I grew up on Gore Vidal. As a teenager in Virginia, I knew him first as a TV personality, then as an essayist and finally as a novelist. There was nobody else like him. On television he was unflappable. On the page he was startlingly funny, especially in his essays. I tickled roommates in college by reading favorite sentences from his essays aloud--his words cried to be read aloud. And yes, it didn't hurt that this witty know-it-all was gay. He never used that word himself, but it was clear from the way he talked about same-sex love that he was one of us. There weren't many such public figures in the late 1960s.
One of the pleasures of writing EMINENT OUTLAWS, my group biography of gay American writers, was rediscovering the Vidal who first won my admiration. He was witty, erudite, wonderfully articulate and fiercely rational. Oh, he had his nutty side. From early on he felt weirdly competitive with Truman Capote. Friends commented on it, one reporting that Vidal interrupted a cross-country road trip to visit libraries along the way and see whose books had been checked out the most. But in general Vidal kept his irrational, prickly side hidden. He had a bite, but he also had charm. He took many hard knocks in his years as a sexual outlaw, as did his contemporaries, yet he seemed miraculously sane in comparison with, say, Capote or James Baldwin, who were badly unhinged by the time of the 1970s.
Vidal began to lose that control and charm sometime in the late 1980s. The jokes became less convincing, the prickliness more open. He responded irrationally to Fred Kaplan's solid 1999 biography of him, angrily attacking it even as he insisted he hadn't read it.
His politics grew more bitter and brutal. He had always been a critic of what he called the American Empire, but his attacks became harsher, even violent. He was fascinated with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, corresponding with him in prison and defending him, in a fashion, in print. When Edmund White wrote a highly fictionalized two-character play about this friendship, TERRE HAUTE, Vidal initially gave him permission, but then attacked the play when it was produced, and attacked White, too. "All he writes about is being a fag and how it's the greatest thing on earth," Vidal snarled in an interview. He took to various conspiracy theories, even arguing that the Bush administration had advanced knowledge of 9/11 and let it happen.
He ended his life not as a golden codger but as a rusty crank.
I don't know what went wrong. Perhaps it was old age. His arthritis grew more debilitating as he got older. Some people have speculated that he simply drank too much. The death in 2003 of his partner of 53 years, Howard Austen, certainly didn't help. Austen had given him ballast and company and a valuable ear. When Vidal appeared on the BBC to provide commentary during the election of Barack Obama in 2008, he snapped at everyone like an angry dog. "Why he's as mad as a box of frogs," a reporter commented afterwards.
When Truman Capote died in 1984, Vidal famously joked that it was "a good career move." He was more right than he could've guessed. Capote spent his last years as a public mess; the ugly spectacle got in the way of his literary reputation. Only after his death were people able to rediscover what a wonderfully gifted writer he often was.
Perhaps something similar will happen with Vidal. His death on Tuesday happened long after he had done his best work. His life was nowhere near as messy as Capote's, but he did become difficult, unpleasant, impossible. We need to forget his last 15 years and remember the better Gore: the brilliant writer who wrote some of the best essays in the English language since George Orwell; who recreated the Founding Fathers in BURR as live but flawed human beings; who could wittily deconstruct the American republic as neatly as a Thanksgiving turkey; who delivered the most outrageous truths with disarming charm and cool honesty.
He really was one of a kind and we will not see his like again.