Gore Vidal, Legendary Author and Patriot, Dies

By Walter Armstrong 08/01/12

With piercing panache, he advocated for literary, sexual and other freedoms—including the legalization of all drugs.

Vidal was no pussycat. photo via

Gore Vidal, one of America's last great public intellectuals, died last night at age 86. Wielding his silver-tongued wit like a swashbuckler's dagger, Vidal cut as large a swath through our culture of the second half of the 20th century as any literary star. In his precocious and productive career, he wrote over a dozen works of fiction, including 1948's groundbreaking gay-coming-out novel The City and the Pillar, and Myra Breckenridge—a fierce satire of American values featuring our literature's first transsexual. His most enduring achievement was a series of six historical novels, Narratives of Empire, about national politics, celebrity and (his magnificent obsession) the terminal corruption of American democracy. When slammed as anti-American, he countered that it was his love and respect for the "original idea of America" that drove his disgust with reality. He also penned plays for much-reprised Broadway hits, screenplays for now-classic Hollywood films, memoirs and essays; he ran unsuccessfully for the senate, engaged in high-profile wars of words on TV with everyone from William F. Buckley to Norman Mailer, and conducted an intimate correspondence with convicted far-right terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

Born into political aristocracy—his grandfather was a senator, and he was related to Jacqueline Kennedy and Al Gore—Vidal detailed the virulent vices of high society mercilessly in his memoirs, starting with his mother's chronic alcoholism. As a self-defined enthusiast of "same-sex sex," he defied all conventions, with an early rejection of a life in the closet that was as brazen as his later refusal of the label "gay." A literary outlaw before the culture caught up to him, he was open about sex, drugs and just about everything else.

Among his (confirmable) claims were several that might prick up an addiction specialist's ears. He reported having had some 1,000 sexual encounters before the age of 25—"nothing special," he said, compared to the likes of pals John F. Kennedy and Tennessee Williams. Despite his liberated libido—and his advice to "never turn down an opportunity to have sex or go on television"—Vidal attributed his 55-year, apparently happy "marriage" to Howard Austen to its total absence of sex. "It's easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does," he wrote. He was also a connoisseur of the cocktail hour (after hour after hour) in the time-honored tradition of literary lions.

In 1970 Vidal wrote a typically controversial column for The New York Times in which he advocated ending the US addiction scourge by legalizing not just marijuana but all drugs. He suggested selling drugs over the counter, at cost, with precise descriptions of their benefits and risks—which would, he acknowledged, require "heroic honesty." He displayed his own when he wrote, "For the record, I have tried—once—almost every drug and liked none, disproving the popular Fu Manchu theory that a single whiff of opium will enslave the mind."

Vidal's logic was that legalization would not only make drugs safer but remove the forbidden-fruit quality that renders them so tempting. But he ended the op-ed darkly, noting that such a sensible (as he saw it) anti-addiction policy would never fly in our spacious skies: "The American people are as devoted to the idea of sin and its punishment as they are to making money—and fighting drugs is nearly as big a business as pushing them. Since the combination of sin and money is irresistible (particularly to the professional politician), the situation will only grow worse."

Accepting a lifetime literary achievement award in 2009, he summed up his experience with two unexpectedly sunny words: "such fun." His legacy, by contrast, could not be more serious.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.