Gore Vidal, one of the last true men of letters, a wit, prolific writer and bon vivant, who move easily in political as well as celebrity circles, has died in Los Angeles after a long illness from pneumonia. He was 86.
Nephew Burr Steers said Vidal died at his Hollywood Hills home yesterday (July 31) in the early evening. Vidal had been in failing health for “quite a while,” he said.
Vidal came of age after World War II, when America seemed to have endless possibilities. During the ’60s and ’70s he hobnobbed with President John F. Kennedy, was a confidant of his wife Jacqueline. He left an indelible mark on culture through his writing, commentary and famous literary feuds.
Over the course of his career, he wrote several best-selling books among them “Burr,” a biography of American traitor Aaron Burr, and “Myra Breckenridge,” a catty satirical novel that probed sexuality and emerging feminism at the height of the ’60s sexual revolution.
His other celebrated books included a best-selling novel about President Lincoln and “The City And The Pillar,” published in 1948. It was the first novel with an openly homosexual protagonist, whom Vidal portrayed as well-adjusted. Vidal was also gay.
His 1960 play The Best Man, a political drama that probed the different personalities of three presidential candidates, was nominated for six Tonys including best play. It was made into a movie in 1964. The play is in revival on Broadway and runs through September.
In his later years, he was better known for his biting social and political commentary. He loathed the establishment, mocked religion and never hesitated to afflict the comfortable. He once said “the more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes.”
He was famously outspoken against the war in Vietnam before most in his social set and became so disenchanted with the United States he moved to Italy and lived in a Ravello villa with long-time companion Howard Austen.
Many of his later pronouncements were controversial and cut across the grain of conventional wisdom. He became fond of heinous Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, claimed the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and that China would surpass the United States.
Given Vidal’s political leanings were home grown. He came from a family of politicians, including a U.S. Senator, Thomas Pryor Gore from Oklahoma, who was his grandfather. His father, Gene Vidal, served in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and reputedly had an affair with Amelia Earhart.
Ironically, although he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite private school that almost guaranteed him an Ivy League education, he never went to college. He enlisted in the army instead.