RIP Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

August 1, 2012 • 4:44 am

According to this morning’s New York Times, Gore Vidal died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 86.  An omnipresent and ascerbic figure on the literary scene, he was always engaged in squabbles with other literary figures like Norman Mailer, William Buckley (if you’re of a certain age you’ll remember that long feud) and Truman Capote.  But he wrote 25 novels, two memoirs, and much nonfiction, including several collections of essays. He was also a prolific screenwriter, and you may not know that he had a hand in these movies (from Wikipedia):

  • Climax!: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1954) (TV adaptation)
  • The Catered Affair (1956)
  • I Accuse! (1958)
  • The Scapegoat (1959)
  • Ben Hur (1959) (uncredited)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
  • The Best Man (1964)
  • Is Paris Burning? (1966)
  • Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970)
  • Caligula (1979)
  • Dress Gray (1986)
  • The Sicilian (1987) (uncredited)
  • Billy the Kid (1989)
  • Dimenticare Palermo (1989)

I have to confess that I was not a fan of Vidal (I found his work too solipsistic and mannered) and mark his passing more out of interest than from sadness at the death of a literary giant.  His fiction, I think, won’t last.  My own preference was for the work of his contemporaries—Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. But they are gone, and now he is too.  Who will replace them? The only ones I can think of who are still living and write in English are Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Harper Lee, for her one great book.  (Question for readers: which authors do you think will still be read a century from now?)

Oh, and given the fracas over Sally Ride, I note that Vidal was gay, and did not keep it a secret.

Vidal, as I remember him in his fighting years

66 thoughts on “RIP Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

  1. I found him mildly paranoid about public events. I cannot claim to have read any of his books, however. So my own opinion of him is pretty shallow.

  2. “According to this morning’s New York Times, Gore Vidal died Tuesday in Italy . . . .”

    Unless I was in too much of an early morning stupor to competently listen, NPR’s “Morning Edition” said he died in California.

    The NYT writes not a few obituaries in advance. Likely Vidal was living in Italy at that time. Seems the obit did not get updated. I thought I had read a couple of years ago that he had moved back to CA for health reasons.

    No doubt some readers here have seen the video of Buckley hurling an epithet at Vidal, on live ABC TV, during one of the two major 1968 political conventions, incurring the avuncular displeasure of anchor Howard K. Smith. Disagree with Buckley, get called names. Good role-modelling of Catholic charity for any youngsters watching. We’re used to it now, but a bit of a shock in 1968.

    1. Nope,you’re right; I erred because he lived in Italy for many years. The obit is right; I am wrong. Correction made, thanks.

          1. On second thoughts, he did well to get as far away as he could from the pope and Italy and die in beautiful California – about which many a good song has been written, including my favourite:


            I love that country girl look of hers and her beautiful voice, lyrics, and music.
            Here she plays the Appalachian Dulcimer which she sets to her own idiosyncratic tunings.

            1. Gorgeous, thanks!
              You made my day.

              Although this is seriously OT in this thread: maybe Jerry would consider doing a feature on Joni Mitchell in his series of women artists?

            2. Brilliant. Part of the long sixties decade that spilled over to the early 70’s. Canada never gets the credit it deserves for producing artists like Joni and Leonard Cohen.
              Back on topic. An interesting curiosity is the Jerry Lewis film “Visit to a Small Planet” – based on a play by Gore Vidal.

    2. I would almost never ever take Buckley’s side against Vidal, but there’s a 50% case for this. Vidal called Buckely a crypto-Nazi, and Buckley threatened to punch him.

      Vidal was right because of Buckley’s public anti-gay stance.

      Buckley was also right because of his extensive efforts to purge the conservative movement of anti-Semitism.

  3. Interesting – on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Jonathan Miller said he went to Italy to interview Vidal about atheism & but he had nothing much to say that they could use.

    Having read ‘Julian the Apostate’ when I was about 18, & ‘Creation’ (nothing to do with the bible!) when it came out a few years later, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed them. Historical novels both. I liked his wit & his blunt ‘rudeness’ in interviews, & I think a couple of his novels will still be read in decades to come.

