Friday, January 29, 2016

Gore Vidal, 86, Dead of Pneumonia Complicated by Alcoholism, Dementia

Known for his patrician manner, withering bon mots, and vitriolic feuds with other literary figures, author Gore Vidal spent his last years in alcohol-induced dementia, accusing his relatives, staff, and friends of being CIA impostors trying to abduct him. His animosity toward them all was reflected in his will, which bequeathed his estate, valued at $37 million—plus future royalties on his 25 novels, 26 nonfiction books, fourteen screenplays, and eight plays—to Harvard University, which he never attended.

Born Eugene Louis Vidal October 23, 1925, in the cadet hospital at the U. S. Military Academy in West Point, where his father was an instructor, he adopted his mother’s maiden name of Gore when he was fourteen.  After attending several posh prep schools—Sidwell Friends Academy, St. Albans School, Los Alamos Ranch, and Philips Exeter—he served a stint in the Army, then rejected the notion of going to college, in favor of launching his literary career. His second novel, The City and the Pillar, created a furor because its protagonist was in a homosexual relationship; the book editor of The New York Times refused to review it or any of Vidal’s work. Vidal’s editor at the publishing firm of E. P. Dutton told him, “You will never be forgiven for this book.”

While the controversy raged, Vidal adopted the literary pseudonym of Edgar Box and turned out three successful mystery novels, which enabled him to earn a living. His later literary career included a wide variety of novels, notably Julian, Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Myra Breckenridge, and Empire; many books espousing liberal political causes; plays including the Broadway hits The Best Man and Visit to A Small Planet, and screenplays (either written or doctored) that included The Catered Affair, Suddenly Last Summer, Is Paris Burning?, I Accuse!, Caligula, and Ben-Hur—the last including a scene with a homosexual subtext that the director and other actors strove to keep Charlton Heston from knowing about.

An aesthete of the highest caliber, Vidal filled his homes, on the Italian Amalfi coast, in Rome, and in Hollywood, with valuable art works. One treasured statue of a nearly naked nymph, her arms wantonly outstretched, Vidal once described as “Princess Margaret asking for a gin-and-tonic.”  His many acerbic one-liners cynically encompass a range of topics: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail”; “A narcissist is someone better looking than you are”; “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches and books, and there is some evidence they can’t read them, either”; and “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Vidal waged literary feuds with other writers, including Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and William F. Buckley. He called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” on Dick Cavett’s television program, and Buckley responded by calling Vidal “a queer.” Lawsuits followed on both sides, but the case was settled and Vidal withdrew his allegations when he learned that Buckley had a file on his activities that he feared might try to establish that Vidal had had sexual relations with underage boys.  

Vidal, who was the grandson of Oklahoma’s U. S. Senator Thomas Pryor Gore (but is not related to Al Gore), also had political ambitions.  As a Democrat, he ran for U. S. Congress in New York for the U. S. Senate in California, but lost both elections.

In 1950 Vidal met Howard Auster (later changed to Austen), a struggling 21-year-old advertising copywriter, and they began a 53-year relationship, as Vidal said, “as two men who decided to spend their lives together.” The secret of their relationship, according to Vidal, was that after having sex on the night they met, they never did so again. "It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part,” he allowed, “and impossible, I have observed, when it does."

After Austen’s death from brain cancer in 2003, Vidal descended into nearly a decade of drunkenness and dementia.  Although he still continued to write, he began to drink as soon as work stopped, preferably 12-year-old MacAllan single-malt Scotch.  In an interview with Tim Teeman, Vidal's nephew, Burr Steers, said he regularly “drank until he collapsed.” The heavy alcoholic intake caused Vidal to develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder sometimes known as “wet brain” that results in dementia, confusion, and hallucinations. In his final months,  Steers said, Vidal’s “brain had gone. He had all this fluid that was filling up inside him. They’d drain him every day. He had congestive heart failure. It was really miserable. The only thing he reacted to was pain. His eyes were open but he was struggling to breathe. But his body didn’t give up. The doctors said it was as strong as an ox, considering he was so sedentary.”

