The Algonquin Round Table - the famous literary/artistic gathering of the early 1920s - didn't make it to the age of television or the Jet Set. But Gore Vidal alone allowed wit, intelligence and pointed repartee to remain part of American pop culture. Novelist, playwright, scenarist, essayist, media figure, social critic and much more, Vidal passed away this July 31.
Gore Vidal, born in 1925, was a very specific sort of figure, heir to the heritage of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, that of a brilliant mind attached to a sharp tongue. His description of himself: a "gentleman bitch."
I grew up during a time when Vidal was a routine guest on television talk shows. He seemed like somebody who enjoyed being intelligent. He also seemed quite urbane and elegant, with a relaxed charm and a self-regard that one could argue was well deserved. His persona as a sort of celebrity tends to eclipse the fact that he was an accomplished writer. But he regarded the age of the novelist as an important figure to have largely passed by the time he emerged as a literary figure. Perhaps that's why his ambitions reached beyond the page to a quite public life, and even into politics. Vidal ran for elected office twice, and was defeated in both races. But he was an enduring presence in political commentary.
When considering Gore Vidal it's interesting to note the variety and tenacity of his output. Vidal published his first novel right after serving in the military during the Second World War. Along with serious prose, Vidal also is responsible for social satires such as Myra Breckenridge and Visit To A Small Planet. He also contributed to motion picture scripts, from the celebrated Ben-Hur to the disastrous Caligula (he removed himself from the latter project once it became apparent that others were re-writing his dialogue). Vidal could span the profound and profane. His essays and nonfiction are perhaps equal to anything else he published.
Vidal established himself as a fearless agent provocateur rather early, with his third novel, The City and The Pillar. With the love that dare not speak its name rather prominent in the book, many newspapers dared not review it nor several that followed. The book had a chilling effect on his career, though it may have also had the effect of pushing Vidal into pursuing other avenues, such as plays and television work. Vidal often claimed that it wasn't the fact that homosexuality was featured in the book, but rather how it was dealt with: he treated the characters as ordinary people.
Vidal seemed able to become a media figure with little harm to his status as a serious writer. His appearances on television and film (most often as himself, but occasionally in fictitious roles such as in Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts) continued up to recent years, and he continued publishing in recent years as well.
Vidal was a study in contrasts: though cultured and intellectual, he was a solid populist: "... I believe the government, to be of any value, must rest upon the people at large, and not be the preserve of any elite group or class, or anything of a hereditary nature."
He maintained a running criticism of the political ills of those in power, and though he spent much of his later life as an expatriate (residing in Rome with long-time companion Howard Austen) he remained entangled in America through his pointed historical novels, such as Burr and Lincoln, and a family heritage reaching back to before the American Revolution and forward to (distant) relation to former Vice President Al Gore and (through marriage) to Jacqueline Kennedy.
He was never at a loss for thoughtful and often amusing comment on the mistakes he found with the country's direction. Interestingly, he considered himself a conservative, though nearly everything available would lead most to consider him as maintaining a persistent but ornate leftist perspective. One imagines a certain level of contrarian intent involved in his claim. The Bush era saw Vidal continue as a lively and substantial critic.
We can also judge Vidal by the enjoyable feuds he engaged in. Famously these included fellow writers such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. Perhaps most visible was on-air jousting with the ever-unctuous conservative William F. Buckley (see video below), whom Vidal was teamed with for television commentary of the calamitous 1968 political conventions, as the Vietnam War raged.
Buckley was intent on interrupting Vidal's attempt to honestly analyze the Vietnam War in relation to the Democratic convention, and the coverage quickly devolved into Vidal telling the "crypto-Nazi" Buckley to "shut up," to which Buckley called Vidal a "queer" that he would "sock in your goddamn face." Interestingly, while both were quite patrician, it's enthralling to see how effectively Vidal manages to short-circuit Buckley and reduce him to embarrassingly base remarks.
Never anxious to retreat or surrender, Vidal served as a template for others who would hold aloft the banner of feisty intellectual provocation, such as Christopher Hitchens. But Vidal was unique, and the cultural landscape will prove more barren with his absence. Here's hoping that his passing will prompt renewed interest in his body of work.
Photo: Caroline Donahue // CC 2.0