"We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime ... despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word 'natural,' not normal." Esquire 1969
Maybe surprisingly, I don’t think Gore Vidal would have minded the title of this article at all, although he might have described it as slightly vulgar and simplistic. He once said that journalists continually accused him of being vitriolic, vicious and venomous but when challenged to find a single vicious comment, whether spoken or written, they couldn’t. That was the genius of the man. His intellect was a towering force and he would happily use it to intimidate his interviewers. He could smile at his opponents, take their arm and then destroy them with a few well-chosen words. His antagonist would as often as not smile in return and retreat knowing he or she was wounded but not knowing quite how. Any debate with Gore was often an unequal contest but behind the linguistic skills and languid look was a man with huge ambition and an enormous understanding of how America worked. The fact that he was gay just adds to the fascination but it was only one facet of this literary, social and political heavyweight.
He was born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, in West Point, New York, on October 3, 1925 and died on 31th August, this year. The fact that he was born in the most famous military academy in the world was no coincidence and you could conclude that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. What he made of himself after that was entirely due to his own talents and ambition but there’s no doubting he had all the right connections to open the necessary doors.
His grandfather was senator Thomas Gore, who was a larger than life figure in US politics for years and his father was Eugene Vidal, who took charge of Roosevelt’s commercial air operations for many years in the Thirties. His mother, Nina Gore Vidal was also a colourful figure who, after divorcing his father, married Hugh Auchincloss, a wealthy financier. Gore himself said that his mother had a long affair with Clark Gable. Whether that was true or not, she was then in turn divorced by Auchincloss who went on to marry Jackie Kennedy’s mother. Too many details you might think but this laid the foundations for a close connection between Gore Vidal and the Kennedy family that lasted through John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Not that Vidal was too impressed by the Bouvier sisters though, as he showed in his work ‘Two Sisters’ in 1970.
Nevertheless, Gore Vidal became known by everyone and was welcome at all the right parties and dinners, from Washington to Hollywood, via Europe and all stations in between. Even this wouldn’t have been enough without the ability to make himself indispensible on the A-list, guest lists and that he achieved through his undoubted talent as a writer and wit. To say that he was multi-talented at the highest level is borne out by his achievements in so many fields.
He published his first novel (‘Williwaw’) at the young age of 21 and with its World War 2 theme, it became a big success. Without question, the first rung of the ladder was climbed due to his connections; not many twenty one year olds were taken on as new authors but the quality was there and ensured a continuing career in writing.
However, it was his second novel that brought him a mass of publicity, both good and bad. Two years after ‘Williwaw’ he published ‘The City and the Pillar’, an unashamed book about homosexuality. The book critic of the New York Times found it so disgusting that he refused to review Vidal’s next five books. That in itself was a big deal – you pissed off the New York Times at your peril! Even though Vidal was never one to be afraid of publicity and could be said to have sought it out at every turn, he responded to the backlash by writing a series of mystery novels in the 1950’s under the pseudonym, Edgar Box. They kept his head above water financially, although there was never a risk of abject poverty!
So what was the fuss about ‘The City and the Pillar’? Today we wouldn’t see it as shocking at all; in fact it’s not much more than a description of a fairly mundane gay affair between two high school jocks. In the light of the times though, it must have arrived like a meteorite in the book-reading circles of post war America. Firstly, the author was just 21 and secondly, 1946 was anything but a cheerful time in a country still recovering from the exertions of the world war. It was the beginning of a time of choking conformity in the States, leading to its pinnacle in the McCarthy era in the fifties. What was perhaps most shocking to its readers was Vidal’s successful attempt to show homosexuality as being something that could and did happen in ‘normal’ middle class America. The characters are portrayed as ‘normal’ masculine men, which worried those believing in stereotypes no end. It wasn’t by any means his greatest literary achievement but it was only his second and he was still so young. It did set the tone though, for a man who never shied away from homosexual themes and as such should be regarded as a pioneer.
As a post script to the discussion about ‘The City and the Pillar’, decades later, Vidal confirmed that the book was dedicated to Jimmy Trimble, who was killed at Iwo Jima. Inside the front cover, the book is dedicated to ‘J.T’. Later, Vidal also said that Trimble was the only man he had ever loved, so his motives for writing the book may well be much deeper than at first seemed.
He wrote twenty five novels in total, which was prolific when you consider how many essays, columns, short stories, film scripts and Broadway plays he wrote on top. His essays about politics and literature were regarded as being top quality writing even by his sternest critics and revealed his enormous knowledge about the world at large and understanding about the way it worked. He wandered through Europe with his friend Tennessee Williams and in Paris, Andre Gide called him ‘a prophet of the sexual revolution’. He was accepted in European cafe society but used every opportunity to observe and gather information about life, from the most brilliant minds of the time.
However, living the high life came at a cost and Vidal quickly realised that his novels weren’t going to bring him enough income to continue doing that. Someone with such an ego would always be attracted by the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood and he decided to apply himself to writing for stage and screen.
"I am not at heart a playwright; I am a novelist turned temporary adventurer; and I chose to write television, movies and plays for much the same reason that Henry Morgan selected the Spanish Main for his peculiar – and not dissimilar – sphere of operations."
