Gore Vidal | The Nation

Gore Vidal

Author Bios

Gore Vidal

Contributing Editor

Nation contributing editor Gore Vidal is a prolific novelist, playwright and essayist, and one of the great stylists of contemporary American prose. Vidal made his debut as novelist with Williwaw at the age of 19, while still in the US Army.

Vidal grew accustomed at an early age to a life among political and social
notables. He was born at the military academy in West Point, New York,
where his father was an instructor. He was raised near Washington, DC, in the
house of his grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a populist Democrat senator from
Oklahoma. Vidal learned about political life from him, and when he was a
teenager he adopted the first name of Gore. Vidal also spent time on the
Virginia estate of his stepfather, Hugh. D. Auchincloss. After graduating from
Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he served on an army supply ship
in the Aleutian Islands, near Alaska. Much of his time in the Enlisted Reserve
Corps he devoted to writing. Upon his discharge he worked for six months for
the publishing firm of E.P. Dutton. From 1947 to 1949 Vidal lived in Antigua,
Guatemala. Williwaw was based on his wartime experiences
as first-mate on Freight Ship 35 in the Alaskan Harbour Craft Detachment.
The conventional seafaring story was written in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway.

In 1948 The City and the Pillar shocked the public with its homosexual main
character and the novel also broke the mold of gay American fiction. The book was reissued in 1965 with a different ending. The Judgement of Paris (1953)
is about a young man travelling with the jet-set and wondering how to satisfy
his own part-cynical, part-romantic outlook. Several of Vidal's following novels did not gain critical approval, and Vidal began to write plays for television, Hollywood and the stage.

In the 1960s Vidal returned to the literary scene by writing historical novels, including Julian (1964), written in the form of a journal by the eponymous Roman emperor, Washington, D.C. (1967), a political thriller spanning the years 1937-52, Burr (1974), in which its title character rises above the other Founding Fathers, 1876 (1976), Duluth (1983), and Lincoln (1984), a carefully reconstructed account of the life of the US president, who is "almost diabolically unknowable in his use of power". Creation (1981) is the memoir of an imaginary grandson of Zoroaster who travels the world in the service of Persian kings and plays with the ideas of Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Anaxagoras and other thinkers. In Live From Golgotha (1992) Vidal portrayed events in the Bible as though they were reported on television.

Among Vidal's finest works are two novels which deal with power and sex. Myra Breckenridge (1968) is a transsexual comedy parodying the cult of the Hollywood film star, dedicated to Christopher Isherwood. Its sequel, Myron, appeared in 1974. Myra is a feminist and her alternate self, Myron, is her mirror image and bitter antagonist.

The hero of Washington, D.C., Peter Sandford, appeared again in The
Golden Age (2000), in which the reader meets a number of real, historical
figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph Alsop, Tennessee Williams and the author himself.

Gore Vidal has also been active in liberal politics. In 1960 he ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress as a Democratic-Liberal candidate in New York. Between 1970 and 1972 he was co-chairman of the left-leaning People's Party. In 1982 Vidal launched a campaign in California for the US senate. He came second out of a field of nine, polling half a million votes.

In the 1960s Vidal moved to Italy and appeared as himself in Fellini's Roma (1972). During the Reagan years, Vidal published a collection of essays, Armageddon (1987), in which he explored his love-hate relationship with contemporary America. In 1994 Vidal co-starred with Tim Robbins in the film Bob Roberts. His collected essays, United States (1993), won a National Book Award. In Palimpsest (1995) Vidal wrote of his early life and friends, among them President Kennedy's family.

As an essayist Vidal has dealt with a wide range of subjects from literary to issues of national interest, and people he has known. Vidal's family have provided him with a wealth of material, starting from his maternal grandfather, former senator Thomas Pryor Gore and his relation to Jackie Kennedy through one of his mother's marriages. Vidal has also met and worked with prominent people, using freely these connections in his essays.


News and Features

Florida revisited: Schadenfreude amid the carnage of the democratic process.