    1. It was often said, “Gore Vidal dreaded the idea of an afterlife, because it would mean he’d have to see Norman Mailer again”, but I am not sure the origin of that quote!

    2. Come to think of it more deeply, ‘Julian the Apostate’ greatly influenced my views of Christians, & my dislike of their methods.

    3. I agree, “Julian the Apostate” for one is a rather good historical novel, definitely worth reading if one likes the genre.

  4. Bside the fact that his family name is the same as the French medications reference book, and that his first name gave such promises of early Peter Jackson movies, I have never really paid attention to the guy. Still, I’ll raise one to his parting.

    And Is Paris Burning (Paris brûle-t-il?) is a long time favorite of mine.

    1. Gore was actually his middle name, his mother’s maiden surname, and he is actually distantly related to Al Gore.

  5. I doubt whether Cormac McCarthy will be remembered for very much 100 years hence – I found some of his early novels interesting, but the Border Trilogy became progressively worse and more and more sentimental, the last reading like a bad parody of McCarthy’s own writing. ‘The Road’ I haven’t read, and having seen some extended quotations from it, do not wish to. I mistrust people who make a sort of chauvinistic virtue – for that’s what it seems to me – of their inability, or pretence of an inability, to appreciate Proust, and I mistrust people who make myths of their own lives (the poverty, etc…).
    Martin Amis is somebody else who won’t be remembered in a century’s time, whereas J.M. Coetzee, whom Amis loathes and condescends to, will. Coetzee is a far greater writer than either McCarthy or Amis.
    Good poets? Early and middle Geoffrey Hill; Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Michael Palmer…
    Playwrights: Pinter, Edward Bond,Tony Kushner…
    And no doubt there are many other worthy writers but I am too tired to think further at the moment.

    1. Despite having read Shakespeare’s whole body of work multiple times, Tolstoy failed to appreciate the bard’s poetry. He simply found him boring and overrated. Did that make him a lesser author? I’m sure there are several writers who don’t always find it easy to appreciate the mental masturbation of either Proust or Joyce (ever tried Finnegan’s Wake?), but I fail to see how their disinclination for certain authors makes them mistrusted. When McCarthy says he doesn’t understand Proust and Henry James, he means he doesn’t see the reason why they don’t deal with matters of life and death in their writings. I think McCarthy is qualified enough to be able to afford such an opinion, but it doesn’t diminish the value of In Search of Lost Time, does it?

        1. He read Shakespeare in Russian, English and German and he “invariably underwent the same feelings; repulsion, weariness and bewilderment.”

          Here’s what he said when he re-read Shakespeare at the age of 75:

          “I I have felt with an even greater force, the same feelings — this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits — thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding — is a great evil, as is every untruth.”

          Orwell wrote an indignant but excellent essay on Tolstoy’s distaste for Shakespeare.

      1. Perhaps you should read Proust’s wonderfully intelligent and perceptive writing before asserting that he doesn’t deal with matters of life and death (or at least agreeing with McCarthy in this respect), and before accusing him of ‘mental masturbation’, a description that, to my mind, fits very well McCarthy’s writing in the final volume of the Border Trilogy and such extracts from ‘The Road’ as I have come across.

  6. ‘Julian the Apostate’ is certainly not bad at all. ‘Solipstic and mannered’, you call Vidal, but that description applies in very much more than spades to Cormac McCarthy.

  7. which authors do you think will still be read a century from now?

    With the public’s attention span for reading no longer exceeding 140 characters, I’m not sure the concept of “author” has much of a future.

    Anyhow, the way we’re going about, the book most needed in the 2112 is probably going to be a collective work of non-fiction: the Last Whole Earth Catalog — access to tools.

    If there is a digital future, I hope a carefully updated edition of TAOCP will still be read: The Art of Computer Programming by Donald Knuth. One of the great works of art of our times, by one of the most accomplished artists.

