Writer Gore Vidal Dies at Age 86

BY Tom LeGro  August 1, 2012 at 12:24 PM EST

Gore Vidal; photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

American writer Gore Vidal sits in the living room of his home in Sorrento, Italy, in August 2004. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

Gore Vidal, the American author, playwright and commentator who became a celebrity for his writing as much as for his outspokenness on the issues of the day, died Tuesday at the age of 86 in Los Angeles.

Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers told the Associated Press, adding that Vidal had been living alone and had been sick for “quite a while.”

Vidal was known as a quintessential “man of letters.” He wrote hundreds of essays on far-ranging topics, best-selling novels like “Lincoln” and “Myra Breckenridge,” two candid memoirs, screenplays, TV dramas and plays, including the Tony-nominated play “The Best Man,” which was revived on Broadway earlier this year. He was also a frequent talk show guest and unafraid of commenting on everything from politics to sexuality to history to pop culture.

On Wednesday’s NewsHour, we’ll look back on Vidal’s career and influence with author Jay Parini, friend of Vidal and executor of his literary estate. The NewsHour’s Mike Melia spoke to Parini by phone earlier Wednesday:

What stood out to you about Vidal’s work?

pirini.jpgJay Parini: I think he was the greatest American essayist of the post-War era. I think he mastered that genre, made it his own and redefined what an essay looks like, sounds like, smells like and what it delivers.

He did not shy away from controversy and he could offend as well as entertain?

Jay Parini: My friend at the New Yorker said Gore Vidal pisses from an enormous height. Few people in power managed to side step his golden shower. He was an equal opportunity offender — everyone left, right and center. He was an American dissident. He called a pothole a pothole. He did not mince words or take prisoners.

He had wonderful feuds with Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. I often tell how when he was interviewed on a TV show with Mailer, and Gore made mincemeat with Mailer, who was furious. Afterward at a party Gore was surrounded by friends and reporters, and Mailer was furious and walked in gave him uppercut to his lip. Gore stepped back, wiped the blood away with his white handkerchief and said, “Norman, once again words have failed you.”

He knew where to hit someone. He was witty and he was quick. When his editor called him to say Truman Capote had died, he said his death “was a wise career move.”

I once said, “Do you have any real advice for me, Gore?” And he said, “The only real advice I can give is never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television.”

Did he love being the public figure, polemicist?

Jay Parini: He loved it. He was an early part of the golden age of television. Gore was there. He was a popular guest on the Jack Par show. He was a favorite of Johnny Carson. I traveled the world with him, and he was always on television, never at a loss for words. He was a man that could converse with a fresh, witty touch.

He was also a great novelist. He wrote the American sequence of seven or eight novels that were a reflection of American life and culture in a fictional form.

He was a master of the writing craft. I was writing a novel years ago and we were traveling together. I said, “Gore, do you think I can get away with these two characters talking about Kierkegaard for 20 pages?” He looked at me and said, “I think you can do that as long as they are on a railcar and the reader knows there is a bomb under the seat.”

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Melia also spoke to Vidal’s friend, writer Gay Talese:

Tell us about the Gore Vidal you knew.

Gay_Talese_by_David_Shankbone.jpgGay Talese: He is described as acerbic and little high toned. When I knew him he was very open; one-on-one, he was the most approachable. He was the most generous, very generous spirit….

Since he was born into a prominent family and a gay man, when one did not admit that so readily because of where the country was at that time, being gay and unable to be free at that time, because of his status as a well born person, I think it restricted him a lot. It made him little duplicitous. His personality was defensive in public when dealing with fellow writers and political figures. When he was around those he trusted and not threatened, he was a different person. He was generous, easy going, nothing acerbic, nothing nasty. He was a gentleman, a very fine, soft-toned accommodating person.

If he was born in the 1980s and he was 25 or 26 now, he would have been a different guy. He would be free to be himself….His father was from West Point; it put him into a box in a way from which he felt defensive.

And his writing?

He was so diversified — plays, novels, nonfiction….I had dinner with him many times alone in the Plaza Hotel and it was the easiest thing in the world to be with him. You did not worry about what came out of your mouth, not worry you’d feel stupid, could feel free to be who you were. If he was on a TV show with Norman Mailer on one side and William Buckley on the other, than he was a different guy. He felt like a caged lion. I think as a post-World War II literary figure, [his] private life, [he was] not all together comfortable being gay. People were not out of the closet in those days, because of the generation he was a part of. He had these two sides to his personality.

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NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels sent this personal memory to us:

“When I heard of Gore Vidal’s death, I immediately thought of an encounter I had with him many years ago, after he had written his novel ‘Burr.’ The book told the story of Aaron Burr, former vice president under Thomas Jefferson, from Burr’s perspective — a man who had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, who had been arrested and charged with treason in 1807 (and later acquitted) and who Jefferson dropped from the ticket. Burr was a thoroughly unpopular figure in American history and in the American mind. But Vidal made him seem appealing and fascinating.

“I had interviewed Vidal — who was lively, controversial and iconoclastic — about the book right after it came out, and he eloquently pled Burr’s case. Afterward, I told my 80-something-year-old grandmother about the interview. She was bright and well-read, and a staunch, outspoken American patriot. She said she knew all about Burr, and she didn’t like him one bit. She told me Vidal’s book was absurd and he shouldn’t have tried to glorify this blot on American history. I was amused by my grandmother’s reaction and remember it clearly.

“A few years later, Vidal came to town again, plugging another novel, “1876.” I arranged to interview him again. When I met him, I told him about my grandmother’s hostile reaction to “Burr,” thinking he would find it amusing, too, coming from a woman now approaching her 90s. He listened carefully and then told me in no uncertain terms, ‘Tell you grandmother to shove it.’”

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Below are just a few of the other remembrances and tributes coming out today:

Full bio and timeline on PBS’ American Masters by Jay Parini.

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“Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent.” — Campbell McGrath, The New York Times

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“Gore Vidal was the last surviving giant of a postwar crop of American literary giants. He was also that rare American writer who spoke not just to his countrymen but to the entire world, which listened closely to what he had to say. It is hard to think of another figure in our literature whose achievements were more various or who cut as dashing and visible a figure in various public realms. He can’t be replaced and he most certainly will be missed. The world just became a duller place.” — Gerald Howard, Doubleday executive editor and vice president, was Gore’s editor for more than a decade.

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“In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat’s bearing — tall, handsome and composed — and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.” – The Associated Press

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“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” — “Gore Vidal quotes: 26 of the best,” The Guardian

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“Over time, the writer’s circle of high-profile acquaintances included John F. Kennedy and Britain’s Princess Margaret, although he was closer to composer and writer Paul Bowles and beat legend Jack Kerouac. In fact, Vidal and Kerouac were physically drawn to each other. While checking into the Chelsea Hotel for a tryst, they signed their real names, and Vidal told the bemused clerk that that page of the hotel registry would one day become famous.” — Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

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In this interview with the American Academy of Achievement, “Gore reflects on his many public roles across many historical frontiers as the last of the great post-war novelists”:

The full transcript can be found here.

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The New Yorker is featuring Gore’s “How I Survived the Fifties,” a memoir by the “writer and gadfly” here.