NEW YORK (AP) - Gore Vidal seemed able not only to do anything, but to do it all at the same time. In the early 1960s, you might catch him on a television talk show, read an essay of his in The Nation about Norman Mailer, see “The Best Man” on Broadway or watch him campaign for Congress with Eleanor Roosevelt at his side.
“Nothing is easier nowadays than to get a feeling of being entirely surrounded by Gore Vidal,” Richard H. Rovere wrote for The New Yorker in 1960.
But even as a young man, Vidal saw himself a witness to the decline _ or presumed decline _ of so much that he loved. The novel? The audience for it had vanished by the 1950s. The environment? Spoiled beyond repair. Democracy? Defeated by the American empire. The American empire, over by the 1980s _ precise date, Sept. 16, 1985, “when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation.”
“The empire was 71 years old and had been in ill health since 1968,” he wrote. “Like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy.”
Vidal, who died Tuesday at age 85, included himself among the endangered, the unappreciated. “The Best Man” features a presidential candidate who stands down because he is too principled for the job. In Tim Robbins’ satire “Bob Roberts,” Vidal played an aging and ineffectual senator who is no match for cynical times. In a long essay Vidal wrote about the Adams political dynasty, he praised John Adams, John Quincy Adams and their descendants for setting “themselves intellectual and moral standards that no one could live up to.”
“With Puritan vigor they positively insisted on noble failure in a society that has always been devoted to easy, crass success,” he wrote.
His success was clear, and complicated. Novels such as “Burr” and “Myra Breckenridge” were bestsellers. Readers of The Nation and other magazines looked forward to his long, cutting and quotable essays and Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett were among the television hosts who welcomed him on their programs. But he won surprisingly few prizes for a writer of such stature and his few attempts at elective office _ Vidal often hinted he wouldn’t have objected to the presidency _ were no happier than high-minded candidate William Russell’s in “The Best Man.”
His books have not been widely read in recent years, but his death revealed that the public still regards him great interest and affection. “Burr,” “Lincoln” and other Vidal books have sold out on Amazon.com, a far more striking response than to the deaths of such peers as Mailer and William Styron. On Tuesday, he was the leading topic on Twitter in Canada, Ireland, Pakistan, Germany and South Africa. Hundreds posted comments on the Facebook page his publisher has maintained.
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where “The Best Man” (now called “Gore Vidal’s `The Best Man’”) is running, producers plan to start each of the next week’s shows with an announcement that the performance will be dedicated to Vidal and to end them by showing pictures of him on monitors. Broadway as a whole will honor him Friday night when marquee lights are dimmed for one minute.
“I’m honored to have been able to call Gore a close friend,” cast member Cybill Shepherd said in a statement. “I’m privileged to currently be appearing in his play `The Best Man’ and speaking his witty and eloquent words every night only reinforces for me what a genius he was.”
He feared irrelevance, but he was also among the last of the great, entitled writers, those who expected deference because of who they were and what they did. A tall, handsome man, he had a scornful stare, an imposing baritone and cache of retorts. Reporters who phoned him learned quickly he was in no mood to socialize. Editors such as Doubleday’s Gerald Howard, who worked with Vidal over the past decade, learned to permit him the last word.
“Once at a lunch at a large bookseller’s, the imp of the perverse seized me and I had the temerity to disagree with Gore. He was going on, as was his wont, about the perfidiousness of The New York Times, so I interjected, `Gore, I know the Times is far from perfect, but the world would be a far poorer place without it, I think,’” Howard said. “Without missing a beat he replied, `Ah, you mean like Pravda?’ Smackdown! I never tried that again.”