In July of 2012, Vidal developed pneumonia, and he died on July 31 at the age of eighty-six. He had instructed that his ashes be buried next to Austen’s in Washington, D. C.’ s Rock Creek Cemetery. Two years after his death, according to a story in The New York Times, his remains had not yet been interred by the family.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Heart failure fatal for godly cigar-smoker G. K. Chesterton at age 62

“The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes,” said G. K. Chesterton, “and the business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Chesterton, known as the “Prince of Paradox,” was not only a political commentator, but also a poet, historian, playwright, literary and art critic, journalist, Roman Catholic lay theologian and apologist, vigorous debater and mystery writer—creator of the Father Brown series. In all, he wrote eighty books, two hundred short stories, four thousand essays, hundreds of poems, and several plays.  

Born Gilbert Keith Chesterton on May 29, 1874, in Kensington Hill, London, to a family of Unitarians, he was nonetheless baptized in the Church of England, of which he remained a member until he was forty-eight, when he converted to Catholicism. He attended St. Paul’s School and the Slade School of Art at University College, London, but never received a degree. He became a columnist for the London Daily News and the Illustrated London News and was soon in demand as a public debater on issues of the day. His favorite adversaries were H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, and George Bernard Shaw, his notable “friendly enemy,” who called Chesterton “a man of colossal genius.” 

The milieu in which Chesterton moved may have been a mix of serious literary and philosophical giants—but these idols liked to let their hair down occasionally, as is attested by this account of a dinner party just before World War I at London’s Reform Club. “Present were Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and Hugh Walpole. There was no talk about literature or the arts, or friendship or nature or morality or personal relations or the ends of life. There was not a touch of anything faintly aesthetic—the talk was hearty, concerned with royalties, publishers, love affairs, absurd adventures, society scandals and anecdotes about famous persons, accompanied by gusts of laughter, puns, limericks, a great deal of mutual banter, jokes about money, women, and foreigners, and with a great deal of drink. The atmosphere was that of a male dining club of vigorous, amusing, sometimes rather vulgar friends.”

Chesterton and Shaw once agreed to appear as cowboys in a silent movie being made by James M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame. Chesterton reported that he and Shaw and several other literary figures spent an afternoon being filmed rolling in barrels, being pushed over fake precipices, and lassoing wild ponies that were so tame the horses were chasing the cowboys instead of vice versa. The film was never released.

In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Blogg. They never had children, but adopted a girl named Dorothy Collins, who became Chesterton’s secretary.

A big man, Chesterton stood six-feet-four in height and weighed almost three hundred pounds. His weight and his dietary habits no doubt contributed to his chronic edema—swelling caused by congestive heart failure. He loved beef, beer, and claret, and he was a heavy cigar smoker—always making the sign of the cross with his match before lighting his cigar. He called smoking a “Parnassian pleasure” and said tobacco smoke was the “ichor of mental life.”

In the spring of 1936 his continuing illness took him to the French shrines of Lourdes and Lisieux, seeking a cure, but to no avail. Almost immediately upon his return to Top Meadow, his home in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, he grew worse, and on June 7 he suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. With a crucifix hanging above him and with his wife and adopted daughter praying at his bedside, Chesterton received the last rites from his parish priest, Monsignor Smith, and a Dominican priest, the Rev. Vincent McNabb, kissed the pen with which Chesterton had written most of his works and sang the Salve Regina. Chesterton died on the morning of June 14, 1936, at the age of  sixty-two. 

A requiem mass was celebrated at St. Theresa’s Church in Beaconsfield, but not many of his friends were able to attend, since his illness was not widely known, and his death came as an unexpected shock. He was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Beaconsfield.  Because so few were able to attend the funeral, a solemn requiem mass was sung for the repose of his soul at Westminster Cathedral on June 27, with two thousand people—including George Bernard Shaw—in attendance. The principal celebrant was Chesterton’s friend, the Rev. John O’Connor, who had received him into the Catholic Church and who had been the basis for Chesterton’s detective-priest, Father Brown.  The homily was delivered by Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Chesterton left an estate of £28,389, equivalent to slightly more than $2 million in today’s values.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bad cold turns into pneumonia: novelist Victor Hugo dead at 83

Victor Hugo, one of France’s most revered and richly rewarded writers, insisted on being buried in a pauper’s plain coffin, which was first placed to lie in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe, then, as two million people watched, transported by mule cart to the Panthéon for burial next to Voltaire.  Although he practiced Catholicism in his youth, Hugo specified in his will that he was to be buried without a crucifix or a priest, refusing “the orations of all churches.” He added, however, “I do believe in God.”

