In Gore Vidal's New York Times obituary, Charles McGrath described the writer as "the elegant, acerbic all around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization." Vidal died Tuesday at the age of 86.
Some of the books Vidal became best known for were historical novels including Burr and Lincoln. As Reed Johnson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Vidal's revisionist outlook struck some critics as brilliant and others as almost gleefully perverse."
Vidal's satirical novel Myra Breckinridge is believed to be the first novel to feature a transsexual. His plays include the political drama The Best Man, which is currently back on Broadway, and his screenplays include Ben Hur. He wrote many provocative essays, ran for office twice — and lost — and frequently appeared on TV talk shows, where he famously sparred with William Buckley and Norman Mailer.
Vidal described himself as obsessed with America; his grandfather was a senator and his father served in Roosevelt's Cabinet. Terry Gross spoke with Vidal in 1988 and 1992. Fresh Air remembers the writer and critic with excerpts from those two interviews.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to excerpts from two interviews I recorded with Gore Vidal. He died Tuesday at the age of 86. In Vidal's New York Times obituary, Charles McGrath described him as, quote, "the elegant, acerbic, all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization," end quote.
Some of the books Vidal became best known for were historical novels, including "Burr" and "Lincoln." As Reed Johnson wrote in the Washington Post, quote: "Vidal's revisionist outlook struck some critics as brilliant and others as almost gleefully perverse," un quote.
Vidal's satirical novel "Myra Breckinridge" was the first novel to feature a transsexual character. His plays include the political drama "The Best Man," which is currently back on Broadway. His screenplays include "Ben-Hur." He wrote many provocative essays, ran for office twice and lost, and frequently appeared on TV talk shows where he famously sparred with William Buckley and Norman Mailer.
Vidal described himself as obsessed with his country. His grandfather was a senator; his father served in Roosevelt's Cabinet. Vidal once said he wasn't from the writers' class. I asked him what he meant by that when I spoke with him in 1988.
GORE VIDAL: When you come from a family that has been political, and I was brought up by my grandfather in the Senate, my father was in Roosevelt's Cabinet, this is not the class that produces writers or reflective people. And of my kind of family, it produces George Bushes, you know, for good or for ill. That is what the old WASP establishment comes up with.
I have some Italian blood, so I'm only partly - I'm about three-quarters WASP. I think that's really the difference. Most writers are middle-class and are the children of doctors or lawyers. Like Ernest Hemingway, say, they were Middle Westerners, sort of out of it from the professional classes, who had plenty of money to send them to Harvard or wherever.
And I came out of Capitol Hill. Well, that's just not an ordinary background for a writer of the ordinary American sort. The British, you know, are absolutely hung up on class, and whenever they start to really - class for the English is like sex for Americans: They start to shake all over when the subject comes up.
VIDAL: They begin to salivate. And I was on the BBC once, and a lady was interviewing me, and she said: And now, Mr. Vidal, what class do you think you belong to in America?
VIDAL: And I could see no matter what answer I made, it was going to be wrong. So I gave her a cold stare on the camera, and I said I come from the highest class of all. I am a third-generation celebrity.
VIDAL: I have been on the cover of Time magazine. My father was on the cover of Time, and my grandfather was on the cover of Time. That's...
GROSS: Well, I do - yeah, that's great. I really do believe there is a celebrity class in the United States.
VIDAL: You bet there is. I'm in Hollywood right now, surrounded by nothing but the sons and grandsons of movie stars.
GROSS: But it's interesting you should bring that up because in many ways, you were the first generation of writer celebrities who were made famous in part through television. And I think that you and Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, both of whom you've had celebrated battles with, are also in that generation of writer celebrities who helped - were helped so much by appearance on television.
VIDAL: Well, it certainly was true in my case. I was the first - I was extremely unpopular with the establishment of the United States, particularly the New York Times was always an enemy, and Time magazine, off and on, the enemy, because I said things and took positions that other people didn't do.
So if you are at the mercy of what they call print interviews and the mercy of people who write about you, they can always tell lies. And you have no way of redress until suddenly my first book was 1946, and television didn't really start going until early '50s, suddenly there was television, and they had to fill up all that time.
And writers talked rather better than movie stars, so suddenly writers were often asked to be guests. And I seized this new medium in order to break through what the print had done to me. You see, if you're a critic of the rulers of the United States, you are either demonized, or you are trivialized by the press, and they do a very good job of making you into a non-person or a ridiculous person.
I could then go on television, and one appearance would absolutely reverse what people had been reading about me.
GROSS: So you were really very conscious and very savvy in how you used TV.
VIDAL: Oh yes indeed, I was. Capote and Mailer had never really mastered it. Capote just went on and gossiped about rich ladies, and Norman was just far too tense for television. Television is a cool medium, and Norman always came on too hot. And so it was not a natural medium for him. I was very much at home with it.
GROSS: You know, you were talking about the - some of the negative responses you got from critics early on. In 1948, you wrote a novel called "The City and the Pillar," and it was about a gay man. Now back in the late 1940s, I think it was very brave for somebody to write a novel in which there was a leading gay character.
VIDAL: Well, actually, quote, "gay," unquote, the point to the story, which caused all the fuss, was that he wasn't. He was a perfectly normal young man who had an affair who had an affair with another normal young man, and one went off to get married and conduct an absolutely admired heterosexual life, and the other one didn't.
But what I was saying, that early on, before the word gay had really been invented, was there's no such thing. Only a country, basically as mindless about these matters - based upon our peasant superstitions, religious superstitions - would they make categories. Everybody's everything. And I was talking about the normality - this is a book called "The City and the Pillar," which opened a floodgate - the normality of this sort of relationship.
You could not say that. The New York Times refused to advertise the book. The leading reviewer said he would never read, much less review, a book of mine again. I took a lot of flak. The book was a big bestseller, and it was followed about three months later by Dr. Kinsey's report on the human male. And Dr. Kinsey said, well, 37 percent of American males have dealt in this infernal an abominable act at least once.
GROSS: Is there...?
VIDAL: And we were still able to win the Second World War, the last war we ever won.
GROSS: Was the response to that book part of the reason why you started writing for television and Hollywood?
VIDAL: Oh yeah, it meant that I was blacked out, and my next five books were not reviewed in the New York Times, daily, nor in Time magazine nor in Newsweek. That's what I call a blackout. So to survive, I turned to television. They didn't care about television, they barely reviewed it, and made my way there. And then I went to the movies and to the stage with "Visit to a Small Planet" and "The Best Man."
So by the time I went back to the novel, I could not be blacked out, but I still could be demonized, and I could still be trivialized.
GROSS: One of the things you're credited for during your stay in Hollywood is having written in the gay subtext in the move "Ben-Hur." And this was like the motivation for rivalry between the Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd characters. And the code was - the Hays Code was still in effect at that time. I was wondering about how much you could imply in that homosexual subtext without the Hays Code coming in and taking it out.
VIDAL: Well, it wasn't that it was so much homosexual - again, I don't approve of these categories. I said that to justify the fact that the two guys meet, they haven't seen each other since they were kids - one is Roman and other is a Jewish liberationist in Palestine - and the Roman wants to make a deal with his old Jewish friend, but the Jewish friend rejects him.
I said to do this on political grounds is not enough to sustain a two-and-and-a-half, three-hour movie. There's not enough emotion under it, just a political argument is not enough for such hatred, I said to Willy Wyler, the director. I said: I will write it that they once, as kids, had an affair, don't go into any details, and who knows what an affair is, they might never have touched each other.
But I'm going to write that in, and the Roman wants to resume the old relationship, and the Jewish liberationist, Ben-Hur, doesn't want to. I said without ever mentioning what this is about, if that's written in there in the under text of what they're saying, it'll give the scene a lot of power.
Wyler said, well, anything's better than what we've got. We had the world's worst script that we'd inherited.
VIDAL: And he said: You tell Stephen Boyd. I won't. Don't say a word to Heston, or he'll fall apart. So Heston did the whole thing with...
VIDAL: Heston has eight profiles, and he showed all eight of his profiles, and Stephen Boyd is looking at him like a hungry man waiting for dinner, and it's a wonderful scene.
