Eugene Louis "Gore" Vidal (October 3, 1925 July 31, 2012) was an American novelist, essayist, and playwright whose career spanned sixty years, beginning immediately after World War II and continuing into the early phase of the new millennium.
In the world of literature, he was best known for his breakthrough work The City and the Pillar, the first post-war novel to feature a homosexual protagonist who isn't bumped off at the end of the story. A quarter-century later, Vidal began penning a series of historical novels based on the formulative years of the United States, including a third-person account of President Lincoln which met with high accolades.
Best known by a later generation as procreator of two dubious cinematic efforts, Myra Breckinridge and Caligula. Vidal tried disowning the latter, but his lawyers moved too slowly and thus his screen credit remains. Nevertheless, he did appear in a fake trailer for a Caligula remake, so at least he was a good sport about it. Later in life, he accepted the odd acting role onstage and in film, most notably as the title character's Senate race opponent in Bob Roberts, the space shuttle impresario in Gattaca and a priest in Igby Goes Down.
Vidal was politically active throughout The '50s and Sixties, appearing on television as a spokesman for the "New Left" and sharing a panel with his ideological opposite William F. Buckley Jr. This arrangement didn't last long, as their exchanges became increasingly heated until Buckley threatened to punch him in the face on-air. Vidal was also an outspoken critic of monotheism, believing it to be the most dysfunctional of all belief systems. Buckley was a Catholic who gained national recognition with God and Men at Yale, a critique of secularism in academia. The debate series is depicted in the well received documentary, Best of Enemies.
Gore died at his home in California on 31 July 2012 at the age of 86 from complications of pneumonia. His death has largely been considered a loss to the literary and actual world.
Tropes in the works of Gore Vidal:
- Ambition Is Evil: A major subversion. Vidal believed that ambition was a natural and worthy quality and that nobody, including heroes like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, made it far without wanting to get there. That said, his works aren't blind celebrations of achievement, either, and he has himself described and spoken of his own political and artistic ambitions without any qualifications.
- Deconstruction: Vidal was himself highly critical of the academic study of Postmodernism and deconstruction, but his own works are highly subversive and corrective of received ideas of Christianity, American politics, and American history.
- Germans Love David Hasselhoff: The Left-handed Gun, an In Name Only rewrite of Vidal's television play about Billy the Kid, starring Paul Newman. It did pretty well in France for its "bold experimentation" and deconstruction of the legendary gunfighter; but Vidal can't take credit for any of that, so he grouchily produced another movie (for television this time) starring Val Kilmer.
- Gray-and-Gray Morality: Never set truck by conventional values and ideas of "good" and "evil".
- Nom de Mom: Born Eugene Luther Vidal after his father, he took the name Gore from his mother's side. According to him, one of his teachers at Exeter glowered, "I wish I were a bull." When asked why, he answered, "So I could gore Vidal."
- Realpolitik: A stated theme in his books, especially his book on Lincoln, was to show how politics actually worked and what kind of person you have to be to last in the arena, even if you are a "good" politician.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Deconstructed: Vidal comes across as cynical because his general practice as a writer in his essays and novels is to subvert and criticize America's self-perception of innocence and naivete and to insist on a more grown-up adult discourse, because he believed that Good Is Not Dumb. He regarded America as continually failing to live up to its best sense of itself, although he also believed that its best sense of itself was worth living up to — for example, he was extremely proud of his own family's tradition of public service.
- Word of Gay:
- Gore Vidal intended Messala in his screenplay of Ben-Hur (1959) to be Ben-Hur's spurned lover, thus explaining his hatred for him later on. Stephen Boyd (the actor who played Messala) was let in on the secret, but Charlton Heston was deliberately kept in the dark.
- In an interview with Larry Kramer, Vidal admitted that in Burr, he intended the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and George Washington to suggest the latter's attraction to the former. The text is ambiguous enough that the reader can take the subtext one of two ways: a sentimental, childless older man on the lookout for a surrogate son, or callous manipulation by his social-climbing protégé.
Partial Bibliography & Related Tropes
The Best Man (1964)
- Dark Horse Victory: In the play (and subsequent film) The Best Man, a bitterly contested fight for a party's Presidential nomination ends when one of the candidates withdraws and throws his support behind a previously-ignored third man.