Born into a military family in Besançon on February 26, 1802, Hugo was the son of a major general in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.  When Napoleon was ousted, the family had to scratch for a living, and Hugo’s father sneered at his son’s desire to be a writer. “I shall prove to him,” Victor told his brother Abel, “that a poet can earn sums far greater than the wages of an imperial general.”

And so he did.  Assiduously applying himself to his writing, he soon achieved fame and considerable income from his plays, political tracts, and novels—most notably Notre-Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les Misérables (although, regrettably, he did not live long enough to enjoy the enormous royalties from the theatrical musical version of the latter).  Although his works were sharply criticized by the Church (he counted 750 separate attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press), they became extremely popular with the public.

Hugo’s work schedule was rigorous. He began writing about 8:00 a.m. and continued until lunch about 2:00.  He worked again from 4:00 until 8:00 p.m., when he would take a couple of hours to do some work-related reading, followed by a late dinner. “My colleagues spend their days sitting in cafes and talking about writing,” he remarked. “But I am not like them. I write. That is my secret. What I achieve is done by hard work, not through miracles.”

His commitment to hard work did not preclude some pleasures of the flesh.  His “light” luncheon typically consisted of paté, omelet or fish, roast beef or lamb with potatoes and several other vegetables, salad, English pudding, cheese, and a different wine with each course. Dinner might include a dozen oysters, soup, fish, roast chicken, Beef Wellington, salad, and chocolate mousse, followed by a half-dozen oranges. He stayed in shape by finding time to walk a couple of hours every day.

Hugo was a political activist all his life. He served in the National Assembly and in the Senate, first as a conservative, but more liberal as he grew older. His opposition to Napoleon III, the first Napoleon’s nephew, who reigned from 1852 to 1870, sent Hugo into exile in the Channel Islands for fifteen years. His liberal instincts resulted in extraordinary generosity to those in need. It was estimated that as much as one-third of his income was devoted to private charity. Every other Sunday for years he served dinner to about fifty impoverished children in his neighborhood, and his diary is filled with notations of food, household items, and money given to the needy.

Hugo married Adèle Foucher when he was twenty, and they had five children.  The eldest surviving child (and Hugo’s favorite), a daughter named Léopoldine drowned when she was nineteen along with her husband  in a boating accident shortly after their marriage.  Hugo was traveling with his mistress, Juliette Drouet, in the south of France at the time, and he learned of his daughter’s death in a newspaper he was reading in a café.

Other tragedies befell him: in 1868 his wife died, and four years later Hugo had a stroke, and his daughter Adèle was confined to an insane asylum, followed shortly by the death of both his sons. His beloved Juliette died of cancer in 1883, and Hugo remained depressed for the next two years until his own death.

On May 15, 1884, Hugo caught a bad cold.  It lingered for several days, with a hacking cough, high fever, and shortness of breath. It turned to pneumonia, and at 1:30 p.m. on May 22, Hugo died at the age of eighty-three.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wordy novelist Thomas Wolfe, 37, felled by miliary tuberculosis

“Thomas Wolfe wrote more bad prose than any other major 
writer,” said one biographer of the ill-fated American novelist 
who died at thirty-seven, leaving four major novels for his 
readers to slog through. From the opening lines of Wolfe’s 
first novel, Look Homeward, Angel:  
            . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; 
            of a stone, a leaf, a door.  And of all             
            the forgotten faces.  
            Naked and alone we came into 
            exile.  In her dark womb we did 
            not know our mother's face; 
            from the prison of her flesh have 
            we come into the unspeakable and 
            incommunicable prison of this 
well, you know you’re in for a rocky ride.  
The book reflects Wolfe’s prophetic fear of tuberculosis, to 
which he was unwittingly exposed as a child at his mother’s 
boarding house. Born October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North 
Carolina, Wolfe was the youngest of eight children of a 
gravestone carver and his entrepreneurial wife.When Tom 
was six, his mother opened a 29-room boarding house called 
the Old Kentucky Home in Asheville, and the boy went to live 
with her for a decade, leaving the rest of the family at their 
other home. Owing to the climate and altitude of Asheville, 
it was a major center for the treatment of tuberculosis, the 
world’s most dreaded disease at the time. Many of the patients 
seeking treatment stayed at Mrs. Wolfe’s boarding house, 
thereby infecting Tom with the bacteria that would cause his 
death years later. 

