Gore Vidal was impossible to categorize, which was exactly the way he liked it.
The reading public knew him as a literary juggernaut who wrote 25 novels —from the historical “Lincoln” to the satirical “Myra Breckinridge” — and volumes of essays critics consider among the most elegant in the English language. He also brought shrewd intelligence to writing Broadway hits, Hollywood screenplays, television dramas and a trio ofmysteries still in print after 50 years.
When he wasn’t writing, he was popping up in movies, playing himself in “Fellini’s Roma,” a sinister plotter in sci-fi thriller“Gattaca” and a U.S. senator in “Bob Roberts.” The grandson of a U.S. senator, he also made two entertaining but unsuccessful forays into politics, running for the Senate from California and the House of Representatives from New York.
In other spare moments, he demolished intellectual rivals like Norman Mailer andWilliam F. BuckleyJr. with acidic one-liners, establishing himself as a peerless master of talk-show punditry.
“Style,” Vidal once said, “is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” By that definition, he was an emperor of style, sophisticated and cantankerous in his prophesies of America’s fate and refusal to let others define him.
Iconoclastic author, savvy analyst and glorious gadfly on the national conscience, Vidal died Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills from complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said. He was 86.
In 1993, Vidal won the National Book Award for his massive “United States Essays, 1952-1992,” a collection of erudite and infuriating critiques on politics, sexuality, religion and literature written originally for such publications as The Nation, Esquire and the New York Review of Books.
“No one else in what he calls ‘the land of the tin ear’ can combine better sentences into more elegantly sustained demolition derbies than Vidal does in some of his best essays,” Thomas Mallon once wrote in the National Review.
Threaded throughout his pieces are anecdotes about his famous friends and foes, who included Anais Nin, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Frank Sinatra, Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Eleanor Roosevelt and a variety of Kennedys. He counted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Al Gore among his relatives.
Vidal began his public life at age 22 when his first novel, the World War II-themed “Williwaw,” won the wide admiration of critics. Two years later, however, the literary golden boy became an outcast with “The City and the Pillar” (1948), one of the first mainstream novels to deal frankly with homosexuality.
Ignored by book critics for the next several years, he turned to television writing, churning out dramas for prestigious showcases such as “Suspense,” “Goodyear Playhouse” and “Studio One.” He adapted one of these works, “Visit to a Small Planet” (1957), for the stage. A Cold War parable featuring a space alien who provokes war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it ran on Broadway for 388 performances and was made into a movie starring Jerry Lewis.
Vidal’s other major critical and commercial success as a playwright was “The Best Man,”a 1960 political drama that starred Melvyn Douglas as a high-minded presidential candidate modeled on Adlai Stevenson. After a 520-show Broadway run, it was made into a 1964 movie starring Henry Fonda. This spring it was revived on Broadway with a star-studded cast led by James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury.
Although Vidal often declared the novel dead, he wrote more than two dozen of them. He called books such as “Burr” (1973), “Lincoln” (1984) and “Julian” (1964) “meditations on history and politics.”
Exploring the complexities of power and those who seek it, they were written, Vidal said, “to correct bad history,” but some critics said he was the guilty one.
“Inventions” was his term for his wilder fiction, which includes the comic novel “Duluth” (1983) and the wicked spoof featuring transsexual Myra Breckinridge in the novel by the same name. Some critics consider “Myra Breckinridge” (1968) his masterpiece.
Vidal was an insider by dint of his connections in Washington, Hollywood and literary salons around the world. But he acted more as the outsider.
He wrote a lengthy defense of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in a 2001 article for Vanity Fair that described their unusual bond. McVeigh had struck up a correspondence from prison after reading a piece by Vidal on the erosion of the U.S. Bill of Rights in the federal attack on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. The two men remained pen pals for three years, until McVeigh’s execution.
A fierce critic of the U.S. as a “national security state,” Vidal seemed to move further into the political wilderness after the 9/11attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, suggesting that theGeorge W. Bush administration had colluded with the terrorists. His views turned many longtime admirers into detractors, including writer Christopher Hitchens, who denounced Vidal as a crackpot.