The American writer Gore Vidal, died on Tuesday evening aged 86, from pneumonia. He passing signals the end of a group of writers whose heyday was in the 60s and 70s and who were known for their uncompromising prose and their often controversial views. They became fixtures of the chat show circuit in the 70s when cigarette smoke still wafted around the studio, as did intelligent conversation. Those days are long gone.
Vidal was part of a loose affiliation of writers whose novels and essays changed the face of American Literature. Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson were the other writers whose fierce, relentless writing scorched across the landscape of American letters. Capote died young, the victim of alcohol and drugs, in 1984; Thompson committed suicide in 2005; Mailer died in 2007. And now the last of the literary outlaws has passed.
Something that made these writers seem larger than life was that there was much more to them than merely writing. While Vidal himself was considered one of the greatest American essayists (Martin Amis said: “Essays are what he is good at … [h]e is learned, funny and exceptionally clear-sighted. Even his blind spots are illuminating.”) he was also a voracious political activist. A lifelong Democrat supporter, he ran for Congress and for Governor, but also admitted once that “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” He had a long-running feud with conservative author and journalist, William F. Buckley Jr. In a debate at the 1968 Democratic convention, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”; Buckley responded, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Mailer and Thompson were hugely outspoken politically also, with Mailer having run for Mayor of New York and Thompson having had a long-running public hatred of Richard Nixon.
Despite all this, there was no love lost between any of these writers. Capote once said about Gore that he felt, “very sad that he has to breathe every day.” Vidal in turn called Capote a “filthy animal that has found its way into the house.” Vidal compared Mailer to the serial killer Charles Manson, which prompted Mailer to headbutt him before an appearance on the Dick Cavett show (A short clip of their trading insults on the show can be seen below)
But all in all, Vidal seemed to regret little: “I’ve had hard targets in my lifetime, I’ve taken on general superstitions, but that’s what writers do. So I certainly, wouldn’t have changed my modus vivendi one bit.”
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