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Gore Vidal: Novelist, wit and contrarian was a towering figure
Famed author » Vidal was among the American writers who were also genuine celebrities.


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Unable to make a living from fiction, at least when identified as "Gore Vidal," he wrote a trio of mystery novels in the 1950s under the pen name "Edgar Box" and also wrote fiction as "Katherine Everard" and "Cameron Kay." He became a playwright, too, writing for the theater and television. "The Best Man," which premiered in 1960, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. Paul Newman starred in "The Left-Handed Gun," a film adaptation of Vidal’s "The Death of Billy the Kid."

Vidal also worked in Hollywood, writing the script for "Suddenly Last Summer" and adding a subtle homoerotic context to "Ben-Hur." The author himself later appeared in a documentary about gays in Hollywood, "The Celluloid Closet." His acting credits included "Gattaca," "With Honors" and Tim Robbins’ political satire, "Bob Roberts."

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But Vidal saw himself foremost as a man of letters. He wrote a series of acclaimed and provocative historical novels, including "Julian," "Burr" and "Lincoln." His 1974 essay on Italo Calvino in The New York Review of Books helped introduce the Italian writer to American audiences. A 1987 essay on Dawn Powell helped restore the then-forgotten author’s reputation and bring her books back in print. Fans welcomed his polished, conversational essays or his annual "State of the Union" reports for the liberal weekly "The Nation."

He adored the wisdom of Montaigne, the imagination of Calvino, the erudition and insight of Henry James and Edith Wharton. He detested Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and other authors of "teachers’ novels." He once likened Mailer’s views on women to those of Charles Manson. (From this the head-butting incident ensued, backstage at "The Dick Cavett Show.") He derided William F. Buckley, on television, as a "crypto Nazi." He was accused of anti-Semitism after labeling conservative Norman Podhoretz a member of "the Israeli fifth column." He labeled Ronald Reagan "The Acting President" and identified Reagan’s wife, Nancy, as a social climber "born with a silver ladder in her hand."

In the 1960s, Vidal increased his involvement in politics. In 1960, he was the Democratic candidate for Congress in an upstate New York district, but was defeated despite Ms. Roosevelt’s active support and a campaign appearance by Truman. (In 1982, Vidal came in second in the California Democratic senatorial primary). In consolation, he noted that he did receive more votes in his district in 1960 than did the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, John F. Kennedy.

Thanks to his friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom he shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, he became a supporter and associate of President Kennedy, and wrote a newspaper profile on him soon after his election. With tragic foresight, Vidal called the job of the presidency "literally killing" and worried that "Kennedy may very well not survive."

Before long, however, he and the Kennedys were estranged, touched off by a personal feud between Vidal and Robert Kennedy apparently sparked by a few too many drinks at a White House party. By 1967, the author was an open critic, portraying the Kennedys as cold and manipulative in the essay "The Holy Family." Vidal’s politics moved ever to the left and he eventually disdained both major parties as "property" parties — even as he couldn’t help noting that Hillary Clinton had visited him in Ravello.

Meanwhile, he was again writing fiction. In 1968, he published his most inventive novel, "Myra Breckenridge," a comic best seller about a transsexual movie star. The year before, with "Washington, D.C.," Vidal began the cycle of historical works that peaked in 1984 with "Lincoln."

The novel was not universally praised, with some scholars objecting to Vidal’s unawed portrayal of the president. The author defended his research, including suggestions that the president had syphilis, and called his critics "scholar-squirrels," more interested in academic status than in serious history.

But "Lincoln" stands as his most notable work of historical fiction, vetted and admired by a leading Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, and even cited by the conservative Newt Gingrich as a favorite book. Gingrich’s praise was contrasted by fellow conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, who alleged she was so put off by Vidal’s "Burr" that she switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.


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In recent years, Vidal wrote the novel "The Smithsonian Institution" and the nonfiction best sellers "Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace" and "Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta." A second memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," came out in 2006. In 2009, "Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare" featured pictures of Vidal with Newman, Jagger, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Springsteen.

Vidal and Austen chose cemetery plots in Washington, D.C., between Jimmie Trimble and one of Vidal’s literary heroes, Henry Adams. But age and illness did not bring Vidal closer to God. Wheelchair-bound in his 80s and saddened by the death of Austen and many peers and close friends, the author still looked to no existence beyond this one.

"Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge," he once wrote, "all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. "Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."

Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half brother Tommy Auchincloss.



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