vidal confronted every presidential rogue administration, from Truman to Obama, with the same damning admonition concerning our essential rights and liberties, confiscated by the National Security State.  

As our most distinguished man of letters, he produced a body of work unequaled in breadth and scope.  

In his Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, which joined his earlier, Palimpsest: A Memoir, Vidal, with characteristic grace and acerbic poignancy, summed up his life, loves, tragedies, and triumphs – and that of the reckless, feckless civilization he saw dying before his fading eyes.  

Once a rather conventional left-liberal critic of the American duopoly, Vidal, in the late 1980s, metamorphed into a quixotic gentleman of the Old Right. As with his literary predecessor Albert Jay Nock, author of The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, later-day expatriate Vidal lived much of his life abroad. This made him a more disinterested and reflective observer of the foibles and follies of American civilization.  

And like his paleolibertarian forebear Garet Garrett, author of The People's Pottage, Gore Vidal, in his brilliant essays and historical novels, cataloged the death of the American Republic and the rise of the Anglo-American imperial colossus, from the salad days of Teddy Roosevelt and Cecil Rhodes, to the Tofu era of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.  

Through it all, Gore Vidal remained a man of incorruptible character, conviction, and principle.

Rama Ratnam
Rama Ratnam

The caption in the photo is incorrect. Gore Vidal was 21 in 1946.