Gore Vidal: a celebrity, a life writ large

Gore Vidal was known as much for his fierce public spats as he was for collected works that included 25 novels, 200 essays, six plays, several screenplays, and a National Book Award for essays on the United States.

Tina Fineberg/AP/File
Actress Joanne Woodward (l.) stands by as Gore Vidal speaks at the National Book Awards in New York, where he accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on Nov. 19, 2009. Vidal died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles.

Gore Vidal, who died at his Hollywood home Tuesday, is being remembered for his keen skills as a novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and provocateur as well as a bundle of apparent contradictions: prickly outside, warm and cuddly inside when not putting on airs. Critic Adam Goodheart summed up the contradictions when he wrote that Vidal was "ironic, cosmopolitan, erudite, a sexual non-conformist with a superbly honed sense of envy who needs to be both gate-crasher and guest of honor at every party."

Known for his searing public feuds, Vidal also could be disarmingly polite and smooth, drawing in people at gatherings with a kind of “well-WE-know-this-and-others-don’t” charm. His lifelong scorn for intellectual and cultural barbarism took on added venom in later years with personal loss and painful mobility that he could dismiss with a devilish wink.

He authored 25 novels, six plays, 200 essays, and several screenplays. An early novel, "The City and the Pillar," and a later sexual farce, "Myra Breckinridge," were credited with pushing the envelope of sexuality in modern literature. His historical novels, ranging from the Roman Empire ("Julian") to the birth of the American republic ("Burr"), garnered wide respect among historians, and his "United States: Essays 1952-1992" won the 1993 National Book Award.

Vidal famously called conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. a "pro-crypto-Nazi," got sued for it, and apologized to the judge by saying: "It was a modest slip of the tongue, I was searching for the word 'fascist.' " Besides his famous jibe-fests with Buckley and Norman Mailer, who once head-butted him backstage, Vidal was well-known for championing literary causes and education, which he said at length were on the decline in the US.

The motivation to convey what he understood to be the correct view of history was a driving force in Vidal's life, according to historian and author Michael Roth, president of the California College of the Arts.

"Vidal's great contribution has been as one of America's great historical novelists," he says. "His life has been dedicated to reimagining things about the country's past and the country's leading figures. Vidal thinks he's giving deeper historical truth by giving skeleton facts and then imagining the flesh of characters on those facts."

He embraced popular culture, admitting to liking Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He voiced his own likeness on “The Simpsons,” and he had close connections with figures as diverse as John Kennedy, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, and Paul Newman.

He was perhaps most admired for his way with words, both in writing and extemporaneously. When The New York Times asked him what he felt upon news that William F. Buckley had died, he replied: "I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred," he responded.

"Gore Vidal was a writer's writer – he'll be remembered for his zest for words and the topics he chose,” says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media." “In an age before 24/7 cable, Vidal's novels were an entry into politics and history and the American way. His keen intellect and sharp tongue will remain cutting edge for a long time to come."

But it was the ideas beneath his apt turns of phrase that also drew admiration.

“Vidal believed that words, and the powerful ideas they could convey, if deployed properly, were too precious a resource to waste on those who had neither the education nor the wit to appreciate them,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, associate professor of communications at Villanova University. “He did not suffer fools lightly, yet strenuously championed those writers, artists, and thinkers whose ideas provided the bracing tonic or slap in the face we needed to remind us of the repeated failures of courage and imagination, particularly of our government and our politicians, in post-World War II America.”

Alongside Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal became a regular fixture on talk shows, in an era when it was stylish to have public intellectuals and authors to discuss topics of the day. To some, this watered down what might otherwise have been his legacy.

“In the end, he will be remembered as much for his stints on Johnny Carson as for his writings,” says Dr. Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington’s, Sociology Department. “He realized that this is not a nation of readers, and perhaps he didn't take academic pedigree seriously because of this. Most of his writings won't endure, and he will be remembered as a personality – a fate which, I suspect, he would have anticipated.”

Professor Agger notes that what made Vidal so American is that he didn’t attend college, after having left the military and been offered admission to Harvard. “We allow our intellectuals to be self-educated, as Vidal was,” he says.

“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," wrote the British newspaper the Guardian. 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?"

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