Some icons seem so approachable, that everyone wants to bask in their warmth over dinner or drinks. This wasn’t so with Gore Vidal, the queer legendary man of letters, often called the Oscar Wilde of our time, who died at age 86 on July 31. Everyone, from Hollywood celebs to public intellectuals to TV hosts to unliterary TV viewers, loved the delicious, icy brilliance of his acerbic wit and aphorisms.
“There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” Vidal said.
Vidal was so multi-talented — he wrote 25 novels, two memoirs, screenplays, plays, several volumes of essays — that you almost believed that our planet’s problems would have been fixed if Vidal had been in charge. His presence could (and can still be felt) in our cultural landscape. Nothing shows how relevant his work still is, especially, during an election year, than the current Broadway revival of his renowned play “The Best Man.” (The show titled “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” will run through Sept. 9.) Written in 1960, the play is about the scandal-plagued machinations of a presidential campaign.
Unlike many writers who shy from the limelight, Vidal loved being in the public eye. (“Some writers take to drink, others take to audiences,” he said.) He ran unsuccessfully for public office (as a Democratic congressional candidate in upstate New York in 1960 and for the Senate in California in 1982). Vidal acted in movies (the film version of his own play “The Best Man,” the Fellini movie “Roma” and the political satire “Bob Roberts”). His visage was ubiquitous on TV – from his stints as a witty guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” to his infamous feuds with William F. Buckley Jr., Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.
His contretemps with Buckley occurred in 1968 when the two covered the Democratic National Convention for ABC. Buckley, at a time when the term was only used as an epithet, called Vidal a “queer” after Vidal called him a “crypto Nazi.”
Though Vidal loathed sexual intolerance, he hated being labeled gay. “We are [all] bisexual,” Vidal argued in the volume “The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal.” “Opportunity and habit incline us toward this or that sexual object…it is impossible to say that some sex acts are ‘right’ and others ‘wrong.’”
Vidal didn’t like it when people were categorized as homosexual or heterosexual. “Only a country, basically as mindless about these matters – based upon our peasant superstitions, religious superstitions,” he told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” “would they make [such] categories.”
During his life, Vidal was said to have had sex with thousands of men and some women. “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television,” he said.
Though Vidal described himself as a cool customer, saying, “love is not my bag,” his life was not devoid of tenderness. As a teenager attending St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., he fell in love with Jimmie Trimble, a fellow student. Vidal was devastated when Trimble, who he called his “other half” was killed fighting in World War II. For 53 years, Vidal lived with Howard Austen, who died in 2003. Their relationship worked, he said, because they didn’t have sex.
There is a substantial queer quotient in Vidal’s work. His 1948 novel “The City and The Pillar” was one of the first to depict homosexuality and his 1968 camp classic “Myra Breckenridge” was the first to feature a transsexual character.
Though he later became hugely successful, Vidal’s work wasn’t reviewed by “The New York Times” and other outlets for several years because any depiction of homosexuality was viewed with so much disapproval when “The City and the Pillar” was published.
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn,” Vidal said.
You had more style than anyone, Gore. R.I.P.