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|Vidal in New York City to discuss his 2009 book, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare|
|Born||Eugene Luther Gore Vidal
October 3, 1925
West Point, New York
|Pen name||Edgar Box
|Occupation||Novelist, essayist, journalist, playwright|
|Genres||Drama, fictional prose, essay, literary criticism|
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (pronounced /É¡ÉÉr vÉdÉl/ or /vÉdl/; born October 3, 1925) is an American author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter and political activist. Early in his career he wrote The City and the Pillar (1948), which outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality. He subsequently emerged as one of America's more important literary figures due to the enormous quantity and quality of work produced over the course of his career, including novels, essays, plays, and short stories covering a wide variety of topics and eras. He also ran for political office twice and served as a longtime political critic.
Vidal was born in West Point, New York, the only child of Lieutenant Eugene Luther Vidal (1895–1969) and Nina S. Gore (1903–1978). He was born in the Cadet Hospital of the United States Military Academy, where his father was the first aeronautics instructor, and was christened by the headmaster of St. Albans preparatory school, his future alma mater. According to "West Point and the Third Loyalty", an article Vidal wrote for The New York Review of Books (October 18, 1973), he later decided to be called Gore in honor of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, Democratic senator from Oklahoma.
Vidal's father, a West Point all-American quarterback who was director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce (1933–37) in the Roosevelt administration, was one of the first Army Air Corps pilots and, according to biographer Susan Butler, was the great love of Amelia Earhart's life. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was a co-founder of three American airlines: the Ludington Line, which merged with others and became Eastern Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, which became TWA), and Northeast Airlines, which he founded with Earhart, as well as the Boston and Maine Railroad. The elder Vidal was also an athlete in the 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympics (seventh in the decathlon; U.S. pentathlon team coach).
Gore Vidal's mother was an actress and socialite who made her Broadway debut in Sign of the Leopard in 1928. She married Eugene Luther Vidal Sr. in 1922 and divorced him in 1935. She later married twice more; one husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss, was later the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and, according to Gore Vidal, she had "a long off-and-on affair" with actor Clark Gable. She was an alternate delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention.
Vidal had four half-siblings from his parents' later marriages (the Rev. Vance Vidal, Valerie Vidal Hewitt, Thomas Gore Auchincloss, and Nina Gore Auchincloss Steers Straight) and four stepbrothers from his mother's third marriage to Army Air Forces Major General Robert Olds, who died in 1943, ten months after marrying Vidal's mother. Vidal's nephew Burr Steers is a writer and film director, and nephew Hugh Auchincloss Steers (1963–1995) was a painter whose work is in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Denver Art Museum.
Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C., where he attended Sidwell Friends School and then St. Albans School. Since Senator Gore was blind, his grandson read aloud to him and was his guide. The senator's isolationism contributed a major principle of his grandson's political philosophy, which is critical of foreign and domestic policies shaped by American imperialism. In 1943, on graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Vidal joined the U.S. Army Reserve serving in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, where he served as master of an Army freight and supply boat.
Vidal has had affairs with both men and women. The novelist Anas Nin claimed an involvement with Vidal in her memoir The Diary of Anas Nin but Vidal denied it in his memoir Palimpsest. Vidal has also discussed having dalliances with people such as actress Diana Lynn, and has alluded to the possibility that he may have an illegitimate daughter. He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward, before she married Paul Newman; after eloping, the couple shared a house with Vidal in Los Angeles for a short time. In 1950, he met his long-term partner Howard Austen.
During the latter part of the twentieth century Vidal divided his time between Italy and California. In 2003, he sold his 5,000-square-foot (460 m–) Italian Villa, La Rondinaia (The Swallow's Nest), and moved to Los Angeles. Austen died in November 2003 and, in February 2005, was buried in a plot for himself and Vidal at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Vidal, whom a Newsweek critic has called "the best all-around American man of letters since Edmund Wilson," began his writing career at nineteen, with the publication of the military novel Williwaw, based upon his Alaskan Harbor Detachment duty. The novel was successful and chronologically the first of the war novels about World War II. A few years later, The City and the Pillar caused a furor for its dispassionate presentation of homosexuality. The New York Times refused to review his next five books. The novel was dedicated to "J.T."
