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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 3 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 31
Gore Vidal
Section One
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Gore Vidal

by James Whitely - SGN Staff Writer

Gore Vidal, the internationally renowned American author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and political activist whose career spanned more than 60 years, has died. One of the first American mainstream public figures to write unapologetically about homosexuality, he passed away July 31 at his Hollywood Hills home from complications of pneumonia. He was 86.

Vidal's influence on American postmodern literature was, and will continue to be, immense. A celebrity among authors, Vidal was close friends with many of them, including Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams. He wrote 25 novels and innumerable essays on politics, sexuality, religion, and literature. He also wrote stage plays and screenplays.

Vidal was born in West Point, New York, the son of an army officer - one of the first Army Air Corps pilots - and an Olympian athlete. His mother, Nina Gore, was a socialite who, according to her son, had a casual affair with actor Clark Gable after her marriage to Vidal's father dissolved.

He grew up in Washington D.C., where he often assisted his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. It is believed that his time with the senator at such an early age helped to shape Vidal's radical politics.

When World War II broke out, Vidal enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served mainly in the Pacific theater and was commissioned as a warrant officer.

Vidal published his first novel, Williwaw, based on his military experience, just after the war ended in 1946. But it was his third book, The City and the Pillar (1948) that gained him true notoriety. One of the first American novels to address homosexuality in a frank and uninhibited manner, it so outraged critics that The New York Times refused to review his books for many years. This backlash resonated throughout much of the literary community and prompted Vidal to begin writing mystery novels under the pen name Edgar Box. That series of novels was widely successful and kept the author financially afloat. They are still in print today.

Vidal's own sexuality was somewhat ambiguous. Many people today think of him as Gay, but the author had affairs with both men and women throughout his life. Anaïs Nin claimed involvement with Vidal in her famed diaries, although Vidal denied this in his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest.

The City and the Pillar, a coming-of-age story about a young man discovering his homosexuality, is dedicated to 'J.T.,' which Vidal later identified as 'the love of his life,' James Trimble III - who was killed at Iwo Jima on March 1, 1945.

Vidal met his long-term partner, Howard Austen, in 1950. He once said that the secret to their relationship's longevity was that they did not have sex.

'It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible, I have observed, when it does,' wrote Vidal of their relationship. Austen died in November 2003.

In 1960, Vidal ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress as a New York Democrat. Powerful and influential friends such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Newman backed him.

'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, [and] the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties,' wrote Vidal in the 1970s.

Vidal's radical views got him into near-physical altercations with conservative political commentator and author William F. Buckley and liberal author Norman Mailer, who allegedly head-butted Vidal.

In 1993, Vidal won the National Book Award for United States Essays, 1952-1992, a collection of his critiques on politics, sexuality, religion, and literature written originally for publications such as Esquire, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books.

While The City and the Pillar is certainly one of his most important novels, many critics consider 1968's Myra Breckinridge his masterpiece. The graphic, satirical novel is written in the form of a diary and addresses issues of feminism and Transsexuality by detailing the story of Myra, who becomes Myron. Literary critic Dennis Altman called the book 'part of a major cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality.'

Vidal's death was confirmed by his nephew, Burr Steers, who said Vidal had been living alone and had been sick for 'quite a while.'

In addition to his considerable body of work, Vidal will be remembered for his wit. Some of his more memorable quotes include: 'A narcissist is someone better-looking than you are'; 'A good deed never goes unpunished'; and 'Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice, like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they're both just aspirin.' On the subject of sexual orientation, he once said, 'There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses, if not practices.'

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