Whether he was a born playwright or not, he was enormously successful. In 1957, he wrote ‘Visit to a Small Planet’, which was a satire about an alien arriving on Earth intent on starting World War Three. It ran for more than 300 performances on Broadway. In 1960, he had a hit with the political play, ‘The Best Man’, which went on to be an equally successful film in 1960, starring Henry Fonda.
Turning his hand to screenwriting produced successes such as an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ and he also revised the final script of ‘Ben Hur’ in 1959. It was a standing joke that Vidal wrote in a gay sub plot between the main characters, which passed Charlton Heston by completely. Heston would not have been amused or even done it if he had known. His screenwriting continued at a pace and the showman that he was, also accepted minor roles in films, most notable in ‘Bob Roberts’ as a senator. Perhaps his most famous novel to become a film however from an LGBT point of view, was ‘Myra Breckenridge’ in 1968. Myra was the narrator and before her sex change was Myron, a nephew of a retired singer. It was a treatise for feminism and Myra famously opens the novel by declaring: “I am Myra Breckenridge whom no man will ever possess.”
Gore Vidal’s great love though was history and politics and his writing increasingly reflected this. The books ‘Empire’; ‘Hollywood’ and ‘The Golden Age’ in the nineties, were books linking the heroes and heroines to history, politics and each other. Finally, in 1995, he wrote a memoir ‘Palimpsest’ which looked back at his own life but was most famous for the cutting portraits of the great and the good, in which he took few prisoners. Many of his critics called it pure gossip but his literary style lifted it above that and showed a side of celebrity, both entertainment and political, that raised many an eyebrow due to its accuracy.
Vidal was a Democrat through and through but as he grew older, his politics were probably even more left wing. He saw the American party political system as two sides of the same coin. In the 1970’s, he wrote:
“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.”
Perhaps not surprisingly considering his family and background, Vidal was always fascinated by politics and political machinations. In 1960 he made his first attempt to stand for congress in New York. Despite gaining a large democratic vote, he was unsuccessful then and again in 1982 when he lost against Governor Jerry Brown in the California Primary. Between 1970 and 1972, he was one of the chairmen of the People’s Party, which was basically an anti-war party but was too small-scale to make a difference.
He never lost political ambition and was more than once touted as being a possible presidential candidate, something he wholeheartedly endorsed but whether this was ever a realistic option is open to doubt. Basically, he could never promote himself either as a man of the people, or someone without controversy in his life. Ordinary people saw him as being elitist and linked with the top political dynasties, despite the fact that he was very much aware of the problems of the working man. His left wing views made him many friends amongst the protest generations but also made him deeply suspect to conservative Middle America. Furthermore, his public rows with both literary peers and political and TV commentators, whilst providing a show, damaged his credibility as a balanced political leader. Then of course, you have the gay image, which on its own more or less excluded him from achieving high political office.
That all said, he had the ability to tell it like it was and that made him a sought after chat show guest and his essays and columns backed up his opinions with vast historical knowledge. He called George W. Bush, "...the stupidest man in the United States” and accused the Bush administration of manipulating the Gulf wars to serve the interests of the US oil industry. More recently, in 2009, in an interview with the London Times, he said: "We’ll have a dictatorship soon in the US and don’t expect Barack Obama to save it" which summed up his latest views on the state of America.
You could say that Vidal was somewhat of a populist Democrat, who maybe went too far even for his own party. This, plus his public profile, maybe robbed the USA of a potentially brilliant top politician.
People remember him too for his very public feuds with literary rivals such as Norman Mailer (who he compared to Charles Manson) and Truman Capote and other celebrities of the time, such as Andy Warhol ("Warhol is the only genius I know of with an I.Q. of 60,") which was vintage Vidal. You get the feeling though that he started these arguments more for the fun of it and personal amusement, than out of genuine animosity. Perhaps the most famous row was with William F Buckley (arch conservative author and political commentator) on ABC, at the Democratic convention in 1968. This quote sums up the tone of that particular confrontation:
Vidal: “As far as I'm concerned the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I know of is yourself.”
Buckley: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face.”
His personal life was a little less clear. Publicly, as the quote at the top of this article suggests, he always played the bisexual card and was engaged at least once (to Joanne Woodward) but whether you find that credible or not, there’s no doubting his commitment to the gay cause. He claims to have loved sex and had lots of it and if you look at the photo of him as a young man, you can well believe it but the long-term relationship with Howard Austen which began in 1950 was a sexless one. He attributed the success of that relationship to its platonic nature:
"It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part & impossible, I have observed, when it does."
All in all, Gore Vidal’s death last month means the loss of one of America’s great colourful characters. He was a brilliant writer, essayist and political commentator as well as providing many of Broadway’s and Hollywood’s most memorable moments. Not likeable to everyone, his wit and intellect set him so far above most of his peers that you could reasonably say that America has lost one of its great cultural icons. He was an original and there are few enough left of those. On hearing of his death, a British Channel 4 commentator said:
"I imagine Gore Vidal will get to heaven and find it terribly bland. I hope he somehow sends us back a review."
Amen to that.
Some of Gore Vidal’s most famous quotes can be found here.