In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat’s bearing – tall, handsome and composed – and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.
But Vidal made his living – a very good living – from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand. During the days of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the few leaders whom Vidal admired, he might have been called a traitor to his class. The real traitors, Vidal would respond, were the upholders of his class.
The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia.
Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, he was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities – regulars on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn’t read their books knew their names.
His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels Lincoln and Myra Breckenridge and the Tony-nominated play The Best Man, a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012.
Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire’s decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.
Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual. Beyond his honorary National Book Award, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office, and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).
But he was widely admired as an independent thinker – in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken – about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, the birds and the bees.
He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were Joyce Carol Oates.
Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.
In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Vidal formed his most unusual bond with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged letters after Vidal’s 1998 article in Vanity Fair on the shredding of the Bill of Rights and their friendship inspired Edmund White’s play Terre Haute.
He’s very intelligent. He’s not insane, Vidal said of McVeigh in a 2001 interview.
Vidal also bewildered his fans by saying the Bush administration likely had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; that McVeigh was no more a killer than Dwight Eisenhower and that the U.S. would eventually be subservient to China, The Yellow Man’s Burden.
Christopher Hitchens, who once regarded Vidal as a modern Oscar Wilde, lamented in a 2010 Vanity Fair essay that Vidal’s recent comments suffered from an utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity.