Gore Vidal dies at 86; iconoclastic author
Gore Vidal was a literary juggernaut who wrote novels including 'Lincoln' and the satirical 'Myra Breckinridge,' and essays critics consider among the most elegant in the English language.
In 1993, Vidal won the National Book Award for his massive “United States Essays, 1952-1992,” a collection of erudite and infuriating critiques on politics, sexuality, religion and literature written originally for such publications as The Nation, Esquire and the New York Review of Books. Above, Vidal in 2003. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times / March 11, 2003)
"Gore was an iconoclast. That was his strength," former Nation editor Victor Navasky told The Times several years ago. While some critics believed Vidal should be remembered for his essays, others, like Navasky, thought it would be for the bridges he burned.
Vidal crafted many of his diatribes at his villa in Ravello, Italy, where he lived for three decades. In 2005, he returned full time to his other longtime home, a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
He had a lifelong fascination with Hollywood as a place of invention and reinvention, the chief motifs of his unusual life.
Vidal grew up expecting a career in national politics. "I never wanted to be a writer. I mean, that's the last thing I wanted," he once told critic Charles Ruas.
He was born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal on Oct. 3, 1925, in West Point, N.Y. His father, Eugene, was an aviation expert who taught at theU.S. Military Academy and later served as director of air commerce under PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt. His mother, the former Nina Gore, was a Washington socialite whom he portrayed as a heavy drinker with a nasty temper. The Gores divorced when Vidal was 10 and his mother was briefly married to Hugh Auchincloss, who later married Jacqueline Kennedy's mother.
A complete list of survivors was not available, but his nephew said they include a half-sister, Nina Straight, and a half-brother, Thomas Auchincloss.
Because of his poor relationship with his mother, Vidal spent much of his childhood living in Washington with his maternal grandfather, Sen. Thomas P. Gore, an influential Oklahoma Democrat. Vidal spent many hours reading to the blind senator, particularly from the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, two documents that would become touchstones in his political writing.
Vidal graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943, skipped college and joined theU.S. Army. He trained at the Virginia Military Institute and served on a freight-supply ship in the Aleutian Islands, where he became familiar with the sudden blasts of wind called williwaws. During night watches in port he began to write "Williwaw," which earned flattering reviews and established its young author as a leading member of the post-World War II class of first-time novelists that included Mailer and Capote.
But neither "Williwaw" nor his next novel, "In a Yellow Wood" (1947), gained as much notice as his third effort, "The City and the Pillar" (1948), which centered on two athletic, boy-next-door-types who become lovers. Semi-autobiographical, it was inspired by Vidal's love for a schoolmate, Jimmie Trimble, who died while serving in the Marines at Iwo Jima. Vidal said he did not realize until decades later that Trimble had been "a completion of myself," the one genuine love of his life.
Though commercially successful, the book closed the door on Vidal's political ambitions and made him a literary persona non grata. But it has remained in print and still studied by scholars because Vidal "wrote what had never been published by a reputable American writer: an unreserved novel about the homosexual demimonde and the 'naturalness' of homosexual relations," critic Robert Kiernan wrote.
To survive financially after critics blacklisted him, Vidal produced several books under fictitious names, the most successful of which were the three mysteries he wrote as Edgar Box. Critics praised "Death in the Fifth Position" (1952), "Death Before Bedtime" (1953) and "Death Likes It Hot" (1954), which were reissued in 2011.
Vidal also turned his talents to screenplays, which included his successful adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer." He was an uncredited writer on the 1959 blockbuster "Ben Hur," contributing what he described as a homoerotic subtext to the relationship between the two male leads, Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. (His last major screenwriting credit was for the X-rated "Caligula," a disastrous 1979 film produced and co-directed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.)
In 1960, the same year that "The Best Man" opened on Broadway, Vidal made his political debut, running for a House seat as a liberal Democrat in a conservative upstate New York district. Noting in the New York Times that his objective was to "subvert a society that bores and appalls me," he championed issues such as recognition of Red China and reducing the military budget. Not surprisingly, he lost.
Two decades later in California he trailed Jerry Brown by a large margin in a bid for the 1982 Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat.
Vidal was far more successful writing about political power than acquiring it.
His first historical novel was "Julian" (1964), a bestseller about the 4th-century Roman emperor who rejected Christianity. Praised as a vivid evocation of the era, it freed Vidal from literary Siberia. He went on to re-imagine American history in "Washington, D.C.," "Burr," "1876," "Lincoln," "Empire," "Hollywood" and "The Golden Age."
Among the most controversial was "Lincoln," which portrayed the 16th president as a devious, possibly syphilitic leader who cared more about preserving the Union than ridding it of slavery. Lincoln biographer Richard N. Current, writing in the Journal of Southern History in 1986, said the novel "grossly" distorted Lincoln's character and was "wrong on big as well as little matters."
Championing Vidal was a titan of literary criticism, Harold Bloom. Writing in the New York Review of Books, he called Vidal "a masterly American historical novelist, now wholly matured, who has found his truest subject, which is our national political history."
Vidal spoke in a radically different voice in "Myra Breckinridge" (1968), a graphic satire about a sociopathic transsexual who goes to California to become a Hollywood star. Called "repulsive" and "brutally witty" by the New York Times, it became a massive bestseller. The 1970 movie, which critics panned, starred Raquel Welch as Myra.
In a similarly savage vein were "Myron," a sequel to "Myra Breckinridge"; "Duluth" (1983), which spoofs America in the Reagan era; and "Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal" (1992), which was denounced by the Vatican for its scathing view of Jesus and his followers. "If God exists and Jesus is His son," novelist John Rechy wrote in a Los Angeles Times review, "then Gore Vidal is going to hell."
Vidal never wrote the Great American Novel. But he wrote scores of classic essays, beginning with "The Twelve Caesars," which was written in 1952 but not published until 1959 because of its provocative assertions about sex and power.
"I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise," he said in "Gore Vidal: A Biography" (1999) by Fred Kaplan.
Despite his crushing forthrightness on many topics, Vidal preferred ambiguity in the personal realm.
Vidal, who was never married and had no children, wrote in his memoirs about sexual contacts with men, including Kerouac, the Beat poet and writer. But, to the dismay of gay activists, Vidal rejected efforts to put him in any sexual category. He was famous for proclaiming that "there are not homosexual people, only homosexual acts."
His companion of 53 years was Howard Auster, whom he met in New York in the 1950s when Auster was a singer trying to get a job in advertising. Vidal described their relationship as platonic and said "no sex" was the reason for its longevity.
He wrote movingly of Auster's 2003 death from cancer in "Point to Point Navigation" (2006), the sequel to his first memoir, "Palimpsest" (1995). Auster was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, "as I shall be in due course," Vidal wrote, "when I take time off from my busy schedule."
Former Times staff writer Mary Rourke contributed to this report.