Gore Vidal, the author, playwright, politician and commentator whose novels, essays, plays and opinions were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died on Tuesday at age 86, his nephew Burr Steers said.
Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 6.45 p.m. of complications from pneumonia, said Steers. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for “quite a while,” he said.
Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half-brother Tommy Auchincloss.
Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal was among the last generation of literary writers, who were also genuine celebrities fixtures on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn’t read their books knew who they were.
Tall and distinguished looking, with a haughty baritone not unlike that of his conservative arch-enemy William F. Buckley, Jr., Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for the primacy of the written word, for “the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.”
Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual. Beyond an honorary National Book Award in 2009, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).
But he was widely admired as an independent thinker in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, “the birds and the bees.” He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates.” (The happiest words - “I told you so”).
The author “meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read,” Dave Eggers said at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, when he and Vidal received honorary citations. “His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can’t articulate it.” Ralph Ellison labelled him a “campy patrician.”
Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.
Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He campaigned with Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He butted heads, literally, with Mailer. He helped director William Wyler with the script for Ben-Hur. He made guest appearances on everything from The Simpsons to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Vidal formed his most unusual bond with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged letters after Vidal’s 1998 article in Vanity Fair on “the shredding” of the Bill of Rights and their friendship inspired Edmund White’s play Terre Haute.
“He’s very intelligent. He’s not insane,” Vidal said of McVeigh in a 2001 interview.
Vidal also bewildered his fans by saying the Bush administration probably had advance knowledge of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; that McVeigh was no more a killer than Dwight Eisenhower, and that the U.S. would eventually be subservient to China, The Yellow Man’s Burden.
Christopher Hitchens, who once regarded Vidal as a modern Oscar Wilde, lamented in a 2010 Vanity Fair essay that Vidal’s recent comments suffered from an “utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity.” Years earlier, Saul Bellow had stated that “a dune of salt has grown up to season the preposterous things Gore says.”
A long-time critic of American militarism, Vidal was, ironically, born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, his father’s alma mater. Vidal grew up in a political family. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. His father, Gene Vidal, served briefly in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and was an early expert on aviation.
Vidal was a learned, but primarily self-educated man. Classrooms bored him. He graduated from the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, but then enlisted in the Army and never went to college. His first book, the war novel Williwaw, was written while he was in the service and published when he was just 20.
The New York Times’ Orville Prescott praised Vidal as a “canny observer” and Williwaw as a “good start toward more substantial accomplishments.” But The City and the Pillar, his third book, apparently changed Prescott’s mind. Published in 1948, the novel’s straightforward story about two male lovers was virtually unheard of at the time and Vidal claimed that Prescott swore he would never review his books again. (The critic relented in 1964, calling Vidal’s Julian a novel “disgusting enough to sicken many of his readers”). City and the Pillar was dedicated to “J.T.,” Jimmie Trimble, a boarding school classmate killed during the war whom Vidal would cite as the great love of his life.
Unable to make a living from fiction, at least when identified as “Gore Vidal,” he wrote a trio of mystery novels in the 1950s under the pen name “Edgar Box” and also wrote fiction as “Katherine Everard” and “Cameron Kay.”
Vidal also worked in Hollywood, writing the script for Suddenly Last Summer, based on Williams play and starring Elizabeth Taylor.
In the 1960s, Vidal increased his involvement in politics. In 1960, he was the Democratic candidate for Congress in an upstate New York district, but was defeated despite Ms. Roosevelt’s active support and a campaign appearance by Truman. (In 1982, Vidal came in second in the California Democratic senatorial primary). In consolation, he noted that he did receive more votes in his district in 1960 than did the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, John F. Kennedy.
Meanwhile, he was again writing fiction. In 1968, he published his most inventive novel, Myra Breckenridge, a comic bestseller about a transsexual movie star. The year before, with Washington, D.C., Vidal began the cycle of historical works that peaked in 1984 with Lincoln.
Lincoln stands as his most notable and sympathetic work of historical fiction, vetted and admired by a leading Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, and even cited by the conservative former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a favourite book.
In recent years, Vidal wrote the novel The Smithsonian Institution and the non-fiction bestsellers Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War - Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. A second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, came out in 2006. In 2009, Gore Vida l- Snapshots in History’s Glare featured pictures of Vidal with Newman, Jagger, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Springsteen.