Gore Vidal, the gay novelist, essayist and playwright, died Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills of complications from pneumonia. He was 86.
Vidal’s career spanned 60 years and will be remembered as much for his outspokenness and scorn for popular culture and politics as for writing.
Vidal was proud of his status as a literary and political troublemaker. His best sellers included “Myra Breckenridge,” about a transsexual, and “Burr,” a sardonic take on early American history.
A half-century ago, he outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American writers to describe and embrace unambiguous homosexuality.
Vidal was born at West Point, N.Y., where his father, a former football star at the school, was the military academy's first aviation instructor. He also was one of the founders of TWA and a lover of Amelia Earhart.
Vidal's mother was an actress and socialite who, according to her son, had an "on-and-off affair with Clark Gable."
Vidal also was a distant cousin of former vice president Al Gore, whom he avoided, as he put it, “on the ground that one day plausible deniability will be useful to each of us.”
His awards included the National Book Award in 1993 for “United States: Essays 1952-1992” and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982 for “The Second American Revolution and Other Essays.”
His second memoir, “Point to Point Navigation” (2006), is a Who's Who list of the luminaries who surrounded his life, including JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Wells, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Rudolph Nureyev and Elia Kazan. The memoir also dealt with the illness and death in 2003 of his partner of five decades, Howard Austen. They lived in self-imposed exile in Ravello, Italy, for more than 30 years.
Of their relationship, Vidal wrote, “It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does.”
His first sensation was his third book, “The City and the Pillar” (1948), which was the first American novel to deal frankly and positively with same-sex love. He was viciously attacked for it, but he attracted the notoriety he would rail against and savor for the rest of his life.
Vidal resisted being called gay, saying there was no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual acts.
In November 2009, when he received a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards, Vidal was introduced by Paul Newman's widow, actress Joanne Woodward. She recalled what Vidal said when he became the godfather of Woodward's and Paul Newman's first child: “Always a godfather, never a god.”
Twice he ran unsuccessfully for political office: for Congress in Upstate New York in 1960 and for the Senate in California in 1982.
Vidal will be best remembered by many for events that had nothing to do with his books.
In a 1968 TV appearance, he goaded conservative William F. Buckley, who yelled at him, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in the god---- face and you’ll stay plastered.”
In 2008, The New York Times asked Vidal how he felt when he heard that Buckley had died: “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred,” he responded.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Vidal was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” where he became famous as a witty, entertaining raconteur.
Vidal was also an accomplished screenwriter. He contributed to the scripts of “Ben-Hur,” “Suddenly Last Summer” and “The Catered Affair.”