October 3, 1924– Gore Vidal:
“I was born a writer. When that happens, you have no choice in the matter.”
I played him once. Well, not exactly, but I based a character that I portrayed, a theatre critic, in Tom Stoppard‘s brilliant comedy The Real Inspector Hound, on Gore Vidal, taken from his appearances on television talk shows.
Born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal at West Point, NY, the brilliant, erudite, perceptive and sarcastic Vidal could be my own single writer library. He is the author of 23 novels, five plays, three volumes of memoirs, numerous screenplays and short stories, plus over 400 essays. With his special pedigree (his grandfather was a U.S. Senator and his father was a member of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Cabinet), good-looks, good-luck and talent, Vidal was a witness to almost a century of American political and social life.
Vidal was a tried and true progressive promoter of gay visibility. He was a brave man at a time when he had everything to lose. His third novel, The City And The Pillar (1948), was the first mainstream novel to deal openly with male homosexuality. Vidal lacked support from his own editor, who forced him to make the already dark ending less compelling by having the gay main character become a murderer, killing his straight lifelong crush. When the novel was released, The NY Times reviewer was so outraged by the depravity that the newspaper refused to review Vidal’s next five books. Time and Newsweek vowed never to review another book by him.
Forthcoming with gay themes and characters in his fiction, along with lending strong support to Sexual Freedom and Equal Rights, Vidal still famously believed in gay sex acts, but not gay people. He claimed to be bisexual, but his close relationships with women like actors Joanne Woodward and Claire Bloom were strictly platonic. Vidal claimed that he and his partner of 50+ years, Howard Austen, only had sex at the start of their relationship. Vidal never officially came out of the closet; the very idea of coming out was abhorrent to him.
“‘Homoerotic’ means to lust for one’s own sex, which I certainly did a lot of in my youth, ‘Homosexual’ implies really an organization of one’s life around it, and I never did that, but always kept my options open. Needless to say I was immediately categorized with The City And The Pillar when I need not have been, and never regretted it for one minute. I always thought it was my opinion of others which mattered, not their opinion of me. I was less distressed than you might think for being so categorized but always hesitated to categorize anyone else unless they insisted on it.”
Writers like Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Mailer and Rod Serling were public figures in the 1950s and 1960s, and Vidal was asked to appear on talk shows like The Tonight Show. His mellifluous voice, ready wit, gift for mimicry, and unexpected candor about sex, politics and every other subject made him a sought-after guest. When ABC News hired Vidal and conservative pundit William F. Buckley to cover the political conventions in summer 1968, the rancor and resentment came to a head when Vidal called Buckley a “pro-crypto Nazi”. Buckley ranted in his upper-class Atlantic accent:”
“Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Buckley continued to attack Vidal in Esquire Magazine just months after The Stonewall Riots, claiming that Vidal: “was proclaiming the normalcy of his affliction”, comparing him to a drug pusher for promoting his gayness.
This little fascinating and entertaining slice of history is the subject of Best Of Enemies (2015), a documentary film directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville about the famed televised debates.
Vidals most famous series of novels: Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), Washington DC (1967), and The Golden Age (2000) are fictional histories of the USA from the American Revolution to the recent past.
“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”
He eviscerated anyone challenging his position as a preeminent American novelist. Of Truman Capote: “He has a peculiar interior decorator’s way of constructing a Saks Fifth Avenue window and calling it a novel“; on Norman Mailer: “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons”; John Updike: “He is forever stuck in a psychic Shillington-Ipswich-New York world where everything outside his familiar round is unreal”. When British actor Claire Bloom said she was going to marry Philip Roth after her second divorce, Vidal told her: “You already have had Portnoy’s complaint. Do not involve yourself with Portnoy”.
Vidal ran as a Democrat for the U.S. House Of Representatives from New York. From his opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s to his opposition to the Iraq war in the 21st century, Vidal was one of the country’s most outspoken social critics. During the Vietnam War, he helped found the short-lived People’s Party, a revival of the 19th century Populist movement in which his grandfather had been a young leader. In 1972, the People’s Party nominated Dr. Benjamin Spock for President. Spock promised that, if elected, he would appoint Vidal Secretary of State. Vidal made a more serious foray into electoral politics in 1982, when he ran for the United States Senate in California, where he had long maintained a home. He was defeated in the Democratic primary by then-Governor Jerry Brown, who lost to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson in the general election.
After losing two elections, Vidal turned his political genius into literature, chronicling the decline and fall of the American Empire in a series of essays, United States: Essays 1952-1992, which won the 1993 National Book Award. Vidal’s best essays are collected in The Selected Essays Of Gore Vidal (2008).
Vidal’s Point To Point Navigation (2006) is a memoir about dealing with the loss of his partner, Austen, who left this world in 2003. As always, Vidal’s personal drama reflects the larger political and historical picture of the USA, in this case George W.’s legacy of war, torture, and autocratic rule. The book’s title refers to Vidal’s flight service during WW II, a method of visual navigation in which one flies from one landmark to the next. It is a very readable follow-up to one of my favorite books of all time, his memoir Palimpsest (1995).
I love this moment from Point To Point Navigation: Austen asks from his deathbed: “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?” Vidal answers:
“Of course it had. We had been too happy and the gods cannot bear the happiness of mortals.”
Always a conundrum, Vidal actually begins a paragraph in his final memoir Gore Vidal: Snapshots In History’s Glare (2009): “Despite never having been very social…”, but then immediately proceeds to tell of asking Andy Warhol, Mick and Bianca Jagger to visit him and Austen at their villa outside Ravello, Italy. Vidal:
“Our old friends the Newmans (Paul and Joanne Woodward) used to drop by. So did Lauren Hutton, Susan Sarandon, Rudolf Nureyev, Hillary Clinton, Sting, James Taylor, Leonard Bernstein, Johnny Carson, Bruce Springsteen and many others.”
I have seen photographs of young Vidal setting off to war and later frolicking with Tennessee Williams; and of a middle-aged Vidal running for Congress and hobnobbing with John F. Kennedy (Vidal shared a stepfather with Jackie Kennedy). Williams told Vidal that JFK had “a nice ass”; Vidal told Kennedy, who answered: “Why, that’s very exciting.”
Vidal left us with a treasury of quips, bon mots and his vast knowledge of literature and history, particularly American History. He is a smart observer and his sharp insights cut down the powerful, and he does it with aplomb:
“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”
“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”
“A Narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”
Vidal left this world in summer 2012. Austen and Vidal are buried together at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC. Vidal continues to fascinate me with his wit and insight. He is a true American Treasure and a Gay Icon. Can you even imagine what he would have to say about this terrible administration and the president’s followers?
“As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”