Gore Vidal and the Sky God
- Monday, August 06, 2012
The death of author and controversialist Gore Vidal last week brought an end to one of America’s most gifted and flamboyantly offensive literary voices. Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born in 1925 on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point. For decades Vidal was one of America’s most outrageous men of letters. He life was marked by a long series of confrontations and and he died as one of the nation’s most famous and infamous literary figures.
Like many in his literary generation, Vidal was born to privilege, but suffered from an unhappy childhood. His father, an aviation pioneer, was head of civilian aviation in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later became a founder of TWA. His mother was a deeply troubled socialite who was the daughter of U.S. Senator Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma. Most of Vidal’s childhood was spent in the Gore home in Washington, D.C. Vidal’s mother later married Hugh D. Auchincloss, stepfather to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the young Vidal lived for some time on the Auchincloss estate in northern Virginia. He attended prominent private schools including St. Albans School in Washington and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, from which he graduated.
At St. Albans, Vidal dropped his first two names and identified himself simply as Gore Vidal, believing even then that it would be a better name for a literary personality. At the same school Vidal developed a romance with another boy, Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.
As Charles McGrath of The New York Times reported, Vidal claimed to have had over 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women before the age of 25. Though he described his own preference for “same-sex sex,” Vidal denied the existence of both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Literary critic Michael Dirda of The Washington Post explained, “Again and again he insisted that everyone is really bisexual: ‘There is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person. There are only homosexual or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.’”
Upon his death, he was described by The Wall Street Journal as “a slashing literary provocateur and by The New York Times as both “an Augustan figure” and an “elegant, acerbic, all-around man of letters.” He was known for his outrageous public appearances and his leftist political views. In one famous encounter, Vidal opposed conservative publisher and author William F. Buckley, Jr. in a face-off during televised coverage of the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention. The two exchanged insults in an infamous outburst and nearly came to physical blows before a live national audience. Nothing quite like it has happened in the mainstream media ever since.
Gore Vidal ran for elective office twice, losing a race for Congress from New York and a race for a Senate seat from California. He described himself as a populist but did not seem to like people. He once said, “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.”
His literary talents were prodigious, though he scandalized the elites early in his career by writing a novel openly celebrating homosexuality. That 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, was dedicated to Jimmie Trimble. Vidal found himself sidelined from the literary establishment with that novel, called pornographic by some reviewers, and he went to Hollywood, where he established both a reputation and a fortune as a screenwriter and dramatist. He rewrote the screenplay of Ben-Hur and was involved in a host of other projects for the movies and television.
He re-entered literary life with a series of novels. One of these, Myra Breckenridge (1968), was one of the first depictions of sex-reassignment surgery. He lived with a male companion for many years in Italy in what was described as a platonic relationship, later moving back to the United States.
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