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Gore Vidal (1925-2012): He Did It His Way (And Loved Every Minute)

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"Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television," Gore Vidal said. In his 86 years, he claimed to have taken his own advice, and on the grand scale. Somehow he also found time to write 25 novels, two books of memoirs, several volumes of essays and reviews, and dozens of plays and scripts.

Vidal had no self-doubt. He used his legendary intellect in the service of opinions that drew blood. Feuds thrilled him. And he never lost the swagger that comes from knowing that -- at least in his youth -- he was a stunner.

Want a guided tour? Pass an enjoyable few hours with Snapshots in History's Gaze, a late-life picture-and-text romp.

In the 54 years of their domestic partnership, Howard Austen took thousands of photos of Gore Vidal and their friends. After his death, Vidal chose 360 pictures and graced them with a running commentary on those people and their times. Snapshots was his last real book.

It's fun to look at Tennessee Williams in Key West; Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol in Italy; Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman over six decades; campaign shots of John F. Kennedy stumping for Vidal when the writer ran for Congress in 1960, and more more more.

The prose that surrounds those pictures provides just as much fun; it's a riveting account of Vidal's love/hate relationship with America, our politics and our public figures. He names names, nurses grudges and doles out great dish --- this is vintage Gore. And that can be as strong as a double shot of single malt. Remember this dust-up with William F. Buckley Jr.?

In these pages, he gets around to Buckley, but all in good time -- he starts at the beginning, with childhood villains. Forget his distinguished lineage. Consider his "incorrigible" mother, a sometime actress who "failed a Paramount screen test because of the prominence of her manly mustache." Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt had a mad Sapphic crush on Amelia Earhart and was "constantly proposing" that they fly around the country, "with Amelia at the controls"? The president of the Guatemalan National Assembly tipped an innocent young Vidal to a CIA-backed overthrow of his government; when that prediction came true, Vidal "discovered American imperialism in action."

Interspersed are photos of brilliant, hunky young men in bathing suits and Army uniforms, letters from men expressing their gratitude for Vidal's decades-early gay novel, book jackets of paperback novels that Vidal knocked out in eight days, photos of houses he bought with book money. Success brought Hollywood work; Vidal wrote "Ben-Hur," but got no credit. ("The higher the profile of the movie, the less chance for the actual creator to be given credit," he notes.) Lots of theater stories. A funny tale of being excised from a photograph with John F. Kennedy.

Zingers? There are plenty. Asked to define commercialism, Vidal remarks, "It's the ability to do well what ought not to be done at all." Bobby Kennedy had "aggressive non-charm." The '60s: "a decade stolen from those of us who were living in it." And he doesn't turn away from the wit of others. Like Tennessee Williams, who stares at Jack Kennedy and mutters, "That boy has a nice ass."

And then we get to William F. Buckley Jr. -- "like Hitler, but without the charm." Vidal tees off on him in every possible way, from his lie about never using makeup on TV -- look, here's a photo of him in the make-up chair -- to dueling hatchet jobs in Esquire magazine to the inevitable lawsuit that had both sides claiming victory.

The last third of the book is set at La Rondinaia, the retreat above Ravello that was Austen and Vidal's Italian retreat. More famous guests. More goofy stories ("Fellini always called me Gorino, a diminutive I did not like, and I called him Fred, which I hope he did not like either.") A lawsuit with Capote: "I was persuaded not to ask for the million dollars I knew he had." And, because no one is less sentimental than Gore Vidal, the book ends with photos of Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where Austen is buried and Vidal will be. Nice touch.

Put this book on your coffee table, and it will soon fight with the other books there. He'd be thrilled.

Cross-posted from HeadButler.com