After a magazine published rumors about J.T.'s identity, Vidal confirmed they were the initials of his St. Albans-era love, James "Jimmy" Trimble III, killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima on June 1, 1945; later saying Trimble was the only person he had ever loved. Subsequently he wrote plays, films, and television series. Two plays, The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet, were both Broadway and film successes. In the early 1950s he also wrote under the pseudonym "Edgar Box", producing three mystery novels featuring public relations man "Peter Cutler Sargeant II".
In 1956, Vidal was hired as a contract screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. In 1959, director William Wyler needed script doctors to re-write the Ben-Hur script, originally written by Karl Tunberg. Vidal collaborated with Christopher Fry, reworking the screenplay on condition that MGM release him from the last two years of his contract. Producer Sam Zimbalist's death complicated the screenwriting credit. The Screen Writers Guild resolved the matter by listing Tunberg as sole screenwriter, denying credit to both Vidal and Fry. This decision was based on the WGA screenwriting credit system which favors original authors. Vidal later claimed in the documentary film The Celluloid Closet that in order to explain the animosity between Ben-Hur and Messala, he had inserted a gay subtext suggesting that the two had had a prior relationship, but that actor Charlton Heston was oblivious. Heston denied that Vidal contributed significantly to the script.
In the 1960s, Vidal wrote three novels. The first, Julian (1964) dealt with the apostate Roman emperor, while the second, Washington, D.C. (1967) focused on a political family during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era.
Vidal's third novel in the '60s was the satirical transsexual comedy Myra Breckinridge (1968), a variation on familiar Vidalian themes of sex, gender, and popular culture. In the novel, Vidal showcased his love of the American films of the '30s and '40s, and he resurrected interest in the careers of the forgotten players of the time including, for example, the late Richard Cromwell, who, he wrote, "was so satisfyingly tortured in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer."
After the staging of the plays, Weekend (1968) and An Evening With Richard Nixon (1972), and the publications of the novel Two Sisters (1970), Vidal focused on essays and two distinct strains in his fiction. The first strain comprises novels dealing with American history, specifically with the nature of national politics. Critic Harold Bloom wrote, "Vidal's imagination of American politics...is so powerful as to compel awe." This series' Narratives of Empire titles include Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), The Golden Age (2000), and another excursion into the ancient world Creation (1981, published in expanded form 2002).
The second strain consists of the comedic "satirical inventions": Myron (1974, a sequel to Myra Breckinridge), Kalki (1978), Duluth (1983), Live from Golgotha: the Gospel according to Gore Vidal (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998).
Vidal occasionally returned to scriptwriting cinema and television, including the television movie Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer and the mini-series Lincoln. He also wrote the original draft for the controversial film Caligula, but later had his name removed because director Tinto Brass and actor Malcolm McDowell re-wrote the script, changing the tone and themes significantly. The producers later made an attempt to salvage some of Vidal's vision in the film's post-production.
Vidal is–at least in the U.S.–even more respected as an essayist than as a novelist. The critic John Keates praised him as "[the twentieth] century's finest essayist." Even an occasionally hostile critic like Martin Amis admits, "Essays are what he is good at ... [h]e is learned, funny and exceptionally clear-sighted. Even his blind spots are illuminating."
For six decades, Gore Vidal has applied himself to a wide variety of sociopolitical, sexual, historical, and literary themes. In 1987, Vidal wrote the essays titled Armageddon?, exploring the intricacies of power in contemporary America. He pilloried the incumbent president Ronald Reagan as a "triumph of the embalmer's art." In 1993, he won the National Book Award for his collection of essays, United States (1952–1992), the citation noting: "Whatever his subject, he addresses it with an artist's resonant appreciation, a scholar's conscience, and the persuasive powers of a great essayist." A subsequent collection of essays, published in 2000, is The Last Empire. Since then, he has published such self-described "pamphlets" as Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, and Imperial America, critiques of American expansionism, the military-industrial complex, the national security state, and the George W. Bush administration. Vidal also wrote an historical essay about the U.S.'s founding fathers, Inventing a Nation. In 1995, he published a memoir Palimpsest, and in 2006 its follow-up volume, Point to Point Navigation. Earlier that year, Vidal also published Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories.
