Mr. Vidal was an astonishingly versatile man of letters and nearly the last major writer of the modern era to have served in World War II. Having resolved at age 20 to live by his pen, he wrote plays for television and Broadway, including the classic political drama “The Best Man”; helped script such movies as “Ben-Hur,” the 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston; and gained notoriety for the campy 1968 novel “Myra Breckinridge,” about a transsexual film enthusiast.
Mr. Vidal also won plaudits from scholars, critics and ordinary readers for historical novels such as the best-selling “Julian” (1964), “Burr” (1973) and “Lincoln” (1984). “United States,” which gathers Mr. Vidal’s essays on art, politics and himself, received the 1993 National Book Award.
In print or on television — he was a frequent talk-show guest — the worldly Mr. Vidal provoked controversy with his laissez-faire attitude toward every sort of sexuality, his well-reasoned disgust with what he called American imperialism and his sophisticated cynicism about love, religion, patriotism and other sacred cows.
He took an acerbic view of American leadership. “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books,” he once quipped, “and there is some evidence they cannot read them either.”
As a boy, a thirst for learning
Mr. Vidal was born Oct. 3, 1925, at West Point, N.Y., where his father, Eugene Vidal, was teaching aeronautics at the military academy. His mother, Nina, was the socialite daughter of Sen. T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. Christened Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, the future writer later lopped off the first two names “for political as well as for aesthetic reasons.”
Young Gore spent much of his childhood in Washington and was particularly attached to his grandfather. The senator was blind, so the boy passed many hours reading to him aloud, thus inaugurating his own lifelong passion for learning and books. “The first grown-up book that I read on my own was a nineteenth-century edition of ‘Tales from Livy’ that I’d found in my grandfather’s library,” he once wrote. By 14, he added, “I wanted to know the entire history of the entire world.”
Mr. Vidal attended the private St. Albans School in Washington, where he fell in love with a fellow student named Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in combat on Iwo Jima during World War II. In his memoirs “Palimpsest” (1995) and “Point to Point Navigation” (2006), Mr. Vidal makes clear that this youthful passion marked his entire life: He never truly loved anyone again, although he would enjoy hundreds of sexual encounters, many of them with anonymous strangers, in which he took pleasure but, as he repeatedly insisted, never gave any except inadvertently.