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Gore Vidal challenged power but never held it
Question of the Day
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.
But Mr. Vidal made his living — a very good living — from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand.
The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles.
Mr. Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 6:45 p.m. of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said. Mr. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for “quite a while,” Mr. Steers said.
Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, he was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities — regulars on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn’t read their books knew their names.
His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels “Lincoln” and “Myra Breckinridge” and the Tony-nominated play “The Best Man,” a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012.
Mr. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire’s decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word.
Mr. Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual. Beyond his honorary National Book Award, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He eventually was admitted, in 1999.)
But he was widely admired as an independent thinker — in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken — about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, “the birds and the bees.” He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates.”
Mr. Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honor, but a modern will to live as he pleased. He wrote in the memoir “Palimpsest” that he had more than 1,000 “sexual encounters.” Mr. Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.
In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Mr. Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Mr. Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He made guest appearances on everything from “The Simpsons” to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”
Mr. Vidal also bewildered his fans by saying the George W. Bush administration likely had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; that McVeigh was no more a killer than Dwight Eisenhower and that the U.S. would eventually be subservient to China, “The Yellow Man’s Burden.”
Christopher Hitchens, who once regarded Mr. Vidal as a modern Oscar Wilde, lamented in a 2010 Vanity Fair essay that Mr. 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.” Years earlier, Saul Bellow stated that “a dune of salt has grown up to season the preposterous things Gore says.”
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