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Gore Vidal remembered: a larger-than-life literary presence (+video)

Gore Vidal, who died yesterday at the age of 86, was a legendary writer and contrarian commentator.

By Husna Haq / August 1, 2012

Writer Gore Vidal was also an outspoken commentator who occasionally shocked America with his views.

Carol Tedesco/Florida Keys News Bureau/AP

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Gore Vidal, the literary juggernaut, contrarian commentator and iconoclast who defied categorization, has died. Vidal died at his Los Angeles home Tuesday evening at the age of 86.

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Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday, was a prolific American author, provocateur, and Renaissance man.

“No one else in what he calls 'the land of the tin ear' can combine better sentences into more elegantly sustained demolition derbies than Vidal does in some of his best essays,” Thomas Mallon once wrote in the National Review.

Arguably, Vidal’s greatest accomplishment was not to be found among his 25 novels, Broadway plays, more than 200 essays, or even his National Book Award, which the acclaimed writer won in 1993 for his collection of essays “United States: Essays, 1952-1992.” Rather, writes the UK’s Guardian, “his greatest work was, perhaps, his life itself – an American epic which sprawled beyond literature to encompass Hollywood, Broadway, Washington and the Bay of Naples, with incidental roles for almost every major American cultural and political figure of the 20th century.” For who else “gave JFK the idea for the Peace Corps, was called in to rescue the script of Ben-Hur, ran unsuccessfully for both Congress and the Senate, and got into a fistfight with Norman Mailer.”

If nothing else, Vidal lived large – and never apologized for it.

Upon his birth in 1925 in West Point, N.Y., Vidal entered a life of power and privilege. His father was an aviation and aeronautics instructor at the US military academy at West Point and a founder of the airline giant TWA. His mother, a Broadway actress and socialite. His grandfather, Thomas Gore, a Democratic senator for Oklahoma. After completing prep school, Vidal skipped college and joined the Navy at 17, during which time he began writing his first novel. Vidal wrote “Williwaw” while on night watch on a supply ship in an Alaskan port. The title was inspired by the sudden, violent blasts of wind known as the williwaw that sweep down over the mountains and into the Bering Sea, where they can wreak havoc on a ship. The novel was published in 1946.

Vidal went on to write 24 more novels, including “The City and the Pillar,” his third novel which nearly squashed Vidal’s career (and incidentally, shot Vidal to fame) with its then-controversial openly gay character. His prodigious literary output also included the transsexual satire “Myra Breckenridge,” the memoirs “Palimpsest” and “Point to Point Navigation,” and the historical novels “Washington, DC,” “Lincoln,” and “Burr.”

Equally accomplished as a screenwriter, Vidal wrote more than 30 original scripts for film and television throughout the 1950s, which culminated in two Broadway hits – "Visit to a Small Planet" and "The Best Man" – and his role rescuing the script of Ben-Hur. Vidal even acted, taking roles in “Fellini’s Roma,” “Gattaca,” and “Bob Roberts.”

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