Gore Vidal, a prominent American man of letters, sophisticated
cynic, wit, and amusing controversialist, has died aged 86.
I read a few of his novels, among them Washington DC,
Empire and Lincoln, and frankly found them hard going – dense in style, quirky
and overlong. Far more entertaining
were his essays, and his memoirs, especially Palimpsest, which is filled with juicy high-level gossip and
scabrous observations about famous political contemporaries, all written with
Observers on the political left claimed him as one of
their own, and it’s true that he ran twice for elected office on the Democratic
ticket, but he defied being categorized.
He often claimed that there was little to choose between America’s main
parties, as both represented the hypocritical property-owning classes. The only discernible differences, he thought,
were that Republicans tended to be stuffy and venal, Democrats entertaining and
Vidal once called Ronald Regan “a triumph of the
embalmer’s art” – a typical trenchant aphorism.
Many of them he reserved for his regular appearances on television talk
shows. On one such programme in 1968 he
and conservative writer William F. Buckley began a long-running feud, involving
suits and counter-suits for libel, after Vidal called Buckley a pro-crypto-Nazi
and Buckley retorted by calling Vidal a “queer”. On the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Vidal was
head-butted by Norman Mailer.
Some of his views were calculated to be outrageous,
like his assertion that President Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs on Japan not to
bring the Second Word War to an early conclusion but to impress Joseph Stalin.
As well as novels Vidal wrote plays, and a few Hollywood scripts, notably The Best Man, based on his own play.
He was drafted in, with Christopher Fry to rewrite (uncredited)
the script of the religious blockbuster Ben-Hur. He later claimed in Palimpsest to have mischievously introduced a homo-erotic sub-text
to the friendship between Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and
Messala, played by Stephen Boyd. Heston
was not to be told “or he’ll fall apart.
The thought of so much wood crashing to the ground committed us all to omerta.
I did tell Boyd. The bright blue
eyes glittered happily”.
Heston, a paragon of the Republican right (and
one-time head of the National Rifle Association) was later dismissive of
Vidal’s little ruse, and his qualities as a screenwriter in general. “… he’s a clever man, but not about these things”.
a clever man, about a great many things, sometimes wise, often outrageous, but
above all an