In characteristic wit and toughness, Gore Vidal once answered a question about his legacy by remarking, “Anyone stupid enough to worry about how he’ll be remembered deserves to be forgotten.” A renaissance man of letters who wrote award winning novels, essays, stage plays, and screenplays, now achieves the greatest goal of any writer: immortality. In his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation (2005), Vidal wrote that he was “moving toward the door marked ‘exit’.” He has now crossed that threshold, and is, as he liked to explain, reunited with the universe’s more primitive forms. Vidal said that he did not know what it was like for him before he was born, and therefore he was not troubled with fear and anxiety over what it would be like for him after he died.
He did not, and now does not, have to worry about how we will remember him—but we should worry. We must approach any consideration of his vast body of work with fear and trembling, because if we do not properly understand and absorb the wisdom of Vidal, we will have missed yet another opportunity to truly grasp American history and identity. From the publication of his first novel – a terrific examination of youth and mortality in World War II called Williwaw (1946) to his essays on the crimes of the Bush administration in the ’00s, Vidal bequeathed to his country the gift of philosophy. He tore open the plaster of convention and rejected the seductions of conformity to present America to the world: naked, with both beautiful curves and hideous deformities.
It’s likely that Vidal’s legacy will be forever inseparable from politics. Although he lost both his races for political office (first for Congressman in New York and second for Senate in California), he was a committed critic of America’s imperial excesses and oligarchic tendencies. Like President Franklin Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor, with whom Vidal shared a close friendship, he was a traitor to his class.
Vidal’s father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was a West Point graduate, Olympic athlete, founder of three national airlines, and the nation’s first Secretary of Aviation. Vidal’s grandfather, however, had the most powerful and profound patriarchal presence in his life. Thomas Gore served as a Senator in Oklahoma for 20 years, championing populist causes like the direct elections of Senators, land for Native Americans, and aid programs for farmers. He was one of the earliest elected officials to propose a constitutional amendment to require a popular referendum on a Congressional declaration of war. His grandson spoke lovingly and warmly about serving as his unofficial staffer. Senator Gore had lost his vision, and would ask his precocious grandchild to read him Congressional papers, speeches, and reports, and hold his arm as he walked into the Capitol’s chambers. The Oklahoma Senator and grandfather, in all of his congressional work and paternal advice, was teaching a boy who would grow to achieve so much, the most important of all lessons: the art of betrayal.
Irish poet Brendan Kennelly wrote that “the best way to serve your age is to betray it.” Vidal personified the wisdom of Kennelly’s poetry by not only violating the insular social trust of the WASP elite into which he was born, but also sounding a storm warning to America’s nationalistically insipid kite flyers; as convention became more aggressive and interventionist in foreign policy and more plutocratic in domestic policy, Vidal became tougher, smarter, and louder. Vidal came of age helping a beloved grandfather without sight see what was essential for performing the tasks of his position and serving the sacred bond of people, and in doing so, he also learned how to see the trajectory of history, the complexity of politics, and the truth of his country. As an adult he would attempt to execute the same service, only he wasn’t reading to one blind man. He was holding “Stop” signs up to the eyes of a blind nation.
As the Empire crashed, and in the wake of Thomas Gore’s death, it’s important to examine the instructions in the art of betrayal that he provided not to his grandson, but to a generation of, one can fervently hope, literary and political children.
Vidal insisted that his favorite works were his “inventions” – books such as Duluth, Myra Breckinridge, and Live from Golgotha. Products solely of Vidal’s imagination, these novels created new ecosystems in which the mind of the reader could explore and thrive. Duluth is a satire of ‘the 80s-era Reagan poisoned America ,in which the rich ruled and everyone else suffered, but the sufferers were given the opiate of consumption and distractive divisions of race and ethnicity. The satire emerges through a space ship landing in a fictionalized Duluth near Louisiana, the reports of a psycho white female police officer who rapes Latino men, and a fiction writer for a tacky woman’s magazine whose characters, unbeknownst to her, actually exist and whose fates ride on their creator’s next sentence.
