Few embraced their place in American culture with such passion and relish. Gore Vidal was the ultimate man of letters who once said: "There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."
Born on October 3, 1925 in West Point, New York, Vidal's distinguished writing career began when he wrote his first novel at the age of 19. Over the course of his career, he would write over 25 novels, along with various works of nonfiction, essays, and screenplays as a contract writer for MGM Studios. Vidal helped doctor the script of the 1959 epic Ben-Hur. His third novel, The City and the Pillar, was one of the very first American novels to feature a well-adjusted gay protagonist. Published in 1948, the book generated a huge backlash of controversy for its frank and open portrayal of homosexuality.
John Nichols is a writer for The Nation and was a friend of Vidal's. Vidal, he recalls, was not afraid to argue, but valued his friends. "If he disagreed with you, you knew it immediately," Nichols says.
"[However], the fact is, he was a wonderful friend — very attentive, very caring, extremely interested," Nichols says. "He had what I will describe as the best [characteristic] in a friend — a staggering memory. When you would get together, sometimes having not seen each other for months, he would remember exactly where the conversation had broke off."
Very often, those conversations would take the form of political debates. Vidal was outspoken in his opinions, and was one of President George W. Bush's most vocal critics. "He loved politics. He adored the debate, he adored the actual game of politics," Nichols says. "He liked to imagine that he could have sat with Jefferson and Madison and the other Founders, and told them how to get it right."
Vidal's constant criticism of elected officials and American democracy in general was a product of his desire to see that democracy improve. He was fascinated by what Nichols calls "explosions of democracy," like impeachment, and once called for a second Constitutional Convention to correct the document. "The funny thing is that if you know about the Founders, you would know that they would have been right with him," Nichols says.
Vidal's passion for history and politics manifested itself in his novels. One of his most acclaimed, Julian, is written from the perspective of the eponymous fourth-century Roman emperor who challenges the spread of Christianity.
"The most remarkable thing about Gore is that he spoke in perfectly written pages," Nichols says. "Those recordings of him are just one example of what I think is going to be an incredibly rich legacy."
Vidal, who died yesterday from complications with pneumonia, was 86 years old.