Iconoclast, bitingly liberal intellectual, prolific author and TV personality Gore Vidal died Tuesday at home in the Hollywood Hills. He was 86. His nephew said Vidal died from complications of pneumonia.
Vidal didn't like labels - but he didn't shy away from being gay, either. In 1948, at age 24, homosexuality was at the core of his second, semi-autobiographical mainstream novel "The City and the Pillar." Vidal later said that his athletic schoolmate had been the one true love of his life. Though it hurt his professional career, the book was successful and, critic Robert Kiernan wrote, was studied by scholars because Vidal "wrote what had never been published by a reputable American writer: an unreserved novel about the homosexual demimonde and the 'naturalness' of homosexual relations."
In 1968, "Myra Breckinridge" came out. Considered by many to be his masterpiece and the book Vidal said was his favorite, "Myra Breckinridge" has been described as "campy" and a "spoof." In Vidal's obit, the New York Times described it as "a graphic satire about a sociopathic transsexual who goes to California to become a Hollywood star. Called "repulsive" and "brutally witty" by the New York Times, it became a massive bestseller. The 1970 movie, which critics panned, starred Raquel Welch as Myra.
Later Vidal wrote a series of re-imagined historical novels and odes to his own intellect. Anti-Christianity, his 1992 "The Gospel According to Gore Vidal" was denounced by the Vatican for his take on Jesus. "If God exists and Jesus is His son," gay novelist John Rechy ("Sexual Outlaw") wrote in a Los Angeles Times review, "then Gore Vidal is going to hell."
Vidal wrote about his gay sexual exploits, including with Beat poet Jack Kerouac - but he resisted labels, saying at one point: "there are not homosexual people, only homosexual acts." From the New York Times:
"By the time he was 25, he had already had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women, he boasted in his memoir "Palimpsest." Mr. Vidal tended toward what he called "same-sex sex," but frequently declared that human beings were inherently bisexual, and that labels like gay (a term he particularly disliked) or straight were arbitrary and unhelpful. For 53 years, he had a live-in companion, Howard Austen, a former advertising executive, but the secret of their relationship, he often said, was that they had never slept together."
On the other hand, Vidal didn't shy away from creating a little gay mischief. He had developed a reputation for writing screen adaptations (he wrote the screenplay from his friend Tennessee Williams's play "Suddenly, Last Summer," for instance) and for being a script doctor. In 1956 he was hired by MGM to work on the movie "Ben-Hur" - which he describes in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, based on the book by Vito Russo (via YouTube):