Born: October 3, 1925 Died July 31 2012
Gore Vidal, who has died aged 86 of complications from pneumonia, was an essayist, novelist, scriptwriter, playwright and polemicist who, by the close of his long, provocative and turbulent career, could fairly claim to have been one of America's fiercest critics.
His passionate attacks on the political system in general, and individual politicians in particular, were often devastating, as when he described George W. Bush as "the stupidest man in the United States". Yet, apart from the wilder ramblings of his very last years, his opinions were impressive for their acuity and fearlessness. But then, as Vidal had shown throughout his life, fear rarely troubled him. Some of this may be attributed to being born into the American aristocracy, but much of it was a temperamental gift that allowed him to become one of the most prominent and powerful public figures of his times, and without doubt the greatest American essayist and cultural commentator of the 20th century.
Vidal portrayed himself as icy and imperturbable: "I'm exactly as I appear," he said. "There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water." And yet that was not the whole story. While he was famous for the number of partners of both sexes he had enjoyed as a young man, and once said that "I can understand companionship. I can understand bought sex in the afternoon, but I cannot understand the love affair", he also inspired strong, life-long friendships.
Among the most important of these was with Howard Austen, his companion for many years, with whom he lived in Ravello, Italy. Austen's gravestone in Washington was inscribed with both their names on his death in 2003. Muriel Spark was also a good friend and frequent guest in his sumptuous cliff-top home, La Rondinaia (The Swallow's Nest). Spark's friend Penelope Jardine remembers to her chagrin the day her dog got into a tussle there with Vidal's pooch, a fight which took place around Princess Margaret's ankles, to no-one's amusement at the time. In subsequent communications, Vidal always enquired pointedly after Jardine's hound.
He was a frequent visitor to Scotland, and was a guest at the Edinburgh Book Festival on several occasions, once beamed before the audience to talk to Andrew O'Hagan by satellite technology. But his most memorable appearance was in the years before the book festival when, as a guest of Edinburgh City Libraries, he was in conversation with novelist Allan Massie at the Queen's Hall. When Massie's questions dried up, Vidal offered some advice. "Mr Massie, in situations like these, I start the next sentence, 'Be that as it may...' I find that usually works." Massie took his advice, and all was well.
Born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr at West Point Military Academy, he was the only child of Eugene, an All-American football player and flying instructor who reportedly was the love of Amelia Earhart's life. His mother Nina was an alcoholic socialite whom he loathed. She and his father divorced in 1935, and Vidal thereafter boasted that he was related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis through his mother's second husband, Hugh D Auchincloss, who was Onassis's stepfather also. His maternal grandfather was Thomas Gore, Democratic senator from Oklahoma. The two were close, the young Vidal often reading to him, since he was blind, and the Senator's political views were greatly to influence his own.
In no way academically distinguished, Vidal was educated at St Albans School in Washington, where he fell in love with Jimmie Trimble, an athlete whom he described as my "other half". He finished his education at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and joined the Army. Trimble died in the Second World War on Iwo Jima, and Vidal's groundbreaking third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), was dedicated to him. The controversy that followed this work, which included homosexual characters, made it difficult for Vidal to publish for some time, and he turned to television instead.
To be born with a wealth of abilities can be a curse. In Vidal's case it made for a career of extraordinary richness. He first made his name as a novelist of movie-star good looks who attracted admirers such as Anaïs Nin and Tennessee Williams. After the hiccup following The City and the Pillar, he went on to produce arguably his finest fiction, those novels set in historical periods demonstrating his impressive imaginative and analytical strengths.
Notable among this later oeuvre were Julian, about the Roman emperor, Myra Breckinridge, a daring portrait of a transsexual, and Lincoln, one of many tales of early American political life. Vidal also worked for MGM, writing screenplays for such films as Ben-Hur (he revised the final script for director William Wyler but did not receive a screen credit), The Best Man and Billy the Kid. He wrote plays as well, and memoirs, most memorably Palimpsest, a magnificent and vivid piece of autobiography. But for all his prolificity it will be his trenchant, elegant, and highly informed essays that will be his lasting bequest to literature. Described once as "an American version of Montaigne", Vidal's literary model was HL Mencken, whose feisty shoes he filled with gusto. Some of the best of his essays can be found in United States: Essays 1952–1992 and The Last Empire: essays 1992–2000.
Fascinated by politics, he twice stood unsuccessfully for office, first for a district in New York State in 1960, and then in 1982, for a seat in the Senate for California. As he said of his defeats, "the best man lost".
Humility was not a strong point, and there is an encyclopaedia's-worth of put-downs for rivals and enemies. He would lampoon anyone who came into his crosswires, but writers were a specialty. The three most dispiriting words in the English language, he liked to say, were "Joyce Carol Oates". Of a piece by Herman Wouk, he commented: "This is not at all bad, except as prose." On Truman Capote's death, he said: "Good career move".
Vidal's outspokenness led to many high-profile arguments, notably with William F Buckley, with whom he carried on a lengthy legal feud, and with Norman Mailer, who headbutted him after Vidal likened him to Charles Manson. For all his pugnacity and mischief, however, he was a brilliant, unforgettable man, a class of one in a time when being an original in what he called the United States of Amnesia was a courageous act of defiance in itself. Christopher Hitchens called him "the 20th century's only possible answer to Oscar Wilde". His legacy will surely be as enduring.
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