Gore Vidal, 1925-2012
Simon, John, New Criterion
This is not a regular obituary, but then again, Gore Vidal was not a regular guy. Instead, he was a heady cocktail: one-third talent, one-third wit, and one-third arrogance. He was also a somewhat better-than-average novelist, interesting playwright and screenwriter, and a noteworthy essayist. A man of letters, certainly, and, no less certainly, a star.
What does star mean in this context? Besides literary aptitude, it means he was a vivid presence on the cultural horizon. Someone whom perhaps relatively few have read, but whom, from frequent TV appearances, a great many can recognize, and even, grudgingly or not, admire.
Admire for what? For personality, outspokenness, repartee, and cheek. And, unlike so many successful writers, he was good-looking. But not like, say, Norman Mailer, with his slightly disheveled, vaguely street cornerish good looks, or John Updike, with his endearing homeliness of a provincial drugstore soda jerk.
No, Vidal looked movie-star glamorous, only without the friendliness that Hollywood glamour tended to include in the package. He was, above all, the private-school-empowered smartass, who was, however good at writing for the Exeter magazine, a bored and indifferent student. His snottiness increased as he grew older and more famous, turning perhaps into a less virile but more impudent Cary Grant.
Not only did he socialize with the right people, he also made sure that you were aware of his inner-circle, indeed presidential, associations. His maternal grandfather was Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma; his stepfather, after his hated mother remarried, became Hugh D. Auchincloss, stepfather also to Jackie Kennedy, "a connection that," as the Times obituary puts it, "Mr. Vidal never tired of bringing up." He was a frequent guest at the White House, friendly with both John and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom he wrote about patronizingly, and especially Jackie Kennedy. He managed, however, not to spare her either, writing, "Actually, to be fair, she loved money even more than publicity and her life was dedicated to acquiring it through marriage." (Note that Jesuitical "to be fair.") Love, Vidal wrote, was not his bag. Neither, truly, was friendship. One of his most celebrated utterances is "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."
He saw himself as an ironist. He has written, "Although every American has a sense of humor--it is his birthright and encoded somewhere in the Constitution [irony!]--few Americans have been able to cope with wit and irony, and even the simplest jokes often cause unease, especially today when every phrase must be examined for covert sexism, racism, ageism" the last a British spelling that, out of snobbery, Vidal often espoused.
An ironist then, especially if we define, somewhat peremptorily, irony as a clever, thinly veiled insult. So we have Vidal on Herman Wouk's The Winds of War: "This is not at all bad, except as prose." On Andy Warhol: "The only genius with an IQ of 60." On Har-
old Acton: "[He] has had a long and marvelously uninteresting life." On Eisenhower: "[He was] reading a speech with his usual sense of discovery." Or this: "Truman Capote has made of lying an art. A minor art." And on Capote's death: "A wise career choice."
He is a fine one to mock Capote for lying, being himself such a consummate liar, as exhibited, for instance, in the first of his two memoirs, Palimpsest, which I reviewed in this journal's December 1995 issue. I began: "Gore Vidal is a slick novelist, impressive essayist, and perfect bitch. All three of these skills come in handy in his memoir, Palimpsest. The gossip in it is rivetingly indiscreet; the nonfiction--as in descriptions of places and people he was indifferent to--evocative and entertaining; and the fiction--as in accounts of himself--smooth to the point of slipperiness."
About his twenty-five published novels, his own editor, Jason Epstein, remarked that they were inferior to his essays, "he had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he could not subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist. …