Gore Vidal: Against the Tide

Of all those so-called “public intellectuals” of the mid 20th century TV talk show circuit who consistently fail to impress me (Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, etc), Gore Vidal (1925-2012) may have failed to impress me the most, but it’s a tough call. These figures may have been public, but their reputations for being men of ideas or towering accomplishment always seemed to me vastly exaggerated, more a factor of the lemming-like Amen chorus culture in the publishing and media worlds, and those that follow them, than genuine merit. People approved of them because other people they approved of approved of them, and thus runs the world, I suppose, now more than ever. Google “public intellectual” and you’ll find a hilarious number of articles from major publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, etc etc etc, over the past several decades with headlines bearing some variation on “What’s become of all the public intellectuals?” As far as I can tell, that question could just as easily have been asked in 1960 or 1970. From all that I’ve ever been able to glean the ones from the television era were a bunch of mannered poseurs, playing roles. They built no systems of thought, they published no masterpieces (that I recognize as such), they just expressed opinions on current events while leaning back in swivel chairs, looking sage, and smirking. I defy you to claim that there was among them a thinker of the class of a Bertrand Russell or an Oscar Wilde or a Bernard Shaw. THOSE were public intellectuals. That post World War Two crop — if they impressed you, you were easily hustled.

Vidal got a lot of mileage out of spouting the kind of outrages one commonly finds in a college sophomore’s notebooks, calculated to enrage the members of his posh class while never stooping to walk among a poloi who would have torn him limb from limb if he ever found himself stranded in their truck stop. His main virtue to my mind was that his politics defied easy categorization. He was deeply influenced by his grandfather and mentor Senator Thomas Gore, who was a genuine, capital P Populist, that is to say a member of the eponymous third political party of the late 19th and early 20th century. It was a movement that was neither left nor right but had aspects of both. It is is said that Vidal admired Huey Long, the terrifying and dangerous Louisiana demagogue satirized by Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men. Yet to his credit he had a knee jerk detestation of America’s constant post-war war-mongering and the power of the military-industrial complex, predicting correctly that it would result in the end of America.

It doesn’t take a Freud to see that Vidal’s attitudes had something to do with an animadversion to the culture of the patriarchs in his life, his biological father, who was an aviation pioneer and Olympic athlete, and his mother’s third husband Major General Robert Olds, one of the founding officers of the U.S. Air Force. His mother’s second husband was an Auchincloss, giving Vidal a family connection by marriage to Jackie Kennedy. To give you an idea of Vidal’s extreme (and valid) beliefs, he was not a fan of JFK’s, though he knew him personally. He believed (correctly, for his time) that that the Democrats and Republicans were both war-mongering wings of the same corporate-controlled party, and that the Democrats were only marginally better. Naturally, since 2016 the idea that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties doesn’t wash — for the moment. But guys in the Vidal mold, like Noam Chomsky and the army of Bernie Bros did the country no favors, to put it mildly, by helping to hand the country over to someone like Trump — speaking of Huey Long. But the point of this paragraph is to get across that Vidal’s vague ranting about the problem of America’s over-militarization proved (and proves) to be not just unhelpful, but useless. Inroads against something so entrenched would require nuance and incrementalism that were not in Vidal’s toolbox. Like both Mailer and Buckley, Vidal ran for office and lost, by the way. For Congress in 1960 and for Senate in 1982.

Vidal was also bisexual, which wouldn’t raise any eyebrows today, but back then was a dealbreaker in America’s power centers. As far as the public went he was closeted (insomuch as he didn’t declare his sexuality outright), although much in his public utterances and his fictional creations certainly provided strong clues to his identity. And behind the scenes, the powerful people in Washington, New York, and Hollywood knew the real story. Vidal denied that he was gay, and yet he was pretty gay. And yet he was also highly outspoken about American hypocrisy on issues of sexuality, race, class etc, etc. He was a swirling cloud of contradictions. A highly tradition-bound, elitist, insider crank and outcast. Britain has produced many such anomalous public figures, but in America where most cleave to one party bound ideology or another, he was almost like the last dodo.

I’ve tried reading Vidal’s fiction but found myself quickly bored, not because it was difficult and dazzling, but because I found it mediocre, more in the Michener league than in a class with Joyce or Pynchon (two of the rare 20th century novelists who deserved the kinds of accolades thrown at them). Obviously I love Vidal’s go-to subject matter (typically U.S. history and ancient Rome) a great deal, but there are far better sources to go to on both subjects for one’s enjoyment.

It’s a more rewarding task to talk about Vidal’s writing for stage and screen, and adaptations of his novels. Not because he was a towering genius in those forms either, but because they were hospitable to some of his premises, and because those are our typical beat, anyway. His mother Nina Gore, btw, had dabbled in a stage career. She played a small role in the 1928 Broadway production of the Edgar Wallace play Sign of the Leopard, with Florence Turner and Warren William.

