Gore Vidal—-novelist, essayist, contrarian of the pre-Slate-contrarianism era, source of Michelle Bachmann‘s conservative awakening, squabbler with Norman Mailer, squabbler with William F. Buckley, squabbler with Christopher Hitchens, squabbler with most interviewers in his later years, gay literature pioneer, failed political candidate, screenwriter, author of the novel that inspired what’s considered by many to be among the worst films ever made, and plenty more besides—-died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 86.
Vidal was a product of Washington, D.C.—-he attended St. Albans—-and his influence on the Washington novel was immense. Even Hitchens, his longtime acolyte and later adversary, conceded the point. In a 2010 essay for City Journal, he praised Vidal’s grasp of both the city’s political parrying as well as its peccadillos:
Gore Vidal has no rival. I once heard Newt Gingrich rebuke someone who was bad-mouthing Vidal’s politics, insisting that he wished to hear no ill of the author of the magnificent Lincoln. This work is indeed enormously praiseworthy, as is the larger sequence of which it forms a part. In Burr, for example, Vidal guessed the truth about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings long before most historians grudgingly conceded the point.
The city that formed Vidal’s political consciousness will presumably be his final resting place. His headstone is in Rock Creek Cemetery, next to the grave of his longtime partner, Howard Auster, who died in 2003. But as Sean Daly reported in City Paper in 1999, his plot is also not far from that of his first love, St. Albans classmate James “Jimmy” Trimble III. (Vidal’s 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, open about homosexuality in a way rare for its time, is dedicated to “J.T.”)
In an excellent 2011 piece on St. Albans’ baseball team, Dave McKenna filled out some of Trimble’s history: He was a pitching phenom who’d attracted the Washington Senators’ attention and, McKenna writes, got “to at least third base in the school’s bathroom” with Vidal. Trimble died at Iwo Jima during World War II, yet Vidal was still musing on his brief relationship with Trimble decades after. “I am now trying to solve a mystery,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest. “Would he have continued to recall what was for me a completing of the self but might have been for him nothing at all?”
Photo by Van Vechten via The Library of Congress