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Gore (Eugene Luther) Vidal (1925-2012) - Original name Eugene Luther Vidal - Detective novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box


Prolific American novelist, playwright, and essayist, one of the great stylists of contemporary American prose, who was also active in politics. Gore Vidal made his debut as novelist with Williwaw at the age of 19, while still in US Army uniform. Many of his books Vidal wrote in Italy, in the villa La Rondinaia, which he bought in 1972.

"One understands of course why the role of the individual in history is instinctively played down by a would-be egalitarian society. We are, quite naturally, afraid of being victimized by reckless adventurers. To avoid this we have created a myth of the ineluctable mass ('other-directedness') which governs all. Science, we are told, is not a matter of individual inquiry but of collective effort. Even the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality; if not this man, then that one; it's all the same, life will go on." (from 'Robert Graves and the Twelve Caesars', in Rocking the Boat, 1963)

Gore Vidal grew accustomed at an early age to a life among political and social notables. He was born at the military academy in West Point, New York, where his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was an aeronautics instructor. "It was my father's dream to be the Henry Ford of aviation. He wanted to develop a cheap plane that anyone who could afford a car could own and was simple enough for even a child to fly." (Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal, Penguin Books, 1996, p. 13) Nina Gore, Vidal's mother, was the daughter of Thomas P. Gore, a populist Democrat senator from Oklahoma.

After his parents divorced, Vidal was raised near Washington, DC, in the house of his grandfather, lerning there about political life from him. When Vidal was a teenager, he adopted the first name of Gore. In 1935 his mother married Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr.; they divorced in 1941. Vidal also spent time on the Virginia estate of his stepfather. 

After graduating from Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Vidal served on an army supply ship in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Much of his time in the Enlisted Reserve Corps he devoted to writing. Upon his discharge he worked for six months for the publishing firm of E.P. Dutton. From 1947 to 1949 Vidal lived in Antigua, Guatemala. Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, was based on his wartime experiences as a first mate on Freight Ship 35 in the Alaskan Harbour Craft Detachment. The conventional seafaring story was written in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway.

Williwaw was praised by the critics like the following books, although The City and the Pillar (1948) shocked the public with its homosexual main character. This work a"broke the mold" of gay American fiction. It was reissued in 1965 with a different ending. In the 1950s Vidal published three detective novels under the name of Edgar Box – Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Bedtime (1953), and Death Likes It Hot (1954). They didn't gain any kind of success, from critics or readers. Thieves Fall Out (1953) was written under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay; it too went unnoticed.

The Judgement of Paris (1953) was about a young man travelling with jet-set and wondering how to satisfy his own part-cynical, part-romantic outlook. Several of his following novels did not gain critical approval and Vidal began to write plays for television, motion pictures, and stage. Smoke, directed by Robert Mulligan, won the 1954 Mystery Writers of America Award for the year's best teleplay. After signing a contract with the CBS Playhouse series, Vidal said that he don't watch telelevision much and that commercial television is probably hopeless.

Paul Newman's acted the lead in Television Playhouse's production The Death of Billy the Kid (1955), written by Vidal. Three years later it was turned into movie by Arthur Penn, starring again Newman, but the screenplay for The Left Handed Gun was adapted by Leslie A. Stevens III. The image of Billy fascinated Vidal for years, the outlaw was "forever young, undyingly loyal to personal bonds, resolutely insistent on individual freedom, and hostile to all injustice". (Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan, 2012, p. 378)

A new interpretation of the original play was shot in 1989, entitled Gore Vidal's Billy the Kidd, in which Val Kilmer mumbled as Billy. For a period, Vidal was employed by MGM. He helped the director William Wyler, who had problems with the script of Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston. The studio chief Sam Zimbalist had wanted Vidal's friend Newman to play Ben-Hur. Vidal agreed to rework the script on condition that MGM let him out of the last two years of his long-term contract.

In the 1960s Vidal returned to the literary scene by producing historical or contemporary novels, including Julian (1964), written in the form of a journal by the eponymous Roman emperor,  Washington, D.C. (1967), a political thriller spanning the years 1937-52, Burr (1974), in which its title character rises above the other Founding Fathers, 1876 (1976), Duluth (1983), and Lincoln (1984), a carefully reconstructed, iconoclastic account of the life of the US president. Lincoln is portrayed as a tyrannical character who is "almost diabolically unknowable in his use of power". ('The World According to Gore' by Paul Gray, Time, September 17, 2000) Inventing a Nation (2003) dealt also with the creators of the United States.

