Ron Tom/NBC
August 01, 2012 01:35 AM

Gore Vidal, the last of a generation of great literary celebrities – as comfortable on The Tonight Show as behind a typewriter – died Tuesday in his Hollywood Hills home. He was 86.

The handsome, aristocratic novelist, playwright, essayist, politician, commentator and sometimes actor died of complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers told several media outlets.

A contemporary of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, Vidal was nearly as famous for his feuds, strong opinions, failed political campaigns and TV appearances – including voiceovers for The Simpsons and Family Guy – as for his writing.

But Vidal was considered one of the greatest American men of letters, among the first to write about openly gay characters. His groundbreaking coming-of-age story The City and the Pillar, about a man who comes to find out he was homosexual, was considered scandalous in 1948.

Other well-known books included the black comedy Myra Breckinridge, about a transsexual movie star, and historical novels such as Burr and Lincoln. His play The Best Man was nominated for a Tony (and is currently back on Broadway in an all-star revival), and he dabbled in Hollywood, writing TV dramas and script-doctoring films, including the epic 1959 Best Picture winner Ben-Hur.

Aristocratic Background

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. was born at West Point, N.Y., where his father, aviation pioneer (one of the airlines he started became TWA) Eugene Sr., taught aeronautics at the military academy.

His socialite mother, Nina, was the daughter of Sen. T.P. Gore of Oklahoma, and her son made no secret that he detested her for her bullying and her drinking. After she divorced Vidal Sr., she married stockbroker-lawyer Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. This later provided the author access to the White House – and for the rest of his life, Vidal was an outspoken, often highly critical, commentator on American politics.

While his first two books showed promise, it was his third, The City and the Pillar, that established him as an iconoclast. For a time, the very mention of its title was banned from the pages of The New York Times and prevented Vidal from having subsequent books reviewed in the newspaper. As a result, Vidal took up writing mysteries under the pen name Edgar Box. He also wrote for stage and screen.

Unrepentantly gay, even at a time when homosexuality dared not speak its name (though he claimed most humans were bisexual), Vidal wrote about having slept with 1,000 men and women before he was 25. Still, for 53 years, until his partner’s death, his companion was former ad exec Howard Austen. Vidal insisted their relationship lasted because they never slept together, according to Wednesday’s long and admiring obituary in The New York Times.

A equally deferential tribute by The Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda refers to Vidal as “an astonishingly versatile man of letters and nearly the last major writer of the modern era to have served in World War II.”

Of Vidal’s literary output, Dirda writes, “Vidal’s best essays were not his attacks but his appreciations. For all his elegance, the multitalented writer clearly regarded himself as something of an old-fashioned bookman, believing that accurate and entertaining description should be the main function of a critic.”

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