Ravello, Italy

Katha Pollitt's heart-wrenching "Happy Mother's Day" was, of course, a treat ["Subject to Debate," May 28]. But the crystalline masses of her prose were sometimes flawed by odd cracks. She rightly mentions how the bogus drug wars waste federal money, not to mention the ever-more-frenzied war on terrorism, which spent, by her calculation, $50 million "executing Timothy McVeigh...not counting plane tix for celebrity death witness Gore Vidal." For the record, my "tix" are paid for by Vanity Fair, which in 1998 printed a piece by me on the shredding of the Bill of Rights, causing McVeigh to begin a three-year correspondence with me. We were due to meet recently; then the Attorney General decided that he was to be sequestered during the weird endgame now begun. McVeigh, who has a sense of humor, proposed I witness his departure instead. Since I am an opponent of the death penalty, I said yes. Read all about it, Nation readers, in Vanity Fair this fall. Meanwhile, you have your mom--Katha.



New York City

Alexander Cockburn's first preposterous diatribe against my accepting the Jerusalem Prize was so full of fabrications that I hardly know where to begin. Now he wants to take credit for inspiring the attack on current Israeli government policies and military conduct I made in the speech I gave at the prize ceremony ["Beat the Devil," April 23, June 4]. Just three corrections: 1. It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair (among past winners: Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Zbigniew Herbert, Milan Kundera, V.S. Naipaul, Octavio Paz, Don DeLillo, J.M. Coetzee). 2. According to the longtime director of the fair, my friend Nadine Gordimer has never won the prize, so could not have been in a position to decline it; according to him, she has never been a candidate. 3. I did not say, could never have said and obviously do not think that Mayor Olmert is "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person."

C'mon, Alex, you can fabricate a more plausible quote than that.



Alexander Cockburn was not the only one to pressure Susan Sontag. The Boston-based Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine sent a very strong letter to Sontag, following the letter publicized by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. Two other prominent Israeli intellectuals, Professor Alice Shalvi and the poet Ada Aharoni, added their voices.

Coalition of Women for a Just Peace


Petrolia, Calif.

To address Sontag's three points: Nowhere did I write that the Jerusalem Prize was awarded by the Israeli government, though I correctly identified the judges who honored Sontag, among them Shimon Peres, Israel's current Foreign Minister. I also mentioned that the person handing her the prize was Ehud Olmert, Mayor of Jerusalem and a leading ethnic cleanser.

Sontag may in retrospect find it incredible that she could have spoken with such warmth about Mayor Olmert, but on May 15 the Jerusalem Post reported her thus. On receipt of Sontag's letter, my colleague Jonathan Shainin contacted the Post's reporter, Greer Fay Cashman, and she responded thus: "Yes, she did say it. It was a spontaneous response to complimentary remarks Olmert made about her at the Jerusalem International Conference Center." As befits an employee of this extremist publication, Cashman added a note of praise for Sontag as being "sufficiently open-minded to be able to publicly say what she said about Olmert."

So far as Nadine Gordimer is concerned, Sontag knows perfectly well that a number of years ago Gordimer was approached by the Jerusalem Prize committee and asked whether she would accept the award if offered. Precisely in the manner I described in my first column she said she would not, and so the offer was never formally made. It is scarcely surprising that Sontag's director friend should have difficulty in recalling this episode.



Berkeley, Calif.

Hal Espen, Outside's editor, makes two errors ["Letters," May 21]. He insists that during an interview with Jay Heinrichs, Ralph Nader said that, if forced to choose, he would vote for Bush. Espen then says the Nader campaign did not contact Outside to complain that the quotation was false. In fact, campaign staff did call Outside several times to object and spoke directly with Heinrichs. I was with Nader for roughly 200 days last year. During that time the which-would-you-choose-if-forced question was asked at least 100 times by ordinary folk and some of the nation's best political reporters. None received the "Bush" answer. Given that he got Nader's other remarks correct, Heinrichs either misunderstood Nader during their phone interview or simply manufactured the "Bush" answer.



New York City

Ken Silverstein's April 23 "Diamonds of Death" is grossly misleading and contains several errors. The World Diamond Council, the Jewelers of America and others in the industry vigorously support effective, enforceable legislation to stop the traffic in conflict diamonds. Silverstein ignored statements by industry leaders making that point and ignored an obvious fact: All legitimate segments of the industry have every incentive--in both moral and business terms--to eliminate conflict diamonds.

