Gore Vidal, who has died at the age of 86, existed at the very vortex of where politics, literature, fashion, intellectualism, sex, film, pop culture, mass media and journalism met, mixed and coalesced during the 20th century.
A true renaissance man, Vidal was part of a long-vanished era of American history in which pop culture figures were not only entertaining and fascinating, but also highly educated and erudite. Vidal didn’t invent the ”author-as-celebrity” cliché, but he certainly perfected it and polished it to an icy sheen.
But, like many great men of letters, Vidal was extremely complex and maddeningly contradictory.
A friend and confidant of celebrities, presidents and royalty, he was nonetheless dismissive of fame and those who held it (while desperately seeking to hold onto his quite considerable fame and notoriety). A dedicated left-wing populist who detested the Republicans and what he called the U.S. “expansionist” ideology, he was deeply rooted in the WASP establishment and proudly boasted of his blood ties to colonial America. A promiscuous homosexual in his youth who wrote explicitly about his (and others’) sexual escapades, he nonetheless eschewed sexual relations during his multi-decade relationship with companion Howard Austen. A champion of the poor, the minorities and the dispossessed, Vidal lived in luxury and moved in the most exalted circles of the western world for pretty much his entire life. A cultural snob who praised the accomplishments of the ancient world and the intellectual genius of the Renaissance, he nonetheless gladly accepted money to write for such modern-day mass market vehicles as television and Hollywood movies.
If he were European or British, his critics would likely have labeled him a “champagne Socialist” or a “limousine liberal,” but as an American, he didn’t seem like a hypocrite at all – he simply used his brilliance and close ties to the power establishment to forge an unforgettable career, whose works will likely last through eternity.
Vidal’s life was so extraordinary that its scope and magnitude beggars belief. He seemed to have been intimate with (or related to) virtually every big name of the 20th century – from John F. Kennedy to Pablo Picasso to the Duke of Windsor and everyone in between.
His public (and very unpleasant) battles with fellow writers and narcissists Truman Capote, William Buckley and Norman Mailer were legendary. No one could ever really be sure if his feuds with his literary rivals were genuine or contrived. Perhaps it didn’t matter, since they were all so entertaining and irresistible to a public not accustomed to such brilliant men at the center of pop media culture.
Vidal’s meandering and whimsical autobiography, Palimpsest, presented the gadfly at his witty, self-aggrandizing and hilarious best. He is eager to show how smart and well-read he is by repeatedly referring to obscure books, paintings and other cultural detritus from centuries ago. He also wants the reader to know how famous he is and how closely linked he is to other celebrities (Vidal was a serial name-dropper).
For anyone of lesser talent and charisma, Vidal’s ego and self-centeredness would probably annoy and grate -- but his dazzling intellect, worldly charm and sardonic humor made him all the more appealing.
It is a cliché, but we will never see anyone like Gore Vidal ever again – it would be impossible, since he could only have existed in the 20th century America that he so beautifully documented and lambasted.