Death of an American Character: A Tribute to Gore Vidal
Author: Victoria Brownworth
August 2, 2012
Obituaries for and tributes to Gore Vidal have been chasing each other on the Internet since his death Tuesday night. The major newspapers and magazines dusted theirs off from their soon-to-be-dead files. Not well enough, apparently in some cases, since the New York Times had to print several corrections to theirs. This prompted New York Magazine to smirk and comment that Vidal himself would be chortling snidely at the Times’ expense. Vidal was at odds with the Times for years because they had refused to review his books after The City and the Pillar, citing his open, almost blase representation of homosexuality as “pornographic.” (Note, however, that the novel was published in 1948, when the war had just ended and the McCarthy era was just about to begin.)
Vidal noted repeatedly that he thought his queerness (he didn’t use that word and said he hated the word “gay”) had kept him from the upper echelons of American literary life where he thought he belonged. Yet it’s difficult to imagine how much more ascendant he could have been.
Given his literary stature, none of this “let me say something about Vidal” is surprising, of course, because everyone even remotely connected to American letters has a Gore Vidal story–or wishes they did. Or has a favorite quip–even if it’s not actually Vidal’s (although there are many, but he frequently gets confused with some of his peers, notably Truman Capote and William F. Buckley, Jr., both of whom he famously feuded with). Vidal was, after all, really the last of his generation of patrician, self-styled aristocratic men of letters who went to the best schools and catapulted into the Old Boy’s Network of the East Coast literati. He was as serious as they come, yet it may be his acerbic wit for which he is ultimately remembered.
The Twitter feed on Vidal has been awesome, as has the Facebook commentary–yet all of it proprietary. But the fact is, for all his monumental presence on the literary landscape, as well as his strong voice in progressive political punditry, Vidal was personally elusive–intentionally so. He insisted, “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
What Vidal wanted people to know was intellectualized and stated succinctly in his essays, letters, novels and memoirs. (Palimpsest is especially revealing, particularly about his sexual exploits, which were, according to him, dramatic, especially for his era. Before he was 25 he had had more than 1,000 sexual partners of both sexes.) Vidal was wry to a fault and his writing is luminously humorous in places–his novels are chatty and fun and for the most part, immensely readable. But Vidal the man never presented as someone to be close with.
My personal Vidal story took place in 1971, when I was in high school. TV was discouraged–almost forbidden–in our house, but Dick Cavett was the intellectual talk show host, and so we were allowed to stay up to watch him on occasion. On that December night I was living my secret lesbian life and Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner, who were both appearing on the show that night, were two queer writers I had discovered. Vidal was a famous author and Flanner had been writing for the New Yorker since before World War II as the celebrated Parisian correspondent, Genet. Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and The City and the Pillar were among the queer books I had uncovered (no easy task in the days before Google). At that time, Myra Breckenridge (which Vidal always cited as his favorite) was one of the more subversive books I had read, and I lived in a house full of subversive books.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Dick Cavett’s queer guests. Discussion of what was still called “homosexuality” certainly wasn’t likely, but I knew I was going to be seeing some real live “homosexuals” on TV and for a teenager who would be expelled from my all-girls high school just a few months later when my lesbianism was revealed, this was huge.
Four decades later I remember that TV event–because it was an event, as appearances by Vidal always were–with surprising clarity. The third guest was Norman Mailer. He and Vidal got into a war of words and egos that set Flanner and Cavett to giving them a smack-down that would resonate for years within the world of American letters. (If you’ve never seen it, check it out on YouTube: December 15, 1971. It’s amazing. And it wasn’t PBS, either. As it happens, Mailer had come on the Cavett show gunning for Vidal who had compared him to Charles Manson in a review.)
Watching Vidal (and Flanner) imprinted my newly evolving queer self. Mailer was the big bore in that group (as Flanner noted while Cavett suggested more chairs to hold Mailer’s ego) and what resonated for me was this: Queer was more interesting than straight. Much more. Mailer was a bumbling semi-drunken oaf declaring his own brilliance while Vidal just sat back and smugly stung him repeatedly with well-placed intellectual barbs.