Vidal began writing for live TV dramas in the mid 1950s, for shows like Studio One and Goodyear Playhouse. These generated many of the scripts that he and others adapted into stage plays and feature length films, although some of those were adapted from his novels as well. One of the earliest ones of these of any note was this:

A Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy Akin to Vaudeville

Haha, of course we would be drawn to this! Originally a 1955 TV production, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed Broadway play in 1957, both starring Australian actor Cyril Ritchard. As originally conceived it was a sci fi satire about the Cold War in the vein of Rod Serling, about a man from outer space who is delighted by all the toys (nuclear weapons) earthlings had to play with. Imagine his consternation when Hal B. Wallis and Norman Taurog turned it into a 1960 Jerry Lewis slapstick movie, denuding most of its social commentary. Unavoidably the result is much more Jerry than Gore. Interestingly the same thing happened a couple of decades later when Lewis starred in the screen adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick of Another Kind. Will these authors never learn?

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

Based on an original play by Vidal about Billy the Kid. The film, Arthur Penn’s first, starred Paul Newman, and we wrote about it in this earlier post. Dissatisfied with the result, Vidal had it remade for TNT three decades later as Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, starring Val Kilmer.

Now having made inroads into Hollywood, it’s worth mentioning here that Vidal worked on the screenplays for the big screen adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair (1956), I Accuse (1958, about the Dreyfus Affair), Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (1959), the 1959 remake of Ben Hur, and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959). Then came:

The Best Man

And also the best script — not in the world, but probably Vidal’s. It’s the one play of his for which I have genuine affection, if not huge regard, and whenever the movie version tumbles my way I’m always glad to watch it. It’s set at a convention of an unnamed political party, and concerns the jostling of a pair of men for the nomination for President: a patrician and erudite older man with liberal principles but some skeletons in his closet…versus a more ruthless younger man who plays hardball, Cold War era fashion. Its thinly veiled fictionalization of the events of the day is apt to be misread by modern audiences. The older man was clearly based on Adlai Stevenson. Contemporary viewers, I think, may assume that the younger one is modeled on Nixon (I used to, anyway). But of course, Nixon was from another party. Vidal had actually modeled the unlikable and mean little demagogue on Kennedy. Watching it from that framework, he still seems more like Bobby than Jack, but Vidal knew them both, perhaps it’s an amalgam. Anyway you’ll recall that JFK ran largely on an idea of a “missile gap” with the Soviets, just as the fictional character does here. (And don’t you worry, Vidal would later take many shots at Nixon from many forums, including a Broadway play).

Melvyn Douglas (who went on to play many a fictional Senator afterwards) played the Stevenson character in the hit 1960 Broadway production of The Best Man. The great Frank Lovejoy was the Kennedy character. He died before the 1964 film version, so the part in the movie went to Cliff Robertson who atoned for his unflattering portrait of Kennedy by playing a heroic version in PT 109 (1963). In the movie Henry Fonda played the Stevenson character. He would go on to play many fictional Presidents in movies afterwards, just as Douglas played many Senators. Such is the charm of this vehicle. Actors clearly salivate to play these roles. It has been revived on stage many, many times. The movie also features the terrific cast of Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Ann Sothern, Shelley Berman, and Kevin McCarthy.

Myra Breckinridge

Myra Breckinridge is more famous for being infamous, and I’m sure more people know about it than have actually seen it. In its day its topic (a trans protagonist) was too outre for people’s tastes; nowadays, I’m sure it’s considered too disrespectful by the trans community and their allies. It’s just like Vidal to please no one and alienate everyone! The novel was written in 1968. The movie, which I wrote about here, came out in 1970. In 1974, he wrote a sequel, called Myron.

Caligula (1979)

Again with the notoriety! I still haven’t seen this one, as there aren’t many opportunities to. It’s full bore erotica, with a legit cast that includes Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud. It was produced by Bob Guccione of Penthouse. Vidal had intended it to be one of his patented historical Roman bio-pics, with just the right amount of suggestions of depraved sex, consonant with the tastes of someone of his generation. He was not prepared for the graphic orgiastic extravaganza the film turned out to be, so he had his name taken off it. That year he adapted the original screenplay into a novel so that he could get across his version.


1984 novel, made into a 1988 TV movie mini-series with Sam Waterston which we touched on here.

We started this post with a diatribe about Vidal the public personality and that’s what most of us know him from, far more than his books, plays or movies. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s he was a frequent presence on The Tonight Show (both with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson), Merv, Dick Cavett, David Frost, etc. On such shows he had famous feuds with the likes of Mailer and Buckley, and you can see this stuff on Youtube, much of it entertaining, even if it doesn’t convince you that any of them were serious men. In the most famous mud-slinging fest, Vidal called Buckley a “proto-Fascist”, and Buckley called Vidal a “queer”. Both were correct, of course, but Buckley was what he was by choice, and that’s a difference one third of this country will apparently never understand.