Remembering Gore Vidal: Cultural Polymath, Political Gadfly, and Social Butterfly

Gore Vidal/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Gore Vidal/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

"William Faulkner told me not to fall into the trap F. Scott Fitzgerald did," famously recalled Gore Vidal, the last great lion of American letters, who died July 31 at age eighty-six. "[Fitzgerald] thought you could make something out of a movie. You can't. Go, get the money, go home, and write your books."

Judging by Vidal's peripatetic and prolific writing career -- which covered a vast swath of American social and cultural life, including a more-than-casual lifelong relationship with Hollywood -- Vidal thought more of Faulkner's advice in theory than in practice. Throughout his life, Vidal lived at the center of an intricate web of interweaving relationships between political power players and popular culture's literary elite and populist hit-makers. Raised by his blind grandfather, Thomas Gore, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma, Vidal became a Zelig-like character separated by one or two degrees from the Kennedy dynasty, Senator Al Gore, Clark Gable, and Amelia Earhart.

Vidal's position at the intersection of politics and culture informed the broad scope of the social and political history that became his go-to subject matter, both in print and for the stage and screen. The usual introspective coming-of-age narratives or slice-of-life domestic dramas are entirely absent from Vidal's bibliography. Instead, Vidal made his literary debut exploring the geopolitics of WWII with Williwaw, which he followed with his famous "Narratives of Empire" series of historic novels, which included Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age. His subsequent success on Broadway with a pair of well-received plays, "The Best Man" and "Visit to a Small Planet," opened the door to a lucrative writing contract with MGM and a Hollywood career, both on screen and off, that would endure in some form for the rest of his life.

Interestingly enough, this serious strain of Vidal's fiction doesn't include what is arguably his most famous work, Myra Breckenridge, a provocative, boundary-pushing sexual satire set in 1960s Hollywood told from the point of view of a young aspiring transsexual actress. In 1970, Breckenridge was adapted into a high-camp big-screen comedy starring Raquel Welch in the title role and a supporting cast of enough random celebrities (including Farrah Fawcett, Rex Reed, and Tom Selleck) to populate a Hollywood Squares spin-off or a Robert Altman ensemble cast. While the movie version of Breckenridge was not a critical or commercial success, Vidal persevered in Hollywood, writing pivotal drafts of "Ben Hur" and "Caligula." He also adapted Lincoln into a popular TV miniseries.

But Vidal's most significant contribution to contemporary culture can't be found among his collection of novels, screenplays, or even his best work for the stage. Rather, Vidal will best be remembered as an incisive and trenchant essayist, a merciless and relentless truth-teller who won a National Book Award for his United States: 1952-1992, his 1993 collection that explored the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of American political and cultural life, including an excoriating examination of Ronald Reagan's rise to the Presidency. Follow-up essays took aim at the Bush-Cheney administration and what he saw as the new wave of American imperialism.

Over the past decade or so, his twin passions for satire and politics have coalesced in a series of on-camera roles in such socially conscious send-ups as "Bob Roberts" and "Da Ali G Show" and as a regular voice for the far Left on "Real Time with Bill Maher." But throughout his life, Vidal remained a stalwart iconoclast, steadfastly refusing to conform to anyone else's rules while taking it upon himself to act as both an ombudsman-like political conscience and absurdist comic cut-up reminding us of how far we as a culture have strayed from our own high-minded ideals. And for that, among his many other contributions to American life and letters, Gore Vidal will be dearly missed.