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.

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