Monday, October 3, 2016

Birthday: “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
Author, activist

Gore Vidal’s father married well, and his son latched onto her family connections like a lamprey. Daughter of a US Senator from Oklahoma, Nina Vidal was a sometime Broadway actress who divorced Eugene Vidal in 1935 and married Hugh Auchincloss, whose next wife after Nina later married the father of President Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline. From his parents’ various marriages he acquired four half-siblings and four stepbrothers.

He was born in the West Point cadet infirmary; his father was the Academy’s first instructor in aeronautics and went on to be head of President Roosevelt’s Bureau of Aviation (now the FAA), and co-founder of three airlines and a railroad. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart was a longtime squeeze, though whether they also co-founded the Mile High Club remains open to conjecture.

The boy set his own course early. Born Eugene Louis Vidal, his family changed the middle name to Luther in 1938 ( Dad had trouble remembering which it was, and then found the birth certificate); and to Eugene Luther Gore (though not after Grandfather Senator Gore, he said) in 1939. Then Vidal dropped the first two altogether as Gore Vidal sounded more literary, though he ran for Congress in 1960 as Eugene Gore.

His formal education ended with prep school, after which he joined the Army Air Corps and was shipped to Alaska for World War II. Dutch Harbor didn’t suit him; he suffered from hypothermia and rheumatoid arthritis.

The war over, Vidal set about becoming an author. His first novel was a wartime tale, Williwaw; his sophomore effort was so bad, he said, he couldn’t bear rereading it.

His third, The City and the Pillar, was what would now be considered a YA novel about coming out. In 1948, however, a novel in which the homosexual didn't kill himself, get killed, get cured, or get a life sentence, was a scandal. He was publishing poison at twenty-three.

He kept himself up writing thrillers under the pen name Edgar Box. Television came along just in time. The New York Times noted,
Work was plentiful. He wrote for most of the shows that presented hourlong original dramas in the 1950s, including “Studio One,” “Philco Television Playhouse” and “Goodyear Playhouse.” He became so adept, he could knock off an adaptation in a weekend and an original play in a week or two.
He leveraged his TV experience into an MGM contract, where he amused himself pushing homosexual themes in scripts as far as was humanly possible without studio heads noticing. His rewrite of Ben-Hur included a famous scene in which the hero- played by the hyper-straight Charlton Heston- was given different scene notes than co-star Stephen Hunter, lest Heston figure out Hunter’s character was coming onto him, and walk off the set. Vidal also wrote the screenplay for the especially louche Tennessee Williams vehicle, Suddenly Last Summer.

Vidal became a member of the Kennedy Court in Washington, never tiring of producing clippings about how he outpolled the President on the 1960 ballot. Two of his plays made it to television and film: Visit to A Small Planet, and The Best Man.

Exiled from The White House by the advent of LBJ, Vidal conceived a massive set of novels combining meticulous research and copious society gossip to chronicle American history: Washington, D.C. (1967); Burr (1973); 1876 (1976); Lincoln (1984); Empire (1987); Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000).

In between, he produced other works, some historical, some satirical. Julian (1964) was a chronicle of the Roman Empire; Myra Breckinridge (1968) was about a talent agency run by a transgender woman.

Myra caused another huge scandal. Sex changes were the province of the former Marine, Christine Jorgensen, who appeared mostly on after midnight syndicated talk shows, but otherwise utterly alien to average Americans (little has changed).

The Writer’s Almanac reported,
The New York Times called it "witty"; the reviewer also called it "repulsive" and "a funny novel, but it requires an iron stomach." Vidal carried a grudge against the Times for the rest of his life.
The book begat another scandal- an atrocious film adaptation that marked Mae West’s return to movies and blighted the career of Raquel Welch for some time.

Vidal segued neatly from writing for TV to being on TV. He was ubiquitous talk show guest: handsome, witty and always ready to create headlines. He was on The Tonight Show so often, Johnny Carson offered to make him guest host.

ABC’s notorious 1968 pairing of Vidal with his right-wing twin, William F. Buckley, Jr, to do live commentaries during the 1968 presidential nominating conventions, launched the age of celebrity wrestling on television; after one sharply escalating series of exchanges, Vidal called Buckley “a crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responded with a threat to beat up Vidal on the set and an accusation of being a “goddamn queer.”

A year later, the two picked up the cudgels in dueling Esquire magazine pieces. Buckley wrote of Vidal,
The man who, in his essays, proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.
Vidal waded in, calling Buckley a racist, a warmonger and antisemitic, and Buckley sued for libel. After a protracted battle in which the judge found that “Vidal's comments, in these paragraphs, meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal, from Buckley's [earlier editorial] statements, cannot be said to be completely unreasonable,” the case settled. Vidal, some said, was terrified Buckley had a file of what he called “Jerry Sandusky stuff” on him; Buckley’s son Christopher, in his memoir of his parents’ deaths in the same year, said he found a file but disposed of it, unread.

Another suit followed when Vidal accused the teenage Buckley and his siblings of vandalizing a church whose pastor’s wife had sold a house to Jews in Buckley’s Connecticut hometown; Vidal countersued over Buckley’s claims that Myra Breckinridge was pornographic.

That one settled, and Vidal moved on to a slander suit against author Truman Capote “over the accusation that he had been thrown out of the White House for being drunk, putting his arm around the first lady and then insulting Mrs. Kennedy's mother.” That one settled, too, after a grudging apology of the sort now favored by conservative politicians who get caught emailing racist memes in social media.

Vidal got into at least one actual fight, backstage on The Dick Cavett Show (which spawned a number of legendary suits, including the Mary McCarthy- Lillian Hellman bitchfest), so provoking Norman Mailer that the boxer/writer head-butted Vidal backstage and then carried the quarrel on air. Displaying his merciless verbal scalpel, Vidal drawled, "Once again, words failed Norman Mailer."

He ran for the US Senate in California in 1982, and lost again. A decade later, in the movie Bob Roberts, Vidal Played himself as a louche Roman emperor-turned-US Senator, Brickley Paiste. He did a turn in the scifi drama, Gattaca; voiced his cartoon self in The Simpsons; and went along in an interview with Ali G, who mistook him for the celebrity hair stylist Vidal Sassoon. He wrote the screenplay for Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's movie Caligula (intending it to to be a stylish sword-and-sandals epic), only to sue to get his name removed when he heard how Guccione and star Malcolm MacDowell rewrote the script and spliced in a bunch of gaudy and irrelevant sex scenes.

He spent more and more time in his Italian villa with his longtime partner, Howard Austen, turning out acclaimed essays he packaged into award-winning books. When Austen fell ill, the two resettled in their home in Los Angeles. Vidal carried on alone there after Austen died in 2003.

Vidal was a patrician of the sort who plays at being a man of the people, and papered over the inconsistencies in his political thinking by casting the two parties as variants of vanilla ice cream, each of which failed to meet his standards:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently . . . and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
He was, at heart, a conservative. Huey Long was his favorite politician, and his isolationist foreign policy views could be torn from the Congressional record speeches of his grandfather. But he came across as a sort of anarcho-liberal, chairing the People’s Party in the 1970s, and endorsing one or more of Ralph Nader’s runs before plumping for Dennis Kucinich in 2004.

He went one more round with William Buckley in 2003, when Esquire included Vidal’s 1969 account of the ABC debate with Buckley in a compilation of essays, and Buckley extracted another settlement from the magazine.

But Vidal got the last laugh: he outlived Buckley (and Capote, and- eventually- Mailer), and was ready when the reporters started calling in early 2008:
I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins, forever, those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.
For good measure, he also penned a scabrous sendoff titled “Gore Vidal Speaks Seriously Ill of the Dead.”

Though he claimed to have had sexual encounters with 1,000 people before he was 25- including a brief engagement to the actress Joanne Woodward, who moved on to marry Paul Newman, and a denied affair with the voracious Anais Nin, Vidal said he only ever loved once: a high school classmate called Jimmie Trimble, who died at Iwo Jima in 1945.

Vidal often claimed the secret of his 53 years with Howard Austen was that they never did have sex together. Once Austen died, though, Vidal declined precipitously. Depressed, mostly wheelchair bound and constantly drinking in a big empty house last decorated in the 1970s, he died of an odd chronic alcoholism syndrome at 86. His personal effects were auctioned off last month.

“Norma Desmond was kind of what Gore was becoming” Burr Steers, Vidal’s nephew and caretaker, told The New York Times.
His tone was affectionate, but then Mr. Steers revealed, as an abrupt aside, that his uncle had left nothing to his family or intimates in his will. Instead, he bequeathed his entire fortune and assets to Harvard University.
Mr. Steers said that Mr. Vidal had promised the property to him, though as alcoholism and dementia had consumed the author in the last years of his life, Mr. Vidal had also accused his once-beloved nephew of being a C.I.A. impostor and of trying to kidnap him. He had accused dedicated staff members of the same and feuded with, and excommunicated, friends.
In the end, Vidal left his estate and future royalties to Harvard University. Steers thought the gesture one last grand middle finger to the world:
In 1974 Mr. Vidal told Fag Rag magazine that he was supposed to have gone to Harvard, but went into the Army instead. 
“What was the point of going into another institution when I had already written my first novel?” he said. 
He lectured at Harvard when his classmates from high school were undergraduates there. “The greatest moment of my life,” he told the magazine. “I mean, I really rubbed it in. It’s all been downhill since.”
Nina Straight, Mr. Steers’s mother and Mr. Vidal’s half-sister, challenged her half- brother’s will on the grounds that Mr. Vidal was not mentally competent when he changed the terms of his will the year before he died. The estate was defended by Andrew Auchincloss, son of the writer Louis- another distant Vidal cousin. Straight said she mostly wanted to get her son his promised inheritance and recover half a million dollars she lent her half-brother to fund the Buckley litigation.

The dispute settled in 2015 under a pile of nondisclosure agreements. I have not discovered whether Vidal’s ashes, which rested for a time in his nephew’s car trunk, then in a hall closet, have been interred in Washington, DC, next to Howard Austen and under the stone bearing both their names, surrounded by congressmen and Supreme Court justices.

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