Gore Vidal was born Eugene Luther Vidal on October 3, 1925, at West Point, where his father, Eugene Vidal, taught aeronautics at the military academy. His father helped to establish civil aviation in the United States and later became the director of air commerce in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential administration. His mother, Nina, was a beautiful socialite, the daughter of Thomas P. Gore, the powerful U.S. senator from Oklahoma, and soon after Vidal’s birth, the family moved to Senator Gore’s mansion in Washington, D.C. He began using the name Gore Vidal when he was fourteen years old.
One of the most learned of contemporary writers, Vidal never went to college. His education began at the home of Senator Gore: The senator, who was blind, used his grandson as a reader and in return gave him free run of his huge library. In 1935, Nina and Eugene Vidal were divorced, and Nina married Hugh D. Auchincloss, a member of a prominent family of bankers and lawyers. Gore Vidal then moved with his mother to the Auchincloss estate on the Potomac River in Virginia, where his education included rubbing shoulders with the nation’s political, economic, and journalistic elite.
Vidal was brought up removed from real life, he has stated, protected from such unpleasant realities as the effects of the Great Depression. He joined other patrician sons at St. Albans School, after which he toured Europe in 1939, then spent one year at Los Alamos School in New Mexico before finishing his formal education with three years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
In 1943, Vidal joined the U.S. Army and served on a transport ship in the Aleutian Islands. His military service gave him subject matter and time to write his first novel, Williwaw. He finished his second book, In a Yellow Wood, before he left the Army. In 1946, he went to work as an editor for E. P. Dutton and soon published The City and the Pillar. Good critical and popular response brought him recognition as one of the nation’s best young authors. He used Guatemala as his home base from 1947 to 1949 and then bought an old estate, Edgewater, on the Hudson River in New York. He wrote five more novels before he was thirty years old.
Meanwhile, a controversy engulfed Vidal and shifted his life and career. The City and the Pillar deals with homosexuality, and because of this, the literary establishment removed him from its list of “approved” writers and critics largely ignored his next few novels. To earn money in the 1950’s, Vidal wrote mysteries under the name Edgar Box and wrote scripts for the...
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