01 August 2012

Gore Vidal - History's Brilliant and Outrageous Gossip Columnist

Gore Vidal dined with Eleanor Roosevelt, was friends with Jack Kennedy, wrote screenplays (you might have heard of Ben-Hur), novels, and biographies. He wasn't afraid to offer fascinating, if tenuous, theories that made gossip seem like history and history seem like gossip.

For instance, George Washington traveled to the West Indies about the time that Alexander Hamilton was conceived by a beautiful woman between marriages. When Hamilton came to the colonies, General Washington "adopted" him, making him his personal aid. Later, Washington appointed the tall young man with reddish hair to serve in his cabinet in one of only four positions. Could Hamilton have been the son Washington never had or the son he actually had? Vidal was unafraid to provoke the thought that the father of our country might have fathered one of the great minds behind the Federalist Papers and the country's first Central Bank. Gossip or history? That was not a distinction Vidal made.

Vidal seemed increasingly contemptuous of politics as he aged. He dismissed Republicans and Democrats as two flavors of vanilla. But in his prime, he was one of the country's more interesting pundits. The always interesting blogger Robert Stein tells this story:

In 1968, Vidal was a network commentator paired with his conservative doppelganger, the elegant editor and novelist William F. Buckley. They escalated a dispute on some minor point into calling one another "a pro crypto Nazi" and "a queer." Buckley won the argument by warning Vidal, "Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddam face..."

Vidal seemed to take his own advice. Perhaps his most famous quote is "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television."  He claims to have had 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women by the time he was 25. That might be outrageous but if integrity is alignment between what a man says and what he does, then Vidal certainly had integrity.

Perhaps he was best admired, though, for not letting the famous escape behind  flawless, air-brushed facades. He had made a prediction about Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy clan's legacy that, in typical fashion, showed the pettiness of our judgments and the foibles of the famous:
By 1976, Camelot will not only be forgot but unrestorable, if for no other reason than that Arthur’s heir will by then be – cruelest fate of all – unmistakably fat.”
 Confronted by this quote, his simple response was "I should think that’s rather well observed." 

And that was Vidal. He didn't apologize. He merely observed aloud, as seemingly unselfconscious as a small child but far more - wickedly more - informed.

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