And Vidal was the king of the intellectual parry and thrust. He perfected that somewhat suspect art over the years. Sometimes it was enjoyable, other times cringe-worthy, often just vicious, yet almost always smart. In their obituary, France’s Le Figaro newspaper referred to Vidal as “the Killjoy of America,” noting that he used language like “high precision weapons.”
Vidal caught one’s attention, and he loved the limelight. As Harold Bloom, noted intellectual archivist said of Vidal, his work “is so powerful as to compel awe.”
Gore Vidal (born Eugene Luther but later taking his mother’s maiden name as his first name) died late on July 31 at his home in Hollywood Hills after a bout of pneumonia. He was 86. One of America’s great men of letters, he was the author of over 60 books, half fiction, half non-fiction, including several significant novels addressing homosexuality, like the aforementioned novels and the sequel to Myra Breckenridge, Myron.
Vidal wrote eight plays and more than a dozen screenplays. (He was employed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in the 1950s and 60s and one of his screenplays was for the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, Suddenly, Last Summer. Vidal asserted that Williams was an ardent admirer of his, emphasis on the ardent.) Vidal also wrote extensively for television, for many of the more serious shows.
He spent several decades working on a series of sprawling novels of early American history and as many years producing complex and incisive essays on American history, literature and life. He also wrote a collection of essays on sex. He was astonishingly prolific, publishing more than a book a year for most of his career.
Vidal ran for political office twice: In 1960, he ran for Congress in New York, advised and helped by Eleanor Roosevelt, and in 1982 he ran against Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) for the Senate from California. Intensely political (he was chairman of the People’s Party in the 1970s), he maintained a strong voice in progressive politics throughout his life and was a staunch critic of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Vidal fell into the limelight early and never left it. He loved being on TV and was frequently a guest on talk shows and even appeared as himself in various scripted TV shows, including The Simpsons and Family Guy.
But it was his political bent and his flare for polemics led ABC News to hire him in 1968 as the left-leaning counterpoint to noted conservative William F. Buckley, Jr, covering the Democratic and Republican conventions. This early match set the stage for a decades-long feud that took place on TV, in various literary and political venues and ultimately the courts, when Buckley sued Vidal for libel and Vidal counter-sued.
In 1968, though, the infamous clash set everything in motion and it was reality-TV-style wild. The two were debating freedom of speech because some of the protesters at the DNC had carried a Viet Cong flag.
As the video of the exchange shows (but the NY Times got wrong) Vidal demanded that Buckley “shut up a minute” after Buckley referred to the protesters as “pro-Nazi.”
Vidal countered with, “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro-crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”
This led Buckley to retaliate with, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Imagine the generally reserved news anchor Howard K. Smith trying to calm that exchange between the two normally controlled patricians.
Buckley (and Vidal’s memoir supports this), would later apologize for calling Vidal queer, yet he still referred to Vidal repeatedly over the years as “an evangelist for bisexuality” and the incident was the beginning of their long public feud.
Both men wrote regularly for Esquire and a few months after the televised slugfest, Buckley slammed Vidal in an essay published in the August 1969 issue. In “On Experiencing Gore Vidal, ” Buckley expands on his anti-queer tirade against Vidal (who would later counter with his own essay calling Buckley a racist and anti-Semite, which would end in Buckley winning his libel suit against Vidal and Esquire).
Buckley’s essay (worth reading, and since Buckley is already dead, one needn’t seek him out and kill him) declares that Vidal is an unwavering and tireless “apologist for homosexuality.” Buckley declares, “The man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.”
Buckley was a devout Catholic, so this “hate the sin, love the sinner” trope was commonplace. That Buckley excises Vidal out of the love part is the kicker. Buckley clear states that Vidal is proselytizing for homosexuality and thus should be sent straight to hell.
