RIP: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal famously described Tennessee Williams’s death in 1983 (choking on the cap from a bottle of eyedrops) as “a good career move”. Well, now he too has made that good career move. Another great writer joins the celestial ‘pantheon’.

He will be remembered (and missed) as much for his barbed wit, his put-downs and his spats with other writers (Mailer, Capote, William F. Buckley) as for his writing. Born into a Washington ‘dynasty’ he ruthlessly pilloried every president from FDR to George W. His epic cycle of political novels began crisply with Washington DC (1967) and ended flatulently with The Golden Age (2000) and included three of the most outstanding American historical novels of all time: Burr, 1876 and Lincoln. Personally, I was more an admirer of the brilliantly outrageous Hollywood comedy Myra Breckinridge and its sequel Myron. Duluth was also a joy to read.

His gay novel The City & The Pillar was incredibly daring for 1948 (and almost destroyed his reputation); the re-write in 1965, with its less melodramatic ending, was an improvement but the book was no longer ahead of its time. Charlton Heston was not told (and later refused to believe) that there was a homo-erotic ‘subtext’ to Judah Ben Hur’s friendship with Stephen Boyd’s Messala in Vidal’s (uncredited) contributions to the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Gore’s script for Suddenly, Last Summer (1960) added more great lines (and the splendid madhouse scenes) to Tennessee William’s provocative one-act play and gave Elizabeth Taylor one of her best roles.

His best-remembered quotes include such gems as “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Here’s one of my favourites: “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.“.

It doesn’t have to be true but it reads well. Gore’s life was like that.

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