- The Fettered: William Russell.
- Kingmaker Scenario: Inverted in the ending of The Best Man, in which two presidential candidates, (Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson) are tied in their race for the nomination. Fonda's idealist, unwilling to falsely smear Robertson's crooked politico as a homosexual in order to win — yet also unwilling to let Robertson claim victory by twisting some facts related Fonda's medical history — throws his support to the dark horse candidate who has been mired in third place throughout the balloting, who goes on to win.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Joe Cantwell.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Vidal always denied this, but most viewers tend to identify Cantwell as Richard Nixon, Russell as Adlai Stevenson, and Art Hockstader as Harry Truman. (According to Vidal, when he asked John F. Kennedy to read a draft of the script and offer technical advice, Kennedy was concerned that the womanizing Russell was based on him.)
- Cantwell's possibly a portmanteau of Nixon and the Kennedys. He mirrors not only Nixon's devious persona but Bobby Kennedy's rise to prominence prosecuting organized crime. Coincidentally or not, the movie casts Cliff Robertson who'd played Jack Kennedy in PT-109 a year earlier as Cantwell.
- Realpolitik: The title of the play is ironic. Cantwell is implied to be the 'best man' because he's more devious, whereas Russell is a well-meaning schnook who can't hold onto power. And, in the end, the nomination — which is widely viewed as tantamount to the election itself — goes to some guy no one knows anything about at all.
- Sleazy Politician: A conversed trope. Hockstader is of the opinion that only someone willing to be utterly ruthless is truly qualified to handle the responsibilities of the presidency, while Russell counters that such a person can't be trusted to do what's right if it might be unpopular.
- To Be Lawful or Good
Myra Breckinridge (1968)
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male
- Gender Bender: Myra's true identity is that of a male film critic who underwent a sex change.
- Refuge in Audacity
- Unusual Euphemism: Myron, the follow-up book Myra Breckinridge. In the original version of the book, Vidal replaces all the swear words with the names of Supreme Court Justices who had just voted in favour of some pro-censorship measure or other. So we have Burger = bugger, Father Hill = tit, Rehnquist = dick and so on (This was done to avert the book's censorship.)
- The Antichrist: Inverted; Giles, one of Kalki's chosen few, unwittingly dooms mankind when he tries to take control of the cult for himself. As the resident gynecologist, he intentionally paired Kalki with women who were genetically incompatible with him, which would cause a miscarriage. Giles, the lone remaining male in the group (and still virile, despite his earlier claims that he had a vasectomy), offers to impregnate Kalki's wife, effectively making him the father of the new human race. Instead, Kalki murders him for his treachery, leaving no heirs to rebuild civilization. Kalki later rationalizes this by explaining that Giles was the avatar of Ravana and his prophesied enemy. Giles is also emblematic of everything that's wrong with the age of "Kali": hence, his fetishistic love of material things, like Cuban cigars and fine wines, long after the human race has gone extinct.
- Armies Are Evil: The Americans know the potentially world-ending consequences of developing the Neutron Bomb, but they push forward anyway.
- Beauty = Goodness: Also implied by Giles' overall ugliness. Save for Teddy herself and Kalki's followers, everybody else in the book is depicted as diseased (cancer, coughing, drug addiction), unkempt, and intrinsically banal.
- Cargo Cult: Somewhere in Katmandu, a religion has sprouted up around an American expatriate who now goes by the moniker "Kalki" and claims to be the next and final incarnation of Vishnu.
- Crapsack World: A running theme throughout the book is entropy and overpopulation: No appliance ever works properly, the phone lines are always shorting out, the air is noxious with pollution, and legions of junkies prowl the streets at night. This takes place during The '70s, when society seemed on the verge of cracking up.
- Chekhov's Boomerang: Paper lotuses are a recurring item during Teddy's travels. It turns out that Kalki's shell company is sinking his illicit proceeds into a Robin Hood-like scheme, awarding big sums of money to lucky winners via "lotus lotteries." Before long, the states are being flooded with paper lotuses, and Kalki's public profile skyrockets. The newest batch of lotuses contains a viral contagion, killing off the entire human population.
