Gore Vidal, one of the last great literary lions of the 20th century, has died at 86. Vidal, who wrote his first book, 1946's Williwaw, when he was 19, became one of the first celebrity novelists of the mass media era. Like his great rival Norman Mailer, his former friend Truman Capote, and his political bête noir William F. Buckley, he reveled in the celebrity that came with his success, and he did his part to boost their shared fame by conducting highly telegenic feuds with all three of them.
The maternal grandson of the lordly, blind United States Senator Thomas Gore (and related, through his mother’s second marriage, to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), Gore wrote and talked about American history and politics as if he had inherited its power of attorney, despite the fact that his identity as an openly gay, self-styled sophisticate and man of letters defined him as an outsider for much of his life. (Like Mailer and Buckley, he even ran, unsuccessfully, for political office, gunning for a U.S. Congressional seat in New York in 1960, and running again in a primary election for the U. S. Senate in California in 1982.) Besides history, Vidal's greatest lifelong love may have been the movies. He wrote about both subjects with the kind of passion some men reserve for whatever is most guaranteed to disappoint, and combined the two in his wonderful 1992 book, Screening History. There, he wrote, “As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.”
Williwaw, based on Vidal’s military experience during World War II, was a great success, but when Vidal chose to write nonjudgmentally about homosexuality in his second novel The City And The Pillar (1948), the literary establishment was horrified, and Vidal’s name was virtually blacklisted from the book pages of The New York Times for years. Throughout the 1950s, he busied himself with literary criticism and other essays, murder mysteries (published under the pseudonym Edgar Box), stage plays (including two Broadway hits that were turned into movies, Visit To A Small Planet and the muckraking political melodrama The Best Man—currently enjoying a Tony-nominated revival), and screenplay work. He was employed as a contract writer at MGM beginning in 1956, where he adapted his friend Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer to the screen. He would later cite his experience in Hollywood when mocking the work of auteurist critics and film scholars who, he felt, venerated directors at the expense of writers, without taking into account the often-chaotic collaborative nature of filmmaking.
His own best-remembered contribution as a screenwriter during this period was the suggestion he claimed to have made to the director William Wyler on the set of Ben-Hur (1959), for which he received no screenplay credit. In that film, Stephen Boyd plays the villainous Messala, who is rebuffed by the hero Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) when he asks for his help with “the Romanization of Judea,” which motivates Messala to destroy Ben-Hur’s life:
“This one scene is the sole motor that must propel a very long story, until Jesus Christ suddenly and pointlessly drifts onto the scene, automatically untying some of the cruder knots in the plot," Vidal explained. "Wyler and I agreed that a single political quarrel would not turn into a lifelong vendetta.
I thought of a solution… ‘As boys they were lovers. Now Messala wants to continue the affair. Ben-Hur rejects him. Messala is furious. Chagrin d’amour, the classic motivation for murder.’
“Wyler looked at me as if I had gone mad. ‘But we can’t do that. I mean this is Ben-Hur! My God…’
“’We won’t really do it. We just suggest it. I’ll write the scenes so that they will make sense to those who are tuned in. Those who aren’t will still feel that Messala’s rage is somehow justified.’”
According to Vidal, Wyler finally agreed, but told him, “Don’t ever tell Chuck what it’s all about, or he’ll fall apart.” Vidal later wrote, “I suspect that Heston does not know to this day what luridness we managed to contrive around him. But Boyd knew: every time he looked at Ben-Hur, it was like a starving man getting a glimpse of dinner through a pane of glass.”
In 1964, Vidal resumed his novel-writing career with the historical novel Julian, about the 63rd Roman emperor. From that point on, almost all of Vidal’s novels fell into two camps: the heavy tomes dramatizing American history (Washington, D.C.; 1876; Burr; Lincoln; Empire; Hollywood; The Golden Age), and the slimmer, impudent comic outrages, such as Myra Breckinridge (1968) and its sequel, Myron (1974), Duluth (1983), Live From Golgotha (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998). He also wrote one novel about the end of the world (1978’s Kalki, which revisited a subject he’d explored in the earlier Messiah), one about the birth of civilization (1981’s Creation), and one, Two Sisters (1970) that drew upon his volatile relationship with the diarist Anais Nin.
The historical novels, especially Burr and Lincoln, helped to redeem Vidal in the eyes of The New York Times and other literary eminences, though others have found the funnier provocations, especially Myra Breckinridge—the touching story of a ravenous post-op transsexual obsessed with the output of classic Hollywood—to be more original and retain more juice and vigor. Myra Breckinridge is also Vidal’s creamiest, double-edged mash note to old movies, so naturally, it led to another disappointing experience when it was made into a film (with Raquel Welch in the title role). Vidal was able to repeatedly describe it as "the worst movie ever made," without ever finding anyone who would argue with him.
Vidal's dreams of making a movie his way blew up in his face again when his script for an ambitious historical epic to be called Gore Vidal’s Caligula was entrusted to producer and Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione. Caligula wound up being the most expensive hardcore porn movie ever made, and an instant punchline. (Unlike Norman Mailer, Vidal never seemed to have entertained the idea of trying to direct a movie himself—perhaps because it would have interfered with his self-identification as a crafter of words.)
In his other life as a public celebrity, Vidal helped cement ABC’s live coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention as a memorable TV event by engaging in a televised debate with William Buckley, whom he called—on-air—a “crypto-Nazi,” prompting the star of Firing Line to respond, “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.” The sneer-fest spilled over into the pages of Esquire, where the literary stars were allowed to go on making their respective cases in competing essays. Vidal’s was titled, “A Distasteful Encounter With William F. Buckley.”
Three years later, Vidal appeared on The Dick Cavett Show with Norman Mailer, who became enraged that Vidal—in an essay for The New York Review Of Books—had seemed to connect Mailer (and Henry Miller) to Charles Manson.
In 1979, Vidal sued Truman Capote for libel, after Capote claimed on a TV talk show that Vidal had once been thrown out of the White House after resting his hand on Jacqueline Kennedy’s bare back during a party. A few years later, after Capote died at the home of Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, Vidal said he promised Carson he would do his best to die at his house. He added that Johnny “was much pleased.”
As an actor, Vidal appeared in the movies Bob Roberts (1992) as an honorable—and therefore doomed—United States Senator; With Honors (1994); Shadow Conspiracy (1997), as a Congressman; Gattaca (1997); and Igby Goes Down (2002). He also appeared as himself in a 1976 episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In later years, he devoted much of his time to political activism and deploring the state of the nation—something he had already been doing in print for decades—including advocating for the impeachment of George W. Bush for war crimes.
Many people believe that Vidal's best writing remains his essays on history, politics, and literature (in which he regularly championed other writers, from Dawn Powell to Italo Calvino, while deploring—most notably in his essay “American Plastic”—what he saw as the trend toward intricate, bloodless, postmodern novels, meant, he said, to be taught rather than read). For those just now coming to Vidal, the bulk of his non-fiction writing up to 1992 can be found in the indispensable, cinder-block-sized volume United States, the all-consuming title of which conveys the breadth and importance of Vidal's contributions to the country he spent a lifetime putting into words.