Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, born Eugene Louis Vidal, (October 3, 1925 – July 31, 2012) was a prolific liberal American author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and political activist. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), outraged conservative critics as one of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality at a time when it was considered a mental disorder. As well known for his essays as his novels, Vidal wrote for several prestigious magazines, including The Nation, The New Yorker, and Esquire, achieving literary success, fame, and fortune.
Vidal did not just write about politics, he ran for political office twice and was a longtime political commentator. Never afraid that his comments would be offensive and always enjoying media attention, Vidal constantly used his sarcastic wit and excellent command of the English language to state his views on life in no uncertain terms, which led him into several well-publicized spats with such figures as Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr..
Gore Vidal was born Eugene Louis Vidal, Jr. on October 3, 1925 in West Point, New York, the only child of 1st Lieutenant Eugene Luther Vidal (1895–1969) and Nina Gore (1903–1978). The middle name, Louis, was a mistake on the part of his father, "who could not remember for certain whether his own name was Eugene Louis or Eugene Luther." As Vidal explained in his memoir Palimpsest, "... my birth certificate says 'Eugene Louis Vidal': this was changed to Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr.; then Gore was added at my christening [in 1938]; then at fourteen I got rid of the first two names." Vidal was christened by the headmaster of St. Albans preparatory school, his future alma mater. The name Gore was added in honor of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, Democratic senator from Oklahoma. Vidal dropped both of his first two names, saying, he "wanted a sharp, distinctive name, appropriate for an aspiring author or national political leader. 'I wasn't going to write as Gene since there was already one. I didn't want to use the Jr.'"
Vidal's father, was one of the first Army Air Corps pilots and, according to biographer Susan Butler, was the great love of Amelia Earhart's life. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was co-founder of three American airlines: the Ludington Line, which merged with others and became Eastern Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, which became TWA), and Northeast Airlines, which he founded with Earhart, as well as the Boston and Maine Railroad. He served as director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce (1933–1937) in the Roosevelt administration. The elder Vidal was also an athlete in the 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympics (seventh in the decathlon; U.S. pentathlon team coach).
Gore Vidal's mother was a socialite who made her Broadway debut as an extra in Sign of the Leopard in 1928. She married Eugene Luther Vidal, Sr. in 1922 and divorced him in 1935. She later married twice more (first to wealthy stockbroker Hugh D. Auchincloss and second to Major General Robert Olds) and, according to Gore Vidal, she had "a long off-and-on affair" with actor Clark Gable. Gore Vidal's father also remarried, in 1939, to Katharine Roberts with whom he had two children.
Vidal had four half-siblings from his parents' later marriages (the Rev. Vance Vidal, Valerie Vidal Hewitt, Thomas Gore Auchincloss, and Nina Gore Auchincloss Steers Straight) and four stepbrothers from his mother's third marriage to Army Air Forces Major General Robert Olds, who died in 1943, ten months after marrying Vidal's mother. Vidal's nephews include the brothers Burr Steers, writer and film director, and painter Hugh Auchincloss Steers (1963–1995).
Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C., where he attended Sidwell Friends School and then St. Albans School. Since Senator Gore was blind, his grandson read aloud to him and was often his guide. The senator's isolationism contributed a major principle of his grandson's political philosophy, which is critical of foreign and domestic policies shaped by American imperialism. Gore attended St. Albans in 1939, but left to study in France. He returned following the outbreak of World War II and studied at the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1940, later transferring to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Vidal did not go on to attend an Ivy League university, but instead enlisted in the US Navy, serving as a warrant officer mostly in the North Pacific.
Vidal had affairs with both men and women. He encountered baseball prodigy James Trimble as a teenager, and it is claimed that he was the "love of his life," although Trimble, who died in 1945 in World War II, apparently did not reciprocate that depth of feeling. Vidal was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward, before she married Paul Newman; after eloping, the couple shared a house with Vidal in Los Angeles for a short time.
In 1950, Vidal met his long-term partner Howard Austen, with whom he maintained a relationship until Austen's death 53 years later. Vidal once reported that the secret to his lengthy relationship with Austen was that they did not have sex with each other: "It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does."
During the latter part of the twentieth century Vidal spent much of his time in Italy, in the village of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast, where he and Austen lived. In 2003, Austen died and Vidal sold his Italian Villa and moved to Los Angeles. In February 2005, Austen was buried in a plot prepared for himself and Vidal at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Vidal died at his home in Hollywood Hills, Californiaon July 31, 2012, of complications from pneumonia. He was 86. He was buried next to Austen in Washington D.C.
Vidal had a brilliant wit, was an elegant writer, and evoked controversy in everything he did, said, and wrote. His acerbic tongue made him many enemies. Achieving literary success, fame, and fortune, Vidal nevertheless was unsatisfied with life. According to literary critic Harold Bloom, Vidal believed his homosexuality had denied him the full recognition of the literary community, although Bloom suggested this had more to do with Vidal's association with the unfashionable genre of historical fiction.
