Gore Vidal remembered: a larger-than-life literary presence

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

Carol Tedesco/Florida Keys News Bureau/AP
Writer Gore Vidal was also an outspoken commentator who occasionally shocked America with his views.

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.

“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.”

Of course, in life Vidal recognized no limits and the next decades saw the formidable writer enter the political ring. He ran for office as a Democrat in upstate New York in 1960 – under the slogan “You’ll get more with Gore” – and narrowly lost the staunchly Republican district (calling for recognition of Communist China may have had something to do with his loss). In 1982, Vidal made a bid for the Senate seat in California. That, too, he lost.

In between, Vidal lived in self-imposed exile in Ravello, Italy, for more than 30 years with his partner Howard Austen, whose 2003 death Vidal wrote about in his second memoir, “Point to Point Navigation.”

Vidal, who claimed to have slept with thousands of men and was in a relationship with Austen for five decades, always rejected attempts to categorize himself – or for that matter, anyone else – by sexual orientation. “There are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts,” he is said to have responded to questions.

Vidal, who once said he had “met everyone, but knew no one,” was “among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities,” according to NBC News. Among his friends were Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Frank Sinatra, Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Eleanor Woodward, and a collection of Kennedys, many of whom are found in anecdotes woven throughout his works. Vidal counted former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and former US Vice President Al Gore among his relatives.

Throughout life, Vidal was known as an outspoken commentator whose quick wit, acerbic tongue, and overall fearlessness garnered him a large audience.

He riled the country when he said “Americans who died on 9/11 were as much victims of US foreign policy as victims of terrorism,” as USA Today reported. He also took as a personal affront George W. Bush’s “stolen election” from Al Gore in 2000 and called the Bush administration “incompetent.”

Vidal also shocked Americans when he befriended convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, with whom he corresponded for years, and said he understood “why he did what he did.”

And as CNN reported, Vidal “once compared author Norman Mailer to the infamous killer Charles Manson, which prompted Mailer to headbutt him before a show.”

“I've had hard targets in my lifetime, I've taken on general superstitions, but that's what writers do,” Vidal once said of his controversial comments. “So I certainly wouldn't have changed my modus vivendi one bit.”

Vidal won the National Book Award in 1993 for his collection of essays “United States.”

Vidal said he hoped to be remembered as “the person who wrote the best sentences of his time.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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