His fiction relied on history; his history, on fictions.
“Of course, I’m always sad about Gore [Vidal],” Truman Capote once quipped. “Very sad that he has to breathe every day.” Vidal, who caustically dubbed Capote’s 1984 death “a good career move,” has taken his last breath. Born at West Point in 1925, Eugene Luther Gore Vidal died on Tuesday in the Hollywood Hills. The journey between the contrasting locales was substantive and symbolic.
A novelist more famous as a character than for his characters, Vidal feuded physically with Norman Mailer, and feuded famously with Anais Nin, Bobby Kennedy, and William F. Buckley. The latter figure Vidal called a “crypto-Nazi.” “Now, listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered,” Buckley, reflecting the temper of the times, lashed out live on network television in 1968. “Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making allusions of Nazism.”
Buckley’s taunts merely scratched the surface of his nemesis’ predilections. Vidal boasted of a thousand sexual encounters by age twenty five, finding “both a beauty and fulfillment in sex with strangers that one seldom enjoys with people one knows.” He paid and was paid for sex. When a waitress he knew carnally but otherwise not at all became pregnant, he paid to abort their child. Otherwise, he was quite fond of children. “Naturally, like most men, I am attracted to adolescent males,” Vidal matter-of-factly confessed in his over-the-top honest autobiography. He preached what he practiced and practiced what he preached. In the 1950s he wrote in praise of pederasty and in the 1970s he spoke in favor of it at the founding meeting of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Hollywood couples—Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon—nevertheless tapped such a man to play godfather to their children.
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to glean that much of the writer’s hatreds stemmed from his hatred of himself. There was so much to dislike.
Vidal, who had compared Buckley to Adolf Hitler and Mailer to Charles Manson, certainly didn’t spare family members from his venom. His autobiography Palimpsest—a ten-cent word meaning TMI?—tells of his father’s three testicles, his stepfather’s impotence, and his mother inseminating herself with a spoonful of material that would become his “demi-siblings.” He refused to see his own mother for the last twenty years of her life. He externalized supersized self-loathing.
Senator Thomas Gore’s grandson hated his country more than he hated his family. In 1958, he judged Americans “a people ripe for dictatorship.” The expat aristocrat lamented “this mark of Cain I bear with the rest of my unlucky countrymen,” regarding the United States as a rube backwater devoid of civilization. So, in 1972, after exiling himself in several European countries, Vidal settled in Ravello, Italy, where he called home for the next 33 years. He did this as much to avoid taxes as to protest the Vietnam War.
The talented novelist revealed himself as a first-rank crank. Vidal capitalized in the wake of 9/11 by penning a series of quickie books. In 2002’s Perpetual Peace for Perpetual War: How We Got to Be So Hated, he imagined Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—whose execution Vidal had missed despite an invitation by the guest of dishonor—as a patsy at worst and a patriot at best. “Evidence, however, is overwhelming that there was a plot involving militia types and government infiltrators—who knows?—as prime movers to create panic in order to get Clinton to sign that infamous Anti-Terrorism Act,” he claimed. The FBI’s disinterest in these alternative scenarios, Vidal reasoned, “smacks of treason.”
In 2002’s follow-up Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, the author cast doubt on Osama bin Laden’s role in planning the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks and portrayed the events of 9/11 as a whodunit mystery. He was not agnostic on all things 9/11. “As it proved, the conquest of Afghanistan had nothing to do with Osama,” the septuagenarian scribe contended. “He was simply a pretext for replacing the Taliban with a relatively stable government that would allow Union Oil of California to lay its pipeline for the profit of, among others, the Cheney-Bush junta.” More than a decade after the U.S. invasion, neither a pipeline nor the plans for one exists.
As demonstrated by Burr, Lincoln, and 1876, Vidal excelled at recasting historical events in the novel form. He faltered when he tried to pass off his active imagination as nonfiction. The failed politician’s critique of his country came from a place of snobbery rather than envy. Unlike, say, a Howard Zinn or a Michael Moore, whose anti-Americanism came reflexively as a result of ideology, Vidal professed so much love for the Old Republic that it left him with so little for the actual America before him. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
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