- Chekhov's Skill: Teddy's piloting.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Giles Lowell is the pitchman for Kalki's movement, which is the only reason anyone tolerates him. Kalki later discovers, albeit too late, that Giles has always been plotting to usurp him and steal Lakshmi for himself.
- Dark Messiah: The press isn't sure if Kalki is a crackpot like Jim Jones, a hippie burn-out, or a charlatan. It's implied by J.J. Kelly's story that his religious movement began as a hoax, but by the end he has become the mask and embraced his role as "destroyer of worlds." Teddy remains on the fence, not sure as to whether the world deserves to perish, and conflicted about her role as a "Perfect Master."
- Defector from Decadence: Following some journalistic digging, "Kalki" is found to be James J. Kelly, an Army veteran and field medic who helped conduct biological warfare in Vietnam. Shortly before his self-exile, he learned that a new type of a superweapon was being developed by the American and Soviet governments which would sharply increase the threat of even accidental self-annihilation. Kelly devises a scheme to kill off the humans while preserving the other species on earth.
- Despite the Plan: Kalki and his "Perfect Masters" intend to birth a new race above the ashes of an old one. Kalki is the only viable sperm donor in their small group, as Giles has undergone a vasectomy. ...Except he hasn't. Kalki cannot successfully impregnate any of the women on his own.
- Do Not Call Me "Paul": Kalki and his wife have separated themselves from their old Anglo names.
- The End of the World as We Know It: Kalki announces to the world that the human race will be extinguished on April 3. No one, including the narrator, takes his threats very seriously, and a closer inspection reveals a shell company which makes its money through selling drugs. Kalki becomes a worldwide sensation as millions tune in to his interviews to either ridicule or worship him, but his true angle remains unclear . ...Because there is none. Kalki uses his publicity tour to distribute a virus throughout the world, ending all human life save for his followers.
- Fascinating Eyebrow: Deployed by Walter Cronkite at the end of his Kalki segment. It's mentioned that had Cronkite not reassuringly raised his eyebrow, there would have been panic in the streets.
- Four Is Death: In addition to himself and his wife, Kalki hand-picks three experts, known as Perfect Masters, to join him in the new human society; each is chosen for their knowledge and the fact that they are sterile. Teddy Ottinger will teach engineering, Geraldine O'Connor biology and genetics, and Dr. Giles Lowell medicine. Kalki's wife Lakshmi is herself a physicist, and Kalki is a chemist. Giles betrays the group and is murdered, bringing the total to four. The surviving members die childless, and Kalki finishes Teddy's memoir (and the novel) while preparing to bequeath Earth to the monkeys.
- How We Got Here: Teddy opens the book while sitting in the White House, reflecting on how she began her story unemployed and in debt. "Is this a success story?" The reason she has moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave is because her entire species is dead, and Kalki has made the mansion into his home. The "success" is darkly ironic, and Teddy dies before the book is completed.
- The Starscream: Giles/Ashok met and groomed J.J. Kelly as a medical student, a partnership which continued when Kelly adopted the "Kalki" persona and used Giles' base in New Orleans as a front for his drug empire. Giles' avarice gets the better of him and he tries to hijack the new human race.
- The Triads and the Tongs: Kalki made his fortune by getting into bed with Asian crime elements. Unfortunately, the up-and-coming Senator White is being funded by a rival syndicate, who are using White's "anti-drug" platform as a cover for having Kalki removed from the drug trade by force.
- Unwitting Pawn: Teddy, a celebrity novelist and washed-up test pilot, is mysteriously selected to cover the Kalki story by the editor of The Sun. There are also numerous spies both within and outside the cult, and starts to suspect that she was placed there as a government plant. Worse yet, she believes that Kalki might be aware of the conspiracies against his life and conspired to summon her to Katmandu as a double-agent. This turns out to be correct: Kalki needed a pilot to distributed his poison-laced lotteries across the globe.
- Your Days Are Numbered: Kalki is unperturbed by the numerous threats on his life: CIA, DEA, Chinese gangsters, the South Koreans... any number of governments would love to see Kalki dead. Kalki hires an actor to take a bullet for him, leaving him free to carry out his apocalypse on schedule.
