Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal 1925-2012: Michael Dirda's obituary

Michael Dirda [always recommended] obituary for Gore Vidal:

Gore Vidal dies; imperious gadfly and prolific, graceful writer was 86
By Michael Dirda
Wednesday, August 1, 1:07 AM

Gore Vidal, 86, a celebrated writer, cultural gadfly and occasional political candidate, died of pneumonia Tuesday at his Hollywood Hills home, according to a nephew. Known for his urbanity and wit — "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little" — Vidal's literary career 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."

He 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, Vidal produced 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 novel "Myra Breckinridge," about a transsexual film enthusiast.

Vidal also won plaudits from scholars, critics and ordinary readers for historical novels such as the best-selling "Julian," "Burr" and "Lincoln," and English critic Jonathan Keates called him "the 20th century's finest essayist." "United States," which gathers 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 Vidal provoked controversy with his laissez-faire attitude toward every sort of sexuality, his well-reasoned disgust with American imperialism and his sophisticated cynicism about love, religion, patriotism and other sacred cows.

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 writer later lopped off the first two names "for political as well as for aesthetic reasons." He said that "this often has been gleefully interpreted as a rejection of my father, whom I liked, in order to become my mother, whom I disliked."

In fact, so great was his antagonism toward his mother that Vidal stopped seeing her during the last 25 years of her life. He hero-worshipped his father, a former Olympic athlete in the decathlon.

Young Vidal spent much of his childhood in Washington and was particularly attached to his grandfather. The senator was blind, so the boy spent many hours reading to him aloud, thus inaugurating his lifelong passion for learning and books.

In his childhood, Vidal loved L. Frank Baum's stories about Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan adventures, the fantasies of E. Nesbit, and every sort of history: "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." By the age of 14, he wrote, "I wanted to know the entire history of the entire world."

Vidal attended St. Albans School, 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), Vidal makes clear that this youthful passion, cut short by Trimble's death, marked his entire life: He never truly loved anyone again, although he would enjoy hundreds of sexual encounters, most of them with anonymous strangers, in which he took pleasure but, as he repeatedly insisted, never gave any except inadvertently.

Although 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, 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, the 18-year-old 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.

After he was discharged from the Army, 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, a friend of playwright Tennessee Williams and the author of two more novels, including "The City and the Pillar" (1948), an account of two all-American boys and what was — until then — "the love that dare not speak its name." Although that book is viewed as a pioneering work of gay literature, its casual acceptance of homosexual impulses offended some critics — and Vidal's subsequent seven novels went unnoticed by Time magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times.

As a result, Vidal later wrote: "I was carefully erased from the glittering history of American Literature. . . . Twenty years ago, there was an academic study of the five hundred — or was it five thousand? — truly great American novelists since the Second War. I was not of their company. I had slid down the page to a footnote."

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, Vidal decided to earn his living largely by writing TV dramas, Broadway plays and movie scripts. He cranked out three mysteries under the pen name Edgar Box, starting with "Death in the Fifth Position" (1952).

With the money from the commercial writing, Vidal paid the mortgage on a grandly pillared Greek-revival manse called Edgewater, located on the banks of the Hudson River near Rhinecliff, N.Y. There, he threw parties attended by rising literary notables such as Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, critics Lionel and Diana Trilling, and movie stars Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman (who became his close friends).

Over time, the writer's circle of high-profile acquaintances included John F. Kennedy and Britain's Princess Margaret, although he was closer to composer and writer Paul Bowles and beat legend Jack Kerouac. In fact, Vidal and Kerouac were physically drawn to each other. While checking into the Chelsea Hotel for a tryst, they signed their real names, and Vidal told the bemused clerk that that page of the hotel registry would one day become famous.

Although Vidal enjoyed a varied social and sexual life, he nonetheless worked hard. On Broadway he hit pay dirt with "Visit to a Small Planet" (1957), in which an alien named Kreton lands on Earth and announces that human beings are his hobby. It deftly skewers contemporary mores and Cold War anxieties.

The even more highly regarded political drama "The Best Man" (1960), which was nominated for a Tony Award as best play, presented a behind-the-scenes look at the wheeling and dealing between two men competing for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Both plays were made into films, the first starring Jerry Lewis; the second, Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson.

Ah, Hollywood! As Vidal announced in the opening sentence of his memoir "Point to Point Navigation": "As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies."

His passion for the films of the 1930s, in particular "The Mummy" and "The Prince and the Pauper," shaped his imagination, as did some of the stars: "Margaret Sullavan," he once wrote, "never simply kicked the bucket. She made speeches, as she lay dying; and she was so incredibly noble that she made you feel like an absolute twerp for continuing to live out your petty life after she'd ridden on ahead, to the accompaniment of the third movement of Brahms's First Symphony."

As a screenwriter in the 1950s and occasionally afterward, Vidal contributed to many films, often without screen credit. He wrote a teleplay that provided the inspiration for "The Left-Handed Gun" (with Paul Newman as Billy the Kid); he was called in to doctor "Ben-Hur" (and tweaked the script to suggest a homosexual subtext to explain the relationship between the epic's hero and his enemy Messala); and he worked with Tennessee Williams on the hothouse melodrama "Suddenly, Last Summer" (featuring a troubled Elizabeth Taylor and an even more troubled Montgomery Clift). In his later years, Vidal appeared with some frequency in films, notably Federico Fellini's "Roma" (1972), in which he played himself.

By the early 1960s, after 10 years of writing plays and movie scripts, the not yet 40-year-old Vidal achieved his goal of financial independence. He had made his own way, and much of the work had been fairly honorable. As he noted with his usual astringency: "To be truly commercial is to do well that which should not be done at all."

For the next three decades, Vidal spent much of his life in Italy. In Rome's libraries, he researched a novel about the emperor Julian, which rose to the top of the best-seller list and relaunched his moribund career as a novelist.

In general, the older Vidal published three kinds of fiction: historical novels set in the ancient world, such as "Julian" and "Creation" (which features Socrates, Zoroaster, the Buddha and Confucius); campy fantasies that mocked American prejudices and conventionalities, the most famous of which is "Myra Breckinridge" (1968), a send-up of B-movies, sexual politics and California; and the so-called American Chronicle, a series of seven novels — the best known are "Burr" (1973) and "Lincoln" (1984) — detailing the secret political history of the United States. "To make the past live," Vidal said, "is a lovely task."

Vidal also grew more prominent as a pundit, on TV and in the pages of the New York Review of Books and other periodicals. Although he had written essays and reviews since the 1950s, Vidal increasingly cast himself as a modern-day Voltaire, commenting on the nation's follies with waspish asperity and wit. "There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise," he said.

In print or onscreen, Vidal could be guaranteed to say something entertainingly outrageous about American imperialism or contemporary sexual mores. Again and again, he insisted that everyone is really bisexual: "There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices."

Everything and anything could be skewered with stiletto-like finesse, and nothing was sacred: Vidal maintained that various prominent Jewish intellectuals acted as an Israeli fifth column, argued that the family was largely a means of keeping workers in their exploited place and concluded that in American democracy, "numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates."

During the heated days of the national conventions of 1968, Vidal squared off on the issue of freedom of speech with conservative pundit William Buckley. The pair ended up losing their cool and trading insults — "Crypto-Nazi," Vidal said. "You queer," Buckley shot back.

Over the years, Vidal mockingly dismissed many of his rivals, including Truman Capote, whom he loathed, and John Updike, as well as favorites of the academy such as John Barth, William Gass and Thomas Pynchon.

Vidal collected the best of his discursive prose in "United States" (1993), a mammoth volume of literary essays, political polemics and autobiographical reminiscences for which he received the National Book Award. It included a scandalously frank account of the Kennedys entitled "The Holy Family" and a series of irreverent takes on U.S. presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

When scholars squawked, Vidal proved that he had done his homework and gleefully showed up one academic after another. But if politics was in Vidal's view always corrupt, it grew even more so after World War II. "I date the end of the old republic and the birth of the empire to the invention, in the late thirties, of air conditioning," he said. Before air conditioning, "the politicians would abandon Washington in the summer; now they stay around all through the year, making mischief."

Vidal's best essays were not his attacks but his appreciations. For all his elegance, the multitalented writer clearly regarded himself as something of an old-fashioned bookman, believing that accurate and entertaining description should be the main function of a critic.

He also believed in rediscovering the unfashionable. Over the years, he produced exemplary appraisals — composed in ballpoint pen on yellow legal pads — of dozens of once-undervalued writers, such as Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino, William Dean Howells, Logan Pearsall Smith, Paul Bowles, Thomas Love Peacock, Louis Auchincloss, Sinclair Lewis and Frederic Prokosch.

More often than not, Vidal had read their complete works. That some of those writers continued to be neglected only supported one of his laments: The age of the reader is passing, and we are living through its twilight's last gleaming.

Although Vidal found success as a writer and intellectual, he failed in his attempts to gain political office. He twice ran unsuccessfully in elections, campaigning for Congress in 1960 when he lived at Edgewater and then for the Senate in 1982 when he had taken a residence in California. Yet politics had been in his blood since childhood: Through his father and grandfather, he had known politicians as powerful as Franklin Roosevelt and as colorful as Louisiana governor Huey Long. His mother's second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss, was the stepfather to Jacqueline Kennedy. He could count Jimmy Carter and Al Gore as distant cousins.

In his later years, Vidal grew even more vehement in his political convictions, speaking out against American imperialism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and denouncing the invasion of Iraq (see his 2002 book "Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta").

Vidal once pointed out that his literary genealogy included "Petronius, Juvenal, Apuleius — then Shakespeare — then Peacock, Meredith, James, Proust." Like those cultivated and witty writers, Vidal cast a cold eye on the society of his time and resolutely upheld the values of urbanity and pleasure against the onslaughts of the barbarian, the puritan and the philistine.

"Always a godfather, never a god," he quipped at a christening.

© The Washington Post Company

1 comment:

  1. It really is sad to loss someone like Michael Dirda's, a happy man.Someone should make him a memorial page on obituary so that many people will still be able to see him and remember what he did and what he was when he was still here.