Appreciation: Gore Vidal / Writer whose works challenged, enthralled
We appreciate the late Gore Vidal the way we appreciate a demanding teacher who insisted that we struggle with the hard work the class required because it would do us good in the long run. We didn't like it, but we never regretted the effort.
Mr. Vidal, 86, died Tuesday at his Los Angeles home of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers told The Associated Press. The writer had been living alone in the home and had been sick for "quite a while," he said.
Much of Mr. Vidal's work presented readers with unpleasant, sometimes repellent views of American history and contemporary culture -- views he formed as a child at the knee of his grandfather, Thomas Gore, U.S. senator from Oklahoma. He was a Democrat whose isolationism and fiscal conservatism alienated him from the mainstream of his party and led to his political defeats.
Later, Mr. Vidal would restate those views in a series of contrarian novels about America, including "Burr," "Washington, D.C.," "Lincoln" and "The Golden Age." The books laid out an alternative history of the country that was cynical and, at times, salacious.
Written in Mr. Vidal's elegant, archly mannered style, they forced Americans to reconsider the motives and ideals of the country's traditional heroes. One got the sense that the author's own idealism had somehow been dashed in his youth and replaced with a protective coat of superiority and privilege.
"Amelia," the recent film about Amelia Earhart, the celebrity aviator of the 1930s, portrays the young Gore as an enthusiastic admirer of Earhart, who was allegedly the mistress of his father, Eugene Vidal. It was a tale Mr. Vidal himself passed along, yet it seems likely he would have rejected the boyishly hopeful version of him in the film.
In his personal works such as "Palimpsest," his 1995 memoir, he often reminded his readers of his aristocratic upbringing, yet in fact, he never went to college and started his writing career while serving in the U.S. Army, then supporting himself as a writer of television dramas in the so-called "Golden Age" of TV in the 1950s.
Hilary Masters, the novelist, essayist and English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, tells a curious anecdote about Mr. Vidal's insistence on appearances.
Mr. Masters was a neighbor of Mr. Vidal's in the Hudson Valley region of New York state, where he had purchased an old home with his TV earnings, "right at the edge of the Hudson River," Mr. Masters recalled.
"We were invited over for afternoon cocktails, so like most people who lived there, we came into the house through the kitchen door where his partner [Howard Austen] was making hors d'oeuvres or something. Suddenly, Gore came rushing into the kitchen and told us 'You have to use the front door,' and shooed us out of the kitchen. I remember having a great afternoon there, though."
Most people in the 1960s learned about Mr. Vidal from two of his plays, "Visit to a Small Planet" and "The Best Man," which were both turned into films -- the former with Jerry Lewis, the latter with Henry Fonda -- hardly material that would be considered highbrow or intellectual.
Yet "The Best Man" was the first Broadway play that treated presidential politics as the practice of expedience over principle. It splashed cold water on the memory of the Kennedy Camelot, which ended on Nov. 22, 1963, and prepared us to accept the hardball, practical nature of choosing candidates.
Mr. Vidal, who was born Oct. 3, 1925, in West Point, N.Y., saw American politics as crass entertainment without illusions and so informed a generation whose idealism was challenged by the events of the '60s. Although he didn't participate in the turmoil of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, Mr. Vidal's observations of the events provided a context for the chaos that ran through the country at that time.
As he aged, Mr. Vidal assumed the stature of a detached yet equally talented writer of the stature of his contemporaries Norman Mailer, John Updike and, to some extent, John Cheever. His essays in the New York Review of Books and The Nation were must-reads for those interested in fiction as well as politics because of their singular and well-informed opinions.
As a book editor, I seldom missed the opportunity to grab the latest Vidal book for review and was seldom disappointed. His memoir "Palimpsest" revealed another history of the literary 1950s and remains an illuminating piece of writing. If such figures are tabulated, the memoir might set a record for the number of names dropped, from such quirky artists as Tennessee Williams, called "Bird" by Mr. Vidal, to Jacqueline Kennedy. The two were briefly related when Mr. Vidal's mother married Mrs. Kennedy's stepfather.
Mr. Vidal supported John Kennedy's political career and enjoyed access to the White House, but, as he seemed to do to so many people, the writer alienated the Kennedy clan. Eventually, he would describe the Kennedys as cold and manipulative in his 1967 essay, "The Holy Family."
Mr. Vidal published 25 novels, two memoirs and a number of essay collections as well as stage dramas, teleplays and screenplays. Occasionally, he acted. But he saved his finest public performances for TV talk shows where he confronted Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Truman Capote. Never rattled or at loss for words, he took on combatants with charm, wit and intellectual insults.
Like Capote, he was a gay public figure well ahead of the times, starting with his 1948 novel "The City and the Pillar," noted for its openly gay main character. Mr. Vidal's attitude on sexuality was best expressed in this 1985 quote: "There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices."
Because he lived many years primarily in Italy, interviews were impossible to schedule. There seemed to be a chance in 1998 when Mr. Vidal was scheduled to join his friend and fellow conspiracy theorist Christopher Hitchens for a joint public appearance arranged by the University of Pittsburgh, but Mr. Vidal called in sick.
My last literary encounter with Gore Vidal was disappointment in his final memoir, "Point to Point Navigation" (Doubleday, $26), published in 2006. The writing wasn't sharp, the memories weren't new and the observations unremarkable. For example, he wrote:
"Ours is a society riddled with plots of every kind ... yet anyone who draws attention to any of this corruption is quickly denounced as a conspiracy theorist."
Why is that a surprise?
Instead, I prefer the Gore Vidal of his well-grounded fiction about America and his pointed, clearly reasoned essays and reviews. I recommend them. They stand as a tribute to this original and fearless observer of humanity's greatness and failings.
First Published August 2, 2012 12:00 am