Gore Vidal

  • Born: October 3, 1925
  • Died: July 31, 2012
  • Location: Los Angeles, California

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In this 1992 file photo, author Gore Vidal is shown. Vidal will receive a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 National Book Awards on Nov. 18, 2009.

Celebrated author & playwright dies

HILLEL ITALIE, The Associated Press

In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat's bearing — tall, handsome and composed — and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.

But Vidal made his living — a very good living — from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand. During the days of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the few leaders whom Vidal admired, he might have been called a "traitor to his class." The real traitors, Vidal would respond, were the upholders of his class.

The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles.

Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 6:45 p.m. of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for "quite a while," Steers said.

Vidal "meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read," Dave Eggers said at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, where he and Vidal received honorary citations. "His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can't articulate it."

Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, he was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities — regulars on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn't read their books knew their names.

His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels "Lincoln" and "Myra Breckenridge" and the Tony-nominated play "The Best Man," a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire's decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for "the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action."

Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual. Beyond his honorary National Book Award, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).

But he was widely admired as an independent thinker — in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken — about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, "the birds and the bees." He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were "Joyce Carol Oates." (The happiest words: "I told you so").

Ralph Ellison labeled him a "campy patrician." Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honor, but a modern will to live as he pleased. He wrote in the memoir "Palimpsest" that he had more than 1,000 "sexual encounters," nothing special, he added, compared to the pursuits of such peers as John F. Kennedy and Tennessee Williams. Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Auster, who used the name Howard Austen professionally.

In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He campaigned with Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He butted heads, literally, with Mailer. He helped director William Wyler with the script for "Ben-Hur." He made guest appearances on everything from "The Simpsons" to "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

Vidal formed his most unusual bond with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged letters after Vidal's 1998 article in Vanity Fair on "the shredding" of the Bill of Rights and their friendship inspired Edmund White's play "Terre Haute."

"He's very intelligent. He's not insane," Vidal said of McVeigh in a 2001 interview.

Vidal also bewildered his fans by saying the Bush administration likely had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; that McVeigh was no more a killer than Dwight Eisenhower and that the U.S. would eventually be subservient to China, "The Yellow Man's Burden."

Christopher Hitchens, who once regarded Vidal as a modern Oscar Wilde, lamented in a 2010 Vanity Fair essay that Vidal's recent comments suffered from an "utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity." Years earlier, Saul Bellow stated that "a dune of salt has grown up to season the preposterous things Gore says."

A longtime critic of American militarism, Vidal was, ironically, born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., his father's alma mater. Vidal grew up in a political family. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. His father, Gene Vidal, served briefly in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and was an early expert on aviation. Amelia Earhart was a family friend and reported lover of Gene Vidal.

Vidal was a learned, but primarily self-educated man. Classrooms bored him. He graduated from the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, but then enlisted in the Army and never went to college. His first book, the war novel "Williwaw," was written while he was in the service and published when he was just 20.

The New York Times' Orville Prescott praised Vidal as a "canny observer" and "Williwaw" as a "good start toward more substantial accomplishments." But "The City and the Pillar," his third book, apparently changed Prescott's mind. Published in 1948, the novel's straightforward story about two male lovers was virtually unheard of at the time and Vidal claimed that Prescott swore he would never review his books again. (The critic relented in 1964, calling Vidal's "Julian" a novel "disgusting enough to sicken many of his readers"). "City and the Pillar" was dedicated to "J.T.," Jimmie Trimble, a boarding school classmate killed during the war whom Vidal would cite as the great love of his life.

Unable to make a living from fiction, at least when identified as "Gore Vidal," he wrote a trio of mystery novels in the 1950s under the pen name "Edgar Box" and also wrote fiction as "Katherine Everard" and "Cameron Kay." He became a playwright, too, writing for the theater and television. "The Best Man," which premiered in 1960, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. Paul Newman starred in "The Left-Handed Gun," a film adaptation of Vidal's "The Death of Billy the Kid."

Vidal also worked in Hollywood, writing the script for "Suddenly Last Summer" and adding a subtle homoerotic context to "Ben-Hur." The author himself later appeared in a documentary about gays in Hollywood, "The Celluloid Closet." His acting credits included "Gattaca," ''With Honors" and Tim Robbins' political satire, "Bob Roberts."

