Gore Vidal (born October 3, 1925; or /v
ɪˈdæl/) is an American novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, short story writer and politician. Early in his career he wrote the ground-breaking The City and the Pillar (1948) that outraged mainstream critics as the first major American novel to feature unambiguous homosexuality.
Vidal's father, a West Point all-American quarterback who was director of Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce (1933–1937) in the Roosevelt administration, was one of the first Army Air Corps pilots and, according to biographer Susan Butler, was the great love of Amelia Earhart's life. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was a co-founder of three American airlines: the Ludington Line, which merged with others and became Eastern Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, which became TWA), and Northeast Airlines, which he founded with Earhart, as well as the Boston and Maine Railroad. The elder Vidal was also an athlete in the 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympics (seventh in the decathlon; U.S. pentathlon team coach).
Gore Vidal's mother was an actress and socialite who had her Broadway debut in Sign of the Leopard in 1928. She married Gene Vidal in 1922 and divorced him in 1935. She later married twice more; one husband was Hugh D. Auchincloss (stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and, according to Gore Vidal, she had "a long off-and-on affair" with actor Clark Gable. She was an alternate delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention. Vidal had four half-siblings from his parents' later marriages (the Rev. Vance Vidal, Valerie Vidal Hewitt, Thomas Gore Auchincloss, and Nina Gore Auchincloss Steers Straight) and five stepbrothers from his mother's third marriage to Army Air Corps major general Robert Olds, who died in 1943, ten months after marrying Vidal's mother. Vidal's nephew Burr Steers is a writer and film director, and nephew Hugh Auchincloss Steers (1963–1995) was a painter whose work is in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Denver Art Museum.
Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C., where he attended Sidwell Friends School, then St. Albans School. Since Senator Gore was blind, the boy Vidal read aloud to him and was his guide. The senator's steadfast isolationism contributed a major principle of Gore Vidal's political philosophy, which is critical of foreign and domestic policies shaped by American imperialism. In 1943, on graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Vidal joined the U.S. Army Reserve.
For most of the late twentieth century, Vidal lived in Ravello, Italy, and Los Angeles, California. In 2003, he sold the 5,000-square-foot (460 m²) Italian villa, La Rondinaia (The Swallow's Nest), and moved to Los Angeles. Austen died in November 2003 and, in February 2005, was buried in a plot for himself and Vidal at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
After a magazine published rumors about J.T.'s identity, Vidal confirmed they were the initials of his St. Albans-era love, Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima on June 1, 1945; later saying Trimble was the only person he had ever loved. Subsequently he wrote plays, films, and television series as a scriptwriter. Two plays, The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet, were both Broadway and film successes. In the early 1950s he also wrote under the pseudonym "Edgar Box", producing three mystery novels featuring public relations man "Peter Cutler Sargeant II".
In 1956, Vidal was hired as a contract screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. In 1959, director William Wyler needed script doctors to re-write the Ben-Hur script, originally written by Karl Tunberg. Vidal collaborated with Christopher Fry, reworking the screenplay on condition that MGM release him from the last two years of his contract. Producer Sam Zimbalist's death complicated the screenwriting credit. The Screen Writers Guild resolved the matter by listing Tunberg as sole screenwriter, denying credit to both Vidal and Fry. This decision was based on the WGA screenwriting credit system which favors original authors. Vidal later claimed that in order to explain the animosity between Ben-Hur and Messala, he had inserted a gay subtext suggesting that the two had had a prior relationship, but that actor Charlton Heston was oblivious. Heston denied that Vidal contributed significantly to the script.
In the 1960s, Vidal wrote three highly successful novels. The first, the meticulously researched Julian (1964) dealt with the apostate Roman emperor, while the second, Washington, D.C. (1967) focused on a political family during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era.
Vidal's third novel in the '60s was the satirical transsexual comedy Myra Breckinridge (1968), a variation on familiar Vidalian themes of sex, gender, and popular culture. In the novel, Vidal showcased his love of the American films of the '30s and '40s, and he resurrected interest in the careers of the forgotten players of the time including, for example, the late Richard Cromwell, who, he wrote, "was so satisfyingly tortured in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer."
