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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  • I have read most of everything that has been written about Lincoln. I am fascinated with the man and his life. I’m not sure if it was Vidal’s intent, but his book probably elevated my respect for Lincoln more than any other. And, although every shading of American political thought and ideology my span the chasm between us, I respect his views as much as I disagree with them.

    • Jack: Vidal did have that effect on a lot of us. I did not like a lot of what he wrote, but when he started turning our books on history, like Lincoln, he definitely found his niche. I don’t know what was true and what was imagined, but I was fascinated by thye the way he told the story.

  • writinggroove

    Caleb, I love how you are so wide-ranging in your profiles. I watched Vidal and Buckley as a teen and young adult. Both fascinated and confused me because their brilliance was way beyond me. I could never actually LIKE either one, but admired both for their fearlessness and intelligence. This was a captivating piece. I learn so much from reading your blog.

    • Kathy, I was never a fan of Gore Vidal, the man, but when I was young I was intrigued by the way he wrote.

  • Gore Vidal was brilliant. I even admired him for having the courage to “not give a damn” and say what he felt. One never had to wonder where one stood with him. He made it abundantly clear. Though the milk of human kindness was never something of which he would willingly partake, I think we could forgive him for that given his legacy, an enormous, luminous body of work.

    • Vidal created an image and a legend for himself, then tried to live it the way a legend should. I admire him for it. He didn’t mind being thrown out of the White House. He knew it must be a worse place simply because he wasn’t there.

  • Fascinating. I did not know the man nor have I read his work, but I will admire to the end those with the courage to be who they are.

    • There are times when I think that Vidal’s reputation is better known than his writing. But his historical work, particularly Lincoln, is brilliant. It’s one you might want to read.

  • Thomas P. Gore II

    I agree with you about admiring the way Gore Vidal wrote, rather than what he wrote. When I told him that very thing a few years ago he nodded in what I took to be good-humored acceptance. He was a great mimic as well as inventor of wry, apt voices that precisely fit viewpoints he wanted to ridicule. He was a superb correspondent who always answered letters and returned phone calls… not always quickly, but nevertheless in time, even when he lived in Italy. In many ways I felt fortunate to be his cousin, sharing the grandparenthood of Sen. T. P. Gore and “Tot”, our small grandmother. I enjoyed reading your farewell message very much and here are my thanks to you for doing it so well.

    Thomas P. Gore II
    Fort Worth

    • As I go through life, I know very few who are truly larger than life. Gore was one of those. I know that being his cousin gave you insights into a great character, as well as great writer, that few of us will ever know.

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