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Vidal, Gore (1925-2012)  
 
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The multifaceted Gore Vidal--born Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. on October 3, 1925--was a novelist, playwright, essayist, mystery writer (under the pseudonym Edgar Box), pulp romancer (under the pseudonym Katherine Everard, chosen in homage to the New York bathhouse), adventure writer (under the pseudonym Cameron Kay, the name of his great uncle), screenwriter, social critic, literary critic, congressional candidate, political activist, and actor. Entering the army during World War II while in his teens and rising to the rank of sergeant, Vidal had no formal higher education.

Vidal was 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.

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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."

Vidal came to literary fame as one of the young writers who emerged after World War II. His first book was Williwaw (1947). 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, who died in World War II, The City and the Pillar traces the coming out process of a young man as ordinary and American as apple pie. Claude Summers describes the novel as "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."

Vidal is most important for the gay literary heritage because of the straightforwardness with which he pursued gay themes and included gay characters in his work, beginning in his teens when he wrote his first novel, Williwaw.

He also steadily upped the ante about what sorts of gay material could be included in his mainstream works and as a result made it easier for a wide range of other writers to find public acknowledgment of their material.

Although the grandson of a United States Senator, Vidal felt uncomfortable in America because of his sexuality and lived mostly in Italy since the mid-1960s, sharing his life with his companion Howard Austen, an advertising executive who died in 2003.

The City and the Pillar (1948), Vidal's third novel, is the story of professional tennis player Jim Willard, a man who never outgrows a boyhood crush on his best friend Bob Ford. The idea that men who enjoy sex with other men circulate among ordinary people undetected is implicit everywhere in this novel and outraged some original readers.

Although Vidal argues here and in many places in his nonfiction that there is no homosexual identity and everyone is bisexual, the plot of the book proves the contrary. For The City and the Pillar is, despite itself, the first mainstream coming-out novel.

The original book ended with a violent death, although Vidal had gone against tradition by having his protagonist kill his boyhood love rather than expiate his own supposed transgressions through death. Summers notes that the ending originally published is unsatisfactory not merely because it is "melodramatic and unbelievable. It is also as falsely romanticized as the modes of thought the novel criticizes with such cool clarity."

In 1968, in light of changed social values, Vidal was able to publish The City and the Pillar Revised, a substantially altered version of the book with a different ending. The revision is more shocking because in it Bob is , not murdered. But the violence of this revised ending is better justified since Bob does not simply reject Jim as "queer," precipitating Jim's retaliation; he initiates the violence. There is a strong statement of how inflammatory such name-calling can be.

Most of Vidal's works have more or less prominent gay characters, and he is important for the consistency with which he continually expanded gay visibility in mainstream fiction and, to some extent, drama, for example, in The Best Man (1960), where the plot turns on a question of blackmail about an episode of homosexuality in the life of an essentially straight man.

In his plays and novels with modern settings, Vidal's ear for contemporary idiom is so perfect and his understanding of current fads and obsessions so sure that he is always readable and often an incisive critic of modern life as well. His stylistic experiments indicate both by their virtues and by their failings that when he controlled his art he had the stylistic powers of a major craftsman.

In one such stylistic experiment, Myra Breckinridge (1968), Vidal returned to the public eye at the center of a major controversy. Going Virginia Woolf's Orlando one better, Vidal's Myra Breckinridge is the first instance of a novel in which the main character undergoes a clinical sex-change, a brilliantly chosen image for satire of contemporary mores.

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Gore Vidal in 1948.
  
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