Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said by telephone.
Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of US foreign policy.
Obituary: Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
Vidal loved conspiracy theories of all sorts, especially the ones he imagined himself at the centre of, and he was a famous feuder; he engaged in celebrated on-screen wrangles with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and William F. Buckley Jr. Vidal did not lightly suffer fools—a category that for him comprised a vast swath of humanity, elected officials especially—and he was not a sentimentalist or a romantic. “Love is not my bag,” he said.
By the time he was 25, he had had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women, he boasted in his memoir Palimpsest. Vidal tended toward what he called “same-sex sex”, but frequently declared that human beings were inherently bisexual, and that labels like gay (a term he particularly disliked) or straight were arbitrary and unhelpful. For 53 years, he had a live-in companion, Howard Austen, a former advertising executive, but the secret of their relationship, he often said, was that they had never slept together.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. was born on 3 October 1925, at the US military academy at West Point, where his father, Eugene, had been an All-American football player and a track star, and had returned as a flying instructor and assistant football coach. An aviation pioneer, Vidal Sr. went on to found three airlines, including one that became Trans World Airlines (TWA). He was director of the bureau of air commerce under president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Vidal’s mother, Nina, was an actress and socialite and the daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, the Democratic senator from Oklahoma. (Vidal was distantly related to former vice-president Al Gore.)
Vidal detested his mother, whom he frequently described as a bullying, self-pitying alcoholic. She and Vidal’s father divorced in 1935, and she married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—a connection that Vidal never tired of bringing up. After her remarriage, Vidal lived with his mother at Merrywood, the Auchincloss family estate in Virginia, but his fondest memories were of the years the family spent at his maternal grandfather’s sprawling home in the Rock Creek Park neighborhood of Washington.
Vidal attended St. Albans School in Washington, where he lopped off his Christian names and became simply Gore Vidal, which he considered more literary-sounding. Though he shunned sports himself, he formed an intense romantic and sexual friendship—the most important of his life, he later said—with Jimmie Trimble, one of the school’s best athletes. Trimble was his “ideal brother”, his “other half”, Vidal said, the only person with whom he ever felt wholeness. Jimmie’s premature death at Iwo Jima in World War II at once sealed off their relationship in a glow of A.E. Housman-like early perfection and seemingly made it impossible for Vidal ever to feel the same way about anyone else.
After leaving St. Albans in 1939, Vidal spent a year at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico before enrolling at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He published stories and poems in the Exeter literary magazine, but he was an indifferent student who excelled mostly at debating.
Vidal graduated from Exeter at 17—only by cheating, he later admitted, on virtually every math exam—and enlisted in the Army, where he became first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. He began work on Williwaw, a novel set on a troopship and published in 1946 while Vidal was an associate editor at the publishing company E.P. Dutton, a job he soon gave up. In 1948 Vidal published “The City and the Pillar”, which was dedicated to J.T. (Jimmie Trimble). It is what we would now call a coming-out story, about a handsome, athletic young Virginia man who gradually discovers that he is homosexual.
By today’s standards it is tame and discreet, but at the time it caused a scandal and was denounced as corrupt and pornographic. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right. To make a living he concentrated on writing for television, then for the stage and the movies.
In the ‘60s Vidal also returned to writing novels and published three books in fairly quick succession: Julian (1964), Washington, D.C. (1967) and Myra Breckenridge (1968). Julian, which some critics still consider Vidal’s best, was a painstakingly researched historical novel about the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to convert Christians back to paganism. Washington, D.C. was a political novel set in the ‘40s. Myra Breckenridge, Vidal’s own favourite among his books, was a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery and turns into a woman.
©2012/The New York Times