Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1948 (Library of Congress).
Gore Vidal died on Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Los Angeles.
IN THE “BLACK WINTER” OF DECEMBER, 1953, novelist Gore Vidal checked his bank book and made a life-altering discovery. The novel, while not exactly dead, was killing him financially. “I had been a novelist for a decade,” he would later write. “I had been hailed as the peer of Voltaire, Henry James, Jack London, Ronald Firbank and James T. Farrell. My early, least satisfactory works had been best-sellers. Though not yet 30 years old, I was referred to in the past tense, as one of those novelists of the 1940s from whom so much had been expected.” He was also broke.
This was a bit of long-range fallout from a decision he’d made five years before to publish The City and the Pillar, a ground-breaking novel that provoked shock waves by taking the homosexual relationship of its two central characters in unjudging stride. Vidal’s grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, urged him to bury it — he was preparing his grandson for a political career — but young Vidal opted to take the road less traveled and went public with his creation. The book became a bestseller but the furor it touched off was costly. Orville Prescott, critic and editor at The New York Times, told Vidal’s publisher he would never again read, much less review another book by Vidal. Time and Newsweek followed suit. In the years from 1948 to 1953 this amounted to a professional death warrant.
“Driven by necessity,” wrote Vidal, “I took the plunge into television, the very heart of darkness, and to my surprise found that I liked it.” He had a 10-year plan — a straightforward sacrifice of time with the goal of becoming financially independent for life before sitting down to his next novel. In 1954 alone, he was credited with 20 TV plays. (“And that’s not counting the 20 I wrote that year under other names,” he told a 1994 audience at the Museum of Television & Radio.) For his first TV play, Dark Possession, he was paid $750 — and this in a period when taxes took a bite of 90 percent.
He was in no mood to quarrel over figures; TV had become such a phenomenon that there were other, weirder rewards. “It was a miraculous time for the writer. A play would be done live for as many as 20 million, 40 million people — you’d be walking down the street the next day and overhear people at the corner, discussing your play. One knew what it was like to live in Athens in the time of Pericles.” (Unfolding this analogy 40 years later, Vidal stopped himself to chuckle; “Imagine me, erring on the side of optimism.”) This bright epoch came to an end several seasons later with the rise of quiz shows, “which were cheaper to produce — but for a time television was a writer’s medium. We created it.”
Hollywood became a logical destination. Vidal accepted a contract at MGM and in quick succession wrote two scripts for producer Sam Zimbalist, The Catered Affair and I Accuse, as well as one for British mogul Michael Balcon, The Scapegoat. He participated in the writing of Ben-Hur. Meanwhile, Visit to a Small Planet, which began life as a TV play, bec...read more