Gore Vidal, a celebrated writer, cultural gadfly and occasional political candidate, died July 31 at his home in Hollywood Hills, Calif., at 86. He had complications from pneumonia, his nephew, the actor, director and screenwriter Burr Steers, told the Associated Press.
Known for his urbanity and wit — “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little”; “A narcissist is someone better looking than you are” — Mr. Vidal enjoyed a literary career that spanned more than 60 years, and he once said that he hoped to be remembered as “the person who wrote the best sentences of his time.”
Mr. Vidal was an astonishingly versatile man of letters and nearly the last major writer of the modern era to have served in World War II. Having resolved at age 20 to live by his pen, he wrote plays for television and Broadway, including the classic political drama “The Best Man”; helped script such movies as “Ben-Hur,” the 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston; and gained notoriety for the campy 1968 novel “Myra Breckinridge,” about a transsexual film enthusiast.
Mr. Vidal also won plaudits from scholars, critics and ordinary readers for historical novels such as the best-selling “Julian” (1964), “Burr” (1973) and “Lincoln” (1984). “United States,” which gathers Mr. Vidal’s essays on art, politics and himself, received the 1993 National Book Award.
In print or on television — he was a frequent talk-show guest — the worldly Mr. Vidal provoked controversy with his laissez-faire attitude toward every sort of sexuality, his well-reasoned disgust with what he called American imperialism and his sophisticated cynicism about love, religion, patriotism and other sacred cows.
He took an acerbic view of American leadership. “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books,” he once quipped, “and there is some evidence they cannot read them either.”
As a boy, a thirst for learning
Mr. Vidal was born Oct. 3, 1925, at West Point, N.Y., where his father, Eugene Vidal, was teaching aeronautics at the military academy. His mother, Nina, was the socialite daughter of Sen. T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. Christened Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, the future writer later lopped off the first two names “for political as well as for aesthetic reasons.”
Young Gore spent much of his childhood in Washington and was particularly attached to his grandfather. The senator was blind, so the boy passed many hours reading to him aloud, thus inaugurating his own lifelong passion for learning and books. “The first grown-up book that I read on my own was a nineteenth-century edition of ‘Tales from Livy’ that I’d found in my grandfather’s library,” he once wrote. By 14, he added, “I wanted to know the entire history of the entire world.”
Mr. Vidal attended the private St. Albans School in Washington, where he fell in love with a fellow student named Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in combat on Iwo Jima during World War II. In his memoirs “Palimpsest” (1995) and “Point to Point Navigation” (2006), Mr. Vidal makes clear that this youthful passion marked his entire life: He never truly loved anyone again, although he would enjoy hundreds of sexual encounters, many of them with anonymous strangers, in which he took pleasure but, as he repeatedly insisted, never gave any except inadvertently.
Although Mr. Vidal maintained a more than 50-year partnership with his companion, Howard Austen, he constantly underscored that the secret of its longevity was “no sex.” Austen died in 2003.
As a teenager, Mr. Vidal was sent to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, from which he graduated in 1943. Rather than go on to Harvard, he enlisted in the Army, serving as first mate on a small supply ship in the Aleutians. That experience inspired his widely praised first novel, “Williwaw,” which appeared in 1946, when the author was 20.
Influence on stage and screen
After his discharge, Mr. Vidal decided to bag college and live in New York as a full-time writer. Before long, he became an intimate confidant of diarist Anais Nin and a friend of playwright Tennessee Williams. He also brought out two more novels, including “The City and the Pillar” (1948), an account of two all-American boys and what was — at that time — “the love that dare not speak its name.”
Although that book is now viewed as a pioneering work of gay literature, its casual acceptance of homosexual impulses offended some contemporary critics — and Mr. Vidal’s subsequent seven novels went unnoticed by Time magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times.
Because most of his fiction of the 1950s — even now admired works such as “Messiah” (1954), the study of a religious cult — proved commercially lackluster, Mr. Vidal decided to earn his living by writing TV dramas, Broadway plays and movie scripts. He also cranked out three mysteries under the pen name Edgar Box.