Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (born 1925) was one of America's most prominent literary figures on the basis of an enormous quantity of work, including novels, essays, plays, and short stories. He was also well known to the public through frequent appearances on television opinion programs.
Gore Vidal was born into a family long important in American politics on October 3, 1925, at West Point, New York. His maternal grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, senator from Oklahoma; his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was director of air commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt; he was distantly related to Albert Gore, vice president of the United States in the administration of President Bill Clinton.
The importance of politics in his life is obvious from his statement, "The only thing I've ever really wanted in my life was to be president." But he did more than verbalize: he was the Democratic Party candidate for Congress from New York's 29th District (Duchess County) in 1960; he served in the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts under John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1963; he was a co-founder of the New Party, backing Senator Eugene McCarthy, from 1968 to 1971; he was co-chairman and secretary of state-designate of the People's Party in the period 1970-1972; he ran unsuccessfully for the nomination as the Democratic Party's senatorial candidate in California in 1982.
Although always on the fringes in politics, he was a central figure in literature after 1946. In that year, while working as an editor at E. P. Dutton, he published his first novel, Williwaw, based on his service during the last years of World War II in the Army Transportation Corps in the Aleutian Islands; the book was warmly received by critics.
After the lackluster In a Yellow Wood in 1947, Vidal had his first bestseller with The City and the Pillar, a succes de scandale about a homosexual. The reaction to the novel says a lot about the limitations of critics at the time: while many termed it ground-breaking because the hero is an all-American youth, none found it rather conventional in that it has a tragic ending, almost a sine qua non in homosexual fiction at mid-century.
In any event, The City and the Pillar was badly received by the more conservative press: The New York Times reviewed it negatively, calling it "clinical and sterile, " and refused to accept any ads for it, while the homophobic daily reviewer announced that he would consider no further books by Vidal. It may or may not be coincidence that his next five novels, The Season of Comfort (1949), A Search for the King (1950), Dark Green, Bright Red (1950), The Judgment of Paris (1952), and Messiah (1954) were negatively reviewed and were all commercial failures.
To increase his income, Vidal turned to mystery novels, publishing three of them under the pseudonym Edgar Box: Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Bedtime (1953), and Death Likes It Hot (1954). He also wrote short stories, which were published under the title A Thirsty Evil in 1956.
It was in 1954 that he developed what he called his five-year plan, that is, to go to Hollywood, write for films and television, and make enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Between 1956 and 1970 he wrote or collaborated on seven screenplays, including the film version of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, on which he worked with the playwright in 1959. Between 1954 and 1960 he also completed 15 television plays.
His five-year plan turning into a ten-year plan, he also developed an interest in writing for the stage. His debut, Visit to a Small Planet in 1957, was well received on Broadway and was subsequently turned into a television play. He had his greatest success in the theater with the 1960 drama The Best Man, assumed by many to be about the 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie; made into a movie, it won the Cannes Critics Prize in 1964. His later plays, On the March to the Sea (1961), A New Comedy (1962), Weekend (1968), and An Evening with Richard Nixon (1972), were less successful with the critics and at the box office.
Vidal returned to the novel in 1964 with Julian, about the fourth-century Roman emperor Julianus II, called the Apostate because he dismissed Christianity as the official state religion and urged a return to Hellenism, a view with which the author seemed in sympathy.
After Washington, D.C. in 1967, he had another popular success with Myra Breckenridge (1968), the saga of a homosexual male converted into a female via a sex change operation, called by Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice "the first popular book of perverse pornography." After a long stay on the bestseller lists, it was made into a movie. A sequel, Myron (1974), was less successful.
Two Sisters (1970) was followed by nine novels in the next 20 years, a number of them about politics. They were Burr (1973), Myron, 1876 (1976), Kalki (1978), Creation (1981), Duluth (1983), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), and Hollywood (1990).
But, while the general public enjoyed Vidal as a novelist, more sophisticated readers and the critics esteemed him more for his essays, with ten collections of them, many of which had appeared first in periodicals, published between 1962 and 1993. They were Rocking the Boat (1962), Sex, Death, and Money (1968), Reflections upon a Sinking Ship (1969), Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (1972), Matters of Fact and Fiction Essays 1973-1976 (1976), Great American Families, written with others (1977), Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal, written with Robert J. Stanton (1980), The Second American Revolution (1982), Armageddon?: Essays 1983-1987 (1987), and United States: Essays 1952-1992 (1993). The Second American Revolution won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1982 and United States won the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 1993, occasioning the waspish comment from Vidal that he was "unaccustomed to prizes in my native land."
In television Vidal served briefly as the host of Hot Line in 1964 and appeared frequently as a guest on shows dealing with political opinion throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Always a defender of liberal causes, but also an articulate spokesman for high standards in the arts and in education, he had the ability to upset conservatives, on one occasion causing even the usually unflappable, if not magisterial, William F. Buckley to lose his temper on camera.
Vidal even tried his hand with political documentaries, when in the mid 1990's he wrote and narrated a program on the American Presidency for Britain's Channel Four. Although the programs were a hit in Britain, Vidal was disappointed with their airing on American television, since The History Channel added further reportage from Roger Mudd and Arthur Schlesinger Jr, among others. Vidal griped about the editorial changes in The Nation, saying that the executives seemed to be saying, "…we'll get some experts' like we do for those crappy historical movies and let them take care of this Commie."
The consensus of critical opinion was that Vidal was more likely to be remembered for his criticism than for his fiction, for it was there that his style appeared to best advantage. That style, wrote William McPherson in The Washington Post, "is characterized by urbanity and wit, elegance and polish, and more than occasionally by the venom of a scorpion."
Continuing with literary nonfiction, Vidal released a critically successful memoir in 1995, Palimpsest: A Memoir. In it he reflected upon a life peopled with such interesting friends and acquaintances as his relative Jackie Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, and many others he mixed with in the literary and political scene. While the book was largely well-received, The New York Times Book Review gave a luke warm assessment, calling Vidal's viewpoint "disinterested".
There are three good biographies, Gore Vidal by Ray Lewis White (1968), The Apostate Angel by Bernard F. Dick (1974), and Gore Vidal by Robert F. Kiernan (1982). There are also mentions in such surveys as John W. Aldridge's After the Lost Generation. □