After two commercially unsuccessful plays, Weekend (1968) and An Evening With Richard Nixon (1972), and the largely unappreciated novel Two Sisters (1970), Vidal focused on essays and two distinct strains in his fiction. The first strain comprises novels dealing with American history, specifically with the nature of national politics. Critic Harold Bloom wrote, "Vidal's imagination of American politics...is so powerful as to compel awe." This series' Narratives of Empire titles include Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), The Golden Age (2000), and another excursion into the ancient world Creation (1981, published in expanded form 2002).
The second strain consists of the comedic "satirical inventions": Myron (1974, a sequel to Myra Breckinridge), Kalki (1978), Duluth (1983), Live from Golgotha: the Gospel according to Gore Vidal (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998).
Vidal occasionally returned to scriptwriting cinema and television, including the television movie Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer and the mini-series Lincoln. He also wrote the original draft for the controversial film Caligula, but later had his name removed because director Tinto Brass and actor Malcolm McDowell re-wrote the script, changing the tone and themes significantly. The producers later made an attempt to salvage some of Vidal's vision in the film's post-production.
For six decades, Gore Vidal has applied himself to a wide variety of sociopolitical, sexual, historical, and literary themes. In 1987, Vidal wrote the essays titled Armageddon?, exploring the intricacies of power in contemporary America. He pilloried the incumbent president Ronald Reagan as a "triumph of the embalmer's art." In 1993, he won the National Book Award for his collection of essays, United States (1952–1992), the citation noting: "Whatever his subject, he addresses it with an artist's resonant appreciation, a scholar's conscience, and the persuasive powers of a great essayist." A subsequent collection of essays, published in 2000, is The Last Empire. Since then, he has published such self-described "pamphlets" as Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, and Imperial America, critiques of American expansionism, the military-industrial complex, the national security state, and the current administration. Vidal also wrote an historical essay about the U.S.'s founding fathers, Inventing A Nation. In 1995, he published a memoir Palimpsest, and in 2006 its follow-up volume, Point to Point Navigation. Earlier that year, Vidal also published Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories.
Because of his matter-of-fact treatment of homosexual relations in such books as The City and The Pillar, Vidal is often seen as an early champion of sexual liberation. Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, a representative sampling of his views, contains literary and cultural essays. Focusing on, in his view, the anti-sexual heritage of Judaeo-Christianity, irrational and destructive sex laws, feminism, heterosexism, homophobia, gay liberation and pornography, the essays frequently return to a favorite Vidal motif: the fluidity of sexual identity. Vidal argues that "although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behavior are usually based on religious texts, those texts are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled." In repudiating what he sees as rigid, narrow moralism, Vidal argues that "sex is a continuum" made up of "different phases along life’s way" and thus "everyone is potentially bisexual." He explains that "the human race is divided into male and female. Many human beings enjoy the sexual relations with their own sex, many don't; many respond to both. The plurality is the fact of our nature and not worth fretting about." Therefore, "there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts." Given the diversity of human desire, Vidal resists any effort to categorize him as exclusively "homosexual"—either as writer or human being—and instead celebrates this polymorphous eroticism as natural and inevitable.
Besides his politician grandfather, Vidal has other connections with the Democratic Party: his mother Nina married Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr., who later was stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Gore Vidal is a fifth cousin of Jimmy Carter, and a distant cousin of Al Gore.
As a political activist, in 1960, Gore Vidal was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress (running as Eugene Gore), losing an election in New York's 29th congressional district, a traditionally Republican district on the Hudson River, encompassing all of Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Schoharie, and Ulster Counties to J. Ernest Wharton, by a margin of 57% to 43%. Campaigning with a slogan of "You'll get more with Gore", he received the most votes any Democrat in 50 years received in that particular district. Among his supporters were Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward; the latter two, longtime friends of Vidal's, campaigned for him and spoke on his behalf.
From 1970 to 1972, Vidal was one of the chairmen of the People's Party, and with a half-million votes, he finished second to incumbent Governor Jerry Brown in California's 1982 Democratic primary election to the United States Senate. Vidal's Senate bid had the backing of liberal celebrities such as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The campaign was documented in the film, Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No directed by Gary Conklin.
