Gore Vidal, the eclectic author who faithfully chronicled the major shifts and upheavals in the United States in books, essays and plays, has died. He was 86.
Vidal died at his Los Angeles home Tuesday evening of complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said. The author had also been suffering from heart ailments.
Widely hailed as one of America's greatest men of letters, the aristocratic Vidal was a high-profile commentator on politics, including his bitter opposition to the war in Iraq and his belief that the United States had betrayed its humble roots to become an imperial power.
Born into politics as a member of a rich and powerful family, he joined the Navy at 17 before shocking the world by writing one of the first novels to include an openly gay character: his 1948 work, "The City and the Pillar."
"He was the godfather of gay literature in spite of himself," said Christopher Bram, author of "Eminent Outlaws," a profile of the groundbreaking homosexual authors of Vidal's era. "He really didn't want the title for himself, but he wanted to be acknowledged as being important to gay people."
In all, Vidal wrote some 25 novels, two successful Broadway plays, numerous screenplays, more than 200 essays and the memoir "Palimpsest." His collection of essays "United States: Essays, 1952-1992" won the National Book Award in 1993, while a revival of his play "The Best Man" -- about the backstabbing and deception surrounding a national political convention -- was nominated for a Tony award this year.
Vidal also appeared in a number of films, including the political satire, "Bob Roberts," where he played a U.S. senator. He twice ran for office himself: as a candidate for Congress from upstate New York in 1960, calling for the recognition of Communist China, and later as a Senate candidate in California in 1982, which became the subject of a documentary.
Throughout his life, Vidal didn't shy away from controversy -- either actively courting it or inviting it through his acerbic one-liners.
He riled the right by saying the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred because the Bush administration was "incompetent" and Bush himself was "inactive and inopportune." Vanity Fair refused to publish an essay he wrote reflecting on the tragedy.
He ruffled others by befriending convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and saying he understood "why he did what he did." The more they communicated, the more impressed he was by McVeigh, Vidal said.
His book "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated" takes the position that both attacks were provoked by "our government's reckless assaults upon other societies." A firestorm of criticism followed.
"I've had hard targets in my lifetime, I've taken on general superstitions, but that's what writers do. So I certainly, wouldn't have changed my modus vivendi one bit," he said of the furor.
Vidal "was always a gadfly," Bram said. "But in the last 10 to 15 years, it turned into this very bitter, not always rational anger with American government across the board. Conservatives, liberals -- he disliked them all, and could be intensely critical of them all."
Vidal often appeared on the television talk show circuit, going head-to-head with those with opposing viewpoints -- and gave as good as he got.
He once compared author Norman Mailer to the infamous killer Charles Manson, which prompted Mailer to head-butt him before a show. Author Truman Capote once said he felt sad about Vidal, "very sad that he has to breathe every day."
And in a live TV debate, conservative author and journalist William F. Buckley Jr. famously called him "queer." To be fair, Vidal had called him a "crypto-Nazi" first.
"Well, I mean I won the debates, there was no question of that," Vidal recounted in a CNN interview in 2007. "They took polls, it was ABC Television. ... And because I'm a writer, people think that I'm this poor little fragile thing. I'm not poor and fragile. ... And anybody who insults me is going to get it right back."
He also voiced himself on the animated show "The Simpsons."
Vidal would say he was a once-famous novelist who was relegated to going on television because people "seldom read anymore."
"All these literary prizes should go to the readers: 'Nobel Prize for the best reader in Milwaukee,' " he said. "And you know, we must honor them because they are so few."
But the truth is, Vidal, all his life, relished his role as provocateur, as an anti-establishmentarian, as a self-proclaimed conspiracy "analyst."
Relishing his role
He was born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal on October 3, 1925.
His grandfather, T.P. Gore, helped write the state constitution of Oklahoma. His father, Eugene, played professional football, competed in the decathlon in the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 and, as an aviator, was instrumental in expanding the U.S. aeronautics program.
And when his mother, Nina, remarried, Vidal shared a stepfather with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.