13 minute read

Gore Vidal Biography

Pseudonym: Edgar Box. Nationality: American. Born: Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr. in West Point, New York, 1925. Education: Los Alamos School, New Mexico, 1939-40; Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, 1940-43. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1943-46: Warrant Officer. Career: Editor, E.P. Dutton, publishers, New York, 1946. Lived in Antigua, Guatemala, 1947-49, and Italy, 1967-76; member, advisory board, Partisan Review, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1960-71; Democratic-Liberal candidate for Congress, New York, 1960; member, President's Advisory Committee on the Arts, 1961-63; co-chairman, New Party, 1968-71. Awards: Mystery Writers of America award, for television play, 1954; Cannes Film Critics award, for screenplay, 1964; National Book Critics Circle award, for criticism, 1983; National Book award for nonfiction, 1993; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1995.



Williwaw. New York, Dutton, 1946; London, Panther, 1965.

In a Yellow Wood. New York, Dutton, 1947; London, New EnglishLibrary, 1967.

The City and the Pillar. New York, Dutton, 1948; London, Lehmann, 1949; revised edition, Dutton, and London, Heinemann, 1965; revised, with a new preface by the author, published as The City and the Pillar and Seven Early Stories, New York, Random House, 1995.

The Season of Comfort. New York, Dutton, 1949.

Dark Green, Bright Red. New York, Dutton, and London, Lehmann, 1950.

A Search for the King: A Twelfth Century Legend. New York, Dutton, 1950; London, New English Library, 1967.

The Judgment of Paris. New York, Dutton, 1952; London, Heinemann, 1953; revised edition, Boston, Little Brown, 1965; Heinemann, 1966.

Messiah. New York, Dutton, 1954; London, Heinemann, 1955; revised edition, Boston, Little Brown, 1965; Heinemann, 1968.

Three: Williwaw, A Thirsty Evil, Julian the Apostate. New York, NewAmerican Library, 1962.

Julian. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Heinemann, 1964.

Washington, D.C. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Heinemann, 1967.

Myra Breckinridge. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Blond, 1968.

Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Heinemann, 1970.

Burr. New York, Random House, 1973; London, Heinemann, 1974.

Myron. New York, Random House, 1974; London, Heinemann, 1975.

1876. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1976.

Kalki. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1978.

Creation. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1981.

Duluth. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1983.

Lincoln. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1984.

Empire. New York, Random House, and London, Deutsch, 1987.

Hollywood: A Novel of American in the 1920s. New York, RandomHouse, and London, Deutsch, 1990.

Live from Golgotha. New York, Random House, 1992.

The Smithsonian Institution. New York, Random House, 1998.

The Golden Age. New York, Doubleday, 2000.

Novels as Edgar Box

Death in the Fifth Position. New York, Dutton, 1952; London, Heinemann, 1954.

Death Before Bedtime. New York, Dutton, 1953; London, Heinemann, 1954.

Death Likes It Hot. New York, Dutton, 1954; London, Heinemann, 1955.

Short Stories

A Thirsty Evil: Seven Short Stories. New York, Zero Press, 1956;London, Heinemann, 1958.


Visit to a Small Planet (televised 1955). Included in Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays, 1956; revised version (produced New York, 1957; London, 1960), Boston, Little Brown, 1957; in Three Plays, 1962.

Honor (televised 1956). Published in Television Plays for Writers: Eight Television Plays, edited by A.S. Burack, Boston, The Writer, 1957; revised version as On the March to the Sea: A Southron Comedy (produced Bonn, Germany, 1961), in Three Plays, 1962.

Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays (includes Barn Burning, Dark Possession, The Death of Billy the Kid, A Sense of Justice, Smoke, Summer Pavilion, The Turn of the Screw). Boston, Little Brown, 1956.

The Best Man: A Play about Politics (produced New York, 1960).Boston, Little Brown, 1960; in Three Plays, 1962.

Three Plays (includes Visit to a Small Planet, The Best Man, On the March to the Sea). London, Heinemann, 1962.

Romulus: A New Comedy, adaptation of a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (produced New York, 1962). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1962.

Weekend (produced New York, 1968). New York, Dramatists PlayService, 1968.

An Evening with Richard Nixon and … (produced New York, 1972).New York, Random House, 1972.


The Catered Affair, 1956; I Accuse, 1958; The Scapegoat, with Robert Hamer, 1959; Suddenly, Last Summer, with Tennessee Williams, 1959; The Best Man, 1964; Is Paris Burning?, with Francis Ford Coppola, 1966; Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, 1970; The Sicilian, 1970; Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, 1989.

Television Plays:

Barn Burning, from the story by Faulkner, 1954;Dark Possession, 1954; Smoke, from the story by Faulkner, 1954; Visit to a Small Planet, 1955; The Death of Billy the Kid, 1955; A Sense of Justice, 1955; Summer Pavillion, 1955; The Turn of the Screw, from the story by Henry James, 1955; Honor, 1956; The Indestructible Mr. Gore, 1960; Vidal in Venice (documentary), 1985; Dress Gray, from the novel by Lucian K. Truscott IV, 1986.


