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Published: Sunday, 10/12/2008

Gore Vidal:Time hasn't dimmed his caustic wit

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

At 83, Gore Vidal attracts descriptives that are a frisky cocktail of admiration and criticism: imperious, feline, arch, a wry luminary, waspish, supercilious, iconoclastic, caustic but brilliantly witty.

It wasn't always so.

Sixty years ago he published The City and the Pillar, a bestseller about an all-American boy-next-door type who was a homosexual. It was panned by the New York Times, which refused to accept advertising for it, and subsequently did not review his next five books, or if it did, treated them harshly, as did other critics.

So never-say-die Vidal took a different tack. He wrote mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box and screenplays for Hollywood and Broadway.

Prolific novelist, essayist, playwright, and provocateur, Vidal visits Toledo Thursday for a question-and-answer session (his preferred format) at 7 p.m. in the Stranahan Theater as part of the Authors! Authors! speaker's series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Library. He'll be interviewed by Tom Walton, retired editor and vice president of The Blade, and will also answer questions from the audience and sign books.

On Thursday, expect him to rail, eloquently of course, up one side and down the other about contemporary America. He'll castigate President Bush, expound on the materialism, racism, and misogyny of Americans, blast the news media (never before so stupid or corrupt), and inveigh on the deteriorating U.S. economy and government.

What of the Republican candidate for president?

'McCain is a joke,' he said in a grudging telephone interview with The Blade from his home in Los Angeles. 'He's been paid for by the government since he was 17 but he never said anything intelligent.'

In a wheelchair for several years, Vidal's initial choice for 2008 Democratic presidential nominee was Al Gore, who, he claims, is a distant cousin but they've never met.

Friends with the Clintons, Vidal supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, but now cheers for Sen. Barack Obama, making public appearances to raise money for the campaign.

Indeed, he relishes the idea of coming to swing state Ohio shortly before the election. Moreover, this is home to U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), of whom he's a big fan.

Vidal will be the second Democratic speaker to appear at this season's Authors! Authors! series, coming on the heels of political pundit Donna Brazile, who spoke to a large crowd in September.

'We certainly didn't do that on purpose,' said Susan Gibney of scheduling back-to-back Dems in the run up to the election. Ms. Gibney is marketing manager for the library system. 'We select from a huge slate of authors.'

Vidal was hired, she said, because 'he's a lion in the field of social commentary.'

High society

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal was born in 1925 at West Point, N.Y., to Nina Gore Vidal, a beautiful socialite and actress, and Eugene Luther Vidal, an Olympic athlete, the first aeronautics instructor at the U.S. Military Academy and director of air commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His parents divorced when he was 10, and his mother married Hugh Auchincloss, who later married the mother of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

A biographer of pilot Amelia Earhart has said one of the great loves of her life was Vidal's father. Vidal has spoken of his mother's affair with Clark Gable. His own relationship with his alcoholic, highly critical mother was troubled.

As a lad, Vidal spent some years in the Washington home of his mother's father, Thomas P. Gore, an attorney and populist Democratic senator from Oklahoma. He was an anti-interventionist and opposed to American involvement in foreign wars.

He was also blind, and young Vidal read to him and accompanied him to the Senate floor. Vidal attended the best boy's schools and as a teen began using Gore as his first name.

During a stint in the army, he worked on a ship in the Aleutian Islands, then went to Guatemala for two years, traveled Europe with Tennessee Williams, bought a home on the Hudson River in New York, and in 1950, met Howard Austen.

Excluding the first night they met, they were supposedly platonic companions for 53 years, and inseparable.

All the while, Vidal wrote and had plays produced on Broadway (notably The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet). In 1959, hired to rework the script of the movie

Ben Hur, he went to Rome, where he met filmmaker Federico Fellini.

In 1971, he purchased an exquisite white mansion tucked into a cliff on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. He and Austen entertained extensively, filling the home with the bright and beautiful. They also maintained a California residence.

Vidal ran for a U.S. Congressional seat in New York in 1960, and in 1982, ran for the U.S. Senate in California, unsuccessful both times.

Cedar Sinai years'

Harry Kloman has been a Vidalophile for 35 years and publishes The Gore Vidal Index online. Vidal's work isn't often taught in American literature classes, he speculated, because it's political or perhaps because the novels lack deep psychological subtext.

'They are what they are,' said Kloman, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

Marcie Frank, literature professor at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote

How to be an Intellectual in the Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal.

In a course on gender and sexuality, she teaches what some have called his greatest coup, the campy 1968's Myra Breckinridge, about a transsexual's Hollywood romp.

'It's very funny,' said Frank. 'I think people would find it holds up quite well.'

Vidal resides in California, having sold the Italian villa to be near medical care. He's in his Cedar Sinai years, he's said. Austen died in 2003.

He continues to produce: his second memoir was published in 2006. He completed an unfinished play by his old friend, Tennessee Williams,

In Masks Outrageous and Austere, that's been approved by the Williams estate, Vidal said. He played a bit part in a forthcoming movie, Shrink, starring Kevin Spacey. His essays are published in left-leaning magazines. And he's finishing a book set in Texas that's part of his historical fact-with-fiction series about the American empire.

Gore Vidal will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $10; $8 for students. Information: 419-259-5266.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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