American Chronicles (aka Narratives of Empire) series (1973-2000)
- Achey Scars: Jess Smith's appendectomy scar. It aches whenever somebody is sniffing around his operations.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Hollywood caught negative reviews for inventing a female newspaper publisher in 1939; however, Vidal was quick to point out that Eleanor Patterson took control of a D.C. paper less than twenty years later.
- Antagonist in Mourning: Woodrow Wilson's nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge, doesn't know what to do with himself once Wilson is deposed and living out his last days on S Street.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Sanfords.
- Bus Crash: Clay Overbury in The Golden Age.
- The Casanova: John Hay, Lincoln's aide and confidante, is a self-styled one. Aaron Burr in Burr is presented as another one, considered to have fathered more than a few illegitmate children, with future president Martin Van Buren cited as one as per rumor, and the other one being the protagonist Charles Schuyler.
- Comically Missing the Point: The Senate Majority Leader, Henry Cabot Lodge, is shattered when he learns of Warren Harding's death. When asked if they were close, Lodge says of course not; he's upset that Calvin Coolidge is now President.
- Da Editor: Caroline Sanford and her brother, Blaise.
- Deadpan Snarker: When Eleanor Roosevelt returns from seeing the doctor, FDR wheels past and jokingly asks "What did he have to say about that big ass of yours?" Without pausing, Eleanor replies "I'm afraid you weren't mentioned."
- Depopulation Bomb: The flu epidemic of 1918. It sweeps the globe, bumps off more people in a year than the Black Plague did in its entire run, and leaves the survivors hobbled for roughly a year (thus truly ruining their health). Sen. Day catches the flu and is never, ever quite the same again. There is also a running theme of illness and decay in Hollywood and The Golden Age; the Presidents' fragile health renders each a sort of Dead Man Walking, marking time until their bodies inevitably shut down.
- Driven to Suicide: Burden, after Overbury throws him under the proverbial bus.
- Eagleland : A real Deconstruction of the same showing how the image was built and sustained over several different decades for political purpose. In Burr, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, while they were still friends discuss the new republic with Burr admitting that for all its aspirations, political life in America was the same as it was in the English Parliament and indeed in Ancient Rome, not really the break from the old that its Founders envisioned or made the public believe in.Colonel Burr: I sense nothing more than the ordinary busy-ness of men wanting to make a place for themselves. Some are simply busier than others, and so will take the higher ground. But it is no different here from what it is in London or what it was in Caesars Rome.
Hamilton: There is more to it than that, Burr. But then I have always thought we might be able to make something unique in this place.
Colonel Burr Our uniqueness is only geographical.
Hamilton: No, it is moral. That is the secret to all greatness.
- Evil Cripple: Wilson, to an extent. Rendered immobile by a stroke, bearded, baring his teeth in a manner Sen. Day describes as "lupine", the President is understandably less merciful than in his prime. Even in defeat, he still has enough influence to scuttle the Presidential ambitions of his son-in-law, William McAdoo, before McAdoo's campaign even starts.
- Fallen Hero: Warren Harding, the fallen President who might have been great.
- Fisher King: Woodrow Wilson's White House is an ice palace, with padlocked fences and all activity carefully concentrated in a tiny upstairs study, and only Mrs. Wilson and the President's physician allowed in. Contrast with Harding, whose White House exudes warmth and is made open to the public. By the end of the novel, though, it becomes as haunted and empty as it was under his predecessor.
- Foregone Conclusion: Harding's inexorable rise to the Presidency is observed with awe by Hollywood's main characters. For a time, he seems to be just what the nation needs, making the abrupt collapse of his administration and Harding's sudden death all the more shocking.
- Any scene with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nobody believes that this sickly naval clerk will amount to anything.
- General Failure: Aaron Burr regards George Washington as this, comparing his military record unfavorably to Horatio Clinton, Charles Lee and even Benedict Arnold.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Gore Vidal doesn't believe in heroes or villains, with even Historical Domain bad guys like Aaron Burr revealed to be a more complex and likable figure than his notoriety would allow, showing the context of the actions that would define him and largely putting the entire generation of the founders into perspective.
- History Repeats: W.G. Harding's "Voyage of Understanding", a transcontinental tour to rally the people, reminds Burden of a similar trip made by Wilson to drum up support for the League, leaving Washington at the mercy of Lodge's associates. It is not meant as a flattering comparison.
