PAST Out: Who is Gore Vidal?
|by David Bianco|
Born into a wealthy family in 1925 and raised near Washington, D.C., Eugene Luther Gore Vidal has politics in his blood. Vidal's maternal grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, a powerful U.S. senator from Oklahoma. Al Gore is a distant cousin. John F. Kennedy was his stepbrother-in-law. Vidal once told Time magazine that, in fact, "The only thing I've ever really wanted in my life was to be President."
But it's as a novelist and critic that Vidal actually made his mark. After attending exclusive prep schools, Vidal enlisted in the army in 1943. "My war was not much," he admitted in his memoir, Palimpsest. He never saw battle and, out of boredom, began writing his first novel. Based on firsthand experience aboard an army freighter during a storm in the Bering Sea, Williwaw (1946) was published along with a host of other postwar war novels and received high marks from critics.
Eschewing a college degree, Vidal moved to New York City and embarked on a literary career. His second novel disappointed him, however, even though it received good reviews, and he decided to take a bigger risk with his next one. "I wanted to try something no American had done before," he said.
Although The City and the Pillar (1948) is now considered a classic of gay literature, it made reviewers' tongues wag because of its frank discussion of an affair between two young men and its daring suggestion that homosexual relationships were natural. Vidal dedicated the novel to "J.T." and loosely based one of the characters on his first male lover, Jimmie Trimble, a friend from prep school who was killed during active service in 1944. Despite the controversial subject matter (or perhaps because of it), the novel rushed onto bestseller lists.
Some prominent critics refused to review Vidal's next five novels, possibly out of homophobia. The lack of national attention marginalized his writing. "I was so dead-broke," Vidal told playwright Larry Kramer in 1992, "I went into television, movies, theater, politics." He even churned out three mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box.
In 1954, Vidal decided to put fiction writing aside until he could make enough money to write whatever he pleased. He began living in Hollywood with his companion, Howard Austen, whom he'd met at the Everard Baths in Manhattan in 1950. For the next 10 years, Vidal earned a sizable income writing and collaborating on a string of successful teleplays and screenplays, including the script for his good friend Tennessee Williams's play, Suddenly, Last Summer, and for Ben-Hur.
During the early 1960s, Vidal also dabbled in the family businesspolitics. In 1960, he ran an unsuccessful campaign in New York state for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During the Kennedy administration, he served on the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts.
Ultimately, however, Vidal returned to fiction writing. Julian (1964), based on the life of the fourth-century Roman emperor, established his distinctive literary style of intercutting humorous asides, gossip, and trivia into painstakingly researched historical novels. He went on to write a cycle of American history novelsbeginning with Washington, D.C. (1967) and ending with Hollywood (1990)in which he explored the seamy side of U.S. politics and gave fictional form to such famous historical figures as Aaron Burr, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln.
His greatest achievement as a novelist, however, may have been his most controversial book. Vidal's experimental satire, Myra Breckinridge (1968), was the first American novel about a transsexual. The protagonist, Myron, is a gay man who has sex-reassignment surgery and is reborn as Myra. "To say Mr. Vidal's new novel is queer would be an understatement," wrote one critic. "It is a queer, queer book, a virtuoso exercise in kinkiness." According to Vidal, he wrote it in Rome "in one month, one spring, from new moon to new moon."
Two years later, the novel became a movie starring Rex Reed and Raquel Welch as Myron-Myra, with a script co-written by Vidal. Back then, the movie was a resounding flop that critics panned as "repugnant," "atrocious," and "as funny as a child molester"; today it's a camp classic.
Beginning in the 1960s, Vidal also distinguished himself as a literary and social critic. Lauded as "America's finest essayist," Vidal has penned scores of droll, often biting commentaries on American culture and politics over the last three decades. "The chief play in a Vidal essay," noted one critic, "is to point out that the emperor has no clothes and then go a step further and remove the poor man's skin."Although Vidal has lived with Howard Austen for 50 years, and although he has had numerous homosexual liaisons (with, among others, Jack Kerouac and dancer Harold Lang), he refuses to pigeonhole himself as "gay." Vidal asserts: "There is no such thing as a homosexual person. There are only homosexual acts." Despite his resistance to labels, however, some of Vidal's most passionate essays have dissected homophobia and sexual discrimination and were recently collected in the volume, Gore Vidal: Sexually Speaking.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 5, May 19, 2000.