    Literary fiction? Not much, probably. Jorge Luis Borges should satisfy most needs, including abundant references to past authors, real or imaginary. If a machinery for hyperlinks is still available in 2112, the world will have become WikiMundus, anyway: the ultimate Library of Babel.

    1. Hopefully people will still be using TeX in 100 years time as well, when all that johnny come lately micros**t stuff is long forgotten.

      As for fiction authors who will still be read in 100 years time – Terry Pratchett.

  8. This is an atheistic-trending posting board and no one has mentioned Gore Vidal’s hilariously irreverent novel “Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal”. The plot involves a discovery of time-travel along with several TV stations subsequently competing for rights to coverage of the crucifixion. It’s a hoot!!

    Vidal could be nasty even to liberals he disagreed with including both Norman Mailer (he regarded him as hopelessly narcissistic) and film-maker Oliver Stone. Allegedly, Stone once approached him at an event saying he was pleased to meet a great scholar of American history, and Vidal replied Stone wasn’t qualified to know who was or was not a scholar of American history.

    Vidal ironically worked extensively on the script to “Ben-Hur” but could not get the screen credit he felt he deserved, but could not get his name removed (he really tried) from the desecrated “Caligula”.

  9. I hope Vonnegut will be read for at least another century. The Harry Potter series will almost certainly be read for some time.

  10. Bob Dylan
    Don DeLillo
    Thomas Pynchon
    Philip Roth
    Doris Lessing
    Michael Frayn
    Salman Rushdie
    Ian McEwan
    Kazuo Ishiguro
    Philip Pullman
    VS Naipaul
    Harold Pinter
    Richard Dawkins
    Margaret Atwood
    Terry Pratchett

    & unfortunately JK Rowling

  11. Surprised you didn’t mention Gattaca, a film all about dna in which he plays a crucial part. A very stylish film, although I’m not convinced having twelve fingers and inserting extra notes into a Schubert impromptu makes you a better pianist.

  12. I would also suggest the late David Foster Wallace will remain important. He was a brilliant mind that captured much of the confusion of western culture as it became hyper self conscious, individuals becoming isolated by their obsession with pleasure and entertainment,and many other existential crises at the turn of the 21st century. He was a brilliant man and an incredible and soulful writer.

  13. Dear Professor Coyne,
    My evaluation of Gore Vidal’s oeuvre is more positive than yours. I especially admire his series of novels on American civilization: BURR, LINCOLN, 1876,EMPIRE and HOLLYWOOD. In an age of modern realism, Vidal dared to excel in two modes of fiction that U. S. MALE readers typically ignore: the historical novel and the novel of manners. When these come together expertly, as they do for example in LINCOLN, the result is wonderfully convincing and memorable. As for LINCOLN–it is easily the best novel ever written about the man and the president, and may well be among the very finest BOOKS OF ANY GENRE about him.

    For those who like their satire of Christianity sharp to the point of being shocking, I recommend Vidal’s LIVE FROM GOLGOTHA.

    Finally, there are his essays. These, to my mind, are good enough to rank him with Mencken and Lippmann, two other notable ‘men of letters’–a species doomed, I’m afraid, to cultural extinction.

  14. I should be noted that Vidal and Hitchens had some share of disagreements leading to a falling out of sorts. Vidal had nominated Hitch as his “successor” at one point prior to their disagreements.

    1. “Vidal had nominated Hitch as his “successor””
      I can imagine that that in itself could cause a falling-out. If I were Hitch I would consider being Vidal’s successor a demotion.

  15. ‘For better or worse, we are today very much the result of what they were then.’

    (Gore Vidal a propos the fifty years between the accession of Constantine the Great and the death of Julian the Apostate, during which Christianity was established)

  16. I am a great fan of Vidal’s Creation, whose narrator, Persian ambasador to Athens in later life, is the grandson of Zoroaster and meets the Buddha and Confucius during his earlier wanderings. Vidal has some pretty biting comments on both the Persian and Greek cultures of the times.

    Even early on, Vidal had a jaundiced view of religion–if you can find Messiah, read it!

    In between his serious books he would do a farce like Duluth, a parody of the t.v. show Dallas, which one of the basic cable networks has revived from the dead.

    As for his living in Italy, during one such time he shows up in a segment of the movie Fellini’s Roma!

  17. Although I’ve read more of his essays than of his novels (UNITED STATES – ESSAYS 1952-1992 is a 1200 page marvel of a book, a constant joy to read), I’d recommend for anyone here his 1954 novel, MESSIAH, the troubling story of how a death cult rose from nothing to achieve world power, and my nomination for best American science fiction novel of the 1950s.

  18. >>Question for readers: which authors do you think will still be read a century from now?

    J. G. Ballard has a good chance.

  19. Gore Vidal on censoring his own novel, Myron, in 1974

    “I’ve removed the dirty words and replaced them with clean words… I thought and thought for a long time: What are the cleanest words I can find? And I discovered that I could not come up with any cleaner words than the names of the five Supreme Court justices who have taken on the task of cleansing this country of pornography. I inserted the words in place of the dirty words. For example, a cock becomes a rehnquist.”

    The BBC has this tribute to Gore:
    ** Gore Vidal: In quotes **
    Celebrated author, satirist and political commentator Gore Vidal has died, aged 86. Here are a selection of his best quotes.

  20. Vidal and Norman Mailer famously feuded for many years. One night in the early 70’s I was watching a late night talk show and one of them knocked the other down, then quickly walked off the set. I think Mailer threw the punch, and it was on the Tom Snyder show. It happened really fast, and I was never sure it was real or faked. Of course, it was a long time ago, I smoked a lot of dope back then and was probably fu__ed up at the time, and I can’t find a reference to a punch-out on a tv show anywhere.

    Creation and the series beginning with Burr suited me, except for Hollywood, but his essays are his best stuff. In 100 years, people are going to be suffering so much from climate change outcomes they won’t have the luxury of reading for pleasure, and they will be too pissed at the shithole planet they are stuck on to be at all interested in reading stories about set in times when the weather was actually pleasant instead of only dangerously hostile. Pre-2030 history related in books may not even be relevant any longer, anyway.

    1. It probably was Mailer who punched first, and I’d bet Mailer decked him too if he weren’t too drunk. I couldn’t help but laugh on the occasions that Buckley punched him, he seemed to always try his best to make people punch him. It was also somewhat comical to see Buckley acting so differently from his usual public image; Mailer was a drunken lout so the brawling never seemed out of character for him.

  21. He was an interesting character but for fiction I found Mailer more interesting and for political commentary I’d rather read Buckley; Vidal’s political commentary almost always seemed to have some element of conspiracy theory in it. I’ll probably remember him more for poo-pooing most other writers while pretending that he was so much better than them.

  22. “Question for readers: which authors do you think will still be read a century from now?”

    Of Vidal’s generation I would say that William Gaddis might well last the test of time – at least his enormous book dealing with art fraud, The Recognitions.

    Of a younger generation, I am somewhat surprised to see no one mention Richard Powers. I’m not sure if he will be read in a century but I still find his writing to be some of the best in English. Since he has so many scientific themes in his writing I would have thought that he was a favourite among readers of WEIT! If any of his works should stand the test of time, Goldbug Variations should with its themes of DNA and JS Bach.

  23. Did it escape the attention of everyone here that Vidal was, for all practical purposes, a non-believer? Why no mention of that?

      1. Either you’re being too obscure for me to ever grasp your hidden meaning, or too glib for your own good. Since you seem to be adding nothing of value to the thread, I would tend to think the latter.

              1. Except that gbjames is not a troll. NorthCal or NortCal hasn’t understood what he is saying, and took offence at nothing. But then, judging from his first complaint, NC hadn’t noticed either that quite a few commenters had mentioned Vidal’s attacks on Christianity.

              2. I certainly didn’t mean gbjames. I was thinking of a Lisa and some other Jesus Jazzer who was cluttering up the comments for a while. Apologies to gbjames for any misunderstanding!

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