Vidal began his writing career in 1946 aged nineteen, with the publication of the military novel Williwaw, based upon his Alaskan Harbor Detachment duty. The novel was the first about World War II and proved successful. His third novel, published two years later in 1948, The City and the Pillar caused a furor for its dispassionate presentation of homosexuality. The novel was dedicated to "J.T." Decades later, after a magazine published rumors about J.T.'s identity, Vidal confirmed they were the initials of his alleged St. Albans-era love, James "Jimmy" Trimble III, killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima on March 1, 1945. Vidal later said that Trimble was the only person he had ever truly loved.
Orville Prescott, the book critic for the New York Times, found The City and the Pillar so objectionable that he refused to review or allow the Times to review Vidal's next five books. In response, Vidal wrote several mystery novels in the early 1950s under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Their success financed Vidal for more than a decade.
He also wrote plays, films, and television series. Two plays, The Best Man (1960) and Visit to a Small Planet (1955), were both Broadway and film successes.
In 1956, Vidal was hired as a contract screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. In 1959, director William Wyler sought his help to re-write the script for Ben-Hur, originally written by Karl Tunberg. Vidal collaborated with Christopher Fry, reworking the screenplay on condition that MGM release him from the last two years of his contract. Vidal later claimed in the documentary film The Celluloid Closet that, to explain the animosity between Ben-Hur and Messala, he had inserted a gay subtext suggesting that the two had had a prior relationship, but that actor Charlton Heston was oblivious. Heston denied that Vidal contributed significantly to the script. Producer Sam Zimbalist's death had complicated the screenwriting credit which the Screen Writers Guild had resolved by listing Tunberg as sole screenwriter.
In the 1960s, Vidal wrote three novels. The first, Julian (1964) dealt with the apostate Roman emperor, while the second, Washington, D.C. (1967) focused on a political family during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era. The third was the satirical transsexual comedy Myra Breckinridge (1968), a variation on Vidal's familiar themes of sex, gender, and popular culture.
Because of his matter-of-fact treatment of same-sex relations in his writings, Vidal was seen as an early champion of sexual liberation. Writing in Esquire magazine in 1969, a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, Vidal wrote:
We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime ... despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word 'natural,' not normal.
After the staging of the plays Weekend (1968) and An Evening With Richard Nixon (1972), and the publication of the novel Two Sisters: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (1970), Vidal focused on essays and two distinct themes in his fiction. The first strain comprises novels dealing with American history, specifically with the nature of national politics. Titles in this series, the Narratives of Empire, include Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), The Golden Age (2000). Another title devoted to the ancient world, Creation, appeared in 1981 and then in expanded form in 2002.
The second strain consists of the comedic "satirical inventions": Myron (1974, a sequel to Myra Breckinridge), Kalki (1978), Duluth (1983), Live from Golgotha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998).
Vidal occasionally returned to writing for film and television, including the television movie Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer and the mini-series Lincoln. He also wrote the original draft for the controversial film Caligula, but later had his name removed when director Tinto Brass and actor Malcolm McDowell rewrote the script, changing the tone and themes significantly. The producers later made an attempt to salvage some of Vidal's vision in the film's post-production.
Vidal was more respected as an essayist than as a novelist. Even harsh critics such as Martin Amis, who had no praise for his novels, admitted, "Essays are what he is good at ... [h]e is learned, funny and exceptionally clear-sighted. Even his blind spots are illuminating."
For six decades, Gore Vidal applied himself to a wide variety of sociopolitical, sexual, historical, and literary themes. In 1987, Vidal wrote the essays entitled Armageddon?, exploring the intricacies of power in contemporary America. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for the collection United States: Essays 1952–1992.
Vidal published a further collection of essays, in 2000, entitled The Last Empire. He also published such self-described "pamphlets" as Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, and Imperial America, critiques of American expansionism, the military-industrial complex, the national security state and the George W. Bush administration. Vidal also wrote an historical essay about the U.S.'s founding fathers, Inventing a Nation. In 1995, he published a memoir Palimpsest, and in 2006 its follow-up volume, Point to Point Navigation. Earlier that year, Vidal also published Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories.
In 2009, Vidal won the annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, which called him a "prominent social critic on politics, history, literature and culture."
In the 1960s, Vidal moved to Italy; he gave a cameo appearance in Federico Fellini's film Roma. He appeared in several films, notably Bob Roberts (starring Tim Robbins) Gattaca, With Honors, and Igby Goes Down, which was directed by his nephew Burr Steers. He appeared as himself in artist Francesco Vezzoli's "Trailer for the Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula" a piece of video art which was included in the 2005 Venice Biennale and is in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum.
True to his statement that "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television," Vidal made numerous appearances on a wide variety of television shows. He voiced himself on both The Simpsons and Family Guy and appeared on the Da Ali G Show, where Ali G (intentionally) mistakes him for Vidal Sassoon.
