The sharpest tongue in the West: The waspish wit and elegant controversy of Gore Vidal
A brilliant wit, he was related to - but hated - the Kennedys and thought the U.S. was in terminal decline. No wonder Gore Vidal had so many enemies...
Gore Vidal was entitled to claim that he was the wittiest and most elegant writer of his time. And claim it he often did. For modesty was not his principal virtue. Indeed, it was one of the reasons he made so many enemies.
Asked why he excited so much antagonism, Vidal always explained that he was one of the few people in the world who spoke in perfect sentences — a talent which particularly infuriated literary rivals, whom he said were lucid only on paper.
He made that point during a TV debate with fellow writer Norman Mailer (who he had once likened to cult killer Charles Manson) and Mailer responded by head-butting him. Without blinking, Vidal observed: ‘As you might expect, Mailer as usual was lost for words.’
Opinionated: This 1974 photo shows Vidal during an interview in Los Angeles during which he discussed Hollywood unions, politics, lecturing and publicising books
Vidal, who died on Tuesday aged 86, became famous thanks to his wit. But he was more than an aphorist — he was a serious writer of great distinction: an essayist, critic, satirist, actor and occasional amateur politician.
In everything he turned his hand to, Vidal caused elegant, exquisitely phrased controversy. However, despite his literary success, his money and his looks, he never seemed satisfied with the way fate had treated him. Asked about his occasionally wistful air, he spoke about ‘divine discontent’.
Vidal’s writings are saturated with a sense that the world, and in particular the United States, were in terminal decline. The great age of empire was over, and America, he believed, had abandoned itself to the ‘cult of stupidity’. He said: ‘The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.’
The Vidals were American aristocracy. His father, Gene, was director of air commerce in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and was said to be the handsomest man in Washington society. He was also a serial adulterer.
Vidal's mother, Nina, was an alcoholic and, at her worst, suicidal. His parents’ marriage collapsed and Vidal, their only child, was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, Democratic Senator for Oklahoma. The Senator was blind. Vidal recalled: ‘When he discovered a grandchild with a passion for reading, I became his favourite.’
Enemies: William F Buckley, Jr., conservative government gadfly and author, interviews Vidal. Vidal once called Buckley as a 'crypto Nazi' on television
Politically charged: Vidal greets then-President elect John F Kennedy in December 1960; he was good friends with Jacqueline Kennedy
His grandfather asked Vidal to read aloud to him — a task the boy rebelled against. ‘After several hours of reading the Congressional Record, I got bored. I was the only eight-year-old authority on bi-metalism (the economic monetary system based on the price of gold and silver).’
The precocious Vidal was educated at Exeter College — one of the top undergraduate ‘schools’ of New England. But, for reasons he never explained, he did not go on to Harvard, Yale or Princeton with other members of his social class.
He then served during World War II as a warrant officer (junior grade) — mostly in the Aleutian Islands of the Northern Pacific Ocean as helmsman on a supply ship.
For a man of his background, a commission would normally have been a formality. Although he claimed his bad eyesight was to blame for keeping him in the ranks, it was his homosexuality (discovered while still at school) that undoubtedly was equally responsible for his prolonged stay on the lower deck.
Vidal was always open about being what he called a ‘fag’ — even at a time when homosexuality risked instant ostracism.
In 1946, the year after he left the U.S. Navy, Vidal wrote Williwaw — a war novel which brought him instant acclaim. This success, though, was short-lived because his third book (The City And The Pillar, whose subject was homosexual life in New York) received a hostile reaction.
The senior book reviewer of the New York Times vowed ‘never to read him again after experiencing this disgusting book’.
John F. Kennedy and Gore Vidal: Despite his literary success, Vidal never seemed satisfied with the way fate had treated him
Vidal spent ten years in exile from New York, some of it in Guatemala, and wrote TV and film scripts and short stories under the name of Edgar Box. He lived in Paris and Florida and his name appeared as a scriptwriter in the credits of several movies such as Ben-Hur.
During this period he befriended the playwright Tennessee Williams, who let him adapt his work Suddenly Last Summer for the screen.
Vidal enjoyed this Hollywood period but he was, by nature, a writer. As soon as American publishers were prepared to risk the wrath of the New York Times, he felt able to return to the written word.
The result, Myra Breckinridge, ‘the story of a character who is apparently a woman, but who turns out to be a man’, was a literary sensation.
Throughout these ‘golden years’ in the Forties and Fifties, Vidal lived the sybaritic life of American high society — securing invitations to the best dinner parties.
There followed a series of novels about the early years of the American Republic. They reflected his view that the Founding Fathers had created a model of democracy that later American presidents had destroyed with their autocratic power.
Talent: Gore Vidal was a serious writer of great distinction: an essayist, critic and satirist
In 1960 — choosing, for a change, to participate rather than philosophise — he stood in New York as a Democratic nominee for the House of Representatives. He lost, but won more votes in his congressional district than John F. Kennedy, the presidential candidate.
Vidal had a family link to the Kennedys. After his parents’ divorce in 1935, his father married the stepmother of JFK’s future wife, Jackie. This made Gore Vidal her half-brother, once-removed.
Vidal was, however, defiantly unimpressed by his association with America’s first family. He said JFK was ‘one of our worst presidents’, his brother Bobby was ‘a phoney’ and their father, Joseph, was ‘a crook’ who ‘should have been in jail’ and who had ‘bought’ the presidency for his son.
He described the Kennedy family’s ascent as an ‘ardent struggle ever upward from the Irish bog’ and with tragic foresight he called the job of the presidency ‘literally killing’ and worried that ‘Kennedy may very well not survive’.
Nor was he charitable about Jackie Kennedy, who he claimed ‘lost her virginity in a lift to a writer from the Paris Review’. For her part, she complained that Vidal had always made her feel ‘like a Philistine’.
Happily, he made other enemies — considering Ernest Hemingway a joke and comparing Truman Capote to a ‘filthy animal that has found its way into the house’.
Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honour, albeit combined with a modern will to live as he pleased. He wrote in his memoir that he’d had more than 1,000 ‘sexual encounters’. Also, he was fond of drink and claimed that he had sampled every major drug.
Throughout his adult life (for more than 50 years), Vidal lived with Howard Austen, a sometime singer and advertising executive. He insisted that they observed his rule of life that ‘sex drives more couples apart than it holds together’ by not sleeping with one another.
Indulgences: Gore Vidal, pictured here in 2009, was fond of drink and claimed that he had sampled every major drug
Whatever their physical relationship, Austen behaved like a domesticated wife and looked after Vidal.
For 25 years, they lived together in the Italian village of Ravello and returned to America (which he described as ‘the land of the dull and the home of the literal’) only in 2003, so that Austen could be treated for cancer. However, he died later that year.
Vidal continued to produce acerbic and pessimistic essays as well as his fiction. He was a constant critic of U.S. foreign policy and the attempts of successive presidents to impose the standards of the West on developing countries.
He also predicted that the U.S. would eventually be subservient to China — ‘The Yellow Man’s Burden’.
But he remained an essentially American figure. In his final years, saddened by the death of peers and close friends, he still raged about the world and mused about what he had called that ‘divine discontent’.
‘Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at the galaxy’s edge ...’ he once said, ‘... there is all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.’
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