In a 1979 documentary, Gore Vidal admits that some of his early books he'd like to suppress. I asked him which ones those were at a reading in the late 1990s at the New York Public Library. He replied, "I can't tell you! You'll tell the New York Times!" Laughter throughout the Celeste Bartos comedy club.
I'd stepped into the line of fire of the famous Vidal wit. The Times book reviewers had blacklisted him in 1948 because his novel The City and The Pillar was nonchalant about same-gender sexual attraction between two all-American guys.
Forty years on, Vidal had neither forgiven nor forgotten the New York Times. After he explained that his early novels perhaps reflected that it had taken him years to find his authorial voice, he smiled kindly at me--yes, he could smile kindly, contrary to popular belief--saying, "And that, I trust, does not answer your question."
"No," I replied. "But it was entertaining nonetheless." He laughed. I'd gotten Gore Vidal to laugh. I considered that a good night's work.
Vidal tributes and obits will briefly abound. Yes, he was a sharp, cynical, free-thinking satirist in the style of Mark Twain and H. L. Menken. Yes, he was raised in the twilight of the Washington D.C. political class when there actually was such a thing, when Washington was still a shockingly sleepy Southern city vacated by the electeds every summer. (Vidal once remarked that air-conditioning helped found the American empire by letting bureaucrats stay in town year-round making mischief.) Yes, he had a lot of cameos in a lot of films, wined and dined a lot of famous friends at his Ravello home, La Rondinaia, had famous foes, and managed to outlive pretty much all of them.
And he made it all look easy. But it wasn't. Guests to Ravello remarked that though Vidal and his partner, Howard Austen, loved to play host, Vidal would often slip away at some point in the evening to write, research, revise, read. Things are not always quite as they appear. Vidal spend three years writing Burr, the first in the chronology of his seven "narratives of empire" concerning American history, and biographer Fred Kaplan tells us Vidal had an entire library of 200 books on Burr and his contemporaries and manuscript letters that Aaron Burr had written shipped to Ravello to supplement standard editions.
You have to dig a bit deeper--sometimes not far--and you'll see a different picture, a partial one no less substantive than the partial one nearly everyone else sees, but it might be a less comforting view. Vidal was interested in the view from behind the ornate pillar, the view from the wings, nearer to where the costume changes take place.
In his award-winning play, The Best Man, now in its second Broadway revival, which presidential candidate is best? It depends on your view of "best," and you're meant to wonder about that while watching in a real audience a simulacrum of a national political convention's backstage, a place with which Vidal was familiar.
In Vidal's novel of 5th-century B.C., Creation, what is created, what is real, what is artifice? It depends on your view. Even as the protagonist, Greco-Persian ambassador Cyrus Spitama, is dogmatically certain the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda made all that there is, Cyrus, his friend, and Xerxes himself, while dressed as gods, enter the sacred shrine atop the ziggurat where Xerxes ritually has sex with a girl who, in the end, reveals that she's been undeceived all along, and in fact knew their identities. Who created what? Who was in control?
In Burr, George Washington is not only a risk-taking father of the republic, but an ambitious one keen to help his country break from the British Empire that America might better create its own. Are Burr's ambitions really so comparatively villainous? Vidal doesn't answer, but he gives us the different view, one that shouldn't simplistically be deemed to be Vidal's own view entirely or merely a contrarian one.
That is perhaps Vidal's legacy: the legacy of another view. It comes with risks.
Rep. Michelle Bachman--perhaps absent from English class on the day that unreliable narrators were discussed--decries Vidal for having "mocked" the Founding Fathers in Burr, and says he turned her into a Republican. If anyone knows conversion therapy when she sees it!
Even in recent Vidal tributes I've seen repeated pat mis-reading of his controversial essay, "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," that he "sympathized" with the bomber (CNN's website ridiculously says he "befriended" McVeigh--actually, they never met), when what he did was to say that he felt he'd come to understand McVeigh's reasoning for why he committed an act of terrorism that Vidal abhorred.
Another commentator described Vidal as an enemy of the gay rights movement. Vidal had something more like a continuum view of sexuality, one perhaps influenced by Alfred Kinsey--noteworthy in the 1940s and 1950s as America's first great sex researcher, certainly the first who was a Harvard-educated former Methodist and Boy Scout. (There are no merit badges for such as this.)
It is true that Vidal didn't believe in "gay" and "straight" as they're commonly understood now so much as he did sexual variety. But, it's quite a stretch to find an enemy of gay rights to be one whose tombstone rests beside his same-sex partner's in Washington D.C., and whose 1981 Nation essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star" is a withering broadside against the homophobic inanity of Midge Decter's essay in Commentary, but apparently for some critics it's not a stretch too far.