Gore Vidal remembered: ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’

The celebrated author, playwright, politician and commentator was a leader of US literary culture for six decades.

Gore Vidal, Joanne Woodward
Gore Vidal 'was the 20th century's Oscar Wilde' [AP]

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, who died on Tuesday, was one of the ancients. He has been compared to Tiresias, but in his escharotic chronicles of US history, he was much more like Diogenes the Cynic. His reserve of refined contempt for charlatans, philistines and petty moralists was limitless.

Theodore Roosevelt, the macho man of Republicanism, was “an American sissy”, an effete upper class imperialist: “Give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight.” Reagan, a modern day Warren G Harding, was an ignorant front-man for corporate reaction, “an indolent cue card reader”, and a “triumph of the embalmer’s art”. Justice Antonin Scalia was “reminiscent of a Puccini villain” in “both name and visage”.

As for George W Bush, he had many pithily discourteous remarks. Arguably, though, Vidal had already hinted at the core of Bushism in his anatomy of American Caesarism, whose elements he distilled in an interview with Barry Goldwater. A real American Caesar would be no “Hitlerite maniac”. Rather, while attracting “all the true believers”, he would “oversimplify some difficult but vital issue, putting himself on the side of the majority”. His manner would be “just plain folks, a regular guy, warm and sincere”.  And “while he was amusing us on television, stormtroopers would gather in the streets”.

 US author Gore Vidal dies at 86

Vidal was an insider-outsider, an upper class dissident, a radical leftist with connections to the Democratic Party establishment. His early political sympathies were reflexively Tory, and his early writing naturalistic. Williwaw, his first novel, was a straightforward disaster story based on his time during World War II in an army freighter amid the Aleutian islands of Alaska.

The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was a more daring work, as it explicitly broached the subject of homosexual love – dedicated to “JT”, Jimmy Trimble, who had been his lover at St Albans school and died in the Battle of Iwo Jima.  The New York Times literary critic was so incensed that he banned reviews of Vidal’s next five novels.

Political identity

As a result, Vidal shifted his focus to writing pseudonymous mysteries and plays. And in the stultifying context of the Cold War, he began a long-term shift to the left. In 1960, he ran for Congress as a Democratic candidate in Poughkeepsie, New York. His elegant, urbane comportment was quite uncharacteristic in the US political class. In addition, he averred: “I say 80 per cent of what I think, a hell of a lot more than any politician I know.” He did not win.

Like many intellectuals in the early 1960s, he was close to John and Jackie Kennedy, and was temporarily impressed by the dynamism of the new executive. His first dispatch on the presidency was surprisingly optimistic, very much taken by the president’s apparently exceptional habit of reading widely. But he was repelled as first Kennedy and then Johnson ensanguinated themselves in Vietnam. In his later essays and his memoir, Palimpsest, the portrait he offered of Kennedy was still partially affectionate. The leader of Camelot was witty, charming and intellectual, but the muck in the “Augean stable” he ruled over was increasingly apparent. Vidal regretfully concluded that Kennedy enjoyed war, and was rather too keen on portentous end times rhetoric – partly due to his illness. Vidal continued to radicalise, and endorsed the leftist People’s Party in the 1970s.

The naturalistic realism that had characterised his early works was increasingly jettisoned. Already by 1954, Messiah, the first of his “satiric inventions”, was a fantastical parody of the Christian basis of US political culture. His novels from the 1960s and 1970s tended to divide between jaunty, gossipy but fascinating historical recreations – Julian, about the apostate Roman emperor, and Washington, DC, about political life under the Roosevelts – and outré fantasies, such as Kalki and Duluth, blending gender politics, pop culture and the early omens of environmental catastrophe. Of these, the masterpiece was the sexual comedy, Myra Breckinridge. “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess … Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherf***ers, as the children say nowadays,” the heroine announces, beginning a ribald war on patriarchy, using her cunning, beauty and intelligence as weapons in the sex war.

Elsewhere, Vidal heralded the triumph of feminism. His novels, from Myra Breckinridge to Kalki, were often populated by viragos, heroic female figures modelled on his personal heroines such as Amelia Earhart. Similarly, his essay “Feminism and its Discontents” – though marred by an unreasonably hostility to psychoanalysis and Freud – announced to the patriarchs of the literary and political world that their twilight was nearing. This was, like many expectations formed in the radical 1960s, over-optimistic.

Life and love

 One on one: Gore Vidal

When it came to the birds and the bees, however, Vidal was dyspeptic. Sex gave meaning to nothing, except itself. He quipped that he had never knowingly given a sexual partner pleasure. His one-time “dauphin”, or heir, Christopher Hitchens, lamented that a mate of Vidal couldn’t even count on “a sighing reach-around”. On the other hand, as much as he valued friendship, Vidal once lamented: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Throughout the 1980s, Vidal was concerned with the convergence between US reactionaries, both theocrats and neoconservatives, and Zionism. His famous essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” mordantly taxonomised the gay-baiting of some Jewish neoconservatives, “solemnly worshipping at the shrine of The Family” as they allied with the Christian Right, while in “Armageddon”, he noted the toxic alliance of Christian fundamentalism with Israeli aggression in Lebanon. Though Vidal had been what he described as an “offhand Zionist” since 1948, the minatory, messianic side of Zionism was increasingly apparent to him.

Vidal was honest enough to state plainly that the US was not only a class system, but also a one-party system – the Democrats and Republicans being merely “two wings of the Property Party”. Nonetheless, he did not cut ties with the Democratic hierarchy. Given a choice between the rival factions of capitalism, he preferred the “slightly more intelligent, corrupt and potentially conciliatory” Democrats. He seems to have admired the Clintons, and supported Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000. But the longer Vidal lived, the bleaker his view of America became. The national security state, a legacy of Truman’s Cold War empire-building, had despoiled the rudiments of a relatively egalitarian republic, to disastrous effect.

His last years were preoccupied by the swaggering exercise of executive power by the Bush administration. Here, his aristocratic disdain served him well. He poured copious scorn on Bush the Younger and the mediocre militarists who crowned themselves with the mantra of “war presidency”. Yet there was a slight declension in his writing. His tendency towards “Rome Before the Fall” portentousness became more exaggerated. His memoir, Point to Point Navigation was a poor follow-up to Palimpsest. And his boorish comments on the Roman Polanski rape case hardly became the man who memorably debunked patriarchy. He wrote one last “satiric invention”, The Smithsonian Institution, in which he disinterred the memory of his beloved Jimmy Trimble, but was more commonly seen indomitably scorning his media interlocutors.

Vidal was the 20th century’s Oscar Wilde. In his classicism and Hellenism, his epigrammatic style, fondness for paradox, hatred for moralising, and his upper class socialism, he was very much the figure Wilde might have been had he been born into American aristocracy and romped with JFK, then lived to his eighties rather than being crushed by prison.  And Vidal would have understood Wilde’s dictum that in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing. Vidal knew all about style: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

Gore Vidal knew who he was, what he wanted to say, and he didn’t give a damn.

Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder. He blogs at Lenin’s Tomb.

Follow him on Twitter: @leninology