Because of his matter-of-fact treatment of same-sex relations in such books as The City and The Pillar, Vidal is often seen as an early champion of sexual liberation. Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, a representative sampling of his views, contains literary and cultural essays. Focusing on, in his view, the anti-sexual heritage of Judeo-Christianity, irrational and destructive sex laws, feminism, heterosexism, homophobia, gay liberation and pornography, the essays frequently return to a favorite Vidal motif: the fluidity of sexual identity. Vidal argues that "there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts." Given the diversity of human desire, Vidal resists any effort to categorize him as exclusively "homosexual"–either as writer or human being.
In the 1960s, Vidal moved to Italy; he gave a cameo appearance in Federico Fellini's film Roma. In 1992, Vidal appeared in the film Bob Roberts (starring Tim Robbins) and has appeared in other films, notably Gattaca, With Honors, and Igby Goes Down. Vidal has voiced himself on both The Simpsons and Family Guy and appeared on the Da Ali G Show, where Ali G (intentionally) mistakes him for Vidal Sassoon. On his 2007 lecture tour, Vidal claimed that the core idea for the film Night at the Museum was suggested by one of his novels (presumably The Smithsonian Institution). He provided the narrative for the Royal National Theatre's production of Brecht's Mother Courage in the autumn of 2009.
Besides his politician grandfather, Vidal has other connections with the Democratic Party: his mother, Nina, married Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr., who later was stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Gore Vidal is a fifth cousin of Jimmy Carter. Vidal may be a distant cousin of Al Gore, but no link has been found by a Gore family historian.
As a political activist, in 1960, Gore Vidal was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress (running as Eugene Gore), losing an election in New York's 29th congressional district, a traditionally Republican district on the Hudson River, encompassing all of Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Schoharie, and Ulster Counties to J. Ernest Wharton, by a margin of 57% to 43%. Campaigning with a slogan of "You'll get more with Gore", he received the most votes any Democrat in 50 years received in that district. Among his supporters were Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward; the latter two, longtime friends of Vidal's, campaigned for him and spoke on his behalf.
On the December 15, 1971 taping of The Dick Cavett Show, with Janet Flanner, it was alleged that Norman Mailer had headbutted Vidal during an altercation in which there were mutual insults and name calling between the two before both went on air. Mailer moved his chair away from the other guests (Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner), and Cavett joked that "perhaps you'd like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?" Mailer replied "I'll take the two chairs if you'll all accept finger-bowls." Mailer later said to Cavett "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?", to which Cavett replied "Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?" A long laugh ensued, after which Mailer asked Cavett if he had come up with that line and Cavett replied "I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?".
From 1970 to 1972, Vidal was one of the chairmen of the People's Party. His 1982 campaign against incumbent Governor Jerry Brown for the Democratic primary election to the United States Senate from California was documented in the film, Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No directed by Gary Conklin. Vidal lost to Brown in the primary election.
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, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
Despite this, Vidal has said "I think of myself as a conservative." Vidal has a protective, almost proprietary attitude toward his native land and its politics: "My family helped start [this country]", he has written, "and we've been in political life... since the 1690s, and I have a very possessive sense about this country." At a 1999 lecture in Dublin, Vidal said:
A characteristic of our present chaos is the dramatic migration of tribes. They are on the move from east to west, from south to north. Liberal tradition requires that borders must always be open to those in search of safety or even the pursuit of happiness. But now with so many millions of people on the move, even the great-hearted are becoming edgy. Norway is large enough and empty enough to take in 40 to 50 million homeless Bengalis. If the Norwegians say that, all in all, they would rather not take them in, is this to be considered racism? I think not. It is simply self-preservation, the first law of species.–
He has suggested that President Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor to facilitate American entry to the war, and believes FDR had advance knowledge of the attack. During an interview in the 2005 documentary Why We Fight, Vidal asserts that during the final months of World War II, the Japanese had tried to surrender to the United States, to no avail. He said, "They were trying to surrender all that summer, but Truman wouldn't listen, because Truman wanted to drop the bombs." When the interviewer asked why, Vidal replied, "To show off. To frighten Stalin. To change the balance of power in the world. To declare war on communism. Perhaps we were starting a pre-emptive world war."
During domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh's imprisonment, Vidal corresponded with McVeigh and concluded that he bombed the federal building as retribution for the FBI's role in the 1993 Branch Davidian Compound massacre in Waco, Texas.
Vidal was a member of the advisory board of the World Can't Wait organization, a left-wing organization seeking to repudiate the Bush administration's program, and advocating the impeachment of George W. Bush for war crimes.
