Yesterday evening, Gore Vidal, the man thereafter described by USA Today in its remembrance of him as a “celebrated author,” died. It is understandable that news media might, out of respect for the dead, recklessly bestow laurels like “celebrated.” “Tolerated” might have been more accurate. “Suffered,” more still.
Mr. Vidal was born at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father was an early instructor in aviation. His mother was an actress and socialite, two vocations which became one in her late son: Mr. Vidal acted the public intellectual for the sake of social climbing. For a man possessed of such disdain for the social order as that which he professed, Mr. Vidal made a handsome living for many years on his connections, including the Auchincloss blood he shared with Jacqueline Kennedy.
Though he once swore to avoid writing about himself, the oath was discarded in favor of self-promotion and financial interests: Palimpsest, a 1995 memoir, was followed in 2006 with Point to Point Navigation, another memoir. How many memoirs does one man need? One more, apparently: between those two, he interspersed the humbly-titled Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal.
It was enough to support a home in the Hollywood Hills, where Mr. Vidal was in residence at the time of his death.
Throughout a career in which he pridefully fancied himself a man of belles lettres, he built the majority of whatever name recognition he still possessed at death on smarm, snobbery and effetely effected intellectualism. His was a grand claim – Mr. Vidal saw himself as co-equal with (or, more likely, superior to) the likes of public intellectuals Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Norman Podheretz, Noam Chomskey and the remainder of that celestium.
In either respect, he was entirely incorrect. His was not an incisive, illuminating or productive wit; it was bitter, caustic and devoid of elegance. The man was, intellectually and personally, petty and small. The late essayist Christopher Hitchens, once a promoter of Mr. Vidal’s interests, had recently, before his own death, bemoaned the fact that his later writing sufered from an “utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity.”
If there is one lasting contribution Mr. Vidal made to American culture (which, like any self-respecting artistic egotist, he abandoned for European soil), it was his 1968 televised appearance with Mr. Buckley, whom he repeatedly called a crypto-Nazi, prompting the second most well-known retort in the history of television from Mr. Buckley: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.”
(The most well-known retort in the history of television being Senator Loyn Bensten’s famous line: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)
The New York Times reported today that Mr. Vidal considered himself an Augustan figure, the last of a breed of writers and jocular, urbane men of letters. That paper is likely correct in describing Mr. Vidal as the last of the breed; the real shame is that the breed had to end on such a low note as Gore Vidal.