Gore Vidal
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Gore Vidal

A large whitewashed villa named La Rondinaia (‘Swallow's Nest'), wedged on a sheer cliff face in Ravello, overlooking the Amalfi coast, was the place where prolific American novelist, playwright, essayist and pundit Gore Vidal, lived and worked for more than 35 years. From this lofty perch high above

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Thu 25 Oct 2012 12:00 AM

A
large whitewashed villa named La Rondinaia (‘Swallow’s Nest’), wedged on a
sheer cliff face in Ravello, overlooking the Amalfi coast, was the place where
prolific American novelist, playwright, essayist and pundit Gore Vidal, lived
and worked for more than 35 years. From this lofty perch high above the
Tyrrhenian Sea, Vidal wrote about the complexities and contradictions of
American history and politics and, like a present-day oracle, denounced the
disintegration of modern civilisation and railed against social injustices,
especially in the United States. This, of course, did not make him popular with
everyone, but it certainly made him difficult to ignore. 

 

Vidal
came from a political family and in later life even ran for office on the
Democratic ticket, in 1960 and again in 1982, failing on both occasions. The
only child of Eugene Vidal Sr. and Nina Gore, his socialite wife, Eugene Luther
Gore Vidal was born on October 3, 1925, at West Point Military Academy in New
York State, where his father was a flying instructor and sports star. Gore
Vidal was never fond of his mother, whilst father and son treated each other
with mutual indifference. His closest family relationship was, instead, with
his blind maternal grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. After his
parents divorced in 1935, his mother married financier and Standard Oil heir
Hugh D. Auchincloss. They lived on the Auchincloss estate in Virginia until his
stepfather divorced his mother to wed Janet Lee Bouvier, mother of Jacqueline
Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, in 1942. Although caustic about the two Bouvier
sisters in one of his books, Vidal, a snob deep down, was never slow to vaunt
his connection with the Kennedy clan. He also claimed to be a distant cousin of
former U.S. vice president Al Gore, but this is unlikely.

 

A
mediocre student, Vidal never attended university but joined the Army during
World War II. Based on this experience, the first of his 25 novels, Williwaw, was published to general acclaim in 1946. Two years later, he caused a
sensation with The City and the Pillar, one of the first novels in
America to openly deal with homosexuality. He dedicated it to Jimmy Trimble, an
old school friend and, he once said, the only person he ever truly loved, who
had died at Iwo Jima. The book was so controversial it almost ended his
literary career as influential newspapers like the New York Times blacklisted his work, forcing him to write three books under the nom de
plume Edgar Box.

 

To
boost his finances, Vidal began writing plays, movies and television dramas.
For a period, he wrote under contract to MGM. Among his best known screenplays
are the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer, and
the final revision of William Wyler’s script of Ben-Hur, both released
in 1959. He even appeared in small roles in several films, such as Fellini’s Roma.

 

After
losing his bid to enter Congress in 1960, Vidal moved to Rome, where he lived
in a rambling apartment in the Origo Palace, overlooking largo Argentina.
There, he wrote Julian (1964), the first of his best selling historical
novels about the ancient world. Other bestsellers followed, including his favourite
book, the satirical Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Burr, reputedly
the best of his Narratives of Empire series of novels, which he finished in
1973, just before he left Rome to live permanently in Ravello.

 

A
tall man with amber-coloured eyes, Vidal loved feuding with politicians and cat
fighting with such fellow authors as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. A hard
drinker with an acerbic wit and biting tongue, he had no illusions about
himself, once declaring, ‘I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a
tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which cannot
be solved if people would simply do as I advise.’ These qualities made Vidal a
hit on many TV talk shows, where he willingly expressed his usually polemic
views on just about everything, from his opposition to the wars in Vietnam,
Iraq and Afghanistan to his contempt for all forms of moral corruption and
religious bigotry.

 

Despite
the many famous guests who stayed at the villa in Ravello over the years, among
them Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, Rudolf Nureyev, Paul Newman and
Joanne Woodward, Hillary Clinton, Brad Pitt and Sting, Vidal was lonely after
the 2003 death of Howard Austen, his companion (but not his lover) for 53
years. With his health starting to decline and no longer able to amble into
Ravello to chat with villagers, in 2006, he sold La Rondinaia to a local
hotelier for a reported 17 million dollars and returned to America. After
suffering complications from pneumonia, Vidal died, aged 86, at his home in the
Hollywood hills on July 31, 2012.

 

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