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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 360

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This is the grave of Gore Vidal.

Eugene Louis Vidal was born in 1925 in West Point, New York. Known as Gore, after his grandfather Thomas Gore, former senator from Oklahoma, his father was the first aeronautics instructor at the U.S. Military Academy. He grew up in an elite environment. His mom was a New York socialite who later divorced his father and married Jackie Kennedy’s father while also have a long affair with Clark Gable, while his father had helped found what became Eastern Airlines, among many other major transportation companies. He attended the most elite schools, including the one out in Los Alamos, New Mexico that Robert Oppenheimer attended. I know this because I when I worked in Los Alamos, I was in the offices of the historical society and they had class pictures on the wall and lo and behold, there was the young Gore Vidal.

Despite his background, he chose not to go to college. He went into the military at the start of World War II. Poor health kept him from fighting, although he did serve as first mate on a ship at one point. He then went into writing.

It is of course his writing that everyone knows him for. I have to make a confession: I’ve never read a word of Vidal’s writing. When I first became aware of Vidal, he was old and on TV a lot saying things I thought were somewhat ridiculous. This was in the 90s, when that generation of old intellectuals got a lot of TV time for reasons I couldn’t understand. In that, I placed him in the same category as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. I’ve still never understood why Plimpton with his put-on accent was famous, but in any case, this long biased me against Vidal. Of course, his honesty about his sexuality, especially in his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar was considered outrageous in those homophobic postwar years and he surely deserves great respect for not backing down from that. I’ve long found big sweeping works of historical fiction inherently uninteresting, which is why I’ve never been tempted in the slightest to read Burr or Lincoln. He helped re-write Ben Hur to make the film have a more explicitly homosexual overtone, which outraged Charlton Heston years later when he was made aware of it.

Vidal had political ambitions too, if we can quite call them that. He was the Democratic candidate for Congress in NY-29 in 1960, which was a Republican district on the Hudson River at that time. He lost. He also tried to challenge Jerry Brown for the 1982 California Democratic Senate primary. He lost that too. He also wrote about politics from the left, often doing so very well. On the other hand, he helped promote spurious claims that FDR baited the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor and that Truman wouldn’t the let the Japanese surrender before using the atomic bombs. That latter situation is tremendously complicated, but the point is that the Japanese had not in fact reached out to surrender, despite the bombing of the entire country. The dropping of the Nagasaki bomb is morally dubious, I agree, but I find it hard to argue against the use of the Hiroshima bomb given the circumstances, as horrible and awful and terrible as it was. Even more morally correct would have been testing one for the Japanese military to see what they would do. But that wasn’t going to happen given the range of reasonable political decisions available in 1945.

On top of all that, you have to respect someone who hated William F. Buckley that much. Buckley even sued him for libel after Vidal wrote that Buckley and his friends had vandalized a Protestant church in his home town in Connecticut after the pastor’s wife sold a house to a Jewish family. That does actually sound like something Buckley would have done. Buckley’s attacks on Vidal were all that he was gay; Vidal responded by rightfully calling Buckley a racist and a crypto-Nazi. I think we know who won that debate. Norman Mailer also attacked Vidal backstage at the Dick Cavett Show after Vidal wrote about Mailer stabbing his wife. In fact, the more I read about Vidal, the more I seem to like him. Or I did until remembering how he defended Roman Polanski until the day he died.

In the end, I still can’t over my earlier belief that Vidal was largely an overrated crank, famous for being famous, even if on certain issues he said good things.

Gore Vidal died in 2012 after suffering a syndrome caused by a lifelong love of alcohol. He was buried next to his long-time partner Howard Auster in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to cover some of the other figures discussed in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Norman Mailer is in Provincetown, Massachusetts while Thomas Pryor Gore is in Oklahoma City. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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