Live from Golgotha retells the New Testament through the experience of a broadcast journalist who travels back in time to capture the Crucifixion on camera. Myra Breckinridge – the most successful of the three – tells the story of a psychotic heroine, who used to be a man, with moral battles that touch on America’s sexual mores, linguistic deterioration, and the presidency of Richard Nixon. All three books are wickedly funny and consistently insightful. They also reveal that Vidal was more than capable of graduating from the same school as Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo, and Robert Coover. It’s difficult to argue that Vidal is unappreciated. He’s one of America’s most famous authors, but books such as those that comprise his postmodern trilogy reveal that, paradoxically, he may be over exposed—and underrated. Never is he mentioned in the same sentence as the great inventors, though he should be.
If Vidal limited himself to doing only what he most desired, he would have likely written several more inventions, but in a decision that would ultimately define his career and overshadow his most ambitious literary efforts, he turned to chronicling his country. In essays and with historical novels, he became America’s biographer. It’s a mixed blessing, because while Vidal’s readers and his country benefited immensely from having his Narratives of Empire series of historical novels to consult for not only accurate, but for dramatically compelling American history, and also benefitted from his witty and informative essays written on topics ranging from the attacks of September 11th to pornography, the cultural remembrance of Vidal tends to freeze frame him in the role of political provocateur – a role he played with more panache and power than nearly anyone – but also a particular role he played among many others.
Vidal claimed that he felt compelled to write American history, because he noticed that “no one else was up to the job and they stopped teaching it in schools,” but he also may have felt a sudden sense of urgency to become a force for good in the development of America after every major publication in the country banished him from their pages for writing a novel – The City and the Pillar, his second – that openly and approvingly narrated a gay love affair. It was the first to normalize and naturalize homosexuality in American letters. Riding a wave of success provided by his debut novel, Williwaw, he could have easily steered the ship straight ahead toward glitterati acceptance and academic inclusion. Instead, he made his first conscious choice of betrayal and service.
He chose to serve Jimmy Trimble, a teenager with whom he fell in love in boarding school and who provided inspiration for The City and the Pillar, and in doing so betrayed the bigotry of American society. Vidal was smart enough to sense the severity of his decision, but proceeded with courage. The New York Times destroyed the book, along with every other major publication, and refused to review his next six books. In an era when a business owner’s donation to an anti-gay organization provokes a nationwide boycott of his business, it’s difficult for some to imagine the recent history of brutal homophobia in America – even in liberal quarters. Vidal’s books continued to sell well in Europe at this time but at home, he turned to writing plays for the stage and screen. Among his most notable works for both mediums are The Best Man – a play written about Presidential politics that is currently running on Broadway – and the film classics Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer, based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
The six year period in which Vidal wrote novels in relative obscurity, at least domestically, is an illustration of the stupidity and social severity of bigotry. The media establishment deprived the American public of some of Vidal’s greatest works, and the cultural consequences multiply even in the present, as many of even Vidal’s most avid readers are unaware of his books from that period. For example, Messiah foretold the Jonestown massacre with such uncanny prescience that its reading experience is spooky. Written in 1954, it’s about a charismatic cult leader who eventually leads all of his followers in a mass suicide.
The Judgment of Paris, from 1952, is a coming of age classic that deserves inclusion in any discussion of the greatest novels of the postwar period. It’s about a recent law school graduate traveling from America to Italy and France. He falls in love with different women who become emblematic for the internal urges dueling inside of him: passion versus careerism, love versus money. It’s with The Judgment of Paris that Vidal said he found his literary voice. The sardonic sense of humor, the effortless swirl of sociopolitical themes with personal intrigue, and the creation of a philosophically deep and spiritually resonant soap opera are all there, and they are the qualities with which Vidal would infuse his novels on American history, Roman history, and comparative religion.
It’s also with The Judgment of Paris that Vidal emerged as a master stylist of his generation. A biographer could concentrate on how Vidal’s books accurately forecasted the eventual decay and decline of American civilization. Said biographer could point out how Vidal was prophetic in his characterization of America’s struggle to build empire and maintain a republic as quixotic, corrosive, and ultimately, suicidal. The Narratives of Empire series, which contains Burr, Lincoln, and Washington D.C. among its seven books, is written with a sense of nostalgia for promise that an obituarist would bring to a report on the death of a child. That same biographer could compliment Vidal for his resistance to hagiography – not even Abraham Lincoln, whose beatification process never seems complete – escapes unscathed. Vidal, with historical probity and an attorney’s precision, juxtaposes the former President’s greatness with his imperial ambitions.