What’s so interesting about this whole embattlement between Vidal and Buckley is that it is still only the 1960s. Stonewall had not yet happened when Vidal and Buckley had their first tiff and was just a month passed when Esquire published Buckley’s essay. (One wonders if the event had even resonated in those quarters yet.) So for Vidal to be so flagrantly out–and the tall, handsome Vidal wasn’t flamboyant like Capote with the scarves and the fedoras–was quite extraordinary. As was Buckley’s concomitant homophobic backlash.
Vidal had always acknowledged having had affairs with both women and men and had said repeatedly that he believed all people were basically bisexual. He had some notable affairs with female actresses and was engaged briefly to Joanne Woodward prior to her marriage to Paul Newman. Then in 1950, Vidal met Howard Austen, with whom he lived until Austen’s death in 2003 and with whom he will be buried. (Vidal said repeatedly that the key to a long and happy relationship was to remove the sexual aspect. So while he had an initial sexual relationship with Austen, as he details in Palimpsest, he did not continue that once they began living together. Nevertheless, Vidal describes Austen’s passing in a poignant essay which defines the love the two shared.)
At other points, however, Vidal declared that the one true love of his life was James “Jimmy” Trimble, III, who he met while at Exeter when Trimble was a star athlete. Trimble was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, but it was to him Vidal dedicated his novel The City and the Pillar. (Teenage love does resonate; Vidal was 19 when Trimble was killed at 20.) Many commentators on Vidal have suggested that it was the death of Trimble that turned Vidal fanatically anti-war. (In a BBC interview from 2004 that was excerpted on BBC World News on Aug. 1, Vidal slams then-President George W. Bush for his warmongering. He also does a deft and blisteringly vicious imitation of Bush. In 2002, he published “Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.” He was definitely not a fan. And of Obama he would explain that he regretted his previous support–holding many of the same complaints about Obama as he had about Bush, although he stopped short of calling him a war criminal as he had Bush.)
Of all his writing, it was the essays that vaulted Vidal to the forefront of American letters. They are, in a word, monumental. Smart, incisive, often outright brilliant, they comprise the arena in which Vidal was his most forthright and compelling. Yes, the sextet of novels about American history are surprisingly good. But it is the essays (many of which appeared either in Esquire or in the New York Review of Books) that show the breadth and sheer elegance of Vidal’s writing. In his essays he pulls no punches. All the myriad thoughts and ideas and swirling outrages that he experiences, all the endless reading and researching of subjects and history and philosophy and culture, all the intellectual acuity that he was capable of–this is what he brought to his essays. The essays are crisp and refined and almost of another era in their rambling yet honed execution. His forebears, Franklin, Twain, Mencken and Wilson would gladly add him to their ranks. The volume of his essays on sex, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (the forthrightness of the title alone is stunning) is devastatingly sharp in how it deconstructs American sexuality. His myriad essays on the death of culture and the rise of American imperialism in the post 9/11 era are startling, whether or not one agrees with them. (Vidal wrote after 9/11 that America had brought the attacks on itself due to our pursuit of Empire.)
Volume after volume on American politics and history resonate deeply and provocatively. He was intensely anti-war and anti-imperialism, yet concomitantly thoroughly engaged as an American; it’s this multiplicity of ideas and feelings and concepts that forms that complex core of his essays.
It’s always a loss when the great die. It’s less of a loss when they die leaving so much of themselves behind. Vidal lived life more fully than most people can ever envision. Despite his assertion of his icy bastardliness as a person, his work shines and pivots, sparkles and entrances. Vidal left us with the goods, the decanted best of himself–the words, the ideas, the polemics, the quippery, the wit, the research, the thoroughness, the elegance. It’s all there. The sum of the parts equals a pretty ecstatically brilliant whole. Thus the sadness in his passing is mostly in knowing that this is finite: there will never be more. So we must just revel in what we have. And that is, luckily for us, plenty indeed.
(Photo via AP)