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).

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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?”

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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.

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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!’”