Gore Vidal is dead, and the world is a grayer place without his sneer.
Essayist, novelist, dramatist, screenwriter, politician, talking head, raconteur and snob, he died Tuesday at the ripe age of 86 -- which was something of an anticlimax, given the note of mortuary pathos he’s been sounding since 1994, when he ended his first book of memoirs, “Palimpsest,” with a description of the cemetery plots he’d just bought for himself and his companion, Howard Austen.
His second memoir, the 2006 “Point to Point Navigation,” is informed by Austen’s death, and it’s a quieter, less brutal, sometimes even beautiful book.
Beauty isn’t the first quality Vidal’s writing calls to mind. The “life-enhancing malice” he admired in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was his as well. (And so, of course, was her “boyish beauty.”)
She was, as he never tired of reiterating, a family connection. His mother’s second marriage was to the American aristocrat Hugh D. Auchincloss, who, after their divorce, married Jackie’s mother. The tie gave him insider status with the Kennedys -- and “insider” describes his perennial point of view. The politicians, movie stars and literary celebrities who people his pages are liars and hypocrites striking poses before a public of idiots; the insider-informant unmasks them.
When piqued -- which was much of the time -- he was vicious. After a falling-out with Robert Kennedy, he became a bitter antagonist of the family, and he didn’t spare Jackie. Writing about casual sex with a somewhat older man during his army days (he claimed to have been as promiscuous as Jackie’s husband), he recalled that when it was over “he offered me 10 dollars, which I took. As a result I, alone in the family, did not condemn Jackie’s marriage to Onassis, since I, too, had once been a small player in the commodities’ exchange market.”
His mother’s father, the dominant presence in his childhood, was Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, who represented Oklahoma in Congress on and off from 1907 to 1937. Young Gore, born in 1925, grew up comfortably ensconced in Washington power circles; later he would settle into show-business power circles as if by birthright.
He was educated at various private academies, and it’s clear that as a teenager he already knew how to turn the charm on -- and off. One teacher at Exeter noted that he might well be a “credit to the school if we can stand him for another two years.”
He enlisted in 1943, at the age of 17; in 1946 he published his first novel, at 21. But it was his third novel, “The City and the Pillar,” published two years later, that sealed his reputation -- and his fate, since outraged reaction to the then-scandalous gay subject matter forced him to turn to playwriting and screenwriting for the next decade or so.
The novel tells the story of Jim Willard, who as a youth falls deeply in love with his schoolmate Bob Ford and spends the rest of the book -- during which he wanders disconsolately through the gay world of the 1940s -- yearning for him. At the end they meet again, and Bob, now securely heterosexual, is revolted to find Jim’s passion undimmed. In the original ending, the spurned Jim strangles Bob. For a new edition in 1965, Vidal turned the murder into a vengeful rape.
Though Vidal drew the outlines of the affair from a youthful love of his own, he insisted its denouement was pure fiction. Yet the figure of the spurned lover held his imagination. A decade later he was hired to update the hoary Biblical epic “Ben-Hur” into a bankable Hollywood blockbuster. Seeking a motive for the mortal enmity between the former friends Ben-Hur and Messala, he hit on the stratagem of making them ex-lovers.
In 1959 such a plotline couldn’t be laid out explicitly. It couldn’t even be divulged to Charlton Heston, the picture’s prim Ben-Hur. But it propelled Stephen Boyd into the intense performance as Messala that gives the movie the only depth it can claim.
Male rape was also to make another, spectacular appearance. In the 1968 satire “Myra Breckinridge,” the title character -- a gay egghead transformed by surgery into a stunning femme fatale -- subjects a cocky young actor to a session of sexual humiliation that climaxes in her violating him with a strap-on dildo; he’s so traumatized that, in Myra’s final triumph, he turns gay himself.
I don’t see any way of reading this simultaneously hilarious and appalling scene as anything but another gay egghead’s revenge on the straight world that has long tormented him. (And I marvel that the book became a best-seller.)
But Vidal rejected the label “gay.” He didn’t even like “homosexual,” insisting on “homosexualist” (that was a lonely fight) to describe those on the sexual spectrum who gravitate toward their own gender; he thought everybody was bisexual. He wasn’t terribly convincing about his own bisexuality, though, and the venom with which he wrote about “fags” sounds very much like badly camouflaged shame.
He insisted that he never played the sexually passive role and went so far as to claim that as a lover “I did nothing -- deliberately, at least -- to please the other. When I became too old for these attentions from the young, I paid, gladly, thus relieving myself of having to please anyone in any way.” It doesn’t sound like a very gratifying creed for a love life.
Then again, “if you have known one person you have known them all,” as he wrote at the outset of “Palimpsest,” isn’t a promising motto for a novelist, either. Maybe that’s why his novels are such pallid productions. Vidal himself dismissed the “plain-plywood style” of his early work. “Myra Breckinridge” and other satiric novels are written in a mock-heroic baroque (unconsciously inspired, he later said, by Anais Nin, a close friend turned enemy) that can go from funny to grating in a flash.
Otherwise, the mature Vidal style is a patrician fluency not unlike that of his fellow aristocrat William F. Buckley Jr. -- with whom he nearly came to blows on a televised debate during the 1968 Democratic convention. This style suited historical novels (“Burr,” “Lincoln”), TV commentary, stump speeches (he ran for the House in 1960 and the Senate in 1982) and -- most deliciously -- essays.
Deliciously, that is, as long as you weren’t one of their targets. A perceptive critic has observed that in these writings Vidal urinates from a great height. The literary essays are penetrating, whether in praise (he deserves much of the credit for introducing Italo Calvino to English-speaking audiences and for spurring the Dawn Powell revival) or blame (“The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973”).
Republic to Empire
In Vidal’s youth his politics were moderate, but when he grew up and learned about U.S. involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected foreign regimes, he turned on his native land like Messala on Ben-Hur. His reading of American history was deep, subtle and intemperate; a recurring theme (in the novels, too) was the country’s transformation from republic to empire.
The foreign policy of “the national security state” repelled him. Its domestic policy he summed up as “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor” -- a sleight-of-hand all too easy to pull off before a gullible public in “the United States of Amnesia.”
With magnificent chutzpah, he delighted in putting himself in the line of fire. His superciliousness made him hard to love, but not to enjoy. In a pious land that still treats its taboos as treasures, his death leaves a swatch of drabness where once he lent peacock shades to the public discourse.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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