Rocking the Boat (essays). Boston, Little Brown, 1962; London, Heinemann, 1963.

Sex, Death, and Money (essays). New York, Bantam, 1968.

Reflections upon a Sinking Ship (essays). Boston, Little Brown, andLondon, Heinemann, 1969.

Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972. New York, Random House, 1972; as Collected Essays 1952-1972, London, Heinemann, 1974.

Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973-1976. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1977.

Sex Is Politics and Vice Versa (essay). Los Angeles, Sylvester andOrphanos, 1979.

Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal, with Robert J. Stanton. Secaucus, New Jersey, Lyle Stuart, 1980.

The Second American Revolution and Other Essays 1976-1982. New

York, Random House, 1982; as Pink Triangle and Yellow Star and Other Essays, London, Heinemann, 1982.

Vidal in Venice, edited by George Armstrong, photographs by ToreGill. New York, Summit, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.

Armegeddon? Essays 1983-1987. London, Deutsch, 1987; as At Home, New York, Random House, 1988.

A View from the Diners Club. London, Deutsch, 1991.

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire. Berkeley, California, Odonian Press, 1992.

Screening History. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, and London, Deutsch, 1992.

United States: Essays, 1952-1992. New York, Random House, andLondon, Deutsch, 1993.

Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1995.

The American Presidency. Monroe, Maine, Odonian Press, 1998.

Virgin Islands, a Dependency of United States: Essays 1992-1997. London, Abacus, 1998.

The Essential Vidal, edited by Fred Kaplan. New York, RandomHouse, 1999.

Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, edited byDonald Weise. San Francisco, Cleis, 1999.

Editor, Best Television Plays. New York, Ballantine, 1956.



Gore Vidal: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Robert J. Stanton, Boston, Hall, and London, Prior, 1978.

Manuscript Collection:

University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Critical Studies:

Gore Vidal by Ray Lewis White, New York, Twayne, 1968; The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal by Bernard F. Dick, New York, Random House, 1974; Gore Vidal by Robert F. Kiernan, New York, Ungar, 1982; Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain edited by Jay Parini, New York, Columbia University Press, and London, Deutsch, 1992; Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion by Susan Baker and Curtis S. Gibson, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997; Gore Vidal: A Biography by Fred Kaplan, New York, Doubleday, 1999.

* * *

Gore Vidal has been called "our wild man of the literary left." He has lent his political savvy to monumental historical fiction projects such as the American Chronicle series which spans the history of the United States from the Revolution to the post-World War II years. The six novels arch from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., with a large cast of fictional and historical characters in a panorama of American politics interpreted by the intellectually adroit mind and drawn with the irreverent hand of a sophisticated and ironic observer. Vidal's oeuvre is not limited to historical fiction, however, as he has turned his attentions to doomsday fictions, playfully pornographic novels, a pseudonymous series of detective stories, and science fiction, as well as essays and plays. Always relevant, often funny, undeniably astute, Vidal's tone purposefully drifts into cynicism and his style into satire whenever possible.

Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946, is set on an army transport vessel laying a course among the Aleutian Islands during World War II. The story about seven self-absorbed men whose enforced closeness results in a homicide about which no one really cares was written when Vidal was nineteen years old. Of more lasting interest among the early novels is his third published in 1948, The City and the Pillar, about a young man's gradual discovery that he is homosexual. The stark, unsentimental examination of his main character's sexual identity shocked the public, and the five novels which followed, including the somewhat redemptive Messiah, a savagely apocalyptic novel about merchandising a savior, were commercial failures. The rest, which were coolly received by critics, include In a Yellow Wood, a glimpse into the Manhattan demimonde; The Season of Comfort; A Search for the King: A Twelfth Century Legend, the first of Vidal's historical novels; and The Judgment of Paris, a campy updating of the Greek myth.

After a successful period of writing dramatic scripts for television, film, and the stage during the 1950s and 1960s, he published one of his most enduring early novels, Julian, in 1964. Vidal's first major novel purports to be the Emperor Julian's autobiographical memoir and private journal. The sympathetic fictional portrait is of Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century pagan Roman emperor who opposed Christianity. In scenes complexly imagined and impressively researched, Vidal recreates Julian's path from Christianity to Mithraism and from philosophy to military science. The novel is rewarding for its rich historicity and for the interplay of Julian's elevated discourse with the witty phrase-making of Priscus and the pedantry of Libanius, the editors of Julian's memoirs. Its ventriloquistic mode of narration became a proven formula for Vidal's most accomplished fiction.

Washington, D.C., published in 1967, is the first novel of a sequence and offers an illuminating portrait of the republic from the time of the New Deal to the McCarthy era. Widely regarded as Vidal's ultimate comment on how the American political system degrades those who participate in it, the novel traces the fortunes James Burden Day, a conservative senator eyeing the presidency, Clay Overbury, a congressional aide, and Blaise Sanford, a newspaper magnate. The novel follows the power and the money as the power mongers of the nation's capital transform the United States into "possibly the last empire on earth." As national events from Pearl Harbor to Korea stage themselves in the background, the histrionic characters prove the importance of image and the Hollywood style in the success of politics.