Wolfe graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1920, having excelled in his studies, edited the college paper, acted in plays, and won essay and playwriting contests. He went on to earn an M. A. at Harvard, where he studied playwriting with the legendary George Pierce Baker. Unable to sell his plays to Broadway producers, who found them too long and wordy, he took a job teaching English at New York University, where remained off and on for seven years.

In 1925, following a trip to Europe, he met the scene designer Aline Bernstein, a married woman eighteen years older. They began a torrid affair, which lasted five years. Bernstein’s influence helped Wolfe secure publication of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, by the prestigious Scribner’s publishing house, where his editor was Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, who also edited the works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, made major changes in Wolfe’s lengthy, impressionistic, autobiographical epic. The result, although it was a best-selling novel, made Wolfe uneasy that his work had been so thoroughly revised. 

The book created a furor in Asheville, where many of Wolfe’s neighbors were outraged to recognize themselves.  (Ironically, when Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River, was published many Ashevilleans were even more incensed that they had not been included!)  As originally submitted to Scribner’s, Of Time and the River, was a multi-volume work, which Perkins slashed down to a single volume. Although it was even more successful than his first novel, Wolfe decided to leave Scribner’s and Perkins and he signed a new deal with Harper’s.

In May of 1938 Wolfe submitted a manuscript of more than one million words to his new editor, Edward Aswell, at Harper’s, and embarked on a vacation tour of the American West. On July 6, in Seattle, Wolfe came down with cough, fever, and congestion, thought to be pneumonia. He was examined by Dr. Edward Ruge, a friend’s doctor, and admitted to a private sanitarium, where he was treated with diathermy, cough suppressants, and rest. A corpulent man—he had a gargantuan appetite for both food and alcohol—Wolfe at first showed improvement, but his cough lingered and by early August he was experiencing severe headaches. He was transferred to Seattle’s Providence Hospital, where an x-ray disclosed abnormalities in his lung that suggested tuberculosis—the disease that Wolfe had feared all his life. 

Under the care of Dr. Charles Watts, a lung specialist, Wolfe got no better and his headaches intensified. On September 4 Wolfe was found to be disoriented, and Dr. Watts suspected the a metastatic tubercular lesion in  his brain.  A neurosurgeon, Dr. George Swift, examined Wolfe and diagnosed a “brain abscess,” which was possibly tubercular in origin. The Seattle doctors urged Wolfe to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and seek the services of Dr. Walter Dandy, regarded as the nation’s leading brain surgeon.

Accompanied by his sister Mabel and a nurse, Wolfe was transported on a five-day train journey and arrived in Baltimore September 10. Dr. Dandy found him “desperately ill,” and concluded he was suffering from acute pulmonary tuberculosis complicated by metastatic malignancies. He performed a trepanning operation to relieve the pressure on Wolfe’s brain, and fluid shot three feet into the air. On September 23 a cerebellar exploratory operation was performed, and Dr. Dandy discovered “myriads of tubercles” through the meninges. He concluded that nothing could be done to save the patient. 

Wolfe never regained consciousness and died September 15, 1938, eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday. The official cause of death was miliary tuberculosis, a form of the disease characterized by a distinctive pattern of tiny lesions that spread throughout the body’s organs and resemble millet seeds, from which the term “miliary” is derived.

The body was taken back to Asheville for a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church. As mourners gathered, a Methodist minister who was passing by observed that Wolfe “was not entitled to a Christian burial.” Even the officiant at the ceremony, the Rev. Robert Campbell, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, was unsure of Wolfe’s religious status.  He observed:

“I wish I had something definite to say about his religious life. As there was a restlessness and lack of definite form in his intellectual and emotional processes, it is natural to assume the same was true of his religious beliefs and aspirations….As Tom’s friend and pastor, I shall always cherish the hope and the belief that in the yearning desire of his restless heart to find his rest, his home, his peace in the heavenly Father’s presence, that there was the pith and substance of the Christian faith.”

Mourners, including playwrights Paul Green and Clifford Odets, and Wolfe’s onetime editor, Maxwell Perkins, witnessed the burial service at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. His new editor, Edward Aswell, boiled down the million-plus words Wolfe had left into two posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress