Friday, August 3, 2012

Gore Vidal 1925-2012: "Prominent, if unpredictable," says WSJ

Author Gore Vidal Dies

Gore Vidal was a slashing literary provocateur who entertained and infuriated readers for more than half a century with his voluminous writings and irrepressible personality.

Mr. Vidal, who died at age 86 Tuesday in Los Angeles, was a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and essayist. He ran for Congress in New York, befriended the famous and engaged in feuds with other public intellectuals of his time.

He was acclaimed for historical novels, including "Burr," "Lincoln" and "Julian," about a Roman emperor who suppressed Christianity. Although "The City and the Pillar," a 1948 novel that frankly treated homosexuality made him notorious, "Myra Breckinridge," about a bawdy transsexual, became a bestseller two decades later.
'More Like Him'

"Gore Vidal was incredible. Dear god, more like him please." From Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Flea to comedian Ricky Gervais, artists are tweeting their reaction to Gore Vidal's death.

Among his plays was "The Best Man," a 1960 hit now back on Broadway in a revival. It was made into a 1964 film starring Henry Fonda.

But in later decades, Mr. Vidal's political and literary essays brought him the most attention, making him a prominent, if unpredictable, figure on the political left.

Mr. Vidal was raised as an insider to American politics. His maternal grandfather was U.S. Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, and a strong enough influence that Mr. Vidal adopted his first name as his own.

"He thought that no foreign war was worth the life of any American. Neither do I," Mr. Vidal wrote in "Palimpsest," a widely praised 1995 memoir.

His father was an aviation official under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped found several airlines. After his parents divorced, Mr. Vidal's mother married Hugh Auchincloss, stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy. She became a confidante of Mr. Vidal's, and he was welcomed at the White House.

Gore Vidal entertained and infuriated both with his voluminous writings and his provocative public personality.

Yet Mr. Vidal presented himself as the ultimate critic of establishment Washington thinking, promoting dissident versions of politics and history. Occasionally he veered into conspiracy theories. He maintained to the end that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew in advance of a coming attack on Pearl Harbor but let the Japanese attack the naval base to justify U.S. entry into World War II.

Mr. Vidal served aboard an Army supply ship during the war, and shortly after published his first novel, "Williwaw." Several novels followed, but most failed to sell well, something Mr. Vidal blamed on what he said was New York Times animus against his work.

He pursued other public feuds as well, most famously with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, who once on national television threatened to punch out Mr. Vidal.

Working with Mr. Vidal could be a humbling experience. "He would occasionally take a suggestion or two of mine, but he didn't seem to find much use for editors," said Gerald Howard, an executive editor at publishing house Doubleday who edited Mr. Vidal for more than a decade. Titles that Mr. Howard edited included Mr. Vidal's memoir "Point to Point Navigation," published in 2006.

Befitting his criticisms of the U.S., Mr. Vidal moved in the 1960s to a villa in Italy where he wrote his novels and continued to throw bombs via essays in the New York Review of Books.

He returned to the U.S. in 2004, following the death of his partner of more than 50 years. He continued to raise hackles by insisting the government knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks.

Write to Stephen Miller at and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at

A version of this article appeared August 2, 2012, on page A6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Author Had a Flair for History, Controversy.

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