LAST Friday, theatres on Broadway dimmed their lights for a minute in tribute to a man whose work the Broadway League’s executive director described as both “timely and timeless”.
It was an appropriate gesture, for America will be a somewhat darker and drearier place without Gore Vidal’s incandescent wit and illuminating wisdom.
Vidal established himself as a star in the post-war literary firmament at a precociously young age, having written his first novel while he was still in his teens. It was his third novel, however, that earned him fame as well as opprobrium: The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, focused on homosexuality in an era when the topic was widely considered off limits, and the reaction to it drove the 23-year-old author to seek refuge for some years as a writer for television and Hollywood. He subsequently claimed to have inserted a gay subtext into the Ben-Hur script.
One of his best-known works from that era is The Best Man, a play about electoral politics that was made into a film starring Henry Fonda. It was revived on Broadway earlier this year, and this week’s performances are being dedicated to the memory of Vidal.
The inside knowledge he brought to his dissertations on American politics was based in part on personal experience. Vidal’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a feisty Democratic senator who happened to be blind. As the most literate of his grandchildren, the task of reading out newspaper reports and congressional transcripts often fell to young Eugene (who dropped his first two given names in favour of Gore while in his early teens).
His father, meanwhile, was aviation secretary in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and Vidal nurtured political ambitions of his own. As he never wearied of recounting, in his run for Congress in 1960 from a stolidly Republican seat he not only won a higher proportion of votes than any previous Democratic contender, but also about 20,000 more than the party’s successful presidential candidate that year, John F. Kennedy. Some two decades later, he respectably lost a Democratic primary for a Senate candidacy from California.
Vidal was peripherally related to Jacqueline Kennedy — they had a stepfather in common — which facilitated a bit part in Camelot, an association he drew upon for decades as a source of anecdotes. In an extended essay on the US presidency, Vidal described JFK as “easily one of the most charming men I have ever known”, but added: “He was also, in retrospect, one of the very worst of our presidents.” He had nothing but contempt for the view that had Kennedy’s term in office not been cruelly truncated, he would have ended US involvement in Vietnam.
He was inclined to be perfectly scathing about most of JFK’s successors, too, reserving particularly withering scorn for the man he described as “a triumph of the embalmer’s art”. Even Rome “at its most decadent”, he later wrote in another reference to Ronald Reagan, “had never thought of hiring an actor to go through the motions of being an emperor while the Praetorian Guard ruled.” Not surprisingly, George W. Bush proved to be even more of a target for Vidal’s loaded invective.
Although he sometimes betrayed a relatively soft spot for Democrats, he did not harbour too many illusions. In the 1960s, he co-led the now forgotten People’s Party with child specialist and anti-war activist Dr Benjamin Spock. “There is,” he declared in the 1970s, “only one party in the United States, the Property Party — and it has two right wings … 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 … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the blacks, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”
Some three decades later, he described his country as “the United States of Amnesia”, adding: “We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” For much of his life he not only raged against this tendency but also sought to remedy it, not least through his Narratives of Empire series of novels that eruditely chronicled American history from the 18th-century origins of the republic to the mid-20th century, when the Roosevelt era made way for the “national-security state” under Harry Truman.
He was frequently derided as anti-American by the usual suspects and dubbed anti-Semitic for criticising the role of the Israel lobby, and the novel Live from Golgotha even led to a prosecution for blasphemy in Italy, where he maintained a household for many decades with his partner, Howard Austen.
Vidal’s spent his last years in the US, increasingly confined to a wheelchair but still prone to speaking out whenever the opportunity presented itself. His patrician bearing and natural hauteur made his talent for mimicry all the more amusing. His sense of humour and taste for irony enhanced his appeal as a public speaker and talk-show guest.
He could be self-deprecating on occasion, but one suspects he was only half-joking when he declared, “Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water” or solemnly noted: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” The spontaneity of his repartee was legendary, as when a fellow writer described his best-selling novel Lincoln as “meretricious” during a joint TV appearance. “Really?” retorted Vidal. “Well, meretricious and a happy new year.”
Vidal’s aphorisms will long be quoted, and one can only hope his essays and novels will continue to engage, infuriate and enlighten readers for generations to come. Obituaries have described him as the last of a breed, but in many ways he was also one of a kind.
Asked in an Australian radio interview 19 years ago whether he viewed the prospect of death with alarm, Vidal responded: “I should think death should be more alarmed than I … I have it in for death, so … we will wait and see.”