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Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal is a prolific and versatile American writer of novels, stage plays, screenplays, and essays and has been a public and often controversial figure on both the American literary and political scenes for nearly sixty years.

He was born Eugene Luther Vidal in West Point, New York, the son of Eugene Vidal and Nina Gore. His birth took place at the United States Military Academy where his father was an aeronautics instructor. Vidal later adopted as his first name the surname of his maternal grandfather Thomas P. Gore, Democratic Senator from Oklahoma.

Gore Vidal's father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was born in April 1895 in Madison, Lake County, South Dakota, to Felix Luther Vidal (born Sept. 1871 in Bangor, La Crosse, Wisconsin to Eugen Fidel Vidal, an Austrian chemist from Feldkirch and a Swiss mother Emma Hartmann) and Margaret Ann Rewalt (born August 1870 in Wrightsville, York, Pennsylvania to a prominent physician Luther L. Rewalt, who was of German and Scotch-Irish descent, and a mother Mary Jane Magee). Eugene Luther Vidal worked as an engineer for A.A. Humphrey's Military Camp in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1920.

Gore Vidal's mother, Nina S. Gore, was born in Lawton, Comanche County, Oklahoma in 1904. Nina's parents were Thomas P. Gore, who was born as Governor Thomas Pryor Gore on December 10, 1870 in Walthall, Sumner County, Mississippi, and Nina Belle Kay, who was born in March 1877 in Palo Pinto, Texas. Thomas' father, Thomas M. Gore, was born in Alabama, and his mother, Carrie E. W., was born in South Carolina. They chose titled names for their sons. Thomas Pryor Gore also had a brother whose first name was Colonel. Nina Belle Kay's father was J. Thomas Kay and was born in South Carolina. Her mother's name was Macilla, and she was born in Mississippi.

In 1930, young Eugene was living with his parents and his maternal granduncle, Howard M. Kay, at 5 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. His maternal grandparents lived next door.

Vidal was brought up in the Washington, DC area. It was there that he attended St. Albans School. His grandfather Gore was blind, and the young Vidal both read aloud to him and frequently acted as his guide, thereby gaining access unusual for a child to the corridors of power. Senator Gore's steadfast isolationism contributed to one of the major principles underlying Vidal's political philosophy, which has been consistently critical of what he perceives as a foreign (and, by extension, a domestic) policy shaped by the imperatives of American imperialism.

After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Vidal joined the US Army Reserve in 1943.

For much of the late twentieth century, Vidal divided his time between Ravello, Italy on the Amalfi Coast and Los Angeles, California. He decided to sell his 5,000-square-foot (460 m²) cliffside villa in Ravello (called La Rondinaia or Swallow's Nest) for health reasons in 2003. He now spends most of his time living in Los Angeles. In November 2003, Howard Austen, Vidal's life partner, died. In February 2005, Vidal buried Austen's remains in a tomb maintained for the two of them at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Vidal is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society.

Writing career

The man whom a Newsweek critic was later to describe as "the best all-around man of letters since Edmund Wilson" began his writing career at the age of twenty-one with publication of the novel Williwaw, based upon his military experiences in the Alaskan Harbor Detachment. Conventionally realistic, the book was well received. A few years later, his pioneering novel The City and the Pillar, which dealt candidly with gay themes, caused such a furor that the daily New York Times refused to review his next five books. The book was dedicated to J.T. After rumors were published in a magazine, Vidal eventually confirmed that this referred to his St. Albans love Jimmie Trimble, who had died in the Battle of Iwo Jima on June 1, 1945. Vidal later claimed that Trimble was the only person with whom he had ever been in love. Subsequently, as sales of his novels slipped, Vidal worked on plays, films, and television series as a scriptwriter. Two of his plays, The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet, were Broadway hits and later were adapted successfully as movies.

In the early 1950s, using the pseudonym Edgar Box, he wrote three mystery novels about a fictional detective named Peter Sergeant.

Vidal was hired as a contract writer for MGM in 1956. In 1959, director William Wyler needed work done on the script of Ben-Hur, written by Karl Tunberg. Vidal agreed to collaborate with Christopher Fry to rework the screenplay on the condition that MGM let him out of the last two years of his contract. The death of the producer Sam Zimbalist, however, led to complications in allotting credit. The Screenwriters Guild resolved the issue by listing Tunberg as the sole screenwriter, denying credit to both Vidal and Fry. Charlton Heston was less than pleased with the carefully veiled homosexuality of a scene which Vidal claims to have written and has denied that Vidal had significant involvement in the script.

In the 1960s, Vidal wrote three highly successful novels. The meticulously researched Julian (1964) dealt with the apostate Roman emperor while Washington, D.C. (1967) focused on a political family during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era. The third novel was as daring as it was unexpected–the satirical transsexual comedy Myra Breckinridge (1968), a wildly inventive and often hilarious variation on the familiar Vidalian themes of sex, gender, and popular culture.

