On Tuesday we lost a legendary novelist, essayist, and polemicist. Gore Vidal passed away at the age of 86. Vidal was renowned as a leading author and political thinker of the modern era.
Vidal was named Eugene Louis Vidal, Jr. after his father. However his father inaccurately remembered his own middle name, so "Louis" was corrected to "Luther" when Vidal was christened. He added the name "Gore" later, in honor of his maternal grandfather and decided to use that as his first name when he began writing.
The elder Vidal distinguished himself as the first aeronautical instructor at West Point and as an Olympic decathlete. He went on to found three American airlines and a railroad and hold the post of director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce during the Roosevelt administration. He was also purportedly the great love of Amelia Earhart's life. Vidal's mother had her own romantic interests; after the Vidals separated, she went on to have a long-time affair with actor Clark Gable.
Young Vidal grew up in Washington DC, where he spent much time with his grandfather, a senator. His grandfather's isolationist philosophy heavily influenced Vidal's later views; he long remained critical of American imperialist policy--both domestic and foreign.
His political views are part of the reason that Vidal elected to enlist in the Navy rather than attending an Ivy League university like most of his peers. Vidal also began writing during his first deployment to Alaska. Williwaw (1946) was the first novel about World War II, which certainly contributed to its success.
Two years later, Vidal published The City and the Pillar. Again Vidal broke new ground, this time frankly addressing homosexuality. The book was so controversial that then-New York Times book critic Orville Prescott refused to cover the novel or any of Vidal's next five books. In response, Vidal began publishing mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box. These novels were so successful that they supported Vidal for well over ten years.
Vidal soon turned his attention to writing plays, television shows, and television series. In 1956, he found himself working as a screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Vidal worked on multiple films there, including the remake of Ben-Hur--though his involvement in that project has been much debated and he was not credited as a screenwriter. During the 1960's Vidal penned three novels: Julian (1964); Washington DC (1967); and Myra Breckenridge (1968). He remained equally prolific during the ensuing decades.
Eventually Vidal turned his literary prowess to writing essays, a skill at which he proved particularly adept. Even Vidal's most outspoken detractors, such as Martin Amis, admit that Vidal's greatest strength lies in his essay writing. In 1993 Vidal won the National Book Award for Non-fiction for United States: Essays 1952-1992.
Vidal always remained a sharp and agile thinker, frequently contributing to national dialogue about politics, sexuality, and a host of other topics. He firmly established himself not only as one of the greatest writers of our modern age, but also as one of the leading thinkers.