When I saw a tweet late last night that Gore Vidal had died, I gasped. Not because I was surprised; he had been sick for awhile and he never really seemed to have recovered from the death of Howard Austen, the man he shared his life with.
His grandfather was the first man Oklahoma sent to the US Senate. His father was West Point nobility, went on to found what would become Eastern, TWA and Northwest airlines and had a tempestuous affair with Amelia Earhart, was a two time Olympian and served in the Roosevelt administration. His mother was a socialite who had a long term affair with Clark Gable. His step father would then go onto to become the step father of Jackie Kennedy.
He attended the most prestigious private schools in the country, Sidwell Friends, St. Albans, left to study in France, came home during the war went to the Los Alamos Ranch School and finally Phillip Exeter. When the rest of his class was heading to Harvard or Columbia he enlisted in the US Navy. This smartest most clever of men, this literary icon never attended college.
He had his first novel Williwaw published in 1946 when he was 19. This novel based on his experience in the Navy burst him onto the national literary scene.
His third novel The City and the Pillar was published in 1948. This book would prove to change his life forever and many years later would have an enormous impact on mine. It was one of the first novels to deal with homosexuality in a manner that was not sleazy, negative. The gay and bisexual characters were not ashamed, were not sick, they were everyday men going about the course of their lives. This story line so scandalized and offended the book critic of the New York Times that the paper would not review another work by Gore Vidal for 5 more years.
When I was a young man trying to figure things out I took The City and the Pillar out of the community college library for some downtime reading and I was transformed. I learned that what I wanted, what I was feeling, what I was sensing about myself was not all that strange. I learned that I was not dirty, or emotionally stunted or mentally ill. I learned that I was normal. I learned all of this from a work of fiction. A few weeks later I read Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, some pretty intense reading for a 19 year old.
After reading The City and the Pillar I was hooked. His historical novels helped me to understand this nation’s history better but his more odd fiction gave me the most pleasure.
Myra Breckinridge; about a transsexual and so much more
Creation; his spin on the how the world started
Duluth; he makes up a city in the upper Midwest where people die and end up on TV
Live from Golgotha; Jesus is not really crucified and he is in fact a fat slob and Tom Brokaw and NBC news are transported back in time to cover this major event
Palimpsest; His memoirs that he could not guarantee were completely accurate but it was how he remembered things
His essays and social commentary were often scathing but never far from the truth, his TV debate with William F. Buckley is legendary; look it up you will be transformed. His play The Best Man may be the best play about American politics ever writen and he was not above mocking himself through his many appearances on television comedies.
Gore Vidal was the last of the great literary figures that emerged as media superstars after World War II. Norman Mailer, John Updike, Truman Capote, William F. Buckley and James Baldwin all died years before.
I’m not sure I read everything he has written but I came pretty damn close.
But, if I had not read anything other than The City and the Pillar I would still be mourning Gore Vidal.
I gasped when I learned of Gore Vidal’s death because for a brief moment I realized that another of the post war “Best and the Brightest” would no longer be here. I would no longer be able to learn from him, I would no longer be able to be provoked by him and I would no longer be inspired by him.
Thank you Gore Vidal. Thank you for making our lives much fuller our culture more interesting and for the positive and meaningful impact on my life. You are sitting on the pedestal next to Reinhold Niebuhr.