By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson
01 Aug 2012
Though not the most widely read writer of his protean generation, or the most acclaimed, Mr. Vidal may have been the most ubiquitous. Born to two prominent parents (he had ties to the Kennedys), he was famous from a young age. His first novel, "Willawaw," was published in 1946, when he was only 19. Over six-plus decades, he never ceased writing, and worked in nearly every genre. He also never stopped talking about writing, his career, the careers of other writers, and the state of America, making him one of the most visible literary figureheads of his time. Film directors took advantage of Mr. Vidal's natural affinity for performing by casting him in movies like "Bob Roberts" (where he used his regal bearing to believably play a senator) and Fellini's "Roma."
Mr. Vidal was arguably best known for his historical novels, in which he expressed his views on American history through stories employing fictional and historical characters. Among these novels were "Burr," "Hollywood," "Lincoln," "Washington, D.C.," "1876" and "The Golden Age." They were among his most popular successes.
But Mr. Vidal wrote plays as well. His best known were his first two, Visit to a Small Planet in 1957 and The Best Man in 1960. The first was about an alien who becomes fascinated with Earth and the human race, and repeatedly visits the planet, befriending its occupants, against the wishes of his teacher. However, he eventually returns home, finding human emotions too much of a bother. In The Best Man, Mr. Vidal exercised his lifelong fascination with politics. (He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960.) A drama of dealmakers and back rooms, it centered on the machinations behind the selection of a presidential candidate at a party convention. It has proved among his most enduring works. Running more than a year in its first incarnation, it was nominated for a Tony Award and has twice been revived on Broadway, including a production that is running currently to Sept. 9 under the title Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
His other plays include Romulus (1962), based on one of his books, Weekend (1968) and the politically charged An Evening With Richard Nixon and… (1972), which starred George S. Irving as the President.
For all his industry, Mr. Vidal was arguably best known to the public for his many public spats with fellow writers. Over the years, he openly feuded (and seemed to relish it) with the likes of Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and William F. Buckley Jr. Part of this tendency may have been fueled by envy. "Every time a friend succeeds," he once said, "I die a little." He was also prone to making contrarian and inflammatory pronouncements about American politics and culture, and any other subject that popped into his head. In 2009, he said in an interview, "We'll have a dictatorship soon in the U.S." It was among the milder of his comments over the years.
Eugene Louis Vidal was born on Oct. 3, 1925, to Eugene Luther Vidal—an Olympic athlete, aviation pioneer, and director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce under Roosevelt—and Nina Gore, a socialite and occasional actress. ("Gore" was added at his christening in 1938. He shed the other two names a year later.) On his mother's side, he was related to the Gores, a prominent political family. His maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, was a Democratic Senator from Oklahoma. He was not related to former Vice President Al Gore; an earlier version of this obituary (and other media) wrongly linked him to that bloodline.
The Vidals were divorced in 1935. Nina Gore married twice more, including a marriage to Hugh D. Auchincloss, who was later the stepfather of Jackie Kennedy.
Mr. Vidal's most notable early book was "The City and the Pillar," which caused a stir as one of the first books to depict homosexuality. (Mr. Vidal himself boasted of many affairs with both sexes, including actresses Diana Lynn and Joanne Woodward.) Many reviewers refused to write about it. To keep himself financially afloat during the following years, he wrote a series of detective novels under a pseudonym.
Throughout his life, Mr. Vidal never lost the impulse to speak out, or the confidence that what he had to say was worth listening to. "There is no human problem," he once said, "which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."