The laziest of biographers could identify predictions Vidal makes in essays, align them with contemporary headlines, and credit the literary lion for roaring years ahead of his time. As early as the ’80s, Vidal was writing about America going broke. Earlier than that, he predicted rapid urban decay and violence. In the ’90s, he wrote about the coming death of the middle class, the housing bubble’s inevitable pop, and the growing power of the Christian right. None of this is to say that Vidal was right about everything or that all his ideas were sensible – he proposed a Soviet-American alliance to pressure the then burgeoning Asian economy, he danced on the edge of 9/11 trutherism by wondering if the Bush administration may have had foreknowledge of the attacks, and he was often too harsh and unforgiving to authors he did not like – Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer, most especially. When it comes to American history, however, few men got so much right.
Among The Wise Old Hack’s most quoted words of wisdom: “Shit has its own integrity.”
His comeback novel – one that critics could not ignore—Julian told the story of Rome’s last pagan emperor who attempted to prevent the empire from establishing Christianity as its official religion. As he wrote in the novel’s introduction, “We are who we are now, largely because of who we were back then.” Creation, a novel about Socrates, Buddha, and Confucius in the fifth century B.C., gives readers a crash course in comparative religion and ethics that, if taken seriously, would bring much needed sophistication, compassion, and happiness to an America hell-bent on separating its body from soul, one credit card charge at a time.
Any biographer who would focus on Vidal’s intellectual triumphs would fail to honor his greatest quality and most masterful source of identification. Vidal was a writer. He was a writer in a way that Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others who were and are as equally prescient, smart, and courageous, are and were never writers. Vidal was one of the most colorful and pleasurable stylists of his generation. It was his marvelous prose that made such inedible truths so easy to swallow. Vidal once said, “I’m not a fool. I don’t like that my country is dying, but I’ve been listening to the death rattle for a long time.” Vidal was the bearer of bad news, but no one ever wanted to shoot the messenger.
Scavenge through all the articles written about Vidal – even those by his detractors – and it is impossible not to find the word “wit”. It’s sentences like these that earned him such universal praise:
In an essay on women’s liberation: “Take pornography. Though female nudes have been usually acceptable in our Puritan culture, until recently the male nude was unacceptable to the Patriarchs. After all, the male – any male – is a stand-in for God, and God wears a suit at all times, or at least jockey shorts.”
On a visit to Russia, described in an essay on the Christian prophecy embracing views of the Reagan administration: “The fifteenth of February, 1987, proved to be a bright sunny day in Hell, where I had come with nine hundred worthies from several dozen countries, to listen to Satan himself, Gorbachev, who spoke thoughtfully of the absolute necessity of abolishing all nuclear weapons on the ground that the fact of their existence endangers the human race. Plainly, the Lord of the Flies has not read the Good Book.”
Many of his best lines he attributed to a character he invented for his essays, The Wise Old Hack. Among The Wise Old Hack’s most quoted words of wisdom: “Shit has its own integrity.”
Vidal could blend black comedy with accessible profundity, as he did in his obituary for Richard Nixon. He used a seemingly meaningless incident to capture the weird personality of the former President:
“After I heard the trumpets and the drums, and watched our remaining Librarians – the high emeritus rank that we bestow on former Presidents – I played a film clip of Nixon in his vice presidential days. For some reason the soundtrack is gone. A silent movie. An official banquet of some sort. Nixon remembers to smile the way people do. Then a waiter approaches him with a large, corruptly sticky dessert. At that moment, Nixon leans over to speak to his partner on the left, frustrating the waiter’s effort to serve him. The waiter moves on. Nixon sits back; realizes that his dessert has been given to the man on his right. He waves to the waiter, who does not see him. Now the Nixon face is beginning to resemble that of the third English king of his name. Eyes – yes, mere slits- dart first left, then right. The coast is clear. Ruthless Plantagenet king, using his fork like a broadsword, scoops up half the dessert on the neighbor’s plate and dumps it on his own. As he takes the first taste of the dessert, there is a radiance in his eyes that I have never seen before of since. He is happy. Pie in the sky on the plate at least. R.I.P., R.M.N.”
Vidal wrote a much friendlier obituary for Frank Sinatra, and after explaining that Sinatra was his favorite singer, and writing about how the Nixon administration tried to smear him as a communist, he considers why, after Kennedy refused to invite him to the White House, Sinatra became a Reagan Republican: “It is not easy to be good, much less a tribune of the people, in the land of milk and money once your house is gone.”
