In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat’s bearing — tall, handsome and composed — and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.
But Vidal made his living — a very good living — from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand. During the days of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the few leaders whom Vidal admired, he might have been called a “traitor to his class.”
The real traitors, Vidal would respond, were the upholders of his class.
The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles.
Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 6:45 p.m. of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for “quite a while,” Steers said.
Vidal “meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read,” Dave Eggers said at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, where he and Vidal received honorary citations. “His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can’t articulate it.”
Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, he was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities — regulars on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn’t read their books knew their names.
His works included hundreds of essays, the bestselling novels Lincoln and Myra Breckenridge and the Tony-nominated play The Best Man, a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire’s decline or the destruction of the environment.
But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for “the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.”
Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual.
Beyond his honorary National Book Award, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).
But he was widely admired as an independent thinker — in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken — about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, “the birds and the bees.” He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates.” (The happiest words: “I told you so”).
Ralph Ellison labelled him a “campy patrician.” Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honour, but a modern will to live as he pleased. He wrote in the memoir Palimpsest that he had more than 1,000 “sexual encounters,” nothing special, he added, compared to the pursuits of such peers as John F. Kennedy and Tennessee Williams. Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.
In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.
Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He campaigned with Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He butted heads, literally, with Mailer. He helped director William Wyler with the script for Ben-Hur. He made guest appearances on everything from The Simpsons to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Vidal formed his most unusual bond with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged letters after Vidal’s 1998 article in Vanity Fair on “the shredding” of the Bill of Rights and their friendship inspired Edmund White’s play Terre Haute.
“He’s very intelligent. He’s not insane,” Vidal said of McVeigh in a 2001 interview.
Vidal and Austen chose cemetery plots in Washington, D.C., between Jimmie Trimble and one of Vidal’s literary heroes, Henry Adams. But age and illness did not bring Vidal closer to God. Wheelchair-bound in his 80s and saddened by the death of Austen and many peers and close friends, the author still looked to no existence beyond this one.
“Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge,” he once wrote, “all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. “Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”