Gore Vidal, 86, celebrated and debonair writer, commentator
Gore Vidal, whose best-selling novels and witty, acidulous essays made him one of America’s best-known authors, died Tuesday at his home in Hollywood Hills, Calif. He was 86. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia, according to his nephew.
Mr. Vidal held a unique place in American literature. Other writers have succeeded in entertainment as well as letters, and a few novelists have dabbled in politics. Only Mr. Vidal was equally at home in all three.
He twice mounted highly publicized, if ultimately unsuccessful, congressional races. He flourished in Hollywood, on network television and as a Broadway playwright. In addition to two dozen novels, a dozen essay collections, two memoirs, two short story collections, and three detective novels (published under the name Edgar Box). Mr. Vidal was the author of more than 30 stage plays, screenplays, and television plays or adaptations.
The one constant among Mr. Vidal’s books is a burnished iconoclasm and delight in flouting conventional opinion. Whether casting a cold eye on America’s past in such historical novels as “Burr” (1973) and “Lincoln” (1984) or lampooning America’s present in such fictional burlesques as “Myra Breckinridge” (1968), he prided himself on his ability to shock.
Mr. Vidal’s suave good looks and singularly self-possessed air made him a natural before the camera, and the camera brought him “the sort of honor that,” as he once conceded, “I do lust for, the attention of the great audience.”
He appeared onscreen to introduce several of the dramas he wrote for live television in the 1950s and, in the ’60s and ’70s became a familiar figure on late-night talk shows. “Some authors take to drink,” Mr. Vidal once remarked, “others take to audiences.” Very much one of the latter, he was as likely to turn up trading quips with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” as he was practicing a literary scorched-earth policy in the pages of The New York Review of Books.
His friend the director Federico Fellini had Mr. Vidal play himself in the film “Fellini Roma” (1978), and in later years Mr. Vidal took on character parts in a number of other motion pictures: “Bob Roberts” (1992), “With Honors” (1994), “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), and “Gattaca” (1997).
Mr. Vidal was perhaps best known to the general public for his feuds. “I am made for battle,” he liked to claim, and not since the painter James A.M. Whistler a century before, has an American cultural figure demonstrated such a talent for embroiling himself so often, let alone so stylishly, in personal controversy. Mr. Vidal could have justly appropriated for his own the title of Whistler’s book, “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.”
“It is not enough to succeed,” Mr. Vidal once said. “Others must fail.” On another occasion, asked to comment on the death of the author Truman Capote, he replied, “Good career move.” Such deep-dish frankness, a Vidal trademark, helped earn him high-profile antagonists. Among the foremost objects of his disaffection, besides Capote, were The New York Times, Robert F. Kennedy, William F. Buckley Jr., Norman Mailer, and the neoconservative writers Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter.
In his epigrammatic wit, lofty public persona, and lapidary quarrelsomeness, Mr. Vidal conjured up the image of a latter-day Oscar Wilde. The parallel extended to his sexuality. It was Mr. Vidal’s contention that human beings are inherently bisexual. “There is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person,” he believed. “There are only homo- and heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses, if not practices.”
Mr. Vidal made no secret that these views were grounded in extensive personal experience. The unabashed treatment of homosexuality in his third novel, “The City and the Pillar” (1948), created a literary scandal — the Times went so far as to refuse to run advertisements for the book — and the furor made the novel a best seller. It also meant Mr. Vidal’s career languished for much of the next decade.
All these various extra-literary elements in his work — politics, performing, disputatiousness, and sexual ambiguity — found themselves united one memorable night during the 1968 Democratic Convention. As part of its news coverage, ABC enlisted as commentators Buckley, arguing the conservative side, and Mr. Vidal, arguing the liberal.
The ferocity of events within and without the convention center was mirrored in the broadcast booth. Mr. Vidal kept likening his opponent’s views to fascism, and an enraged Buckley responded, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Buckley brought libel charges against Mr. Vidal but later dropped the suit.
Earlier that year, Mr. Vidal had published “Myra Breckinridge,” which along with “Duluth” (1983) was his favorite among his books, a cheerfully outre tale of a transsexual rampaging his/her way through American mores. In 1974, Mr. Vidal published a sequel, “Myron.’’