Vidal provided the narrative for the Royal National Theatre's production of Brecht's Mother Courage in 2009.
Besides his politician grandfather, Gore Vidal had other connections with the Democratic Party: his mother, Nina, married Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr., who became stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. In 1960, Vidal was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress, losing an election in New York's 29th congressional district, a traditionally Republican district on the Hudson River. Among his supporters were Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward; the latter two, longtime friends of Vidal's, campaigned for him and spoke on his behalf.
In 1968, ABC News invited Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. to be political analysts at the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. Verbal and nearly physical combat ensued when, after days of mutual bickering, their debates degraded to vitriolic attacks and name-calling. Buckley later expressed regret for having called Vidal a "queer," but nonetheless described Vidal as an "evangelist for bisexuality." Later, in 1969, the feud was continued as Buckley further attacked Vidal in the lengthy essay, "On Experiencing Gore Vidal," published in the August 1969 issue of Esquire. Vidal responded in the September 1969 issue of Esquire. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire for libel, Vidal counter-sued; a settlement was reached. In 2003, this affair re-surfaced when Esquire published Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing, an anthology that included Vidal's essay. Buckley again sued for libel, and Esquire again settled.
In 1982 he campaigned against incumbent Governor Jerry Brown for the Democratic primary election to the United States Senate from California. This was documented in the film, Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No directed by Gary Conklin. Vidal lost to Brown in the primary election.
Frequently identified with Democratic causes and personalities, Vidal wrote in the 1970s:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party ... and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt —until recently ... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
Despite this, Vidal said "I think of myself as a conservative." Vidal had a protective, almost proprietary attitude toward his native land and its politics: "My family helped start [this country]," he wrote, "and we've been in political life ... since the 1690s, and I have a very possessive sense about this country." At a 1999 lecture in Dublin, Vidal said:
A characteristic of our present chaos is the dramatic migration of tribes. They are on the move from east to west, from south to north. Liberal tradition requires that borders must always be open to those in search of safety or even the pursuit of happiness. But now with so many millions of people on the move, even the great-hearted are becoming edgy. Norway is large enough and empty enough to take in 40 to 50 million homeless Bengalis. If the Norwegians say that, all in all, they would rather not take them in, is this to be considered racism? I think not. It is simply self-preservation, the first law of species.”
He suggested that President Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor to facilitate American entry to the war, and believes FDR had advance knowledge of the attack.
During domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh's imprisonment, Vidal corresponded with McVeigh and concluded that he bombed the federal building as retribution for the FBI's role in the 1993 Branch Davidian Compound massacre in Waco, Texas.
In 1997, although fundamentally critical of Scientology, Vidal was one of 34 celebrities to sign an open letter to then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, published as a newspaper advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, which protested the treatment of Scientologists in Germany.
On September 30, 2009, The Times of London published a lengthy interview with him headlined "We’ll have a dictatorship soon in the US," which brought up-to-date his views on his own life, and a variety of political subjects.
Vidal lived a long life, in which he never missed an opportunity to make public his views on life, particularly in relation to love and sex and politics. His writing about homosexuality as a natural state of affairs at a time when it was considered a mental disorder, and his openness about his own homosexual activities, so outraged critics that he was forced into virtual exile for a time. Today, an open attitude toward homosexuality is widespread. While his criticisms of the United States in particular and civilization in general were not always received as accurate, his style led many, at least those not under his attack, to enjoy his wit and use of language, and to mourn his passing.
After Vidal's death, tributes immediately poured in from various media sources both home and abroad: The New York Times described him as being in his old age "an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent." The Los Angeles Times described him as a "literary juggernaut" whose novels and essays were considered "among the most elegant in the English language." The Washington Post remembered him as a "major writer of the modern era" and an "astonishingly versatile man of letters."
In Europe, Britain's The Guardian said "Vidal's critics disparaged his tendency to formulate an aphorism rather than to argue, finding in his work an underlying note of contempt for those who did not agree with him. His fans, on the other hand, delighted in his unflagging wit and elegant style." The Daily Telegraph described him as "an icy iconoclast" who "delighted in chronicling what he perceived as the disintegration of civilisation around him", while BBC News said he was "one of the finest post-war American writers... an indefatigable critic of the whole American system." Writing in Los Angeles, BBC journalist Alastair Leithead said: "Gore Vidal saw himself as the last of the breed of literary figures who became celebrities in their own right. Never a stranger to chat shows, his wry and witty opinions were sought after as much as his writing."
Popular Spanish publication Ideal reported Vidal's death as a loss to the "culture of the United States" and described him as a "Huge American novelist and essayist." The Italian Il Corriere described him as "the enfant terrible of American culture," and "one of the giants of American literature." French paper Le Figaro described him as "the Killjoy of America" but also noted that he was an "outstanding polemicist" who used phrases "like high precision weapons."
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