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Gore Vidal, Novelist and Critic of ‘Imperial’ U.S., Dies at 86

Author Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal, author, in Los Angeles on November 14, 2009. The author of two dozen novels, Vidal questioned traditional views of gender and sexuality in “The City and the Pillar” and “Myra Breckinridge,” satirized religion in “Kalki” and “Live from Golgotha”. Photographer: Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Gore Vidal, the prolific polemicist of the left whose novels, plays and commentary challenged fellow Americans to rethink textbook lessons about power and patriotism, has died. He was 86.

Vidal died late yesterday of pneumonia in his Hollywood Hills home in Los Angeles, the Associated Press reported, citing his nephew Burr Steers. There was no phone listing for Steers.

The author of two dozen novels, Vidal questioned traditional views of gender and sexuality in “The City and the Pillar” and “Myra Breckinridge,” satirized religion in “Kalki” and “Live from Golgotha” and demythologized American history in fictional accounts of Abraham Lincoln and the founding fathers.

He won the National Book Award for nonfiction for “United States” (1993), a collection of essays on topics including literature and film, feminism and imperialism. His columns on sex, Hollywood, politics and religion appeared, among other places, in Esquire, the Nation and the New York Review of Books.

In recent years, his criticism of the U.S. approached rage. In a 2009 interview with Johann Hari of the U.K.’s Independent newspaper, he declared the American experiment “a failure,” the country “a madhouse” and the war in Afghanistan “terminal for the American empire.” Christopher Hitchens, in a piece for Vanity Fair headlined “Vidal Loco,” denounced Vidal for the “crank-revisionist and denialist history he is now peddling.”

The grandson of a U.S. senator, Vidal grew up in Washington in proximity to power, then spent much of his adult life in Italy railing against what he saw as America’s imperial impulses and self-delusion. Vidal and his companion of more than 50 years, Howard Austen, lived on the Amalfi Coast for four decades, and maintained a home in Los Angeles since 1978. Austen died in 2003.

Dull, Literal

Vidal argued that the U.S., starting in 1947, had moved inexorably toward a “national security state.” He urged a repeal of drug laws, deep cuts in defense spending, brief and publicly funded presidential campaigns, and an end to military aid to Israel and other Middle East nations.

He called the U.S. “the land of the dull and the home of the literal,” and began his novel “Duluth” (1983) with a line that many read to encapsulate his view of his homeland: “Love it or loathe it, you can never leave it or lose it.”

The 1948 publication of “The City and the Pillar,” about a love affair between two male athletes, was a milestone in America’s reckoning with homosexuality. In that work and others, Vidal portrayed gay people as no different, no less normal, than everybody else -- and suggested that everybody has bisexual longings, hidden or not.

Vidal dedicated the novel to the memory of “J.T.,” whom he later identified as Jimmie Trimble, a prep school classmate who had been his early love, and who lost his life on Iwo Jima.

Buckley Faceoff

In a televised faceoff at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Vidal called William F. Buckley Jr. a “crypto-Nazi,” prompting the conservative writer to shoot back, “Now, listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face.”

A year later, Buckley and Vidal assailed each other in essays for Esquire, and each sued. Vidal’s lawsuit was thrown out of court. Esquire settled Buckley’s with an apology and reimbursement of his legal costs.

Buckley died in February 2008. Asked how he felt when he heard the news, Vidal told the New York Times, “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”

Vidal’s feuding was by no means limited to fellow intellectuals of the right. He called Norman Mailer “a demagogue” obsessed with public success. He sued Truman Capote for libel and extracted an apology after an eight-year standoff.

‘Tiresome Nag’

Describing himself, Vidal wrote, “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born on Oct. 3, 1925, at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, where his father, Gene, taught aeronautics.

A former all-American football player at West Point and Olympic decathlete, Gene Vidal went on to found three U.S. airlines and to serve as director of air commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He and the former Nina Gore, an actress, divorced when their son was 10.

