Gore Vidal dies at 86: ten things you might want to know
'I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television,' said the American man of letters
GORE VIDAL, the American author, playwright, and acerbic political commentator, has died at the age of 86 at his home in the Hollywood Hills, of complications from pneumonia. Once known for his fine physique, distinguished looks and haughty baritone voice, he had been ill for some time and recently was confined to a wheelchair.
His best-known books included the historical novel Lincoln and – his own favourite - the comic novel Myra Breckenridge, about a transsexual movie star. One of his five plays, the political drama The Best Man, is currently on Broadway, starring James Earl Jones and Cybill Shepherd.
Here are ten things about Gore Vidal you may not know...
HE WAS NEITHER GAY NOR STRAIGHT
Vidal boasted in his 1995 memoir Palimpsest that he had had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with men and women, though, as the New York Times puts it, he "tended toward what he called 'same-sex sex'." However, he disliked the labels 'gay' and 'straight', believing all human beings were inherently bisexual.
HE NEVER WENT TO UNIVERSITY
Vidal was to become one of America's foremost men of letters, publishing hundreds of essays, plays and film scripts as well as 25 novels. But "classrooms bored him", reports The Daily Telegraph. When he left secondary school - the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire - he enlisted in the Army and never went to college. His first novel, Williwaw, was published when he was 20.
HE LOVED BEING ON TELEVISION
Despite his belief in the primacy of the written word, he loved TV and film. "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television," he once said. He was a regular on The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson era and more recently took part in the animated comedies The Simpsons and Family Guy. Film acting credits include the movie version of The Best Man and the Tim Robbins political satire, Bob Roberts.
HE REVOLUTIONISED GAY LITERATURE
His third book, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was among the first novels to feature a love affair between two men. It was dedicated to 'J.T.' - who it transpired was Jimmie Trimble, a schoolfriend killed during World War II, whom he called the great love of his life. The furore over The City and the Pillar forced him to write under various pseudonyms in the 1950s - 'Edgar Box' for mystery novels and 'Katherine Everard' or 'Cameron Kay' for other fiction.
HE PREDICTED JFK'S ASSASSINATION
Vidal was friends with Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom he shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss. As a result, he became a supporter of President Kennedy. In a newspaper profile of JFK written after his election, Vidal - "with tragic foresight," says the Telegraph - called the job of the presidency "literally killing" and worried that "Kennedy may very well not survive".
HE WAS HEAD-BUTTED BY NORMAN MAILER...
He had several run-ins with Norman Mailer, another "big beast" of the US literary scene. When Mailer head-butted him backstage on Dick Cavett's chat show after Vidal had likened Mailer's view on women to those of Charles Manson, Vidal snapped back: "Words fail Norman Mailer yet again."
... AND FELL OUT WITH CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
Christopher Hitchens was seen by many as the inheritor of Vidal's mantle as a pre-eminent political commentator. Hitchens once saw Vidal as a modern Oscar Wilde, but by February 2010 was writing in Vanity Fair that Vidal's recent comments suffered from an "utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity".
HE WAS INTERVIEWED BY JOHANN HARI
As Hitchens pointed out in his Vanity Fair piece, Vidal was interviewed by Johann Hari of The Independent, who would later find himself in the headlines in trouble for lifting quotes. Asked by Hari if he'd like to say anything about his recently deceased rivals, John Updike, William F. Buckley Jr., and Norman Mailer, Vidal responded: "Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist, too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain."
HE FANCIED RUNNING THE COUNTRY
Vidal ran for office twice – for Congress, representing New York, in 1960, and for the Senate, representing California, in 1982 - and lost both times. John Nichols, writing in The Nation, tells how Vidal "plotted" to run for the presidency in 2004: "I think America will be ready for a real alternative to Bush by then. Think of Bush and Cheney as a cry for help. I shall answer my country's call." But the campaign never got beyond the terrace of his home in Ravello (see below).
HE WILL BE BURIED NEXT TO HIS COMPANION
For decades Vidal lived on Italy's Amalfi coast, sharing his cliff-side villa in Ravello with his companion Howard Austen, a former advertising executive. The two men returned to California in 2003 when Austen became ill. He died later the same year. Vidal said the secret of their relationship was that they had never slept together. As Crikey.com reports, Vidal will be buried beside Austen in the Rock Creek cemetery in Washington DC, between the graves of Jimmie Trimble (above) and the 19th Century historian Henry Adams.