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Obituary: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

Obituary by Jack Foley

GORE Vidal, the celebrated author and political commentator, has died at the age of 86, his family has confirmed.

The acclaimed writer died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening (July 31, 2012), with the cause of death believed to be complications from pneumonia.

In a prolific career, Vidal produced 25 novels, including the best-selling Myra Breckenridge, more than 200 essays and several plays.

He was also a leading political liberal voice from the 1950’s onwards, even running for Congress in New York in 1960.

Born on October 3, 1925, to a politically-connected family – his father served in the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt – Vidal grew up in Washington DC and after attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, enlisted in the US Army as a Private, serving in World War II and working on supply ships in the Pacific.

But the conflict would rob him of the only person he ever claimed to have truly loved – US Marine Jimmy Trimble, a schoolmate and boyfriend of Vidal, who was killed in 1944.

It was this experience and the feelings that followed that inspired his novel, Williwaw (meaning a sudden, violent storm), which became a best-seller.

It was his next book, however, that really put him on the map as a writer, not least for the way in which it became embroiled in controversy. The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was a clinical examination of homosexuality, that bookshops refused to stock and newspapers refused to advertise.

It still became a best-seller because of the notoriety surrounding it but Vidal became ostracised for almost a decade, only surviving by writing under pseudonyms.

Vidal persevered, however, and rebuilt his reputation, emerging back into favourable light with his Hollywood adaptation of friend Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer in 1959, which earned both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor Oscar nominations.

He also screenwrote for the epic Ben Hur, notoriously claiming in later years that he wove a gay subtext into the plot.

Another big screen success was his screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s Last of the Mobile Hot Shots in 1970, while two of his own works, Visit To A Small Planet and The Best Man were successes on Broadway and on film.

Ever political, Vidal was close to the Kennedy administration and Jackie Kennedy was his stepsister, while in 1960 he ran as a Democrat for the US House of Representatives… but lost.

He formed the People’s Party with the child development specialist, Dr Benjamin Spock, and called for the US Constitution to be regularly re-written and had the happy knack of provoking his opponents, earning further notoriety and fame for his on-air fight with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Indeed, Buckley Junior threatened to punch him in the face after Vidal accused him, on prime time TV, of being a ‘crypto-Nazi’.

Another long-time adversary, Norman Mailer, once hit him on the head with a glass before a talk show.

But while often controversial, Vidal was a fiercely gifted writer whose ability to marry intelligence with humour earned him the widespread respect of his peers.

Indeed, Vidal eventually became recognised with the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1993 for his collection, United States: 1952-1992.

And throughout his career, he switched between political essay writing, screenplays and novels.

His 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge, written in the form of a diary, remains one of his most enduring works and was even turned into a 1970 film comedy starring Raquel Welsh, John Huston and Mae West in her penultimate movie.

He also penned the teleplay for The Left-Handed Gun, which saw Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, and wrote the original draft for 1979’s Caligula but had his name removed when the script was rewritten by director Tinto Brass and star Malcolm McDowell to become more pornographic – this despite his own books, Myra Breckenridge and its sequel Myron being described in the same way by some critics.

In later years, Vidal also became celebrated for his series of American historical novels, which – in works ranging from Burr to The Golden Age – chronicled US political life from the War of Independence to the third millennium.

Central to the success of these were his vivid character portrayals of politicians such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

But he also liked to comment on contemporary issues, too, and was never afraid to speak his mind, taking on the George W. Bush administration on several occasions.

But his passion for the arts continued, too, and saw him being asked to guest as the voice of himself on TV’s The Simpsons and Family Guy, while he made several brief film appearances in works including Gattaca, Igby Goes Down, which was directed by his nephew, Burr Steers, and Shrink.

Confirming news of his death, his nephew Burr Steers told US media that his uncle had been ill “for quite a while”.