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US author Gore Vidal is shown in 2006 in his Los Angeles home. Vidal, the iconoclastic commentator on American life and history in works like “Lincoln" and "Myra Breckenridge," has died at age 86.
US author Gore Vidal is shown in 2006 in his Los Angeles home. Vidal, the iconoclastic commentator on American life and history in works like “Lincoln' and 'Myra Breckenridge,' has died at age 86.

Gore Vidal – author, playwright, politician and commentator – dies at 86

The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles.

In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat's bearing - tall, handsome and composed - and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.

But Vidal made his living - a very good living - from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand. During the days of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the few leaders whom Vidal admired, he might have been called a "traitor to his class". The real traitors, Vidal would respond, were the upholders of his class.

The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died on Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles.

Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills complications from pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said.

Vidal "meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read," Dave Eggers said at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, where he and Vidal received honorary citations. "His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can't articulate it."

Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, he was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities - regulars on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who had not read their books knew their names.

His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels Lincoln and Myra Breckenridge and the Tony-nominated play The Best Man, a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire's decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for "the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action."

Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual. Beyond his honorary National Book Award, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).

But he was widely admired as an independent thinker - in the tradition of Mark Twain and H L Mencken - about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, "the birds and the bees".

Ralph Ellison labelled him a "campy patrician". Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honour, but a modern will to live as he pleased. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.

In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Vidal formed his most unusual bond with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged letters after Vidal's 1998 article in Vanity Fair on "the shredding" of the Bill of Rights and their friendship inspired Edmund White's play Terre Haute.

"He's very intelligent. He's not insane," Vidal said of McVeigh in a 2001 interview.

Vidal also bewildered his fans by saying the George W Bush administration likely had advance knowledge of the September attacks; that McVeigh was no more a killer than Dwight Eisenhower and that the US would eventually be subservient to China, "The Yellow Man's Burden".

A longtime critic of American militarism, Vidal was, ironically, born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, his father's alma mater. Vidal grew up in a political family. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a US senator from Oklahoma. His father, Gene Vidal, served briefly in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and was an early expert on aviation.

Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half brother Tommy Auchincloss.

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