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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. 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 was an instructor. He was raised near Washington, DC, in the house of his grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a populist Democrat senator from Oklahoma. Vidal learned about political life from him and when he was a teenager he adopted the first name of Gore. Vidal also spent time on the Virginia estate of his stepfather, Hugh. D. Auchincloss.
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 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. However,
he became known as a serious writer at the age of 21. This work also
'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
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, he 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
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 an account of events in the Bible written as though they were reported on
television. Among Vidal's finest works are two novels which deal with
power and sex. 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 received 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
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.
Vidal's attack on 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)
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. 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, the irrational takes over."
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 (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. In The Nation Vidal suggested that the white race of Europe, Russia, Canada, and the United States, should form a defensive alliance against "more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics" (see The Last Empire, 2001).
Vidal had troubles in finding an English-language publisher for his essay 'September 11 (a Tuesday)' which appeared in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (2002). He argued that "for several decades there has been an unrelenting demonization of the Muslim world in the American media." Vidal died from complications from pneumonia on July 31, 2012, in Los Angeles. He was 86.