Vidal, Gore (1925—)

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Vidal, Gore (1925—)

Thanks to the broadcast media, which continually gives public platform to the curmudgeonly wit and iconoclastic political observations of Gore Vidal, he has become one of those rare authors who is as famous for what he says as for what he writes. Considered to be one of the most promising members of the generation of writers emerging from World War II (a group which included his arch-rival and eventual sparring partner, Norman Mailer), Vidal first made his mark with a fairly well received novel based on his army experiences, Williwaw, in 1946, then followed up with two more books, the second of which, The City and the Pillar (1948), stirred waves of controversy because of its frank treatment of homosexuality. "Not until that third book," Vidal has recalled, "did I begin to get bored with playing safe." Ever since, "playing safe" is a charge which has never been leveled against Vidal, by himself or by anyone else. With his literary career in a slump, he supported himself by writing television plays, finding in that infant medium great success which he soon was able to transpose to Broadway. This in turn led to screenwriting assignments, and in due time Vidal was able to return, with mixed success, to novel writing. His most notorious book was 1968's story of transsexuality, Myra Breckinridge, a personal favorite of the author's. While penning historical novels and essays, Vidal has also kept himself in the public eye through appearances on TV interviews and talk shows, and even an occasional acting stint on film. In his TV appearances, Vidal's gadfly manner and contentious political views have entertained and, some would say, enlightened the public in a forum denied to most other scribblers. Vidal has even run for public office and, though never elected, was one of those unsuccessful candidates—Barry Goldwater, Vidal's political opposite, was another—whose views have nonetheless had an influence upon the electorate.

The man who would later christen himself Gore Vidal was born Eugene Luther Vidal at West Point, New York, on October 3, 1925. A greater influence on his childhood than his parents, who soon divorced, was the boy's blind grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, Oklahoma's first senator. Young Vidal read to his grandfather the Congressional Record and constitutional history, a formative experience that instilled political ambitions in the lad. As a young man, Vidal decided to forgo Harvard in favor of the military, a decision he claims never to have regretted. The army at least provided fodder for Vidal's first novel and also his most successful teleplay, the satirical Visit to a Small Planet, which concerns the misadventures of an alien from outer space who wants to start a war because, he says, "it's the one thing you people down here do really well." Planet made a successful transition from TV to stage, as did Vidal's trenchant melodrama about rivalry between would-be presidential candidates at their party's convention, The Best Man. The latter play also made for a fine film starring Henry Fonda, but Vidal was so displeased with the rewriting and the miscasting of Jerry Lewis in the film version of Planet that he has disowned the movie. (Subsequently, Vidal would be equally displeased with the film version of Myra Breckinridge ; he would also sue to have his name removed from Bob Guccione's infamous production of Caligula). Vidal was responsible for the screenplay of his friend Tennessee Williams's play Suddenly, Last Summer and made some major, although uncredited, contributions to the script of Ben-Hur. (To the continued annoyance and denials of Charlton Heston, Vidal insists that he persuaded director William Wyler to insert a homo-erotic subtext into the film's key relationship between Judah Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend, Messala.)

Vidal, who once criticized the United States as "the land of the dull and the home of the literal," nevertheless always wanted to be its president. He campaigned for representative in 1960 and senator in 1982, losing both battles but nevertheless winning many converts to his somewhat extreme positions (such as his proposal to tax church income).

Although he dabbled with science fiction in one of his novels (Messiah, 1954), most of his latter-day books have been such historical novels as Julian (1964), Burr (1973), and Lincoln (1984). The Smithsonian Institution (1998) manages to combine both the science fictional and the historical.

There was a time in Vidal's own history when his public spats with other literary figures, such as Truman Capote and William F. Buckley, Jr., led to much-publicized lawsuits. In the case of his feud with Norman Mailer, it even led to flung drinks and fisticuffs. (Covering the 1968 Democratic Convention for ABC-TV, the unlikely team of Vidal and Buckley ended up calling each other, respectively, "crypto-Nazi" and "queer.") Vidal in his later years, however, can hardly be said to have mellowed. "There is no warm loveable person inside," he proclaims, "beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Parini, Jay, editor. Gore Vidal: Writer against the Grain. New York, Columbia University Press, 1992.

Vidal, Gore. The Essential Gore Vidal. Edited by Fred Kaplan. New York, Random House, 1999.

Vidal, Gore and Robert J. Stanton, editors. Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal. Seacaucus, New Jersey, L. Stuart, 1980.

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Vidal, Gore (1925—)

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