VIDAL: And the audience doesn't quite know what it is, but they know something very electrical is happening between these two people, and that is what gave the energy that drove the film, you know, kept you going to the chariot race.
GROSS: Now the Hays Code people didn't notice this?
VIDAL: Oh, of course not. That was one great fun we had with the code was getting things by that they never suspected what you were doing. They were too busy having, you know, one foot on the floor when the married couple were in bed to show, little knowing that you can have one foot on the floor, and heaven knows what could be going on.
GROSS: I was wondering what your reaction was to the beginning of the gay liberation movement. And I ask this because I think it changed the rules of the game for public figures who were either gay or bisexual or who wrote about characters who had had homosexual or bisexual experiences.
VIDAL: Well, as I said earlier, yes, I'm for any minority that is getting it from the majority. So obviously I'm in favor of protecting the rights of everybody: gay, black, women, what have you, American Indians. I'm all for that. But I deny that there's such a thing as a gay person. I deny there's such a thing as a heterosexual person.
GROSS: Why, what...?
VIDAL: What's a heterosexual sensibility? What on Earth do...?
GROSS: Well, before we get into sensibility, I mean, why deny that some people are - prefer to have intimate relations with someone of the same sex, and others prefer to have intimate relations with someone of the opposite sex? I mean...
VIDAL: Well, everybody has...
GROSS: What do you find offensive about that kind of categorizing?
VIDAL: Because it's like saying, well, I like potatoes very much, and I can't stand turnips, but I'll eat a turnip every now and then. This is all a matter of personal taste. These are not categories. The word heterosexual is an adjective, the word homosexual is an adjective. They describe an activity. Of course there's a homosexual activity; of course there's a heterosexual activity. But there's no homosexual person. There's no heterosexual person. Everybody is everything.
It's like saying oh, I want you to meet Mildred, this is potato-eating Mildred. Oh my God, she eats - I'm sorry, but I don't want to be at the same table with a potato-eater. Sorry, Mildred, but some other time. Now that's - only a country that is based upon an extremely primitive religion, which is Christianity, I am a devoted enemy of monotheism in all of its forms, could have come with a categorizing of people as one thing or the other.
There is the good, straight team, and there is the bad, queer team. And except for the Brits, who are kind of out of their skulls, collectively speaking, not individually...
VIDAL: In Europe, these distinctions are not only not known, but we're thought to be mad. Latins just roar with laughter. In the town of Ravella, where I have a house, when the Supreme Court said that an act of sodomy, as they describe it, could not be committed between a man and his wife, the entire square burst into laughter.
And I was actually stopped all day long by Italians, these villagers, saying what kind of country is this. And I said, well, it's a very primitive country, the United States, and it's full of superstitions, which come out of a very fundamental religious bias, which is primitive Christianity. And since they have enough votes to terrify the more sophisticated people who run the country, these are some of the bones that they get thrown - like prayer in the schools and abortion and all subjects which have nothing to do with the federal government, but they see to it that it does.
No, no, we're kind of a joke.
GROSS: Gore Vidal, recorded in 1988. He died Tuesday at the age of 86. We'll hear an excerpt of our 1992 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: We're listening back to excerpts of the two Gore Vidal interviews I recorded. He died Tuesday at the age of 86. This interview was recorded in 1992, after the publication of his novel "Live from Golgotha." He was also co-starring at the time in Tim Robbins' political satire "Bob Roberts."
I don't think that one is allowed to write an article about you, Gore Vidal, without using the word patrician.
VIDAL: Well, I thought the word was outrageous. That's the one my eye picks up on.
GROSS: Oh, OK, and patrician, I even looked it up in the dictionary so I'd really get this precise. Patrician, first meaning is a person of refined upbringing, manners and taste; second definition, person of aristocratic family. How do you like it when that word is applied to you?
VIDAL: I sort of don't see it. We're supposed to be a classless society; of course we're not. I would be literally patrician in the sense that the senators in ancient Rome were called conscript fathers, paters, from which comes the word patrician. So if you come from a senatorial family, you are literally patrician in that sense, but that doesn't mean that you couldn't be Billy Carter, you know, of recent memory.
