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Popular Topics in Literature
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In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/01/12
Last updated on: 08/01/12
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Gore Vidal. Photograph by David Shankbone (CC BY 3.0).

Acclaimed novelist and essayist Gore Vidal, noted for his iconoclasm and wit, died on July 31, 2012, at his home in Hollywood Hills, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Italy. The cause of death is reported as complications from pneumonia.

As Charles McGrath observes in the New York Times, "Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy."

As Edmund Miller notes in his glbtq entry on Vidal, "He is important for the gay literary heritage because of the straightforwardness with which he has pursued gay themes and included gay characters in his work. . . . He has also steadily upped the ante about what sorts of gay material could be included in his mainstream works and as a result has made it easier for a wide range of other writers to find public acknowledgment of their material."

He was born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. on Oct. 3, 1925, the son of an All-American football player who became an aviation pioneer and founded three airlines, and an actress and socialite who was the daughter of Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma. His mother later married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

As a student at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., Vidal formed an intense romantic and sexual friendship with Jimmie Trimble, one of the school's best athletes, whom he described as his "ideal brother," his "other half." As McGrath observes, Trimble's death in World War II "at once sealed off their relationship in a glow of A. E. Housman-like early perfection, and seemingly made it impossible for Mr. Vidal ever to feel the same way about anyone else."

Vidal came to literary fame as one of the young writers who emerged after World War II. His first book was Williwaw. But if that work made him famous, his third book, published a year later, The City and the Pillar, made him notorious.

Dedicated to the memory of Trimble, The City and the Pillar traces the coming out process of a young man as ordinary and American as apple pie. A major contribution to gay literature, the novel is an ambitious attempt to trace realistically a homosexual's awakening in a particular time and place, while also locating this experience in the vast expanses and reptetitive patterns of myth.

(In 1968, Vidal published The City and the Pillar Revised, a substantially altered version of the book with a different and more satisfactory ending.)

Publication of The City and the Pillar in 1948 caused him to be blacklisted by many publications, including The New York Times. He had such trouble getting subsequent novels reviewed that he turned to writing mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box and pulps under the name Cameron Kay and concentrated on writing for television, the stage, and the movies.

Vidal's most successful play is The Best Man (1960), which includes a gay subplot, and became a successful film (1964) and has recently been revived on Broadway. Among his most successful screenplays is that for Tennessee Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer.

In the 1960s, Vidal returned to writing novels. He published Julian (1964), Washington, D.C. (1967), and Myra Breckenridge (1968). The latter, a black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery, was Vidal's own favorite among his books.

In the years that followed, Vidal wrote novels about American history, including Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Hollywood (1990), and The Golden Age (2000). These novels combined Vidal's penchant for iconoclasm and his deep interest in history. Many of them also include homosexual incidents and themes.

Other novels include Two Sisters (1970), which Edmund Miller describes as Vidal's most successful tour de force both in experimental point of view and in realistic representation of homosexual identity; Myron (1974), a sequel to Myra Breckenridge; and Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (1992), which parodies the Gospels, with Paul as a huckster and Jesus a buffoon.

Many critics esteem Vidal's essays as his greatest achievement. His essays, many of them published in the New York Review of Books and collected in 8 volumes, are often disputatious and pointed. Many of them are literary critiques and appreciations, but most are barbed critiques of American politics and history. Among the latter is "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star" (1981), in which Vidal describes how neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals undermine their own minority rights by their homophobia.

In addition, Vidal wrote two memoirs, Palimpset (1995) and Point to Point Navigation (2006).

Vidal, by virtue of his television appearances and political involvement, became a public figure, who delighted with his pithy observations and acerbic comments, especially in his well-publicized feuds with such figures as William F. Buckley, whom he famously called a "crypto-fascist" after Buckley called him a "queer."

Although Vidal was known for an astounding number of sexual encounters and the belief that human beings are naturally bisexual, his most meaningful relationship was with his companion of 53 years, Howard Austen, a former advertising executive who died in 2003.

In that year, Vidal and Austen relocated to Los Angeles from their Italian home so that Austen could be closer to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was being treated.

Austen was buried in Washington, D.C. in Rock Creek Cemetery. The gravestone was inscribed with their names side by side.

In the video below, Vidal appears on New York's Theater Talk television program in 2000. He discusses his play, The Best Man.

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