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Gore Vidal: 1925-2012

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Gore Vidal (1946?)

NYT gives Gore Vidal one of the longest and fondest obituaries I have seen:

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.

Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office — in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate — and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. was born on Oct. 3, 1925, at the United States 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, Eugene Vidal Sr. went on to found three airlines, including one that became T.W.A. He was director of the Bureau of Air Commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Vidal’s mother, Nina, was an actress and socialite and the daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma.

Mr. Vidal, who once said he had grown up in “the House of Atreus,” detested his mother, whom he frequently described as a bullying, self-pitying alcoholic. She and Mr. Vidal’s father divorced in 1935, and she married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — a connection that Mr. Vidal never tired of bringing up.

Mr. Vidal graduated from Exeter at 17 — only by cheating on virtually every math exam, he later admitted — and enlisted in the Army, becoming 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 he was an associate editor at the publishing company E. P. Dutton, a job he soon gave up. Written in a pared-down, Hemingway-like style, “Williwaw” (the title is a meteorological term for a sudden wind out of the mountains) won some admiring reviews but gave little clue to the kind of writer Mr. Vidal would become. Neither did his second book, “In a Yellow Wood” (1947), about a brokerage clerk and his wartime Italian mistress. Mr. Vidal later said it was so bad, he couldn’t bear to reread it. He nevertheless became a glamorous young literary figure, pursued by Anaïs Nin and courted by Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams.

In 1948 Mr. Vidal published “The City and the Pillar,” which was dedicated to J. T. (Jimmie Trimble). It is what would now be called 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. Mr. 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. He had such trouble getting subsequent novels reviewed that he turned to writing mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box and then, for a time, gave up novel-writing altogether. To make a living he concentrated on writing for television, then for the stage and the movies.

Mr. Vidal’s reputation as a script doctor was such that in 1956 MGM hired him as a contract writer; among other projects he helped rewrite the screenplay of “Ben-Hur,” though he was denied an official credit. He also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of his friend Tennessee Williams’s play “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

Mr. Vidal also returned to writing novels in the ’60s and published three books in fairly quick succession: “Julian” (1964), “Washington, D.C.” (1967) and “Myra Breckinridge” (1968). “Julian,” which some critics still consider Mr. Vidal’s best, was a painstakingly researched historical novel about the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to convert Christians back to paganism. (Mr. Vidal himself never had much use for religion, Christianity especially, which he once called “intrinsically funny.”) “Washington, D.C.” was a political novel set in the 1940s. “Myra Breckinridge,” Mr. Vidal’s own favorite among his books, was a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery. (A 1970 film version, with Raquel Welch and Mae West, proved to be a disaster.)

Perhaps without intending it, Mr. Vidal had set a pattern. In the years to come he found his greatest successes with historical novels, notably what became known as his American Chronicles: “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr” (1973), “1876” (1976), “Lincoln” (1984), “Empire (1987),“Hollywood” (1990) and “The Golden Age” (2000).

He turned out to have a gift for this kind of writing. These novels were learned and scrupulously based on fact, but also witty and contemporary-feeling, full of gossip and shrewd asides. Harold Bloom wrote that Mr. Vidal’s imagination of American politics “is so powerful as to compel awe.” Writing in The Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said, “Mr. Vidal gives us an interpretation of our early history that says in effect that all the old verities were never much to begin with.”

In the opinion of many critics, though, Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays, many of them written for The New York Review of Books. His collection “The Second American Revolution” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982. About a later collection, “United States: Essays 1952-1992,” R. W. B. Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Vidal the essayist was “so good that we cannot do without him,” adding, “He is a treasure of state.”

Some of his political positions were similarly quarrelsome and provocative. Mr. Vidal was an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and once called Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, and his wife, the journalist Midge Decter, “Israeli fifth columnists.” In the 1990s he wrote sympathetically about Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he wrote an essay for Vanity Fair arguing that America had brought the attacks upon itself by maintaining imperialist foreign policies. In another essay, for The Independent, he compared the attacks to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, arguing that both Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush knew of them in advance and exploited them to advance their agendas.

In 2003 Mr. Vidal and his companion, Mr. Austen, who was ill, left their cliffside Italian villa La Rondinaia (the Swallow’s Nest) on the Gulf of Salerno and moved to the Hollywood Hills to be closer to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Mr. Austen died that year, and in “Point to Point Navigation,” his second volume of memoirs, Mr. Vidal recalled that Mr. Austen asked from his deathbed, “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?”

“Of course it had,” Mr. Vidal wrote. “We had been too happy and the gods cannot bear the happiness of mortals.” Mr. Austen was buried in Washington in a plot Mr. Vidal had purchased in Rock Creek Cemetery. The gravestone was already inscribed with their names side by side.

After Mr. Austen’s death, Mr. Vidal lived alone in declining health himself. He was increasingly troubled by a knee injury he suffered in the war, and used a wheelchair to get around.

In November 2009 he made a rare public appearance to attend the National Book Awards in New York, where he was given a lifetime achievement award. He had evidently not prepared any remarks, and instead delivered a meandering impromptu speech that was sometimes funny and sometimes a little hard to follow. At one point he even seemed to speak fondly of Buckley, his old nemesis. It sounded like a summing up.

“Such fun, such fun,” he said.

The inevitable comparisons with Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw are made in the obituray which appears in the Guardian:

Vidal’s critics disparaged his tendency to formulate an aphorism rather than to argue, finding in his work an underlying note of contempt for those who did not agree with him. His fans, on the other hand, delighted in his unflagging wit and elegant style.

His finest moment in the theatre was Visit to a Small Planet (1957), a play that ran for more than 300 performances on Broadway. This satire about a visitor from outer space who arrives in Virginia with the hope of starting a third world war recalls Wilde and Shaw, though it reverberates with Vidal’s own unmistakable tone. The Best Man, a political play, was a hit in 1960, and was made into a widely acclaimed film starring Henry Fonda, with a script by Vidal, in 1964. It has been successfully revived many times, including in 2012 on Broadway.

Vidal’s politics were always on the left side of the spectrum, and he derided the two-party system in his native land, arguing in the 1970s: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”

He published a gossipy but moving memoir, Palimpsest (1995), which cut back and forth between the author’s present, mostly in Ravello, and his first four frenetic decades. Portraits of his friends and enemies were sharply drawn, including the Kennedys, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Mailer, Capote, Jack Kerouac, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He followed this memoir with two sequels, Point to Point Navigation (2006) and Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009), a volume of photographs and brief recollections.

Vidal seemed to have known everyone and been everywhere, slipping easily from the political corridors and back rooms of Washington to the poolside patios of Hollywood and the salons of European writers and intellectuals. His witty remarks became the stuff of tabloid gossip, as when a friend asked him to be the godfather of his new child, and Vidal quipped: “Always a godfather, never a god.” When his editor in New York telephoned with the news that Capote had died, he responded: “A wise career move.” Another time, he remarked: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 3, 2012 at 5:51 am

Posted in literature, people

Tagged with ,

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