Although frequently identified with Democratic causes and personalities, Vidal wrote in the 1970s:
"[t]here 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.Vidal's political views are usually characterized either as liberal or progressive. Vidal has a protective, almost proprietary attitude toward his native land and its politics: "My family helped start [this country]", he has written, "and we've been in political life... since the 1690s, and I have a very possessive sense about this country. Vidal considers himself a "radical reformer" wanting to return to the "pure republicanism" of early America. As a prep school student, he was a supporter of the America First Committee. Unlike other America First Committee supporters, he continues in the opinion that the United States should not have entered World War II (though acknowledging material assistance to the Allies was a good idea). He has suggested that President Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor to facilitate American entry to the war, and believes FDR had advance knowledge of the attack.
Vidal has contributed an article to The Nation in which he expressed support for Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, citing him as "the most eloquent of the lot" and that Kucinich "is very much a favorite out there in the amber fields of grain".
Later, in 1969, the feud was continued as Buckley further attacked Vidal in the lengthy essay, "On Experiencing Gore Vidal", published in the August 1969 issue of Esquire. The essay is collected in The Governor Listeth, an anthology of Buckley's writings of the time. In a key passage attacking Vidal as an apologist for homosexuality, Buckley wrote, "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."
Vidal responded in the September 1969 issue of Esquire, variously characterizing Buckley as "anti-black", "anti-semitic", and a "warmonger". The presiding judge in Buckley's subsequent libel suit against Vidal initially concluded that "[t]he court must conclude that Vidal's comments in these paragraphs meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal from Buckley's [earlier editorial] statements cannot be said to be completely unreasonable." However, Vidal also strongly implied that, in 1944, Buckley and unnamed siblings had vandalized a Protestant church in their Sharon, Connecticut, hometown after the pastor's wife had sold a house to a Jewish family. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire for libel. Vidal counter-claimed for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley's characterization of Vidal's novel Myra Breckinridge as pornography.
The court dismissed Vidal's counter-claim; Buckley settled for $115,000 in attorney's fees and an editorial statement from Esquire magazine that they were "utterly convinced" of the untruthfulness of Vidal's assertion. However, in a letter to Newsweek, the Esquire publisher stated that "the settlement of Buckley's suit against us" was not "a 'disavowal' of Vidal's article. On the contrary, it clearly states that we published that article because we believed that Vidal had a right to assert his opinions, even though we did not share them."
As Vidal's biographer, Fred Kaplan, later commented, "The court had 'not' sustained Buckley's case against Esquire... [t]he court had 'not' ruled that Vidal's article was 'defamatory.' It had ruled that the case would have to go to trial in order to determine as a matter of fact whether or not it was defamatory. [italics original.] The cash value of the settlement with Esquire represented 'only' Buckley's legal expenses [not damages based on libel]... " ultimately, Vidal bore the cost of his own attorney's fees, estimated at $75,000.
In 2003, this affair re-surfaced when Esquire published Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing, an anthology that included Vidal's essay. Buckley again sued for libel, and Esquire again settled for $55,000 in attorney's fees and $10,000 in personal damages to Buckley.
After Buckley's death on February 27, 2008, Vidal succinctly summed up his impressions of his rival with the following obituary on March 20, 2008: "RIP WFB—in hell." In a June 15, 2008, interview with the New York Times, Vidal was asked by Deborah Solomon, "How did you feel when you heard that Buckley died this year?" Vidal responded, "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.
During an interview in the 2005 documentary, Why We Fight, Vidal claims that during the final months of World War II, the Japanese had tried to surrender to the United States, but to no avail. He said, "They were trying to surrender all that summer, but Truman wouldn't listen, because Truman wanted to drop the bombs." When the interviewer asked why, Vidal replied, "To show off. To frighten Stalin. To change the balance of power in the world. To declare war on communism. Perhaps we were starting a pre-emptive world war."
He claims that for several years the Bush administration and their associates have aimed to control the oil of central Asia (after, in his view, gaining effective control of the oil of the Persian Gulf in 1991). Specifically regarding the September 11, 2001, attacks, Vidal writes how such an attack, which American intelligence warned was coming, politically justified the plans that the administration already had in August 2001 for invading Afghanistan the following October.
In October of 2006, Vidal derided NORAD for its inability to intercept the hijacked aircraft on 9/11, which he asserted was the result of "stand down orders.
In May 2007, Vidal clarified his views, saying: "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I'm a conspiracy analyst. Everything the Bushites touch is screwed up. They could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they wanted to. Even if they longed to. They could step aside, though, or just go out to lunch while these terrible things were happening to the nation. I believe that of them."