It's true there's been disagreement on a handful of provisions in legislation that all concerned want Congress to approve. But industry representatives still search for common ground, even with some who publicly criticize us. Here are some examples of Silverstein's errors.

§ He says that on December 8, I announced that the World Diamond Council was "withdrawing support" from Congressman Tony Hall's bill, thereby killing a measure poised for passage in the final days of the session. Untrue. The WDC worked with Hall's office but did not agree to certain critical aspects of his draft. Further, it was a drastically different rider, originating in the Senate, that had been appended to the appropriations bill cited in the article.

§ Silverstein implies that the WDC then decided to draft its own legislation. Actually, that decision was made, and announced, much earlier. By December 8, drafting was well under way.

§ In an attempt to demonstrate a "hiring spree" of consultants allegedly assigned to oppose proper legislation, Silverstein mentions a "Shandwick Associates" and describes it as specializing in corporate grassroots campaigns. No such firm is associated with us, and no such campaign is being conducted.

§ Silverstein insinuates that the WDC retained the law firm Akin, Gump because its principals include "notable door openers." We went to this firm solely because Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, which they put to good use in drafting model legislation.

World Diamond Council


Ken Silverstein did prodigious research on lobbying by the diamond industry. But he erred when he wrote that "groups such as Global Witness, World Vision, Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International threatened to launch a consumer boycott until the industry changed its buying practices so as to insure that conflict diamonds are eliminated from international markets." None of the groups named nor any of the members of the 100-member Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds has ever advocated a boycott of diamonds. The CECD is the legitimate diamond industry's best friend. We are pushing for tough import controls that will eventually allow jewelers to promise their customers that the diamonds in their stores are clean. They certainly can't say that now.

Physicians for Human Rights

Physicians for Human Rights


Washington, D.C.

Matthew Runci suggests that his industry is strongly supportive of efforts to eliminate conflict diamonds and that I overlooked the "rather obvious fact" that it has "every incentive" to do so. Runci overlooks one rather obvious incentive for companies to deal in conflict diamonds, namely profit. That's why De Beers until a few years ago was buying up almost the entire supply of conflict diamonds from UNITA, the Angolan guerrilla group. Runci's suggestion that the industry has always been deeply troubled about conflict diamonds is equally misleading. Diamond firms began responding to the problem only after NGOs put the issue on the public's radar screen and horrific images of victims of Africa's diamond wars began appearing in the media. The problem became too embarrassing to ignore, and the industry began emitting anguished wails about how something really must be done.

Runci denies withdrawing support for Hall's measure on December 8, but multiple participants at the meeting that day assert that he did just that, to the outrage of NGO representatives on hand. The rider attached to the appropriations bill did originate in the Senate, but there was a clear understanding among the various parties that Hall's measure would be substituted for it.

I don't doubt that Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, but everyone in Washington--except Runci, apparently--knows that Akin, Gump is one of the best-connected firms in town.

The diamond industry did engage in a "hiring spree," as I documented, though I did err in stating that Shandwick Associates is part of the industry's campaign. The confusion arose because Powell Tate, one of the firms working for the industry, bought a PR company called Shandwick International in late 1999 and for a time used the Shandwick name. A Powell Tate staffer named Larry Barrett--who as a younger and more hopeful man wrote for The Nation--gave his business card to various members of the NGO coalition during this period, and several told me that Barrett worked for "Shandwick." The only firm with that name that I came across in a lobbyist database was Shandwick Associates, hence, the mistake. (Powell Tate, by the way, is a specialist in grassroots campaigns. One of its greatest accomplishments, achieved on behalf of the drug industry, was defeating a Clinton Administration initiative to control the costs of childhood vaccines.)

Runci, like many diamond industry officials or lobbyists I spoke with, says that his side is seeking common ground with its critics. Perhaps that's true, but spending huge amounts of money to draft a competing bill and push it through Congress doesn't seem like the best way of demonstrating good faith.


We shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush—the military—Cheney, Powell et al.--will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert.

It all began in the heat of the summer of 1940. Hitler was at his peak in Europe. France had been defeated.

In 1996, Gore Vidal narrated his debacle defending the programs he wrote for the History Channel, which dealt with on the imperial aspects latent in the American presidency, to a panel of corporate media.

Vidal on the new upper-middle-class Jewish hate of homosexuals.