Gore Vidal - The United States of Amnesia

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No twentieth-century figure has moved as easily and confidently and had a more profound effect in the worlds of literature, drama, film, politics, historical debate, and the cultural wars than Gore Vidal.  He was a brilliant novelist, political essayist, literary critic, historian, scenarist, television pundit, political activist and candidate.  As a raconteur, lecturer, and platform performer, Vidal is rivaled only by Mark Twain.Gore Vidal was born in 1925 with high political and social connections. His father, Eugene Luther Vidal, worked for the Roosevelt administration as Director of Air Commerce from 1933 until 1937. His maternal grandfather was the legendary blind Senator Thomas Prior Gore of Oklahoma, a Democrat who played an important role in Democratic politics for many decades. Gore Vidal’s mother, Nina Gore Vidal, was divorced in 1935, when Vidal was ten. She then married Hugh D. Auchincloss, a wealthy financier, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother, thus establishing a connection between Vidal and the Kennedy clan that persisted through the presidency of John F. Kennedy.In 1943, after graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he entered the Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army. After a brief training period at the Virginia Military Institute, he joined the Army Transportation Corps as an officer and was sent to the Aleutian Islands. He wrote much of his first novel, WILLIWAW, during a run between Chernowski Bay and Dutch Harbor. Suffering from serious frostbite and arthritis, he was sent back to the States, where he finished the novel while recuperating in a military hospital. In its tight-lipped, minimalist style, WILLIWAW reflects Vidal’s reading of Hemingway and Stephen Crane. This novel put Vidal on the map of young postwar novelists that included Norman Mailer, John Horne Burns, and Truman Capote.

By any standard, the postwar years were productive ones for the young Vidal, who published eight novels in succession between 1946 and 1954. These include THE CITY AND THE PILLAR, THE JUDGMENT OF PARIS, and MESSIAH. THE CITY AND THE PILLAR is notable for reasons that go beyond its aesthetic qualities; it counts among the first explicitly gay novels in the history of American fiction. Vidal suffered the consequences of bringing a gay novel before a wide audience in 1948. Indeed, his next five novels were dismissed by the mainstream press. Among the best of these was MESSIAH, a prophetic novel that makes deft use of the modernist technique of the journal within the memoir — a form that Vidal would exploit to good effect in later novels.

After a period in Europe, where he traveled with his friend Tennessee Williams, Vidal settled along the Hudson River in a mansion called Edgewater with his companion, Howard Austen. Among the many projects that occupied him during this period was THE JUDGMENT OF PARIS, one of his most compelling early novels.

Needing money to support his expensive establishment, he took on a variety of commercial ventures, writing a series of mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Unlike his serious fiction, these potboilers were very well received in the press.  However, these clever fictions did not solve their creator’s financial problems. Vidal then opted to make a more unusual move by entering the new medium of original drama for television.

At the time, many of the most popular programs were anthology shows, such as Studio One and Playhouse 90, broadcast live. Most serious writers in the ’50s shunned the medium, but Vidal seized the opportunity. In a few years, he was to write 20 of these dramas.  He scored his greatest success in the medium with an original fantasy, Visit to a Small Planet. He adapted Visit to a Small Planet for the Broadway stage, where it was an immediate hit.

Television dramatists like Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling were public figures in the 1950s, and Vidal was asked to appear on the new talk programs like Today and The Tonight Show. His mellifluous voice, ready wit, gift for mimicry, and unexpected candor about sex, politics and every other subject made him a sought-after guest..

Film adaptations of Visit to a Small Planet, and Vidal’s Billy the Kid drama, Left-Handed Gun, were disappointments to him. He accepted an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and was one of the last writers to be placed under long-term contract to any studio.  Vidal prospered in Hollywood, writing acclaimed screenplays for The Catered Affair, Suddenly Last Summer (based on a play by his friend Tennessee Williams) and J’Accuse. He also worked as an uncredited script doctor on the epic film Ben Hur, in exchange for which he was released from his contract. His earnings from television, Broadway and Hollywood had now freed him to write what he pleased without taking on other work. But just as he was prepared to plunge full-time into literary labor, ghosts of his Washington past returned to draw him back into the world of electoral politics.

Vidal observed the political world from the sidelines for many years, but this vantage did not satisfy him. He wrote a play, The Best Man, exposing the backstage intrigues at a presidential nominating convention. The play was a hit on Broadway, and was later made into a successful motion picture, the only film version of his work with which Vidal was entirely satisfied.

Meanwhile, Vidal had become friends with a Dutchess County neighbor, Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the 32nd president. With the encouragement of the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, Vidal decided to challenge the incumbent Congressman from Dutchess County, a strongly Republican area. Although he lost the general election, he garnered more votes in the district than Kennedy, the party’s presidential candidate.

For the first year of Kennedy’s presidency, Vidal enjoyed the role of intimate to the first family, but he soon felt confined by the atmosphere of official Washington and was eager to return to literary work. He moved to Italy and began work on the novel Julian.  The book was published to great acclaim and topped the best-seller lists in 1964. After Julian, Vidal made his living as a novelist, turning to the essay or the lecture stage only to express his passionately held opinions on literature and politics.

Vidal’s satirical novels include MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, MYRON, DULUTH, LIVE FROM GOLGOTHA, and THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION. Ferociously bitter and subversive, his satires are lauded for their progressive themes. But it’s in his canny exploration of American history, in such novels as WASHINGTON, D.C., 1876, LINCOLN, and THE GOLDEN AGE, among others, that may be seen by future critics as his principle achievement in fiction.

Beginning in the 1950s, Vidal published occasional essays on politics and literature.  A collection of 40 years of his work in the essay medium, United States: Collected Essays 1952-1992, won the National Book Award in 1993. The award confirmed Vidal’s status as the greatest English language essayist of the 20th century.  In this collection he wrote about homosexuality, about the French fiction, about such important American figures as William Dean Howells, Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Wells, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tennessee Williams, most of whom he had actually known. His unique presence on the scene of history lends his essays a feeling of authority and intimacy.

Vidal became, in the ’60s, a leading spokesman for the New Left, an iconoclast who was willing to debate William F. Buckley on television and write scathing essays about Richard Nixon. In “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” he drew stunning parallels between the persecution of homosexuals and Jews. In “The Holy Family,” he burst the bubble of awe and admiration that had kept the Kennedy family free of criticism for many years. He poked fun at any number of American icons, from Theodore Roosevelt (whom he called “an American sissy”) to Edmund Wilson, the most revered man of letters in the twentieth century. Perhaps more importantly, he singled out neglected writers for praise, raising their profile in the world of letters. Among those he helped to reach a wider audience were Italo Calvino and Dawn Powell, both of whom he knew as friends.

In his later years, Vidal gave up writing longer novels, and published two volumes of memoirs, Palimpsest (1995) and Point to Point Navigation (2006). He also published a thoughtful study of the Founding Fathers, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003). He continued to publish book-length essays on political topics, such as Dreaming War and Imperial America. Until his final illness, he continued to speak publicly against what he saw as the erosion of constitutional liberty in America.  His ability to say what everyone secretly knows and to make it unsettling without worrying about the implications, for himself or his reputation, was a particular gift. This habit won him many admirers and numerous enemies over the years.  Gore Vidal died at home in Los Angeles at the age of 86.