Creation (1981) was the memoir of an imaginary grandson of Zoroaster who travels the world in the service of Persian kings and plays with the ideas of Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Anaxagoras, and other thinkers. Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (1992) was a time traveller story about events in the Bible, reported through the eyes of Timothy (St. Timothy): "The Gospels are being physically erased from books and "tapes." But will they also be erased from the memory of those who still remember them? I address this question to the God Sony. He is silent." (Ibid., Penguin Books, 1993, p.  14)

Myra Breckinridge (1968), dedicated to Christopher Isherwood, was a transsexual comedy parodying the cult of the Hollywood film star. Vidal's heroine, Myra, teaches Posture and Empathy at an acting academy. She was once Myron, but a "reminiscent of the early Lana Turner," Mary-Ann Pringle, totally changes her life and  Myra has her surgery revised. There is a twist in the story: Myra is a feminist and her alternate self, Myron, is her mirror image and bitter antagonist. A sequel, Myron, came out in 1974. Michael Sarne's screen adaptation of Myra Breckinridge received an X rating when released by Twentieth Centruy Fox in 1970. The film was met with poor reviews. Time magazine called it "an insult to intelligencce, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye." ('Cinema: Some Sort of Nadir,' Time, July 06, 1970) Vidal himsel said that the movie was "an awful joke". Myron, played by the film critic Rex Reed, is turned into Raquel Welch in the sex change operation. 

Vidal's questioning of sexual norms brought him into conflict with such macho writers as Norman Mailer, who described his writing as "no more interesting than the stomach of an intellectual cow" in the Dick Cavett Show. (A life in feuds: how Gore Vidal gripped a nation' by Jay Parini, The Guardian, 14 August 2015) Vidal and Mailer knew each other well had a number of mutual friends. Vidal was among the guests, along with Montgomery Clift and Elaine Dundy, when Mailer read his play Deer Park (1958) in his Brooklyn Heights apartment; the reading went on for hours. Eventually Montgomery Clift took the scrip away from him,  made an unsuccessful attempt to read it aloud better, then threw it into the air, and shouted: "Aahh, this is such crap!" Vidal finished reading the play. (Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth, 1979, p. 337)

The hero of Washington, D.C., Peter Sandford, appeared again in The Golden Age (2000), in which the reader meets a number of real, historical people, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph Alsop, Tennessee Williams, and the author himself. '"Vidal's big sprawling novel about America's transformation during and after World War II coats its ethical inquiries with plenty of narrative sweeteners: the sweep of history, celebrity walk-ons, conspiracy theories and reams of conversation, much of it witty, some lumbering. But the issue of power and who should hold it is never far form the surface. Sanford confronts the scheming and ambitious Congressman Clay Overbury, who also appeared in Washington, D.C., and asks, "Why must you be President?" To Overbury, the answer is obvious: "Some people are meant to be. Some are not. Obviously you're not."' (Curtis Ellis in Time, Nov. 6, 2000)

The grandson of a politician, Thomas Pryor Gore, Vidal was also active in liberal politics. In 1960 he ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress as a Democratic-Liberal candidate in New York. Appalled by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the American scene in general, Vidal thought about renouncing his citizenship and applying for a Swiss or Irish passport. Between 1970 and 1972 he was co-chairman of the left-leaning People's Party. In 1982 Vidal launched campaign in California for the US senate. He came second out of a field of nine, polling half a million votes.

In the 1960s and 1970s Vidal lived in Italy and appeared as himself in Fellini's Roma (1972). With his companion, Howard Austen, he traveled almost everywhere, but always returned to Rome or Ravello. In 2004 Vidal announced that he would sell his cliffside villa, La Rondinaia,  perched 60 meters above the Amalfi coast, because he can no longer walk from there to the piazza.

Throughout his career, Vidal never accepted the label of "homosexual writer". Moreover, he had affairs with women, too. In his essay 'Pink triangle and yellow star' (1981) he wrote: "The American passion for categorizing has now managed to create to nonexistent categories – gay and straight. Either you are one or you are the other. But since everyone is a mixture of inclinations, the categories keep breaking down; and when they break down, the irrational takes over. You have to one or the other." (Pink Triangle and Yellow Star by Gore Vidal, 1982, p. 168)

During the Reagan years, Vidal published a collection of essays, Armageddon (1987), in which he explored his love-hate relationship with contemporary America. In 1994 Vidal co-starred with Tim Robbins in the film Bob Roberts. His collected essays, United States (1993), won a National Book Award. It is a valuable introduction for those interested in American politics and literature. In 2009 Vidal received a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards.

In Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995) Vidal depicted his early life and friends, among them President Kennedy's family, which he has examined in several writings. "Yet the myth that JFK was a philosopher-king will continue as long as the Kennedys remain in politics," he said in 'The Holy Family' (1967). "And much of the power they exert over the national imagination is a direct result of the ghastliness of what happened at Dallas. But the though the world's grief and shock were genuine, they were not entirely for JFK himself. The death of a young leader necessarily strikes an atavistic chord. For thousands of years the man-god was sacrificed to ensure with blood the harvest, and there is always an element of ecstasy as well as awe in our collective grief." ('The Holy Family,' in United States: Essays 1952-1992, p. 824)

As an essayist Vidal dealt with a wide range of subjects from literary to issues of national interest, and people he has known. It has been said, that "probably no American writer since Franklin has derided, ridiculed, and mocked Americans more skillfully and more often than Vidal." (Gordon S. Wood, The New York Times, December 14, 2003). Vidal's family provided him with a wealth of material, starting from his maternal grandfather, the former senator T.P. Gore, and his relation to Jackie Kennedy through one of his mother's marriages. Vidal also met and worked with prominent people, using freely these connections in his essays. Readers are given glimpses of the private lives of such persons as John F. Kennedy – "not much interested in giving pleasure to his partner" – Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Anaïs Nin, and many others. He once characterized Ronald Reagan as "a triumph of the embalmer's art." (Observer, 26 April 1981)

Like Norman Mailer, Vidal was deliberately controversial and outspoken, as when he supported legalization of illegal drugs – it would remove the Mafia from the drug market. "It is possible to stop most drug addiction in the United States within a very short time. Simply make all drugs available and sell them at cost. Label each drug with a precise description of what effect – good or bad – the drug will have on the taker." (The New York Times, 1970; from The Last Empire, 2001) In Prague Vidal attacked in the spring of 2001 his home country's bureaucracy, health care, and educational system. He did it so fiercely that Václav Klaus, Chairman of the Czech Parliament, considered it improper.

Contradicting himself, Vidal showed little interest in African-American writing, but he consistently denounced racism. In The Nation he criticized Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom for their neoconservative book America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1997). "What they have perfected – much appreciated by their natural constituency, the anti-blacks – is what we call the Reverse Angle Shot in the matter of race. . . . Their argument is simple. Affirmative action for minorities is wrong, particularly in the case of African-Americans, because such action takes it for granted that they are by nature inferior to whites and so require more financial aid". ('Bad History', in The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 by Gore Vidal, 2002, p. 294).

Vidal had troubles in finding an English-language publisher for his essay 'September 11, 2001 (A Tuesday)' which later appeared in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (2002) and The Selected Essays (2008). He argued that "[f]or several decades there has been an unrelenting demonization of the Muslim world in the American media. Since I am a loyal American, I am not supposed to tell you why this has taken place, but then it is not usual for us to examine why anything happens; we simply accuse others of motiveless maligny." (Black Tuesday,' in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, edited by Jay Parini, 2008, p, 418)

Christopher Hitchens said in Vnity Fair in February 2010: "For some years now, the old boy's stock-in-trade has been that of the last Roman: the stoic  eminence who with unclouded eyes foresees the coming end of the noble republic. Such an act doesn't require a toga, but it does demand a bit of dignity." (Arguably by Christopher Hitchens, 2011, p. 92) Vidal died from complications from pneumonia on July 31, 2012, in Los Angeles. He was 86.

For further reading: Gore Vidal and Antiquity: Sex, Politics and Religion by Quentin J. Broughall (2023); Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s by George Hutchinson (2018); So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein by Jeff Solomon (2017); Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: the Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (2015)Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw (2015); Vidal vs. Mailer by Carole Mallory (introduction by Dick Cavett, 2014); Gore Vidal: A Comprehensive Bibliography by S. T. Joshi (2007); Gore Vidal by Fred Kaplan (2000); Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion by Susan Baker (1997); Gore Vidal by Robert F. Kiernan (1982); Gore Vidal, or, A Vision from a Particular Position by Stephen Macaulay (1982); Views from a Window by R.J. Stanton (1980); The Apostate Angel by Bernard F. Dick (1974); Gore Vidal by R.L. White (1968) - Suomeksi julkaistu myös kolme novellia kokoelmassa Naiset kirjastossa ja muita kertomuksia (1986).  James A. Michener on Vidal: "Gore Vidal, who wrote Williwaw at only nineteen, was another whose early book could well have been his last, but instead he wrote a series of books that varied in subject matter from the critical days of early Christianity to the dramatic eras of American history to outrageous sexual games. I envy him two novels on whose subjects I also did a great deal of work: Julian, which deals with the apostate who tried to turn back Christianity in ancient Antiochea, and 1876, which covers the amazing incident in American history that year when the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes stole the presidential election from the Democrat Samuel J.Tilden. Vidal knows how to make the most of his material, whatever the source, and I would have been proud to have written either these books I've cited." (from The World is My Home A Memoir by James A. Michener, 1992, p. 412)

