Author Gore Vidal passed away last night at the age of 86. Although he wrote about historical themes in fact and fiction, Vidal’s real-life connections to historical figures remain intriguing.
Vidal drew a lot of praise and criticism for two books, Burr and Lincoln. His fictional memoir about Aaron Burr forced people to look at the former vice president and Revolutionary War hero in a different light.
But it was his treatment of Abraham Lincoln that ruffled a lot of feathers. Readers can get some insight about Vidal’s thought process by reading Vidal’s response to his critics in an open letter published in The New York Review Of Books in 1988.
Vidal casually drops one fact in response to criticism from two historians, C. Vann Woodward and Roy Basler, that he simply made up quotes from Robert Lincoln, the president’s son.
Vidal’s defense was simple: He had a first-hand account. Robert Lincoln expressed his feelings directly to Vidal’s grandfather, the legendary Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma–who then passed on the story to Vidal.
Gore Vidal also attended the same prep school as Robert Lincoln, Exeter. Although they attended at vastly different time periods, stories of Robert Lincoln lived on and were passed down to Vidal.
Throughout his career, Vidal was widely treated by historians–who Vidal referred to as “scholar-squirrels”–as an outsider. But through his own personal connections, Vidal knew many historical figures.
Vidal was a stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy and a friend of John F. Kennedy. His eclectic circle of friends included Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, and Frank Sinatra. His grandfather served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet. He was also friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Vidal also publicly feuded with other literary titans of his era, including Truman Capote, William F. Buckley, and Norman Mailer.
In a 2009 interview with The Atlantic, Vidal, then 83, looked back at some moments involving the true historical characters he knew.
For instance, Vidal said it was the luck, not brilliance, or FDR that got America out of the Great Depression, and that JFK had little interest in many of his cabinet members.
Vidal was promoting his own book, Snapshots In History, which ends with pictures of his grave in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.
The author soon will be buried there next to his long-time partner, Howard Auster, and the historian Henry Adams.
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