Vidal once cracked, “There is no warm, lovable person. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Although I did not know the man, I suspect this may have been one of the only lies Vidal has ever written. Growing up with an abusive alcoholic for a mother likely made him overly cautious in showing sentimentality or a softer side, but that side did exist. Otherwise, how could he have written sentences like these?
From his second memoir, in the description of his longtime companion Howard Auster’s final days:
“A doctor friend in Rome, although officially retired, still worked at a private Roman clinic. We checked in. AN MRI revealed a small dark bubble on the lobe of the brain that controls locomotion. He had also become incontinent. Several times I had to lift his deadweight off the floor until, finally, I ruptured a spinal disk. Donella, our doctor friend, arranged for a distinguished surgeon at Rome’s Villa Margherita to operate. But when the professor had studied the MRIs of Howard’s brain he said, ‘We must not wait.’ Unfortunately a long holiday weekend was coming up and such weekends are sacred in Italy. The operation was scheduled for the next week. As I left Howard’s room, he said, ‘Kiss me.’ I did. On the lips, something we’d not done for fifty years.”
He wrote charmingly about the village of Ravello, Italy where he lived with Howard Auster for decades, and in the end turns his description of the community and camaraderie of his street into a reflection on the forgiving cycle of life:
“Italo Calvino now lives at the north of the street, and we cher confrere one another when we meet. Then we move on. Yes, we are all growing old. But a baby’s being born to the wife of the hardware-store owner, while a half-dozen babies of a few years ago are now men and women. So – plenty more where we came from. That is the lesson the street. Meanwhile, what time is it? Free the bejeweled ladies held captive! Daffodils, tulips, mimosa. What time is it? The same.”
The conclusion to The Judgment of Paris, when young Philip Warren makes the right choice for love and passion over money and power, is one of the most beautiful elevations and reinforcements of love’s magic and majesty ever put to paper:
“She was waiting for him at the end of the balcony, in a grotto of shell and starfish, of seaweed and mother-of-pearl. She was unmasked, in white, with a summer flower in her gleaming hair. As he looked at her by the firelight, saw her smile, the silver mirror dissolved before his eyes, dispelling it ungrieved ghosts like smoke upon the night, and beyond her in the dark, a promise at the present’s furthest edge, a dreaming figure stirred and opened wide her golden eyes.”
I can still recall sitting in my dorm room as a sophomore in college, eating a cheese sandwich, and reading Vidal’s essay collection United States. It was that moment that I decided to make writing the major part of my life. With the clarity and force of the Mediterranean Sea, the memory of my breakthrough returns. I said to myself, “I will never be this good, but I’d like to spend my life trying.”
It seemed an enterprise of nobility and integrity. It still does. It’s not merely for Vidal’s intellect, talent, and courage that I aspired to his life, but also for his personality. Much is made of Vidal’s impressive rolodex of friends: John Kennedy, Hilary Clinton, Mick Jagger, Tennessee Williams, and his best friends, Paul Newman and Joanee Woodward. Equal attention is given to his impressive rolodex of enemies: William F. Buckley, John Updike, and Ayn Rand. But the most important part of Vidal’s personality is his style.
Style is rare in the contemporary intellectual world. The average Charlie Rose guest may be smart, but is likely to be boring. Vidal was handsome, and he possessed such graceful elegance that he made brilliance, even to a young man preparing for the next party in a dorm room, attractive. He appeared to be having such fun, and every witticism, upward tilt of the chin, and self-satisfied smile served as invitation for taking part in the fun. The life of the mind does not have to be stale and stuffy. The life of the mind can be a life of joy. Indeed, Marcie Frank, an English Professor in Toronto, Canada, wrote a book called How To Be an Intellectual in the Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal. Her central contention is that Vidal, like no other, was able to translate his brilliance into the entertainment language of television without diluting it.
Now that this ‘betraying defender ‘of our Republic has passed through the door marked “exit”, and as deference to power and convention and advancing mediocrities dominate our letters and rule our airwaves, we mourn the loss of one of America’s most interesting citizens. If we are smart, we will long for the intelligence, style, and fun of Vidal, and we will wonder where it all goes. As in the words of Auster, as Vidal remembers him saying on his death bed, “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?”