The last of a generation of great American writers, Gore Vidal, died on 31 July 2012, at the age of 86.
He was an author, a historian, an essayist, a political activist, an educator, a playwright, a screenwriter, a gay icon, friend to movie stars and politicians alike and an unwavering voice in the fight for equality.
In 1948, Gore Vidal wrote the novel The City and The Pillar which concerned a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. Defying social norms, Vidal’s book caused a huge controversy that would surround his life for years to come and force him to write under an alias. Vidal presented a balanced view of a lifestyle that was seen as immoral and unnatural.
Vidal’s retort to his conservative critics:
‘Regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime, despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality… notice how I say ‘natural’ and not ‘normal’.’
Whilst his novels were widely read, Vidal’s essays have been heralded as his true calling, as Stephen Spender wrote in a review:
‘Vidal’s essays celebrate the triumphs of private values over the public ones of power. They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one. At the same time, their seriousness lies very largely in his grasp of the conditions and characteristics which make up the public world.’
As one might expect from such a controversial figure, Vidal’s public life was as colourful as one of the protagonists from his novels. Vidal ran for Congress twice and, in spite of his very public connection to the Kennedy dynasty and speculation over his relation to Jimmy Carter, he was picked up on several scathing comments made about politicians and their parties, notably:
‘There is only one party in the United States, the Property party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently… and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But essentially there is no difference between the two parties.’
Of his contemporaries Vidal had plenty to say. A great friend of Tennessee Williams and infamous rival of Truman Capote, his wit and candour have been both admired and criticised. His life became the stuff of tabloid gossip and public speculation.
In 1979, Vidal launched a million-dollar libel complaint against Capote. The two best-selling authors and deadly enemies were entwined in a very public brawl. Capote said of Vidal: ‘I’m always sad about Gore – very sad that he has to breathe every day.’ Vidal retorted: ‘Truman made lying an art form – a minor art form.’ In 1984, when Vidal’s editor in New York telephoned with the news that Capote had died, he responded: ‘A wise career move.’
Vidal seems to have known everyone and been everywhere, manoeuvring from the political alleys and back rooms of Washington to the poolside patios of Hollywood and the salons of European writers and intellectuals. In total he published 25 novels and more than 200 essays.
The Associated Press has reported that the lights on Broadway will be dimmed at 8pm on Friday night to honour Vidal’s memory, whose play The Best Man is in the midst of a successful run at the Schoenfield Theatre.