1925 – 2012
I first interviewed Gore Vidal, who died yesterday at the age of 86, in the summer of 1997. Over a silver service breakfast in his room at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair he insisted that I eat one of the croissants on the tray. It was so dry that I had to force it down with coffee. With each bite, a flake of feather-light pastry slowly floated downward and landed square in my lap. I tried to casually brush off the crumbs, all the time hoping he wouldn’t notice. There was an austerity, a greatness about the man, that was overpowering, and it was hard not to be flustered, even without the croissant incident. At the end of the interview, with the dictaphone turned off and the silver service cleared, I asked him if he’d read Angela Carter’s book The Passion of New Eve (1997), which owed a debt to the greatest of his satirical novels, Myra Breckinridge (1968). “That cunt,” he drawled. I went to turn the dictaphone back on, but he touched my arm and said, conspiratorially, “I think you’d better leave that off for this”.
Carter, who had savaged Vidal’s Kalki (1978) in a paragraph-length review, had been interviewed in an Italian magazine, and the interviewer pointed out the similarities between The Passion of New Eve, in which a man who worships a Golden Age film star is transformed into a woman, and Myra Breckinridge, in which a man who worships Golden Age film stars transforms himself into a woman. Carter responded that she’d never read any of Vidal’s work. “I then wrote her,” Vidal told me, equal parts outrage and mischief, “and said, ‘that’s obviously why your review of Kalki was so bad!’.” With that he donned a pair of conspicuously large sunglasses and headed down to his car to be driven to the BBC for an interview with Melvyn Bragg.
Gore Vidal was born on October 3, 1925. His father, Eugene Vidal, was an engineer, and went on to work in the federal government under FDR and to become one of the founders of TWA. His mother, Nina Gore, who “managed to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake bay in vodka,” was the daughter of Oklahoma’s first senator, T.P. Gore. It was Senator Gore who had the greatest influence over young Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. As a result, Vidal said, “history and politics were the air I breathed, the way my brain worked.” At the age of 14 he surrendered his first names to become, simply, Gore Vidal.
Vidal finished writing his first published novel, Williwaw (1946), at the age of 19. By the time it came to his third, The City and the Pillar (1948), he was already bored with, as he saw it, “playing it safe”. The result was the first American novel to deal with homosexuality openly and seriously. There was a backlash, naturally, and from this conflict a true dissident was born, as well as a powerful voice in American social & political commentary that came from within the ruling class yet stood against it. It was this standing that made Vidal’s writing and his perspective so unique.
Gore Vidal proved to be one of the greatest writers in the history of the United States. Over the course of sixty-six years he published twenty-nine novels (five under pseudonyms), four memoirs (one disguised as an extended essay, Screening History ), and countless essays as well as plays for television, stage & cinema. His historical novels, from Julian (1964), a memoir of the fourth century Roman emperor, to Lincoln (1984), a compelling portrait of the driving force behind the American Civil War, transformed the genre. His satirical novels, from Myra Breckinridge to Live From Golgotha (1992), in turn created a whole new genre. These iconoclastic “satirical arias” (as he called them) were constructed around his observations of American pop culture. They were Vidal’s State of the Union.
Vidal was a writer of ideas, and he was not interested in writing about love. In fiction, he observed in the 1959 essay ‘Love, Love, Love’, “love is a warm druggedness, a surrender of the will and mind to inchoate feelings of Togetherness”. As a writer he was interested in how individuals strive for power. Yet it was in writing about death that Vidal was at his most emotional, and his most human. His first satirical novel, Messiah (1954), hinges on the idea that the greatest of human fears is the fear of death: to control that fear is to attain real political and social power, which the fictional cult of the messiah John Cave does. Vidal’s most powerful work, and his most powerful writing, is about death. The novels Julian, Burr and Lincoln move inexorably toward the death of the main character, and the emotional impact of that death is overwhelming. The death of John Hay in the historical novel Empire (1987), the death of James Burden Day in Washington, D.C. (1967), and the death of Vidal’s partner of fifty-three years, Howard Auster, in the memoir Point to Point Navigation (2006): these are three instances of Vidal’s writing at its most powerful. And now the great man is dead, and in his wake he leaves a body of work that is unparalleled. Gore Vidal is dead. sevil eroG!