Feature

Gore Vidal, 1925–2012

The literary juggernaut who charted America’s decline

Gore Vidal considered himself the great chronicler of America’s moral and intellectual decay. The novelist, screenwriter, and essayist delighted in archly condemning his fellow Americans and lambasting the soul-sapping state of popular culture, especially television. Deeming himself immune to this poison, Vidal appeared on TV as often as he could. He fought bitter onscreen battles with author Norman Mailer and conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr.—who once threatened to punch him in his “goddamn face”—debating everything from sex and history to art and politics. And Vidal had a remedy for every social ill he diagnosed. “There is not one human problem,” he said, “that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and “grew up expecting a career in national politics,” said the Los Angeles Times. His father, Eugene, served as director of air commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his mother, Nina, was the socialite daughter of Sen. Thomas Gore, an influential Oklahoma Democrat. While attending the private St. Albans School in Washington, Vidal had an intense sexual relationship with a fellow student named Jimmie Trimble, who later died in combat during World War II. “He never truly loved anyone again,” said The Washington Post. The loss didn’t stop him from having casual sex with hundreds of men and women, or maintaining a 50-year partnership with Howard Austen, who died in 2003. The secret to their relationship’s longevity, he said, was “no sex.”

Vidal enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served on a supply ship in the Aleutians. That experience inspired his first novel, Williwaw, released to critical acclaim in 1946. After the war he moved to New York and speedily wrote two more novels, including 1948’s The City and the Pillar, an account of two all-American boys falling in love. “By today’s standards it is tame and discreet, but at the time it caused a scandal and was denounced as corrupt and pornographic,” said The New York Times. He struggled to get subsequent novels reviewed, and so began writing for the stage, television, and movies. 

Vidal hit pay dirt on Broadway with 1957’s Visit to a Small Planet—a satire about an alien visitor to Earth—and the 1960 political drama The Best Man. In Hollywood, he gained a reputation as a talented script doctor and helped rewrite the biblical blockbuster Ben-Hur. With his finances secure, Vidal moved to Italy in the early 1960s and returned to writing novels. Julian,a meticulously researched novel about the 4th-century Roman emperor who tried to convert Christians back to paganism, “was both a critical and commercial success,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), highlighting Vidal’s talent for writing smart and gossipy historical fiction. Fifteen more novels followed, including the political epic Washington, D.C.,in 1967, and a year later Myra Breckinridge, “a send-up of the porn industry so explicit that critics called the book itself pornography.”

In later life, Vidal enthusiastically embraced the role of provocateur. He argued that the Roosevelt administration deliberately baited Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor, said TheDailyBeast.com, and that President George W. Bush knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance. He also maintained a long correspondence with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who he claimed “had acted from an ‘exaggerated sense of justice.’” It’s unlikely that Vidal cared that these positions made him look like a grotesque attention-seeker. “I’m exactly as I appear,” he once said. “There is no warm lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

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