Selected bibliography:

  • Williwaw, 1946
  • In a Yellow Wood, 1947
  • City and the Pillar, 1948
  • The Season of Comfort, 1949
  • Dark Green, Bright Red, 1950
  • A Search for the King, 1950
  • The Judgement of Paris, 1953
  • Dark Possession, 1954 (teleplay, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner; 1956, dir. Lamont Johnson; 1959, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation; 1960, episode: The Chevy Mystery Show)
  • Thieves Fall Out, 1953 (as Cameron Kay)
  • The Case of the Jinx Nurse, 1954 (teleplay, as Cameron Kay)
  • Smoke, 1954 (teleplay, based on William Faulkner's story, dir. Robert Mulligan)
  • Barn Burning, 1954 (teleplay, based on William Faulkner's story, dir. Robert Mulligan)
  • The Contrast, 1954 (teleplay, adapted from Royall Tyler's play)
  • A Man and Two Gods, 1954 (teleplay, based on a book by Jean Morris9
  • The Turn of the Screw, 1955 (teleplay, from the story by Henry James, dir. Seymour Robbie, starring Geraldine Page)
  • A Sense of Justice, 1955 (teleplay, dir. Robert Mulligan, starring John Hudson, E.G. Marshall; 1958, dir. Desmond Davis; 1973, Recht in eigenen hand, dir. Barbro Thunér)
  • A Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville, 1957 (play, TV film 1955, dir. Jack Smight, with Edward Andrews, Sylvia Davis, Jill Kraft; 1960, film version dir. by Norman Taurog, starring Jerry Lewis; 1967, Poseta maloj planeti, dir. Sava Mrmak; 1971, Besuch auf einem kleinen Planeten, dir. Wolfgang Liebeneiner)
  • Stage Door, 1955 (teleplay, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, dir. Sidney Lumet)
  • The Blue Hotel, 1955 (teleplay, based on Stephen Crane's story)
  • Summer Pavilion, 1955 (teleplay, dir. Paul Nickell, with Miriam Hopkins, Charles Drake, Elizabeth Montgomery)
  • Farewell to Arms, 1955 (teleplay, from the novel by Ernest Hemingway, dir. Allen Reisner, with Diana Lynn and Guy Madison)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1955 (teleplay, from the novel by R.L. Stevenson, dir. Allen Reisner, starring Michael Rennie)
  • Messiah, 1955
  • State of Confusion, 1955 (sketch for The Milton Berle Show)
  • The Death of Billy the Kid, 1955 (teleplay, prod. Television Playhouse, dir. Robert Mulligan, starring Paul Newman; 1958, The Left-Handed Gun, dir. Arthur Penn, screenplay by Leslie Stevens, starring Paul Newman; 1989, Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, dir. William A. Graham, starring Val Kilmer)
  • Louisa Pallant, 1956 (teleplay, unproduced, rewritten by Zoë Akins, based on a story by Henry James)
  • Sincerely, Willis Wade, 1956 (teleplay, unproduced, rewritten by Frank Gilroy, based on a novel by John P Marquand)
  • The Catered Affair, 1956 (film script, based on Paddy Chayefsky's Wedding Breakfast)
  • Honor, 1956 (teleplay, dir. Vincent J. Donehue)
  • Portrait of a Ballerina, 1956 (teleplay, from GV's novel Death in the Fifth Position, dir. Don Medford, hosted by Ronald Reagan)
  • Visit to a Small Planet, 1957 (play)
  • I Accuse!, 1958 (film script on Dreyfus affair, based on a book by Nicholas Halasz, dir. José Ferrer, starring José Ferrer, see Émile Zola)
  • A Thirsty Evil, 1958
  • The Light in the Dark, 1959 (teleplay)
  • The Indestructible Mr. Gore, 1959 (teleplay, starring William Shatner)
  • The Scapegoat, 1959 (film script, with Robert Hamer, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, dir. Robert Hamer, starring Alec Guinness, Bette Davis)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959 (script, from the play by Tennessee Williams, film dir. by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, based on Tennessee Willams's play)
  • The Best Man: A Play of Politics, 1960 (play, film 1964, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson)
  • Dear Arthur, 1960 (based on P.G. Wodehouse's adaptation of Ferenc Molnár's play Jemand, dir. Bretaigne Windust, starring Rex Harrison, Sarah Marshall)
  • The Monument, 1960 (teleplay, based on Ibsen's The Master Builder)
  • Rocking the Boat, 1962
  • On the March to the Sea, 1962 (play, from Honor)
