Influential gay writer Gore Vidal died yesterday, July 31, in his Hollywood Hills home at age 86.
Vidal leaves behind a body of work that can only be described as staggering. He was highly prolific, writing 25 novels, scores of essays, plays, screenplays and TV dramas. He contributed to the screenplay of Ben Hur and would later analyze the homoerotic subtext he developed in the documentary The Celluloid Closet.
When Vidal’s book The City and the Pillar was first published in 1948, the author set the American literary community on its ear. This was, after all, a book that unapologetically featured a same-sex romance at its centre. The reaction indicates how much times have changed: so put off by the homosexuality in the book, The New York Times declined to review Vidal’s next five books.
Vidal was but 22 when The City and the Pillar was published. Since then, he continued to engage in, and inspire, debate, often attacking the American political establishment. The right hated him, and deeply; Vidal and William F Buckley held a series of legendary debates in the 1960s and ’70s.
But his sparring partners went beyond Buckley; Vidal publicly bickered with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and most recently Edmund White, after White penned a play about Vidal’s relationship with convicted domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh. The McVeigh connection proved one of Vidal’s strangest political causes. He exchanged a number of letters with McVeigh as part of his research for articles he wrote for Vanity Fair. Vidal actually defended McVeigh, who was executed by the US government in 2001.
Despite his queer trailblazing, Vidal disavowed much of the gay and lesbian liberation movement and repeatedly said he didn’t particularly care for the word “gay,” had little or no time for gay identity, and argued that everyone was essentially bisexual. He boasted of more than 1,000 sexual conquests by the time he was 25, and while they included some women, he acknowledged he generally preferred men.
Last year, I had the honour of interviewing Vidal, when he was at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal. Then 85, he was still acerbic and a hilarious interview. This is an almost verbatim transcript of our conversation.
Matthew Hays for Xtra: What do you make of Obama’s work so far?
Gore Vidal: I think it’s mistaken, a lot of it. I don’t think he has many weapons with which to defend whatever positions he feels strongly about. He keeps on learning, and that’s always a good thing. It would have been better if many of our presidents had learned as they went along, like Woodrow Wilson for example, and had not acted too precipitously and got us into trouble.
Have you met Obama?
No, and I have no interest. I’ve met enough presidents, thank you.
You’ve said the US is headed toward a fascist dictatorship.
No, I never said that! I talked about possibilities. We have to talk seriously about serious issues. So let’s talk seriously.
But you did say that America was headed in a fascistic direction.
Well, everybody’s headed, because we’re all going to die. This is news to Americans, and don’t tell them I said so, because I don’t want to be held responsible when they start to drop away.
You’ve said that the institution of journalism in America is a train wreck.
Well of course it is. I thought everybody knew that.
Are you hopeful about what the internet will bring in terms of citizen journalism? Some argue the internet is undermining journalism.
There’s nothing wrong with some of that. But what’s left to undermine?
So you feel the media hasn’t done a good enough job of —
— When have they ever? Why should they? As Abraham Lincoln said, anyone who wants a freer press should get themselves a newspaper. I go by Mr Lincoln’s wise words.
Some have suggested that after 9/11, appeals to people’s patriotism became so overwhelming that this led to censorship that became worse than McCarthyism.
I don’t find them comparable at all. You can compare any two things. There will always be likeness in any two things that are human. And conservatives are sometimes known to be human.
You’ve said there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans.
You think there are? You make the case.
Well, actually, if you look at Supreme Court appointments, there’s a huge difference between the choices that Bush made and Obama is making.
We probably should have had, as Jefferson proposed a long time ago, a revision of the constitution. This wasn’t a perfect constitution by any means; in fact, it’s not a very good one. That’s why we’re having these problems. Things should be rectified. It would be up to a congress to do it, to bring us up to whatever century we feel we belong in.
You once said that Bush was the stupidest man in America —
— I didn’t say that. I said he was the stupidest president. We have many other stupid Americans.
What do you make of Sarah Palin?
I don’t make anything of her. She’s from wild Alaska. I spent many of the war years in Alaska. I don’t say I went away admiring a proto-state. It seemed a real mess up there.
Do you think she could become president?
Well, you know, Rome fell. Anything of a cataclysmic nature is always possible.
Have you been following the legal battles for legal recognition of same-sex marriage?
I couldn’t care less. What difference does it make if you want to be called “missus” or “mister” or “count me out.” I find it very hard to be interested in the subject.
What do you read when you get your political news?
I don’t read much of the popular press, because it’s always loaded. I know what Mr Hearst will say, what Mr Murdoch will say.
Do you read The Guardian? What newspapers do you read?
I used to read a lot of the British papers, in particular when one of our wars is going on. I have to see how stupid it is, and it’ll be very nice to read The Guardian on the subject.
Do you watch Jon Stewart?
Who doesn’t watch Jon Stewart? I have an antenna up for that one.
We’re in the middle of an election right now in Canada. Do you follow our politics at all?
No, but I love Mackenzie King’s musings on religion.
Are you on Facebook?
Good god, no! I’m not 11 years old!
What advice do you have for young writers?
Learn how to read.
You’ve said you don’t identify as gay, that there are homosexual acts, not homosexual people.
I think that’s so beautifully said, you must keep saying it.
You called Timothy McVeigh a patriot. Do you ever regret that remark?
I don’t regret anything I’ve said. I think before I speak; did you know that? I mean, I’m an American, but I do my best.