- I Have No Son!: Burden's father, a veteran of Chickamauga, disowned him for leaving the People's Party to run as a Democrat.
- Incest Is Relative: Peter and Enid in Washington D.C. The novel is a semi-biographical account of Vidal's early life, with Enid as an avatar of Nina Gore, his mother. So, yeah. Considering his vocal dislike of Freudian analyses, this might be Lampshade Hanging on the author's part.
- Lady Drunk: Enid.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: In Burr, Martin Van Buren is posited to be an illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. The last page of the novel unmasks the narrator, Charles Schuyler, as yet another of Burr's children.
- Madness Mantra: Day is torn between the political realities of Washington and stern admonitions from his late father, a populist who despised the federal government. The Senator frequently hears the words "the people" rattling in his brain, driving him up the wall.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Peter Sanford in Washington D.C, and The Golden Age.
- Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: The subject of Burr goes to great lengths to paint himself as this.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Warren Harding surprises many of his so-called supporters by revealing himself to be a crafty politician. Internally, Burden wonders if Harding's image as a harmless, third-tier candidate was all an elaborate ruse.
- One of the key themes in Lincoln involves everyone around the President belatedly realizing that the man they regarded as a semi-competent, story-telling yokel has managed to out-think all of them.
- Old Media Are Evil: William Randolph Hearst and his numerous disciples, although their control over public opinion isn't evil so much as pragmatic. Later, the influence of the press gives away to a vastly more powerful medium: movies!
- Passive-Aggressive Kombat: The Roosevelts are blackbelts.
- Real-Person Fic: The books loosely follow the Sanfords, a clan of Gumps who mix with Washington society. A secondary protagonist, James Burden Day, is introduced in Washington, D.C.
- Riddle for the Ages: Who killed Jess Smith? It's implied in the book that Smith was assassinated as part of a coverup of the Teapot Dome scandal.
- Sanity Slippage: Mary Todd Lincoln.
- Sibling Rivalry: Blaise keeps hoping (indeed, praying) for his sister to fail at something.
- Sleazy Politician: Clay Overbury in Washington D.C is portrayed as a Kennedy-esque charmer whose cutthroat true nature is mostly hidden.
- Stage Names: Movie mogul Caroline Sanford goes undercover as "Emma Traxler."
- Stealth Insult: In their one scene together, Theodore Roosevelt is busting FDR's balls for being a Desk Jockey. Franklin, trying not to grimace, agrees with him and laments, "We must serve where we can do the best for our our country, and not ourselves." (This subtle jab does not escape T.R.'s attention.)
- Straight Gay: Blaise Sanford is an in-universe example of this trope.
- Thanatos Gambit: In the novel Burr, it is strongly suggested (citing actual historical evidence) that Alexander Hamilton took pains to ensure that if he were killed in the duel, he would ruin Burr's political career in the process and disgrace him forever.
- Tragic Hero: Sen. James Burden Day.
- Verbal Tic: Jess Smith's "Whaddaya know?" He also can't stop whistling a folk tune, "My God, How the Money Rolls In", a hint to his role as Harding's bag-man.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Blaise Sanford prizes his protégé, Clay, over his own family. Burden's relationship with his father is noted to have been similarly testy.
- Write Who You Know: This, too. It gets especially meta once he and Peter engage in conversation.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: Burden's quest for the presidency. Teddy Roosevelt seems a shoe-in for the 1920 race, then abruptly dies. Wilson is slated to appoint Burden his VP for an unprecedented third term — until the League of Nations implodes on him. Finally, once the curtain closes on the Ohio Gang, no one is left standing but Coolidge, whom Burden will "inevitably" trounce in the '24 race.
- Since little is known about John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirator David Herold, he's depicted in Lincoln as one of these.
- Jess Smith, another shadowy figure in history; here he is portrayed as a lumbering, slow-witted grocery clerk who somehow lucked out and befriended a future advisor to Warren Harding, himself an obscure newspaper man whose star was on the rise. In that sense, Jess is a tragic figure because he does what he's (implicitly) told to do, and scapegoated when his masters are caught with their hands in the till. The end of the novel strongly suggests he was assassinated as part of the cover-up, even though Jess' nature has been established as the sort unlikely to flip on his "friends."