Obituary: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal in 2006

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Gore Vidal was one of the finest post-war American writers. Besides numerous colourful novels, incisive essays and blockbusting screenplays, he was an indefatigable critic of the whole American system.

He had a talent both to shock and amuse - and employed both with consummate timing.

He characteristically described the United States as "the land of the dull and the home of the literal".

He was born Eugene Luther Vidal in 1925 into one of America's grandest political dynasties, his grandfather, TP Gore, was a senator and his father a one-time Secretary of Aviation under President Franklin D Roosevelt.

Gore Vidal enlisted in the army in 1943 and served for three years on supply ships in the Pacific.

The war robbed him of the only person he ever claimed to have truly loved. US Marine Jimmy Trimble, Vidal's schoolmate and boyfriend, was killed in 1944.

'Political Camelot'

Vidal's wartime experiences and personal grief fuelled his first novel, Williwaw (meaning a sudden, violent storm), and it was a bestseller.

His second book, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was a clinical look into the then secret world of homosexuality.

Bookshops refused to stock the novel and newspapers declined to advertise it.

The novel's notoriety, as much as anything, made it a bestseller but Gore Vidal paid a heavy price.

He was ostracised for a decade and survived by writing under pseudonyms.

Gradually, he began to rebuild his reputation through such work as his 1959 Hollywood adaptation of his friend Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer.

Analysis

Gore Vidal saw himself as the last of the breed of literary figures who became celebrities in their own right. Never a stranger to chat shows, his wry and witty opinions were sought after as much as his writing.

He was an accomplished screenwriter and playwright. His political drama on two presidential contenders, The Best Man, was made into a film starring Henry Fonda in 1964 and was a success on Broadway, where it was revived earlier this year.

In the 1990s he wrote sympathetically about Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, and as well as being one of America's great literary and cultural icons he also became one of its critics, writing about its decline.

The author Christopher Hitchens, who once considered him a modern-day Oscar Wilde, criticised him for his more recent comments, saying they suffered from an "utter want of any grace or generosity".

Asked to screenwrite on the epic Ben Hur, Vidal would later claim that he wove a gay subtext into the plot.

During the early 1960s, he enjoyed a ringside seat at a fabled political Camelot. Jackie Kennedy was his stepsister and his own style and acid wit complemented JFK's.

Vidal also tried his hand at politics over the decades - starting in earnest in 1960 when he ran as a Democrat for the US House of Representatives in the staunchly Republican part of New York state where he lived, and lost.

He formed the People's Party with the child development specialist, Dr Benjamin Spock, and called for the US Constitution to be regularly rewritten.

Ability to provoke

Throughout his life, Gore Vidal had the almost instinctive capacity to provoke others.

His long-time adversary Norman Mailer once hit him on the head with a glass before a talk show.

In 1968, the right-wing American writer William F Buckley Junior threatened to punch him in the face after Vidal accused him, on prime time TV, of being a 'crypto-Nazi'.

But Gore Vidal was undoubtedly a gifted writer, his innate sense of history remaining the backbone of his best work.

In Julian, his 1967 fictional biography of the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, the emperor's rejection of Christianity mirrors that of Gore Vidal's own.

He also produced two works of sexual fantasy, Myra Breckenridge and its sequel, Myron. Both novels were labelled pornographic by some critics.

His essays, on subjects ranging from religion, political power and literature to 11 September and the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, are incisive, mordant and often hilarious.

But Gore Vidal's greatest achievement was probably his series of American historical novels.

From Burr to The Golden Age, his books chronicled US political life from the War of Independence to the third millennium.

Central to the novels were wonderful character portrayals of politicians like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

Vidal's talent for bringing the past to life was extraordinary, but he remained a fearless commentator on US contemporary life, too.

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