But Vidal saw himself foremost as a man of letters. He wrote a series of acclaimed and provocative historical novels, including "Julian," ''Burr" and "Lincoln." His 1974 essay on Italo Calvino in The New York Review of Books helped introduce the Italian writer to American audiences. A 1987 essay on Dawn Powell helped restore the then-forgotten author's reputation and bring her books back in print. Fans welcomed his polished, conversational essays or his annual "State of the Union" reports for the liberal weekly "The Nation."

He adored the wisdom of Montaigne, the imagination of Calvino, the erudition and insight of Henry James and Edith Wharton. He detested Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and other authors of "teachers' novels." He once likened Mailer's views on women to those of Charles Manson. (From this the head-butting incident ensued, backstage at "The Dick Cavett Show.") He derided William F. Buckley, on television, as a "crypto Nazi." He was accused of anti-Semitism after labeling conservative Norman Podhoretz a member of "the Israeli fifth column." He labeled Ronald Reagan "The Acting President" and identified Reagan's wife, Nancy, as a social climber "born with a silver ladder in her hand."

In the 1960s, Vidal increased his involvement in politics. In 1960, he was the Democratic candidate for Congress in an upstate New York district, but was defeated despite Ms. Roosevelt's active support and a campaign appearance by Truman. (In 1982, Vidal came in second in the California Democratic senatorial primary). In consolation, he noted that he did receive more votes in his district in 1960 than did the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, John F. Kennedy.

Thanks to his friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom he shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, he became a supporter and associate of President Kennedy, and wrote a newspaper profile on him soon after his election. With tragic foresight, Vidal called the job of the presidency "literally killing" and worried that "Kennedy may very well not survive."

Before long, however, he and the Kennedys were estranged, touched off by a personal feud between Vidal and Robert Kennedy apparently sparked by a few too many drinks at a White House party. By 1967, the author was an open critic, portraying the Kennedys as cold and manipulative in the essay "The Holy Family." Vidal's politics moved ever to the left and he eventually disdained both major parties as "property" parties — even as he couldn't help noting that Hillary Clinton had visited him in Ravello.

Meanwhile, he was again writing fiction. In 1968, he published his most inventive novel, "Myra Breckenridge," a comic best seller about a transsexual movie star. The year before, with "Washington, D.C.," Vidal began the cycle of historical works that peaked in 1984 with "Lincoln."

The novel was not universally praised, with some scholars objecting to Vidal's unawed portrayal of the president. The author defended his research, including suggestions that the president had syphilis, and called his critics "scholar-squirrels," more interested in academic status than in serious history.

But "Lincoln" stands as his most notable work of historical fiction, vetted and admired by a leading Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, and even cited by the conservative Newt Gingrich as a favorite book. Gingrich's praise was contrasted by fellow conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, who alleged she was so put off by Vidal's "Burr" that she switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

In recent years, Vidal wrote the novel "The Smithsonian Institution" and the nonfiction best sellers "Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace" and "Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta." A second memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," came out in 2006. In 2009, "Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare" featured pictures of Vidal with Newman, Jagger, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Springsteen.

Vidal and Auster chose cemetery plots in Washington, D.C., between Jimmie Trimble and one of Vidal's literary heroes, Henry Adams. But age and illness did not bring Vidal closer to God. Wheelchair-bound in his 80s and saddened by the death of Auster and many peers and close friends, the author still looked to no existence beyond this one.

"Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy's edge," he once wrote, "all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. "Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."

Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half brother Tommy Auchincloss.


Condolence & Memory Journal

I was privileged to work in Gore's senate campaign in 1982 and we remained friends until the end. I visited him in Ravello and in Rome over the years that I lived in Europe. We had a vigorous and interesting correspondence that I have donated to Harvard. The picture is of me and Gore in Cologne, Germany.

Posted by Hugh Guilbeau - Sarasota, FL - Friend   August 05, 2012

Candle

The work you left will live forever. Love.

Posted by Bob Schneider - Fan   August 04, 2012

Candle

I met Mr Vidal during his campaign for U.S. Senate.I was a Catholic priest at the time and our initial encounter was a bit strained but after glass of scotch we found a common ground not of love of instituion but of honor and truth It became for me one of the most important and profound experiences in my life.Mr. Vidals books have been my constant companions for almost 30 years.Mr. Vidal may you encounter the truth and eternal beauty that taught me of the marvel of "" Creation"" peace""GWL""

Posted by Gerald Leonard - student   August 04, 2012

Candle

To simple words 'thank you' for laughs and inspiration, memories that fade but never disappear........