GROSS: Do you think it's unusual for someone who's called patrician all the time to be as kind of vitriolic as you sometimes are, as outspoken and...?
VIDAL: When you say vitriolic, now that is a loaded word.
GROSS: How would you define vitriolic? Let's see, maybe I used it badly.
VIDAL: Vitriolic is a needless and malign attack on something, excessive attack on something. It is a rather pointless thing to do. If I were to say Barbara Bush was born with two heads, and one was removed, you know, at birth and is waiting to be restored, that would be a vitriolic, slightly off-the-wall account. I don't - I'm never personal.
Vitriolic really is personal. I am vitriolic. I am savage.
GROSS: Savage, let's go with savage, OK, savage, acid. Acid?
VIDAL: I am savage about what has been done to the United States by its rulers.
GROSS: OK, so is it - is it a contradiction for someone who is patrician to be savage at the same time?
VIDAL: Patricians can be savage. I think what you're trying to say is: Why should a member of the ruling class question the ruling class?
GROSS: There you go.
VIDAL: That's it.
VIDAL: Because no reform ever came from the bottom, and it was always people who understood how the ruling class worked who turned out to be the reformers.
GROSS: This is great. So you think, like, the noblesse oblige, as it applies to you, is to kind of help stir up revolution.
VIDAL: Well, I didn't say that, you said that, but if - revolution - it's a dissolution is what's coming, and I would like to see it in an orderly way, and I'd like to restore. I'm a true reactionary. Like all patricians, I'd like to restore the original republic, which we lost 40 years ago when Harry Truman imposed the national security state on us, which has kept us at war, hot or cold, for almost half a century, and it's got us $4 trillion into debt.
Well, now to point that out is to be outrageous, vicious, vitriolic because I'm taking on the entire ruling class of the country, which is decided in the corporate boardrooms that this is the way we were going to live all those years.
GROSS: I must, for better or worse, pursue this patrician line of questioning one step further. One of your more famous television appearances was in 1968, when you and William Buckley, also a patrician...
VIDAL: Not by my measurement.
GROSS: OK, well, you were both on as commentators during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and you were commentators for ABC. And you called Buckley a crypto-fascist, and do you remember what he said to you?
VIDAL: No, but I remember laughing at him, and he was climbing the wall.
GROSS: OK, what Buckley said after you called him a crypto-fascist, he said: Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-fascist, or I'll sock you in the g-damned face, and you'll stay plastered. Did you and Buckley have words off the air after your go-around on the air?
VIDAL: No, I never spoke to him again.
GROSS: You've said that your upbringing was in a way very similar to George Bush's, although you certainly see the world very differently. What were the similarities in your upbringing?
VIDAL: Well, he's the son of a senator; I'm the grandson of a senator. My father was in the Cabinet. We're both Washington children, government children, both politically ambitious. I was at Exeter; he was at Andover. He's a year older than I am. When I was 17, I enlisted in the Army; when he was 18, he enlisted in the Navy. And we were both in the Second World War. So we've had parallel lives.
And frankly, I prefer mine to his. I would not like to be George Bush.
GROSS: What does it say to you that two people who shared so much in the way they were brought up would turn out so absolutely differently?
VIDAL: Well, no one knows about personality. I'd say obviously genetic differences, differences in our families. The Gores, I think, are a bit brighter than the Bushes, historically speaking. But I think more than that, I have a questioning mind. I was born a writer; he was born somebody who wants to be appointed to political office and then eventually elected to political office.
I was intrigued and drawn to that, it was the family business, but after all, I wrote my first novel when I was 19 in the Pacific, and I've supported myself as a writer since I was 20. Also, you can't be both a writer and a politician, at least not a good writer. A writer must always tell the truth as he sees it. And the politician must never give the game away.
Now these are two opposing forces, and whenever I am in active politics, I stop writing. And when I'm writing, I don't politick.
GROSS: Gore Vidal, recorded in 1992. He died Tuesday at the age of 86. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.