Biography

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Gore Vidal, named Eugene Luther Vidal at birth, was born on October 3, 1925, at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. His father, Eugene Vidal, was an instructor in the new science of aeronautics; he later founded airlines and in the 1930’s was director of air commerce for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Gore’s mother, Nina, was the beautiful and socially prominent daughter of Oklahoma senator Thomas P. Gore.

Soon after Gore’s birth, his family moved to Washington, D.C., and lived with his grandfather. Senator Gore was blind; in exchange for young Gore’s reading to him, the senator allowed his grandson to use his huge library. Gore began to educate himself at age five, when he could read and write. When the Vidal marriage ended in divorce in 1935, Nina married Hugh D. Auchincloss, a wealthy investment banker. Gore moved to the huge Auchincloss estate in Virginia, only a few miles from his grandfather Gore.

Young Gore grew up among the United States’ political, economic, and journalistic elite. He attended good private schools with other young men from prominent families, spending the happiest three years of his life at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. After he graduated in 1943, during World War II, he immediately went into the Army. He never went to college but is considered one of the most learned literary figures of his generation.

Before he left the Army in 1946, Vidal finished writing his first two published novels, Williwaw (1946) and In a Yellow Wood (1947). These established him as one of the best of the young postwar writers. By 1954 he had published eight novels, but it was his third novel that would affect the rest of his life: The City and the Pillar (1948) dealt with homosexuality. Homosexuality was a shocking subject in 1948, made doubly so because Vidal made his protagonist a normal, all-American boy, not a bizarre or doomed figure, as such characters usually were in American fiction.

Vidal would himself be labeled homosexual, which would influence reaction to him in the literary and political world. Vidal does not believe that anyone is homosexual or heterosexual. He believes that all humans feel sexual desires for both males and females but that most societies try to socialize their members into suppressing their desire for their own sex. Sexual acts are homosexual or heterosexual, Vidal says, but a person is neither.

His next few books were ignored, and Vidal found himself in financial trouble. In 1954, he began writing for television, in the so-called Golden Age when television broadcast many live dramas. He also became a Hollywood figure, writing screenplays, including The Catered Affair (1956) and, with Tennessee Williams, Suddenly Last Summer (1959). He wrote several plays, including two Broadway hits: Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville (1957) and The Best Man: A Play About Politics (1960). He also wrote three mystery novels under the name Edgar Box.

By the early 1960’s, Vidal had built a secure financial base and had established himself as a well-known public figure. He was an outspoken social critic, and he offered a scathing indictment of United States leadership and policy. The turmoil produced by the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal made a large segment of the educated public receptive to his message. In 1960, Vidal ran for a seat in the House of Representatives; in 1982, he ran for the Senate. He did not win either race but received greater percentages of the votes than observers had thought he could.

In 1964, Vidal published Julian

(This entire section contains 706 words.)

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Julian, a historical novel about a fourth century Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, who had tried to stop the spread of Christianity. This was Vidal’s first novel in ten years and was a critical and financial success. After this, Vidal turned out a succession of best-selling novels, including more historical fiction and such famous and controversial forays into popular culture as his novel Myra Breckinridge (1968).

Vidal remains a scathing critic of almost every aspect of American life. He lives much of each year in Italy, where he has a beautiful villa overlooking the Bay of Salerno. He returns periodically to the United States to make the talk-show circuit on television and to release his newest novel or book of essays.

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