Posted by Will B - admirer   August 02, 2012

Thank you, Gore Vidal, for your "Lincoln" - absolutely brilliant - you made a wonderful gift of the historical novel. You truly were a bad boy of the bourgeoisie, and we need so many more. Many thanks for your novels and essays!

Posted by Sheri    August 02, 2012

Candle

Gore Vidal played a large part in my life. I Was born in 1940 in the South. Vidal was a candle in the darkness as I discovered myself.

Posted by John Foust    August 02, 2012

Candle

The cross is in remembrance of ever-faithful friend and partner, Howard Austen. Gore, you will be remembered and treasured in my life unto the end of days...

Posted by Pat    August 02, 2012

Candle

Admired and inspired by Gore Vidal. Healthy minded and a true realist....

Posted by Hal Huett - what   August 02, 2012

Candle

Find anything there, dear and unique Gore Vidal? Hope so......

Posted by Tish - a great admirer and appreciator   August 02, 2012

Candle

Gore Vidal had an incredible mind with such great wit....and was never afraid to say what was on his! He will be truly missed.
Blessings to a wonderful being

Posted by D    August 02, 2012

Thank you Gore Vidal for teaching me at a young age the power of a well placed punchline, the refreshing feel of satire and directness and what it means to have the courage of your convictions. I have enjoyed so many of your books. The one that really filled me with awe is "Creation" set in 300 BCE where your spiritual depth was brilliantly exposed. RIP

Posted by Rajiv Krishnan - Coral Springs, FL   August 02, 2012

Candle

Thank you, Mr. Vidal, for sharing your gifts with the world. In doing so, you allowed me passage into a world far beyond the little "Bug Tussle" community in which I live. I am praying for safe passage to the Other Side for you and that you find delight in your dwellings there.

Posted by Jo Harmes - Admirer and appreciater   August 01, 2012

None that are personal, but my most vivid memories of 19th century Washington were largely etched by Gore Vidal's American Chronicles. I was dearly hoping that he would return to the narrative, perhaps by working backward to the city's settlement. He will be missed for so many reasons.

Posted by Susan Burgerman - Washington, DC - reader   August 01, 2012

Candle

He will be missed!

Posted by Brenda Sorrels - Fan   August 01, 2012

Loved your writing. Just finished reading Bram's Eminent Outlaws and your were not only one of them, but you knew personally so many of them. I'll never forget your clash with William Buckley a Television First when it was still worth watching. Of, course you live in your books, thanks for your immortal words.

Posted by Edward LeMay - Boston, MA - FAN   August 01, 2012


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Actress Joanne Woodward, left, stands by as Gore Vidal speaks at the National Book Awards Wednesday Nov. 18, 2009 in New York. Woodward presented Vidal with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Gore Vidal is shown in the Feb. 15, 1993 photo. Novelist Gore Vidal plans to attend the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a man with whom he shares some views about the federal government. Vidal, whose works include ``Burr,'' ``Lincoln'' and ``The Last Empire,'' said he began corresponding with McVeigh when the bomber wrote him about Vidal's 1998 article in Vanity Fair on ``the shredding'' of the Bill of Rights.
In this May 5, 2003 file photo, author Gore Vidal arrives for the Film Society of Lincoln Center's gala event in New York.
This 1977 file photo shows author Gore Vidal. Vidal died Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86.
In this Jan. 10, 2009 file photo released by the Florida Keys News Bureau, author and essayist Gore Vidal delivers the keynote presentation during the first session of the 27th annual Key West Literary Seminar in Key West, Fla. Vidal died Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86.
In this 1992 file photo, author Gore Vidal is shown. Vidal will receive a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 National Book Awards on Nov. 18, 2009.

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Noted authors, from left, Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal gather at a party following the Actors' Studio benefit production of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan In Hell" at Carnegie Hall, in this Feb. 15, 1993 file. Mailer, the macho prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country's literary conscience and provocateur, died of renal failure early Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007. He was 84.
Cast members of "The Best Man" pose with author Gore Vidal in New York, August 1, 2000. The revival of Vidal's 1960 political thriller opens Sept. 17 at Broadway's Virginia Theater. Front, from left, are Elizabeth Ashley, Vidal, and Christine Ebersole. At rear are Spalding Gray, Michael Learned, and Chris Noth.