Vault Salutes Gore Vidal

Top: With Tennessee Williams and John F. Kennedy; center: with Ethan Hawke in Gattaca; bottom left: with authors William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; bottom right: with John and Jackie Kennedy.

We were saddened today to learn of the death of one of America’s greatest intellectuals. An aristocrat, political observer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, television pundit and social force, Gore Vidal may truly be the only Renaissance Man of the latter half of the 20th century.

His sweeping, magisterial historical novels attempted to trace the lines of the country’s evolution from “republic” to “empire,” a condition the author found dangerous and hubristic. The Narratives of Empire series—beginning with Burr (1973, featuring the Founding Fathers) continues through the 19th century and into the 20th, with the last book, The Golden Age (2000), summarizing America’s Cold War decline and an inauspicious start to the 21st century.

These political views—left-leaning, certainly, but Vidal also said, “I think of myself as a conservative”—can most accurately be described as libertarian. They were frequently and elegantly put on view on the talk shows of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and David Frost. Vidal loved to spar, and the author’s many celebrated feuds—with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William F. Buckley, among others—were played out in the public sphere. Below, a famous example from the Cavett show.

And then there are the lighter works, including the scathing Hollywood satire Myra Breckinridge (1968), starring a transsexual who makes Tinseltown her own (more in the next post). Vidal’s early novel The City and The Pillar (1948) so offended The New York Times’ critic for its positive and frank depiction of homosexuality that the author was banned from the paper for years. Pseudonymous mystery novels and Hollywood screenplays (Ben Hur, Suddenly, Last Summer, Caligula) filled the void, as did the smash Broadway plays Visit to a Small Planet and The Best Man, the latter set at a political convention and, appropriately, again currently on Broadway.

The son of TWA founder Eugene Vidal and a stepson of Hugh Auchincloss, Vidal from birth was close to power and society, and navigated it well throughout his 86 years. His Kennedy associations, for example, are well documented in his thoroughly engaging memoir Palimpsest (1995).

So, explore this rich legacy as you can. You’ll be the better for it, and there’s a wide choice of rewarding and startling options in the Vidal oeuvre.