Inside the Mind of Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal never thought of himself as a romantic or sentimentalist, once saying, “Love is not my bag.” But Gore Vidal was wrong. He knew love. He embraced love. He loved himself as no other and believed, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Vidal was known for his acerbic wit. But he was not being acerbic. Gore Vidal meant every word of it.

Gore Vidal. Photo: Associated Press

He was a writer with great style and elegance, and Vidal moved easily and often from the back rooms at the White House to the bedrooms of Hollywood. Women. Men. It didn’t make him any difference. He thought of himself as the last of a breed, and he was probably right. As he once said, “I’ve tried everything but folk dancing and incest.” The New York Times wrote, “Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent.” Vidal even admitted, “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

Vidal produced twenty-five novels, a couple of memoirs, and several volumes of essays, which, many believe, represent his greatest writing. He also wrote plays, television dramas, and screenplays – including Suddenly Last Summer from the Tennessee Williams play, The Best Man, and Visitor from a Small Planet.” He was even called back to Hollywood to add the final touches to the script for Ben Hur.

Gore Vidal was born into a world of politics and could never escape it.  His father was Franklin Roosevelt’s director of air commerce. His maternal grandfather was the Senator Thomas Gore. His mother divorced his father and married the financier Hugh D. Auchincloss, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother, which created a rather twisted connection between Vidal and the Kennedy White House. Vidal exploited the relationship and moved into Camelot every chance he had. He had many and made the most of them.

Politically, he was left of left. He said in the 1970s, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.

Other political gems from Gore Vidal included:

  • Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.
  • The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.
  • By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought ten times over.
  • Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.
  • Our form of democracy is bribery on the highest scale.
  • Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.
  • Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice, like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.
  • Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.
Gore Vidal with John F. Kennedy. Photo: Associated Press

Gore Vidal was notorious for his public feuds. In 1968, while covering the Democratic National Convention on televisions, he had the audacity to call William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley never one to back down from a verbal fight called Vidal a “queer.” And the two men got to know each other in court for years.

Vidal compared the legendary novelist Norman Mailer to Charles Manson. Mailer waited to exact his revenge until he and Vidal happened to be guests on the same Dick Cavett show. Mailer walked into the green room, strode over to Vidal, and head butted him. The war spilled out on the set. It could have been two old mountain goats quarreling with their horns on some faraway peak.

In 1975, Vidal sued Truman Capote because the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s wrote that he had been thrown out of the Kennedy White House. When word reached Vidal that Capote had died, he said simply, “A wise career move.” And Vidal once said of Andy Warhol, “He is the only genius I’ve ever known with an I.Q. of sixty.” Vidal was a bold and bitter competitor.  He said, “It’s not good enough to succeed. Others must fail.” And he wrote, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Many are quick to say that Gore Vidal finally found his stride when he began writing historical novels, those books he called his American Chronicles, books like Burr, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age. As The New York Times said, “These novels were learned and scrupulously based on fact but also witty and contemporary-feeling, full of gossip and shrewd asides.”

Of writing, Gore Vidal said:

  • As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate.
  • Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.
  • In writing and politicking, it’s best not to think about it; just do it.
  • In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler. If you think you’re a great writer, you must say that you are.
  • Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.

Gore Vidal worked hard to maintain a certain reputation, and, as The New York Times said, “He presided with a certain relish over what he considered to be the end of American civilization.” He was a crusty maverick, and he liked it that way, Vidal said, “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

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