Today we have lost a pioneer and legend in the LGBTQ community, the incomparable Gore Vidal. Eugene Louis Vidal was born in West Point, NY in 1925. At his christening at 13, the boy’s name was modified to Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, correcting one name to match his father’s and adding a family name from his mother’s side. He promptly dropped the first two names, wanting to go by something distinctive. As noted by biographer Fred Kaplan,
[He] wanted a sharp, distinctive name, appropriate for an aspiring author or national political leader. “I wasn’t going to write as Gene since there was already one. I didn’t want to use the Jr.”
That strong sense of self was a guiding principle throughout his life. A sharp wit and acerbic personality, Vidal looked at American history as a narrative of inevitable decline (you gotta love that). His first novel, Williwaw, was written in 1946 when he was only 19. One of the first novels published about World War II after the war, it received high praise. He followed it with the then infamous The City and the Pillar, noted for its frank presentation of homosexuality. This was maverick writing, especially in 1948. One of my favorites of Vidal’s was Live from Golgotha: the Gospel according to Gore Vidal, as Vidal takes his own look at the New Testament.
Over the course of his impressive career, Vidal wrote 25 novels and two memoirs. He was also a prolific essayist and occasional playwright; the latter talent earned him work as a screenwriter for television and movies. He famously adapted Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer for the screen, resulting in the astonishing film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Katharine Hepburn. If you have not seen this move, you really MUST. “We were procuring for him!”
Like few other authors of the 20th Century, Vidal relished a role as a public figure and managed a parallel career as a commentator and gadfly while still creating great literature. He was a frequent guest on television programs and his gifts of quick wit and cool detachment made him famous. Blending a populist spirit with an aristocratic air, he was a delightful conundrum with a singular consistency. He once said of himself,
I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.
Outspoken on politics, especially foreign policy, he ran for office twice (losing both times). He famously observed,
There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.
A great fan of conspiracy theories, he firmly believed that those in power practiced deception to further their aims. Considering himself a “conspiracy analyst,” he was also outspoken when he felt a speculation was mere paranoia. Speaking about the George W. Bush administration, he noted,
Everything the Bushites touch is screwed up. They could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they wanted to. Even if they longed to. They could step aside, though, or just go out to lunch while these terrible things were happening to the nation. I believe that of them.
Famously bisexual, Vidal noted that he preferred same-sex sex but was not choosy. He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward before he met his long-term partner, Howard Austen. Vidal and Austen were together for 50 until Austen’s death in 2003.
One of a dying breed of the observational class, Vidal was a significant force in the culture of 20th Century America. His contributions to literature and letters cannot be underestimated, nor can his pioneering work as a frank reporter of gay life. He died yesterday of pneumonia at his home in Hollywood Hills, CA, leaving a space that can never be filled.