Gore Vidal — who died in his home in Hollywood Hills, California yesterday — chose his grave in the 1990s.
It would be in Rock Creek Cemetery, a large, lonely and rather bleak graveyard in suburban Washington DC, a place with immense significance for him. Henry Adams, descendant of presidents, America’s pre-eminent 19th-century historian and occasional character in Vidal’s American Chronicle novels, is buried there beneath the remarkable Adams memorial by St Gauden; also interred there is Jimmy Trimble, a school colleague of Vidal’s whom Vidal later declared the only person he’d ever loved.
Trimble died at Iwo Jima. Vidal’s grave, which will be next to his partner Howard Austen, is halfway between Adams and Trimble.
In death, Vidal will thus come home to the capital of the republic he admired and the empire he grew to despise.
If Vidal ended his days the defiant iconoclast, it’s hard to overstate just how Establishment he was at birth. He was born (named Eugene Vidal) at West Point, where his father was a flying instructor. His mother’s father was a Democratic senator, Thomas Gore, and once his parents split he spent considerable time at his grandfather’s home near Rock Creek Park in the capital, even accompanying his blind grandfather into the Senate chamber. His father — a former Olympian who would go on to found three airlines — joined the Roosevelt administration and had a long relationship with Amelia Earhart; his mother remarried twice, eventually acquiring a connection to the Bouvier family, including one Jacqueline.
Despite being a fierce isolationist like his grandfather, Vidal eventually joined the Navy (on the basis that the infantry had a poorer survival rate) and served out the war in the Aleutian islands, which would furnish the stuff of his first novel Williwaw. But Vidal was bis-xual, and found his third novel, The City and the Pillar, created intense enmity from sections of the literary establishment for discussing what was considered the taboo theme of homos-xuality.
Perhaps the hysterical reaction to The City and the Pillar was what started a long process of alienation from the Establishment into which Vidal had been born. He also spent time in Europe, taking advantage of the strong US dollar on the postwar continent; looking back later, he declared the immediate postwar period, before the onset of the Cold War, a golden moment for the United States.
Through the 1950s Vidal was a straightforward liberal, with a growing reputation as a novelist, a remunerative sideline in pseudonymous mystery novels, well-paying jobs writing for the new medium of television, successful plays and eventually scriptwriting in Hollywood. He was also friends with a diffident Massachusetts senator named Jack Kennedy who’d married his distant relation-by-marriage Jacqueline Bouvier. Vidal even stood for the Democrats in upstate New York in the 1960 election that brought Kennedy to the White House.
It was his alienation from the Kennedys, and his move to Europe in 1963, that seemed to start a major political shift in Vidal; first he fell out with Jack’s obnoxious brother Bobby, then with Jacqueline, then offended the clan by suggesting Bobby would try to succeed his brother in 1968. Then, of course, Jack himself died (Vidal always assumed it was a Mafia hit; he’d discussed assassination with Kennedy and lamented “knowing my luck they’d probably miss you and hit me”. “No great loss,” Kennedy replied.) By that time he’d begun a permanent move to Rome, although he frequently returned to the US, including to campaign for the Republican senatorial candidate standing against Bobby Kennedy in 1964.
Or perhaps it was the United States that shifted from Vidal, particularly on Vietnam, after Vidal had voted for Johnson in 1964 on the basis of Johnson’s commitment that “we don’t want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys”. Vidal began developing his critique of US history, of a republic betrayed by the imperialists who had taken it over, a critique that informed his American Chronicles novels, which began and ended with the — for Vidal — key figure of Aaron Burr, the “flawed founder” and vice-president who had murdered Alexander Hamilton and intrigued to establish a new empire in the then-American south-west.
For Vidal, who carried on the American Chronicles right through until the postwar period, American history had become full of politicians scheming to extend an American empire offshore, like Teddy Roosevelt — whom Vidal portrayed as a dangerous imperialist who annoyed Henry Adams — and his distant cousin, FDR, who like LBJ would, promised not to let Americans die in foreign wars.
After the Oklahoma Bombing in 1995 and then 9/11, Vidal took his basic thesis further, arguing the empire had now become a “national security state” that relied on the constant manufacturing of threats — communism, Islamic fundamentalism, domestic terrorism — to fund defence companies and curtail liberties, with presidents elected primarily to ensure funds kept flowing to America’s biggest corporations.
Vidal was in many ways a perfect representation of the 20th century West. Not merely did his life encompass many of the most important events of the century, his political, literary and Hollywood careers made him a peculiar junction of many cross-currents and other historical figures. This was a man who not merely knew the Kennedys and Clintons but many of the most important figures in world literature (his account of the funeral of Italo Calvino, which Vidal made a rare exception and attended, is very moving), was close friends with Paul Newman (the under-appreciated Newman western Left-Handed Gun is from a Vidal play), hobnobbed with British royals and of course feuded relentlessly with all manner of enemies, most famously Norman Mailer (a one-time friend on the postwar New York literary scene; age eventually restored a semblance of good relations between the pair) and Truman Capote.
Some say for all his literary prowess as a novelist, it is Vidal’s work as an essayist that is his greatest achievement, and it’s hard to dismiss that. His historical novels — the best are Burr, Lincoln and 1876, the first three of the American Chronicles novels, and Julian — deftly combined historical insight (the toxic role of religion was another favourite theme) with page-turning drama. They also frequently ended with surprise twists that recast much of what the reader had thought was happening.
But his essays gave full vent to a wicked wit, omnivorous reading and the excuse to go after his many and varied targets: academics, mainstream politicians, American culture (“the television commercial is the only true American art form” he once declared) and, above all, the transformation of the republic of the founders into an empire of nightmares.