The theme of how public opinion is shaped by movies is fleshed out in Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s, which begins with the fall of William Randolph Hearst on the eve of American involvement in the First World War and ends shortly after the mysterious death of Warren G. Harding, who is replaced by the taciturn Calvin Coolidge. It covers the scandals involving Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor, and a youthful Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his mistress, Lucy Mercer. It is the fifth in the biography of the United States series covering a period when Hollywood tries to shape public opinion on behalf of the powerful, and America exercises its world power.

The third novel in the sequence, 1876, is a sardonic centennial celebration of the nation's birth in which an old man named Charlie Schuyler returns from Europe to New York for the first time since 1837 and travels about the country in the service of a newspaper. Everywhere he sees violence and mendacity lurking behind the patriotic scrim of the nation's centenary—particularly in the scandals of the Grant administration and the bitterly contested Hayes-Tilden presidential election.

The centerpiece of the series, and one of Vidal's best novels, is Burr, an account of Aaron Burr's last days as written by the young Charlie Schuyler, whom Vidal imagines Burr employing and befriending. Schuyler's interest in Burr's life encourages the older man to give his written account of the early days of the republic—a compelling, gossipy account in which the Founding Fathers are little more than despoilers of infant America. The alternation of Burr's own narrative with Schuyler's worshipful memoir results in a composite portrait of Burr as both an unregenerate adventurer and an elegant arbiter of political style. It also shows Vidal at his best: iconoclastic, anecdotal, intellectually and stylistically agile.

In a duo of confections entitled Myra Breckinridge and Myron, Vidal indulges freely the taste for camp extravagance evident in his work as early as The Season of Comfort. Myra Breckinridge takes the form of a journal that the eponymous Myra begins when she arrives in Hollywood after a sex-change operation. Firm in her belief that film is the only art and militant in her devotion to Hollywood's Golden Age, she is no less imperious in her determination to realign the sexes—a determination rooted in her former life as Myron. The results are gaudily offensive, climaxing in her rape of a chauvinistic young man and ending (to her chagrin) in her accidental reversion into Myron. Myron picks up the story five years later when Myron falls into his television and discovers himself on a Hollywood set in 1948. As the novel progresses, Myra and Myron alternately commandeer the Breckinridge psyche, Myra bent on saving Hollywood from television, Myron on defeating Myra's revisionist imperative. Although not to everyone's taste, the books are enormously rich—a comedic feast of styles and sexualities, invention and invective. Their charm is considerable.

Vidal's greatest success in recent years has been in the historical mode. In Creation his central character and narrator is a fictional diplomat named Cyrus Spitama (a grandson of Zoroaster), who cuts a broad swath through the Persian-Greek wars and recounts fascinating meetings with the Buddha, Master Li, Confucius, and a host of kindred figures. Revisionist speculations and tantalizing "what ifs" energize what amounts to a Cook's Tour of the fifth century. If Lincoln overshadows Creation, it overshadows very nearly everything else in Vidal's oeuvre. A compelling, thoughtful, and well-researched portrait of America's sixteenth president, it renders his tragic Civil War years through candid viewpoints of his family, his political rivals, and even his future assassins. The result is a rare fusion of monumentality and intimacy, quite distinct from the idealized portraits created by romantic nationalism.

Vidal's historical novels move through time and the lives of famous personages with the breathless anticipation of good fictional epics, yet he continues to explore a variety of modes. Kalki is a mordant doomsday novel, narrated with odd restraint by a bisexual aviatrix, the personal pilot of a Vietnam veteran who exterminates the human race in a belief that he is the last avatar of Vishnu. Because of its emotional coolness, the story fails to engage except in scattered passages, as does the story in Duluth, a broad parody of law-and-order consciousness in middle America during the 1980s of the Reagan era. More interesting stylistically than these novels is the undervalued Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, a Chinese box of narrations in which each narrative replicates a single story-line encapsulated in a screenplay at the heart of the novel.

The Smithsonian Institution is a recent, light foray into science fiction, time travel, historical costume romance, and Vidal's familiar political satire. The love story woven through the text is between Gore Vidal and the main character, who is Jimmie Trimble, based on Vidal's friend killed on Iwo Jima in March 1, 1945. In a whimsical revision of his personal history, Vidal rescues his lover from the destruction of one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Pacific. His novel surpasses the trivial material produced in the fantasy/science fiction genre while using its conventions. The story is driven by that powerfully brilliant and original mind which produced the Empire narratives.

The greatness of Vidal's fiction lies not only with its extraordinary range but with its small-scale effects: witty, autobiographical indiscretions; aphoristic nuggets, firm and toothsome; a fine interplay of the demonic and the mannered. Indeed, he must be regarded as one of the most important stylists of contemporary American prose. His ear for cadence and his touch with syntax are sure, and few can equal his ability to layer a sentence with wit and to temper it with intelligence. His book list survives in popular reprints despite the government's consistent attacks on left-wing politics and the public taboo against homosexuality.

—Robert F. Kiernan,

updated by Hedwig Gorski

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments: