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Celebrated author Gore Vidal dies

2012-08-01 08:43
 
gore vidal
Los Angeles - Gore Vidal, the author, playwright, politician and commentator whose novels, essays, plays and opinions were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died on Tuesday, his nephew said.

Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 18:45 of complications from pneumonia, Burr Steers said. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for "quite a while", he said.

Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities - fixtures on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn't read their books knew who they were.

His works included hundreds of essays; the best-selling novels Lincoln and Myra Breckenridge; the groundbreaking The City and the Pillar, among the first novels about openly gay characters; and the Tony-nominated play The Best Man, revived on Broadway in 2012.

Widely admired

Beyond an honorary National Book Award in 2009, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).

But he was widely admired as an independent thinker - in the tradition of Mark Twain and HL Mencken - about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, "the birds and the bees".

He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were "Joyce Carol Oates". (The happiest words: "I told you so").

The author "meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read," Dave Eggers said at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, when he and Vidal received honorary citations.

"His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can't articulate it." Ralph Ellison labelled him a "campy patrician".

Critic of American militarism

Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honour, but a modern will to live as he pleased. He wrote in the memoir Palimpsest that he had more than 1 000 "sexual encounters", nothing special, he added, compared to the pursuits of such peers as John F Kennedy and Tennessee Williams.

Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.

A longtime critic of American militarism, Vidal was, ironically, born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, his father's alma mater. Vidal grew up in a political family. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a US senator from Oklahoma.

His father, Gene Vidal, served briefly in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and was an early expert on aviation. Aviator Amelia Earhart was a family friend and reported lover of Gene Vidal.

Vidal was a learned, but primarily self-educated man. Classrooms bored him. He graduated from the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, but then enlisted in the Army and never went to college.

'This is it'

His first book, the war novel Williwaw, was written while he was in the service and published when he was just 20.

The New York Times' Orville Prescott praised Vidal as a "canny observer" and Williwaw as a "good start toward more substantial accomplishments." But The City and the Pillar, his third book, apparently changed Prescott's mind.

Published in 1948, the novel's straightforward story about two male lovers was virtually unheard of at the time and Vidal claimed that Prescott swore he would never review his books again. (The critic relented in 1964, calling Vidal's Julian a novel "disgusting enough to sicken many of his readers"). City and the Pillar was dedicated to "J.T.," Jimmie Trimble, a boarding school classmate killed during the war whom Vidal would cite as the great love of his life.

In recent years, Vidal wrote the novel The Smithsonian Institution and the nonfiction best sellers Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.

A second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, came out in 2006. In 2009, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare featured pictures of Vidal with Newman, Jagger, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Springsteen.

"Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy's edge," he once wrote, "all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. Nothing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."

- AP

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