Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 12 May, 1997

INTRODUCING GORE VIDAL

One Grand Ol' Man of Letters, An American Icon


By David Scott Evans

 

Though probably loathe to accept the title, novelist-essayist-playwright Gore Vidal is one of the twentieth century's most important gay rights figures."Loathe", inasmuch as the conceptualization of the term "gay" offends him. It "is a ...ridiculous word," in his words, "to use as a common identification for Frederick the Great, Franklin Pangborn, and Eleanor Roosevelt." Who is Franklin Pangborn.....?

It's precisely this sort of strident discourse that sometimes finds Vidal occasionally in dutch with gay rights activists. Vidal would probably have it no other way.

At age 22 Vidal wrote the 1948 best seller The City and the Pillar, one of America's first novels to deal frankly with the issue of male homosexuality. Though not the happy-ending tome that we would hail in today's activists' circles, the book carved a solid groove in the American psyche and laid the groundwork for future generations to be heard on the subject. He published his first book, Williwaw, in 1946 and has subsequently authored twenty-one novels, five plays, a slew of essays (many compiled in the incomparable United States: Essays 1952-1992).

Vidal's eloquent writing and penchant for exquisite bitchiness mark him as a formidable literary contender. In his 1981 essay Pink Triangle And Yellow Star he gave the very conservative Midge Decter a couple pokes to the eye in this rebuttal to her smarmy article titled the Boys on the Beach. Hers being obtuse meanderings on observations made during trips to Fire Island and it's gay and lesbian denizens. Vidal deftly gored her with wilting sarcasm and turned one of her own quoted elliptical phrases back on her.Vidal's writing style marks him as being just above any fray, temporarily alighting on terra-firma to enjoin in boorish yet necessary repartee with mere mortals. Delicious verbal pirouettes and coup de gras are a signature left by Vidal at almost every turn of the page.

Recently a friend, having read a few pages of his memoirs, Palimpsest, remarked on how full of himself he seems. My reply, curt: "What hasn't he to be full of himself of?"

He's lived as charmed a life as one could conjure. Vidal was born at West Point in 1925. Reared in Washington, D.C. at the side of his blind grandfather, Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma, Vidal recalls guiding the senator into the Capitol rotunda barefooted (young Gore, not T.P.) on steamy and surprisingly laid back summer days. His first cousin was the late Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis, with whom, along with her first husband, Jack, he would spend much time in the earliest days of the administration.

His first book was published at the age of 21, while serving as first mate during the second World War on an Army freight-supply ship. After the war, as fame ensued from his best sellers, Vidal traveled Europe with playwright Tennessee Williams, with whom he was to share many adventures and a lifelong friendship until Williams' death in 1985. Upon returning from Europe Vidal became the brunt of officious outrage over his homosexually implicit novel. He was blackballed in the East Coast establishment. Subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination made it impossible to get a fair shake in the industry that had ironically made him.

Having purchased a white elephantine home in Upstate New York and short on funds he determined to make Hollywood's burgeoning television industry his cash-cow. With a five-year plan of concerted effort he launched into a successful and lucrative career of writing teleplays. He wrote screenplays for motion pictures also, the best known being Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer and Ben Hur.

(Ever wonder what the sparks are between Masala and Ben-Hur, or who's responsible? Thank Gore Vidal). During his tenure in Hollywood Vidal rubbed elbows with Tinsel-Town's glitterati. Though ensconced in Hollywood, Vidal's heart remained back East and his talents and good fortunes again flamed upward with the presentations of two critically acclaimed Broadway plays, Visit to a Small Planet (1957) and The Best Man (1960).

Following his myriad successes Vidal could have rested on his laurels, but true to his nature and his thoroughly political roots, he ran for Congress in New York in 1960, having lost by a narrow margin.

Back to the typewriter and more bestsellers, Vidal and his reputation made a comeback in the shifting mores of the 60's and he has remained prolific to this day. Vidal's blunting verbal pyrotechnics, as a matter of course, have garnered him a fair number of enemies. He had an ongoing much media-ized feud with the late Truman Capote, got called a queer on television by William F. Buckley Jr., and has made minced meat of innumerable characters, including his mother, Nina Auchinschloss.

Gore Vidal, now a septuagenarian divides his time between his home in Ravello, Italy and the United States. He has retained his U.S. citizenship, in spite of his criticisms of the "Republic". He is still hard at work writing essays and books, lecturing on politics, educating, entertaining, infuriating and nullifying his detractors.

Gore Vidal masterfully deflates the blustering of the "heterosexual dictatorship," a term coined by Christopher Isherwood that Vidal employs on occasion. He's never joined the rank and file of gaydom, preferring to remain outside the confines of "ghettos". He's not politically correct. And he bandies the word fag about with great style and elan. Nonetheless he speaks frankly, elegantly on the "homosexualists'" behalf. This term being another bone of contention to some activists. Ever the stickler for proper grammar, Vidal uses the 'ist' format merely because he's right. Homosexual is an adjective...think about it.

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission: eMail
gaytoday@badpuppy.com