In 1997, Vidal was one of 34 celebrities to sign an open letter to then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, published as a newspaper advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, which protested the treatment of Scientologists in Germany.
Vidal contributed an article to The Nation in which he expressed support for Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, citing him as "the most eloquent of the lot" and that Kucinich "is very much a favorite out there in the amber fields of grain".
On September 30, 2009, the Times published a lengthy interview with him headlined "We–ll have a dictatorship soon in the US - The grand old man of letters Gore Vidal claims America is –rotting away– – and don–t expect Barack Obama to save it", which brings up-to-date his views on his own life, and a variety of political subjects.
In 1968, ABC News invited Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. to be political analysts of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. Verbal and nearly physical combat ensued. After days of mutual bickering, their debates devolved to vitriolic, ad hominem attacks. During discussions of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, the men were arguing about freedom of speech in regards to American protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag when Vidal told Buckley to "shut up a minute" and, in response to Buckley's reference to "pro-Nazi" protesters, went on to say "As far as I'm concerned, the only sort of pro-crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself." The visibly livid Buckley replied, "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." After an interruption by anchor and facilitator Howard K. Smith, the men continued to discuss the topic in a less hostile manner.
Later, in 1969, the feud was continued as Buckley further attacked Vidal in the lengthy essay, "On Experiencing Gore Vidal", published in the August 1969 issue of Esquire. The essay is collected in The Governor Listeth, an anthology of Buckley's writings of the time. In a key passage attacking Vidal as an apologist for homosexuality, Buckley wrote, "The man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher."
Vidal responded in the September 1969 issue of Esquire, variously characterizing Buckley as "anti-black", "anti-semitic", and a "warmonger". The presiding judge in Buckley's subsequent libel suit against Vidal initially concluded that "[t]he court must conclude that Vidal's comments in these paragraphs meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal from Buckley's [earlier editorial] statements cannot be said to be completely unreasonable." However, Vidal also strongly implied that, in 1944, Buckley and unnamed siblings had vandalized a Protestant church in their Sharon, Connecticut, hometown after the pastor's wife had sold a house to a Jewish family. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire for libel. Vidal counter-claimed for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley's characterization of Vidal's novel Myra Breckinridge as pornography.
The court dismissed Vidal's counter-claim; Buckley settled for $115,000 in attorney's fees and an editorial statement from Esquire magazine that they were "utterly convinced" of the untruthfulness of Vidal's assertion. However, in a letter to Newsweek, the Esquire publisher stated that "the settlement of Buckley's suit against us" was not "a 'disavowal' of Vidal's article. On the contrary, it clearly states that we published that article because we believed that Vidal had a right to assert his opinions, even though we did not share them."
As Vidal's biographer, Fred Kaplan, later commented, "The court had 'not' sustained Buckley's case against Esquire... [t]he court had 'not' ruled that Vidal's article was 'defamatory.' It had ruled that the case would have to go to trial in order to determine as a matter of fact whether or not it was defamatory. [italics original.] The cash value of the settlement with Esquire represented 'only' Buckley's legal expenses [not damages based on libel]... " Ultimately, Vidal bore the cost of his own attorney's fees, estimated at $75,000.
In 2003, this affair re-surfaced when Esquire published Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing, an anthology that included Vidal's essay. Buckley again sued for libel, and Esquire again settled for $55,000 in attorney's fees and $10,000 in personal damages to Buckley.
After Buckley's death on February 27, 2008, Vidal summed up his impressions of his rival with the following obituary on March 20, 2008: "RIP WFB–in hell." In a June 15, 2008, interview with the New York Times, Vidal was asked by Deborah Solomon, "How did you feel when you heard that Buckley died this year?" Vidal responded:
I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.
Vidal was strongly critical of the George W. Bush administration, listing it among administrations he considered to have either an explicit or implicit expansionist agenda. He has described George W. Bush as "the stupidest man in the United States".
He is of the view that for several years the Bush administration and their associates have aimed to control the petroleum of Central Asia (after gaining effective control of the petroleum of the Persian Gulf in 1991). In October 2006, Vidal derided NORAD for what he claims is a conspiracy against the US public having been perpetrated by an alliance of the US Air Force and the government of Canada at the time.
In May 2007, Vidal clarified his views, saying:
I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I'm a conspiracy analyst. 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.
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