“Myra,” “Myron,” and “Duluth,” which offers a counterfactual United States where the title city lies near the Mexican border, exemplify the most interesting of Mr. Vidal’s three fictional modes. Wildly broad in both form and content, they are much removed from his early fiction, whose uninflected, naturalistic style exemplify what Mr. Vidal would later describe as “the national manner: colorless, careful prose, deliberately confined to the surface of things.”
In the third category, Mr. Vidal’s historical novels, the author tempered his enfant terrible past to attain a mainstream respectability. The first of these novels, “Julian” (1964), took for its hero the last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate (a title Mr. Vidal clearly aspired to). The remaining novels, a loosely linked sextet, followed US history from the early days of the Republic up to the 1960s. Three of them — “Burr,” “1876” (1976), and “Lincoln” — met with great commercial success. The others are “Washington, D.C.” (1967), “Empire” (1987), and “Hollywood” (1990).
Mr. Vidal saw himself as primarily a novelist. Yet by the time of his fourth essay collection, “Matters of Fact and Fiction” (1977), it was generally agreed his finest work lay in argumentative prose. As the British author Jonathan Raban once noted, “Gore Vidal the novelist’s best character is Gore Vidal the essayist.” Certainly, his essays are bravura performances — arch, acerbic, amusing — in which a carefully cultivated mandarin disdain is brought to a glittering polish. Mr. Vidal’s subsequent collection, “The Second American Revolution,” won the 1982 National Book Critics Circle award in criticism, and his “United States: Essays 1952-1992” won the 1993 National Book Award for nonfiction.
In a number of his essays, Mr. Vidal wrote of having had to choose between politics and literature as a career — and of how, had he chosen differently, he might have ended up in the White House. As it was, he eventually gained entree there — as a guest at social occasions during the early years of the Kennedy Administration.
Mr. Vidal’s mother, after divorcing his father, had married Hugh D. Auchincloss, who after divorcing the former Mrs. Vidal married the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy (who moved into the room that had been Mr. Vidal’s). Thus, as the First Lady’s step-sibling once removed, Mr. Vidal found himself on the outer reaches of the New Frontier. It gave him particular delight to remind his step-brother-in-law once removed that in 1960 he had run 20,000 votes ahead of JFK as a candidate for the House of Representatives in upstate New York. Though Mr. Vidal lost, he nonetheless did better in the overwhelmingly Republican district than any Democrat had since 1910. Two decades later, he unsuccessfully ran against Jerry Brown for the Democratic Senate nomination in California, garnering 500,000 votes.
Mr. Vidal lost his place at Camelot after Robert F. Kennedy had him ejected from a White House dinner, thus setting off a feud bitter even by Mr. Vidal’s salt-sowing standards. He contended he had drawn RFK’s ire for having innocently placed his hand on Jacqueline Kennedy to steady his balance. Kennedy said Mr. Vidal had been intoxicated and acting abusively toward other guests. Whatever the truth, Mr. Vidal neither forgave nor forgot: When RFK ran for the seat of Sen. Kenneth Keating (R-N.Y.), Mr. Vidal helped found “Democrats for Keating.”
Mr. Vidal’s interest in politics came as a birthright. His father, Eugene L. Vidal, served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, and his mother, Nina (Gore) Vidal, was the daughter of Sen. Thomas P. Gore (D-Okla.).
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (he ceased to use the first two names while in his teens) was born on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on Oct. 3, 1925, and grew up in Washington, D.C. He graduated fom Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943. Abandoning plans to attend Harvard, he enlisted in the Army. His service as a warrant officer in the Aleutian Islands inspired his first novel, “Williwaw” (1946).
Mr. Vidal’s novels after “The City and the Pillar” met with critical and commercial failure. In 1954 he turned his attention to live television drama, and it would be another decade before he published a novel. One of Mr. Vidal’s teleplays, “Visit to a Small Planet,” became a Broadway hit in 1957. Three years later, his political drama, “The Best Man,” met with even greater success. Both plays later became films.
In 1965, Mr. Vidal and his partner, Howard Austen, began to divide their time between Italy and the United States. Austen died in 2003.Mark Feeney can be reached at Mfeeney@globe.com