After two commercially unsuccessful plays Weekend (1968) and An Evening With Richard Nixon (1972)] and the formally inventive but largely underappreciated novel Two Sisters, Vidal would focus mainly on his essays and two distinct strains in his fiction. The first strain comprises novels dealing with American history and specfically with the nature of national politics. Of the latter theme, the critic Harold Bloom wrote, "Vidal's imagination of American politics. . .is so powerful as to compel awe." Titles in this series include Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1989), The Golden Age (2000), and another excursion into the ancient world Creation (1981, published in expanded form 2002). The second strain is represented by the funny and often merciless satirical inventions: Myron (1975, a sequel to Myra Breckinridge), Kalki (1978), Duluth (1983), Live From Golgotha (1992), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998).

Vidal also occasionally returned to write for cinema and television, including a TV movie of Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer and a mini-series of Lincoln. He also wrote the original script for the controversial film Caligula but later had his name removed because the director and the lead actor re-wrote the script, changing the overall tone and theme. Ironically, in a failed attempt to restore Vidal's vision during the post-production, the producers of the film ended up turning it into something neither Vidal, Brass, nor McDowell had in mind.

Perhaps contrary to his own wishes, Vidal is—at least in the United States—sometimes more respected as an essayist than as a novelist. In fact, the critic John Keats, echoing the general if occasionally grudging consensus, praised him as this [the twentieth] century's finest essayist. Even an occasionally hostile critic such as Martin Amis has admitted, "Essays are what he is good at. . . .He is learned, funny and exceptionally clear-sighted. Even his blind spots are illuminating." Accordingly, Vidal has for six decades brought his wit, intelligence, free-ranging knowledge and inimitable voice to bear on a wide variety of socio-political (including sexual), historical, and literary themes. He won the National Book Award in 1993 for United States (1952-1992), the citation for which noted: "Whatever his subject, he addresses it with an artist's resonant appreciation, a scholar's conscience, and the persuasive powers of a great essayist." A subsequent collection in 2000 is The Last Empire. Since then he has published pamphlets highly critical of the present Bush-Cheney administration as well as a text on America's founding fathers, Inventing A Nation. He published a well-received memoir Palimpsest in 1995 and according to recent reports is working on the follow-up, tentatively titled Point-to-Point Navigation.

In the 1960s, Vidal moved to Italy and was cast as himself in Federico Fellini's film Roma. His political views—often characterized as liberal or progressive but perhaps better described as radical in their disdain for privilege and power—are well-documented. In 1987 he wrote a series of essays entitled Armageddon, exploring the intricacies of power in contemporary America and ruthlessly pillorying the presidential incumbent Ronald Reagan, whom he once famously described as a triumph of the embalmer's art. Besides his politician grandfather, Vidal has other connections to the Democratic Party: his mother Nina married Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr., who later became the stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Vidal is a fifth cousin of Jimmy Carter. He was also an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress in 1960, losing a very close election in a traditionally Republican district on the Hudson River. In 1982, he lost to Jerry Brown in the California Democratic Party senatorial primary despite the backing of such liberal celebrities as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Although frequently identified with Democratic causes and personalities, Vidal has written: "[t]here is only one party in the United States, the Property party. . .and it has two wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt---until recently. . .and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties." Vidal has said that he and Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president, are distant cousins, but research has not succeeded in establishing a precise genealogical link.

He co-starred in the 1992 film Bob Roberts with Tim Robbins as well as other films, notably Gattaca, With Honors, and Igby Goes Down.

Like his gruffer contemporary Norman Mailer, Vidal is noted as a clever and tireless self-publicist. If a more accurate definition of his view on things were required, it is neatly summed up in his tongue-in-cheek assertion from a magazine interview: "There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."

In 2005, Jay Parini was appointed as Vidal's literary executor.

Political views

Vidal considers himself a radical reformer who has been described as wanting to return to the pure republicanism of early America. As a prep school student, he was a supporter of the America First Committee. Unlike other supporters of the movement, he continues to hold that the United States should not have become involved in World War II (although he now appears to believe that material assistance to the Allies was a good idea). He has also suggested that President Roosevelt incited the Japanese to attack the United States to allow American entry into the war and believes that FDR had advance knowledge of the attack.

As a political activist, he became a 1960 Democratic candidate for Congress from upstate New York (You'll get more with Gore), receiving the most votes of any Democrat in fifty years. From 1970 to 1972, he was one of the chairmen of the People's Party, and in California's 1982 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, he finished second in a field of nine (polling a half-million votes).

ABC News hired Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. as analysts for the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential coventions, predicting that viewers would enjoy seeing two men famous for their acerbic wit and sarcasm engage in verbal combat on-air. Verbal combat was definitely joined, and very nearly physical combat as well. After days of bickering that often devolved into childish ad hominem attacks on both sides, Vidal referred to Buckley as a pro-crypto Nazi, to which Buckley, visibly livid, riposted thusly: "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a pro-crypto Nazi, or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." Buckley apologized to Vidal in a lengthy essay published in Esquire magazine in August 1969, entitled On Experiencing Gore Vidal (anthologized in The Governor Listeth, a collection of Buckley's writings from the period). In a key passage that attacked Vidal as an apologist for homosexuality, Buckley wrote that "the man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher."

