Gore Vidal

by James Burkinshaw

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
(source: flaglerlive.com)
Gore Vidal, who died on Tuesday, 31st July, aged 86, was not only a prolific novelist, elegant essayist and perspicacious reviewer, but a Hollywood screenwriter, Broadway playwright, screen actor (including cartoon incarnations on both The Simpsons and Family Guy), as well as aspirant politician. However, what made him a household name in America (and Europe) was his compelling television presence; as Charles McGrath noted, “Television was a natural medium for Mr. Vidal, who in person was often as cool and detached as he was in his prose.”  He combined deadly wit, elegant phrasing (he once claimed that rivals hated him because he was one of the few people able to speak in perfect sentences) and a willingness to say the unsayable. His insults were legendary, often provoking their targets to inchoate rage. Having been punched to the floor by novelist Norman Mailer after reviewing one of his novels unfavourably, Vidal responded, “I see words fail him again.”  Told that writer Truman Capote had died, Vidal remarked “A wise career move.” On a separate occasion, Mailer head-butted Vidal just prior to an appearance by both of them on Dick Cavett’s chat show; the subsequent encounter (see video below) was memorable:

 However, Gore Vidal deserves to be remembered for his extraordinary essays (collected as United States: Essays 1952-1992, which received the prestigious National Book Award). He wrote intelligently, wittily and beautifully about literature, culture and politics. He re-evaluated the reputations of literary colossi such as Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov, while championing not only new writers such as Italo Calvino but neglected authors from the past (for example, Dawn Powell). His political and cultural essays ranged from the Roman empire to sexuality ("Sex is Politics" and "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"), Hollywood ("Tarzan Revisited") and religion (“How to Find God and Make Money”). He also memorably profiled a variety of American presidents, from the jingoistic Teddy Roosevelt (“American Sissy”) to Ronald Reagan (“a triumph of the embalmer’s art”) and the president he perhaps most admired (although not uncritically), Abraham Lincoln.

Gore Vidal and John F Kennedy
(source: Daily Telegraph)
Reviewing the essays, Stephen Spender wrote, “They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one.” Part of what made Vidal such an effective critic of those in the public eye (politicians, above all) was that he grew up among them. His father, Eugene, was President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Director of Air Commerce and his grandfather, Thomas Gore, was a powerful U.S. Senator. Vidal’s parents divorced and his mother remarried a man who later married Jackie Kennedy’s mother. Through Jackie, Vidal became a friend of her husband, John F. Kennedy, which did not prevent him later describing Kennedy as “one of our worst presidents.” To be fair, his view of subsequent politicians was equally dismissive: “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence they can’t read them either.” However, Vidal felt that Americans got the politicians they deserved: “public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation and prejudice.”

Gore Vidal
(source: commondreams.org)
He himself ran for Congress (1960) and the Senate (1982); however, this was the one area in which he was unsuccessful. He did not have the bland self-discipline required for victory in politics, nor were his views about America likely to endear him to majority of the voting public. He wrote a series of historical novels, starting with Burr (1973) (my personal favourite), which shows the Founding Fathers (very plausibly) as regular politicians rather than the demigods of popular perception; The New York Times noted, “Mr. Vidal gives us an interpretation of our early history that says in effect that all the old verities were never much to begin with.” The remaining novels chronicled the next 200 years of American history, wittily, persuasively and often movingly, while making the case that a country that saw itself as a democracy and a republic had become an empire as corrupt and ruthless as those that had preceded it --- an empire, furthermore, that was now in decline. He was scathing about each of the two main political parties: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two 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."

He alienated even some friends and allies (such as Christopher Hitchens, whom Vidal had previously (and mischievously) "anointed" his “successor, or dauphin”) following the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the 9/11 bombing of 2001, when Vidal suggested the possibility that both attacks might have been exploited by the government to advance political agendas. He argued that the 9/11 bombing was a consequence of the imperialistic American foreign policy that he had chronicled in his essays and novels.  

Gore Vidal
(source: thoughtcatalogue.com)
Gore Vidal was openly gay (although he emphatically hated the word), living with his partner, Howard Austen, for over fifty years, at a time when such transparency still had the potential to destroy a career. As a result of his frank treatment of homosexuality in his novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), The New York Times refused to review his books for years afterwards, as did other magazines and newspapers. The hostility of the American reaction and the contrastingly enthusiastic response from European critics contributed to Vidal’s decision to move to Italy, where he lived for nearly forty years (referring to America as “the land of the dull and the home of the literal”), during which time he claimed to have “tried everything but incest and folk dancing”. The temporary stalling of his novelistic career also resulted in him working in Hollywood as a scriptwriter for several years, including a stint as a “script doctor” on the epic Ben-Hur (during which he managed to smuggle in a gay subtext between the two leading characters without conservative film star Charlton Heston noticing). Vidal’s experiences in Hollywood and his desire to shock the New York Times even further resulted in Myra Breckinridge (1968), whose eponymous hero is a sexually voracious transsexual with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1940s Hollywood movies; this was the novel that Vidal declared his own personal favourite and that critic Danny Altman described (approvingly) as “part of a major cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the western world in the late 1960s and early 1970s”.

A regular target for Gore Vidal’s satire was religion, in particular Christianity. His novel, Julian (1964) (considered his best by many critics) offered a sympathetic portrait of the last pagan Roman emperor, who sought to eradicate Christianity. Vidal courted further controversy in Live from Golgotha (1992), which portrays St Paul as a cynical huckster manipulating Jesus for his own ends. When asked, towards the end of his life, about his beliefs, Gore Vidal replied, “Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at the galaxy’s edge, there is all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”

Read a tribute to writer and critic, Robert Hughes

More Gore:

Gore Vidal versus Conservative journalist William F Buckley Jr:

BBC obituary, August 1st, 2012: