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Author, playwright Gore Vidal dies at 86

In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat's bearing -- tall, handsome and composed -- and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.

But Vidal made his living, a very good living, from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand. During the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the few leaders whom Vidal admired, he might have been called a "traitor to his class." The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said.

His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels "Lincoln" and "Myra Breckenridge" and the Tony-nominated play "The Best Man," a melodrama about a presidential convention running now in a revival on Broadway. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire's decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for "the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action."

Famous friends

In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names: John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He campaigned with Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He butted heads, literally, with Mailer. He helped director William Wyler with the script for "Ben-Hur."

Vidal grew up in a political family. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. His father, Gene Vidal, served briefly in the Roosevelt administration and was an early expert on aviation. Amelia Earhart had been a family friend.

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

He wrote a trio of mystery novels in the 1950s under the pen name Edgar Box and also wrote fiction as Katherine Everard and Cameron Kay. He became a playwright for both the theater and the television of that time.

"The Best Man," which premiered in 1960, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda.

Paul Newman starred in "The Left-Handed Gun," a film adaptation of Vidal's "The Death of Billy the Kid." Vidal also worked in Hollywood, writing the script for "Suddenly Last Summer."

The author himself later appeared in a documentary about gays in Hollywood, "The Celluloid Closet." His acting credits included "Gattaca," "With Honors" and Tim Robbins' political satire, "Bob Roberts." But Vidal saw himself foremost as a man of letters. He wrote a series of acclaimed and provocative historical novels, including "Julian," (the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus), "Burr" and "Lincoln."

He once likened Mailer's views on women to those of Charles Manson. From this the head-butting incident ensued, backstage at "The Dick Cavett Show."

A return to fiction

Meanwhile, he was again writing fiction. In 1968, he published "Myra Breckenridge," a comic bestseller about a transsexual movie star. The year before, with "Washington, D.C.," Vidal began the cycle of historical works that peaked in 1984 with "Lincoln," vetted and admired by a leading Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, and even cited by the conservative Newt Gingrich as a favorite book.

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

Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half-brother Tommy Auchincloss. Never married, for decades he shared a villa in Ravello, Italy, with his companion, the late Howard Austen.

Age and illness did not bring Vidal closer to God. Wheelchair-bound in his 80s and saddened by the death of Austen and many peers and close friends, the author still looked to no existence beyond this one.

"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. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."

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