The September 1969 edition of Esquire included a response by Vidal, in which Vidal variously characterized Buckley as anti-black, anti-semitic, and a warmonger. The presiding judge in what became Buckley's subsequent libel suit against Vidal initially concluded that "[t]he court must conclude that Vidal's comments in these paragraphs meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal from Buckley's [earlier editorial] statements cannot be said to be completely unreasonable." However, Vidal also heavily implied that Buckley and/or unnamed members of his family had vandalized a church in their hometown of Sharon, Connecticut, in 1944 after the wife of the pastor sold a home to a Jewish family. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire magazine for libel, and Vidal counterclaimed for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley's characterization of Vidal's novel Myra Breckenridge as pornography. Vidal's claim was dismissed by the court, and Buckley eventually settled for $115,000 in attorney's fees and a statement from Esquire magazine that they were utterly convinced of the untruthfulness of Vidal's assertion. However, in a letter to Newsweek, the publisher of Esquire stated that the settlement of Buckley's suit against us was not "a 'disavowal' of Vidal's article. On the contrary, it clearly states that we published that article because we believed that Vidal had a right to assert his opinions, even though we did not share them." As one of Vidal's biographers, Fred Kaplan, later commented, "The court had not sustained Buckley's case against Esquire. . .The court had not ruled that Vidal's article was 'defamatory.' It had ruled that the case would have to go to trial in order to determine as a matter of fact whether or not it was defamatory. [Italics in original.] The cash value of the settlement with Esquire represented only Buckley's legal expenses [as opposed to damages based on libel]. . . ." Vidal ultimately bore his own attorney's fees, estimated at $75,000.

The entire affair surfaced again in 2003 when Esquire published Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing, an anthology that included Vidal's libelous essay. Buckley again sued for libel, and Esquire again settled for $55,000 in attorney's fees and $10,000 in damages to Buckley personally.

Vidal has stirred up controversy regarding his relations with Timothy McVeigh. The two began a correspondence while McVeigh was in prison, and Vidal believes that McVeigh either had accomplices or was framed for the Oklahoma City terrorist attack. Vidal also has suggested that the attack may have been carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to pass stronger anti-terrorist laws. In another interview he said that Timothy McVeigh did this as a retribution to the United States for what the FBI did, alleging that the FBI spies on and murders Americans.

In 1994, Vidal contributed a preface to Israel Shahak's highly controversial book Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, which has been criticized by Talmudic scholars.

In his preface, Vidal states that: "(s)ometime in the late 1950s, that world-class gossip and occasional historian John Frank Kennedy told me how, in 1948, Harry S Truman had been pretty much abandoned by everyone when he came to run for president. Then an American Zionist brought him two million dollars in cash, in a briefcase, aboard his whistle-stop campaign train. 'That's why our recognition of Israel was rushed through so fast.' As neither Jack nor I was an anti-semite (unlike his father and my grandfather), we took this to be just another funny story about Truman and the serene corruption of American politics."

Vidal is a member of the advisory board of the World Can't Wait organization, which is part of the movement to charge George W. Bush with treason.

Views on September 11, 2001

Vidal is strongly critical of the Bush administration, as he has been of previous U.S. administrations that he considers to have either an explicit or implicit expansionist agenda. He has frequently made the point in interviews, essays, and in a recent book that Americans "are now governed by a junta of oil-Pentagon men ... both Bushes, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and so on." He claims that for several years, this group and their associates have aimed to control the oil of central Asia (after, in his view, gaining effective control of the oil of the Persian Gulf in 1991). Specifically regarding the September 11, 2001 attacks, Vidal writes how such an attack, which he claims that American intelligence warned was coming, politically justified the plans that the administration already had in August 2001 for invading Afghanistan the following October.

He discusses the lack of defense, including the delay in getting fighter planes into the air to intercept the hijacked airliners, compared with the time one might expect after a hijacking report. If, he says, these huge failures were incompetence, they would deserve "a number of courts martial with an impeachment or two thrown in." Instead, there is to be only a limited inquiry into how the "potential breakdowns among federal agencies ... could have allowed the terrorist attacks to occur." This, concludes Vidal, opens the possibility that the administration in fact let the attack happen, in order to capitalize on a catalyzing event that would enable it to achieve controversial policy goals under the rubric of a War on Terror.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2006.

Gore Vidal Facts

Birth NameEugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr.
OccupationScreenwriter, Actor
BirthdayOctober 3, 1925 (98)
BirthplaceWest Point, New York, USA

Selected Filmography

Standing Army
Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Best of Enemies
Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No
Mother Tucker
Gore Vidal's Lincoln
War Flowers with Bonus Movies: Gore Vidal's Lincoln / The Surrender at Appomattox
Ritual in Transfigured Time
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