  • Romulus, 1963 (play, adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Romulus der Grosse, 1949)
  • Rocking the Boat, 1963
  • Julian, 1964
  • On the March to the Sea, 1966 (teleplay, dir. Alan Gibson)
  • Is Paris Burning?, 1966 (First Vintage International edition, (script with Francis Ford Coppola, film dir. by René Clément, based on international bestseller Paris, brûle-t-il? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre)
  • Washington D.C., 1967
  • Weekend, 1968 (play)
  • Sex, Death, and Money, 1968
  • Myra Breckinridge, 1968 (introduction by Camille Paglia, 2019) (film 1970, dir. Michael Sarne, starring Mae West, John Huston, Raquel Welch, Sarah Fawcett) - Myra (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1970)
  • Reflections upon a Sinking Ship, 1969
  • The Last of the Mobile Hotshots, 1969 (also: Blood Kin, film script, from The Seven Descents of Myrtle by Tennessee Williams, dir. by Sidney Lumet, starring James Coburn, Lynn Redgrave)
  • Two Sisters, 1970
  • Drawing Room Comedy, 1970 (play)
  • Homage to Daniel Shays, 1972
  • An Evening with Richard Nixon, 1972 (play)
  • Burr, 1974
  • Collected Essays, 1974
  • Myron, 1974 - Myron (suom. Aarne T. K. Lahtinen, 1976)
  • Great American Families, 1975 (with others)
  • Matters of Fact and Fiction, 1977
  • Kalki, 1978
  • Caligula, 1979 (film script, with others, dir. Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione, et. al., starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole)
  • Sex is Politics and Vice Versa, 1979
  • Creation, 1980
  • The Second American Revolution, 1982
  • Duluth, 1983
  • Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, 1982
  • Lincoln, 1984 (TV film 1988, dir. Lamont Johnson, starring Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore)
  • Vidal in Venice, 1985 (edited by George Armstrong)
  • Dress Gray, 1986 (teleplay, from the novel by Lucian K. Truscott IV, dir. Glenn Jordan)
  • Empire, 1987
  • The Sicilian, 1987 (screenplay, uncredited, based on Mario Puzo's novel, dir. Michael Cimino, screenplay by Steve Shagan, starring Christopher Lambert)
  • At Home, 1988
  • Armageddon? 1987
  • Hollywood, 1989
  • The Palermo Connection, 1990 (script, with others, dir. Francesco Rosi, starring James Belushi, Mimi Rogers, Joss Ackland)
  • A View from the Diners Club, 1991
  • Screening History, 1992
  • Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1992
  • Live from Golgatha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal, 1992
  • Screening History, 1993
  • United States: Essays 1952-1992, 1993
  • Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995
  • Virgin Islands: A Dependency of United States: Essays 1992-1997, 1997
  • The Smithsonian Institution, 1998
  • The American Presidency, 1998
  • Gore Vidal Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, 1999 (ed. by Donald Weise)
  • The Essential Gore Vidal, 1999 (ed. by Fred Kaplan)
  • The Golden Age, 2000
  • The Last Empire: Essays 1992–2000, 2001
  • Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to be So Hated, Causes of Conflict in the Last Empire, 2002
  • Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, 2002
  • Inventing a Nation, 2003
  • Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, 2004
  • On the March to the Sea, 2005 (play)
  • Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 2006
  • Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Srories, 2006
  • The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, 2008 (edited by Jay Parini)
  • Snapshots in History's Glare, 2009
  • I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics, 2012 (interviews with Jon Wiener)
  • Gore Vidal's State of the Union: Nation Essays 1958-2005, 2013 (edited by Richard R. Lingeman)
  • Thieves Fall Out, 2015 (First Hard Case Crime edition; Gore Vidal writing as Cameron Kay)
  • Myra Breckinridge: A Novel, 2019 (First Vintage International edition; introduction by Camille Paglia)
  • Palimpsest: A Memoir, 2021 (First Vintage International edition)

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