Vidal grew up in the Washington, D.C., home of his mother’s father, Thomas Pryor Gore, a Democrat who represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate. (Through that side of the family, Vidal was distantly related to former Vice President Al Gore.)

Free Thinking

Senator Gore had lost his eyesight in separate accidents early in life. He called upon his grandson to read him congressional documents as well as the works of Mark Twain and “free thinkers and skeptics” such as the 19th century agnostic leader Robert Ingersoll, Vidal recalled in his 2006 memoir, “Point to Point Navigation.”

After his mother’s second marriage, to Standard Oil heir Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr., Vidal lived at his stepfather’s Virginia estate. A subsequent marriage would make Auchincloss the stepfather -- and Vidal the step-brother -- of Jacqueline Bouvier, whose marriage to John F. Kennedy ushered Vidal into a new generation of Washington power. (An argument with Robert Kennedy at a 1961 White House party ended Vidal’s relationship with the Kennedy clan.)

Vidal joined the U.S. Army in 1943 after graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. During World War II he was first mate of an Army freight-supply ship in the Aleutian Islands.

First Novel

After the war, Vidal told friends he’d “live by writing.” His first novel, “Williwaw,” named for the violent storms he had experienced in the Arctic, told the story of a ship plying the cold seas. Reviewing the book for the Times, Orville Prescott said Vidal “is a canny observer of his fellow-men. He can write.”

Relations between Vidal and the Times soured upon publication of “ The City and the Pillar” in 1948. In Vidal’s telling, Prescott refused to review the book because it conjured a love affair between two normal men. The Times then passed on his six subsequent novels, and other publications joined in blacklisting him, Vidal said.

Vidal created mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box and began writing for live television dramas in 1954, then for films as a contract writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He wrote screenplays for “The Catered Affair” (1956), starring Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis, and “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. His Broadway play “A Visit to a Small Planet” also was turned into a movie.

Congressional Campaign

In 1960 he ran for Congress in New York as a Democrat-Liberal, advocating more spending on education and less on the military. He pitched himself on TV as a talk-show guest of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and others.

After losing to incumbent Republican Ernest Wharton, 57 percent to 43 percent, Vidal became a regular TV talk-show guest. (He’d make another bid for office in 1982, unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in California.)

He returned in 1964 with the best-selling novel “Julian,” about the life of the Roman emperor Julianus II, who futilely fought the rise of Christianity.

“Myra Breckinridge” (1968), written in the form of a diary, was a Sexual Revolution-era hit. It told the story of a man who, after transsexual surgery, uses his altered identity to punish other men. The 1970 film, with Raquel Welch, earned an X rating.

Historical Novels

From 1967 to 2000, Vidal produced the seven acclaimed novels on American history that he called his “Narratives of Empire.” They included “Burr: A Novel,” “Lincoln: A Novel,” “1876” and “Hollywood.” Vidal said one of his hopes was to bring history to a country he called the “United States of Amnesia” for its disinterest in lessons of the past.

Joyce Carol Oates, writing in the Times, said the novels were “concerned with dissecting, obsessively and often brilliantly, the roots of personal ambition as they give rise to history itself.”

“Lincoln” was turned into an Emmy-nominated TV mini-series in 1988.

Vidal played an upstanding, liberal senator derailed by rumors in Tim Robbins’s 1992 movie, “Bob Roberts.”

Vidal’s 1998 article for Vanity Fair on the erosion of American civil rights prompted a reply from Timothy McVeigh, then on death row for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. In their exchange of letters, McVeigh told Vidal, “Your work is the first to really explore the underlying motivations for such a strike against the U.S. government -- and for that, I thank you.”

While not explicitly praising the bombing, which killed 168 people, Vidal described McVeigh as intelligent and justified in his anger at the federal government. “He was a noble boy,” Vidal told Hari in 2009.

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