Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Gore Vidal

“Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television.” – Gore Vidal

UPDATE: Gore Vidal died on July 31, 2012, at the age of 86, at his Hollywood Hills home of complications from pneumonia.

One of America’s great overachievers, Gore Vidal (b. 1925) is hard to categorize. He’s a novelist, social critic, playwright, essayist, mystery writer (as Edgar Box), pulp romance writer (as Katherine Everard), adventure writer (as Cameron Kay), screenwriter, ex-pat jet setter, literary critic, congressional candidate, political activist, and actor – for starters. He is cantankerous, opinionated, gruff and completely inflexible.

Now in his late eighties, he still makes the news. A couple of months ago his affirmation of the salacious details revealed in Scotty Bowers’ recent Hollywood memoir (Full Service) had Vidal’s name cropping up all over the Internet.

The grandson of a U.S. Senator, Vidal entered the army during World War II while in his teens. Although he rose to the rank of sergeant, he has had no subsequent formal higher education. Because Vidal felt uncomfortable living in the U.S. with its homophobic attitudes and extreme conservatism, he lived mostly in Italy from the mid 1960s, from where he wrote many stinging rebukes about American hypocrisies. Vidal shared his life with his companion Howard Austen, who died of brain cancer in 2003. For 30 years they lived in a villa perched on a cliff in Ravello, Italy, high above the Amalfi coast (see photos below). Austen and Vidal met in 1950 at New York City's Everard Baths. The pseudonym Vidal used as a romance writer, Katherine Everard, sprang from that encounter.

Guests of Vidal and Howard Austen at Villa La Rondinaia (Swallow’s Nest, above) in Ravello included Italo Calvino, Hillary Clinton, Gianni Agnelli, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Rudolf Nureyev, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Leonard Bernstein, Peter O'Toole, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams and Princess Margaret, to name just a few. In 1983, the town council of Ravello gave Vidal honorary citizenship. It was Howard Austen who oversaw the decoration and furnishing of the house and cared for the grounds. Austen, a fine cook, felt at ease entertaining some of the world’s most famous people. The 6-acre property is spread over 20 terraced levels, and Vidal’s bad knees led to his selling his Amalfi Coast home of thirty years, when he could no longer walk to the piazza. This stark white villa, shown atop the sheer stone cliff in the photo below, was recently sold to a hotelier for $17 million.

Austen was Vidal’s companion for half a century. He ran their households in Italy and California, handled the finances, travel arrangements and all the day-to-day details that freed up Vidal’s schedule so that he had time to devote to writing, reading, politics and other ambitious projects. In short, Howard made Gore Vidal’s career and lifestyle possible.

The City and the Pillar (1948), written when Vidal was just twenty-three years old, is the story of professional tennis player Jim Willard, a man who never outgrew his boyhood crush on his best friend Bob Ford. That men who enjoyed sex with other men could go undetected in straight circles was an idea that shocked and outraged many of the novel’s readers and critics. The New York Times was so put off by the forthright writing about homosexuals that it refused to review Vidal’s next five books. Although Vidal vehemently (and frequently) declared that there is no such thing as a homosexual identity because everyone is bisexual to some degree, The City and the Pillar was the first mainstream coming-out novel. Twenty years after its initial publication, Vidal published The City and the Pillar with a different ending. Most of Vidal's subsequent literary works had prominent gay characters and gay themes, opening up the path for other writers to expanded gay visibility in mainstream fiction.

In Myra Breckinridge (1968), Vidal created further controversy by writing the first book in which the main character undergoes a clinical sex-change, resulting in a sharp satire of contemporary mores. It was made into a dreadful mess of a film (1970) that starred Raquel Welch in the title role. It was released with an “X” rating, not surprising for its time. It contained a lesbian scene and archival footage of Hollywood classic film stars, many of whom sued to have themselves removed from the film. Because Shirley Temple was a U.S. ambassador upon the film’s release, the White House demanded that footage from her movie Heidi be excised. It seemed everyone wanted to distance himself from this film, including Gore Vidal, who disowned it, calling the movie “an awful joke.” While the film version was an uncontested disaster, many critics consider Myra Breckinridge to be Vidal’s best novel.

A youthful Gore Vidal, in photo at right.

Two Sisters (1970) was a successful effort both in experimental point of view and in realistic representation of homosexual identity. Vidal wrote himself into the book as one of the two main narrators. Many of Vidal’s later writings contained autobiographical elements.

He is a distant cousin of Al Gore, Jr., Vice President of the U.S. (1992-2000), a fact known by few people. Gore Vidal grew up in Washington, DC., so he has had an inside track on politics for his entire life. His father was a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet and his grandfather a senator from Oklahoma. Gore Vidal shared a stepfather with Jackie Kennedy. In his book Point to Point Navigation (2006), he criticizes George W. Bush’s America as it sank deeper into war, debt and autocratic rule. The title refers to the dangerous feat of steering a ship without benefit of a compass, a nod to Vidal’s WW II military service.

Vidal’s career has been marked by many acrimonious elements. His feuds with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote made the tabloid gossip columns. Nonetheless, his 75+ year career has yielded  25 novels, five plays, several screenplays for television and film, over 200 essays, and two memoirs – across all genres. An ultimately unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Congress in 1960 (“You’ll Get More with Gore”), earned support from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. He also lost a 1982 bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and the same result came from a run for the office of the Governorship of California. He achieved celebrity status and counted among his friends many of the world’s richest and most powerful people. He also acted in two films (Bob Roberts in 1992, Gattaca in 1997) and appeared in many television interviews and documentaries. It is easy to forget, among all this career clutter, that Vidal was one of the first mainstream men of influence to embrace homosexuality and celebrate bisexuality. And for that, we are all of us in debt to this man.


  1. Thank you for a great overview on Gore Vidal.

  2. He also had an apartment in Rome and would go "bunny hunting" (his term) in the Circus Maximus. I never met him, but we shared a young man named Michael.

  3. After 'The City and the Pillar', revelatory in high school, I never liked the writing that much, except 'Myra Breckenridge', which I agree is easily his best book (I even enjoy Raquel Welch in the movie.) I remember his attempt to make 'bisexualist' the term, but it didn't catch on, although it does cover perhaps more than 'bisexual'. The documentary about the confrontation with william F. Buckley did not make me like his persona much better. I don't care if they called each other names, I ended up liking Buckley better anyway--who else had such a lizardy tongue? The Amalfi villa was glorious, though, and I had not known of it before that film. There was another early book about the troubadour Blondel, which had some brilliant sections in it. I think he was involved in Guccione's 'Pricksploitation' film of 'Caligula', an absurd thing to do. In Gibbon's Decline and get these figures in much better proportion, and he saw no reason to spend much time with Caligula. It's the best book I've ever read, if I have to choose one.