Fiercely satiric critic and last of old-style celebrity writers
ASK ANY American with an interest in their country extending beyond immediate personal circumstances and odds on, when anything happened in the US, be it political scandal or routinely shocking, from 9/11 to Michael Jackson’s death, he or she would most likely speculate, “What would Gore Vidal say?”
It’s true; Vidal had become the great commentator on the nation, the president-in-exile. He who should be heeded; his opinions were always intriguing, often funny, and at times – as when he appeared sympathetic to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – downright outrageous. But few could deliver a one-liner as sharp and as ironic, or as pertinent.
On a Vienna Street in November 2007 when news of Norman Mailer’s death broke, I remember thinking, “What will Gore Vidal have to say?” His disdain was legendary, his comic timing impeccable. He was America’s most viciously satiric critic and yet beneath it all, this conceited patrician with the profile of a Roman emperor and a basilisk’s gaze loved his country with a passion worthy of Thomas Jefferson.
Vidal, the last of the old-style celebrity writers, loved US politics and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of US history; his family was a political dynasty. He had been raised in Washington DC and was even born in West Point military academy.
“You don’t get more American than that,” he said to me when I attempted to interview him on a strange day in 1987, the UK publication of Empire. “Um, how about Arlington Cemetery?” I said, instantly regretting such an inane comment.
Vidal, dressed in a smart suit and groomed should any lurking photographer emerge from behind a sofa, pursed his lips, asking in the practised tone of a weary childminder, “Would you like some ice cream?” before adding that he loved Jackie but never much liked Jack.
He did, however, enjoy being with his doomed buddy Tennessee Williams but sneered at Truman Capote and pretty much everyone else – except maybe Frank Sinatra.
It was that kind of encounter during which he told me of himself that he had been “quite beautiful in youth” and praised Italian writer Italo Calvino. Vidal, then living in Italy, was very funny, the great essayist who preferred being described as a novelist and always resented that his third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), an explicit narrative about homosexuality years head of its time and the much later emergence of Edmund White as a mainstream literary homosexual writer, had been underrated.
It is true that Vidal’s historical fiction impressed through its depth of research and even the historian and Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald respected it. But the majestic irony that sustained Vidal’s brilliantly knowing essays and opinion pieces tends to overwhelm his fictional narratives with the exception of Myra Breckinridge (1968).