Gore Vidal

Penned plays, scripts, novels, essays

Gore Vidal, 86, a celebrated writer, cultural gadfly and occasional political candidate, died of pneumonia Tuesday at his Hollywood Hills, Calif., home, according to a nephew.

Known for his urbanity and wit "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little" Mr. VidalVidal had a literary career spanning more than 60 years, and he once said that he hoped to be remembered as "the person who wrote the best sentences of his time."

He 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, Mr. VidalVidal produced plays for television and Broadway, including the classic political drama "The Best Man." He helped script such movies as the 1959 epic "Ben-Hur" and gained notoriety for the campy novel "Myra Breckinridge," about a transsexual film enthusiast.

VidalMr. Vidal won plaudits from scholars, critics and ordinary readers for historical novels such as the best-selling "Julian," "Burr" and "Lincoln," and English critic Jonathan Keates called him "the 20th century's finest essayist."

"United States," which gathers Mr. Vidal'sVidal'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. VidalVidal 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.

Shunned mother 25 years

Mr. VidalVidal 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 U.S. Sen. T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. Christened Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, the writer later lopped off the first two names "for political as well as for aesthetic reasons."

He said that "this often has been gleefully interpreted as a rejection of my father, whom I liked, in order to become my mother, whom I disliked."

In fact, so great was his antagonism toward his mother that Mr. VidalVidal stopped seeing her during the last 25 years of her life. He hero-worshipped his father, a former Olympic athlete in the decathlon.

VidalMr. Vidal spent much of his childhood in Washington and was particularly attached to his grandfather. The senator was blind, so the boy spent many hours reading to him aloud, thus inaugurating his lifelong passion for learning and books.

In his childhood, Mr. VidalVidal loved L. Frank Baum's stories about Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan adventures, the fantasies of E. Nesbit, and every sort of history.

VidalMr. Vidal attended St. Albans School, 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. VidalVidal makes clear that this youthful passion, cut short by Trimble's death, marked his entire life: He never truly loved anyone again, although he would enjoy hundreds of sexual encounters, most of them with anonymous strangers.

Although Mr. VidalVidal maintained a more than 50-year partnership with his companion Howard Austen, he constantly underscored that the secret of its longevity was "no sex." Austen died in 2003.

Threw high-profile parties

Because most of his fiction of the 1950s proved commercially lackluster, Mr. VidalVidal decided to earn his living largely by writing TV dramas, Broadway plays and movie scripts. He cranked out three mysteries under the pen name Edgar Box, starting with "Death in the Fifth Position" (1952).

With the money from the commercial writing, Mr. VidalVidal paid the mortgage on a grandly pillared Greek-revival manse called Edgewater, located on the banks of the Hudson River near Rhinecliff, N.Y.

There, he threw parties attended by rising literary notables such as Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, critics Lionel and Diana Trilling, and movie stars Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman (who became his close friends).

Over time, the writer's circle of high-profile acquaintances included John F. Kennedy and Britain's Princess Margaret, although he was closer to composer and writer Paul Bowles and beat legend Jack Kerouac.

In fact, Mr. VidalVidal and Kerouac were physically drawn to each other. While checking into the Chelsea Hotel for a tryst, they signed their real names, and Mr. VidalVidal told the bemused clerk that that page of the hotel registry would one day become famous.

Although Mr. VidalVidal found success as a writer and intellectual, he failed in his attempts to gain political office. He twice ran unsuccessfully in elections, campaigning for Congress in 1960 when he lived at Edgewater and then for the Senate in 1982 when he had taken a residence in California.

Yet politics had been in his blood since childhood: Through his father and grandfather, he had known politicians as powerful as Franklin Roosevelt and as colorful as Louisiana governor Huey Long. His mother's second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss CQ , was the stepfather to Jacqueline Kennedy. He could count Jimmy Carter and Al Gore as distant cousins.

In his later years Mr. VidalVidal grew even more vehement in his political convictions, speaking out against what he described as American imperialism |after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and denouncing the invasion of |Iraq.