How do you sum up a career as eclectic as that of Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday at age 86 of complications from pneumonia? He was a novelist, of course, the acclaimed author of 25 novels (from scandalous best-sellers like Myra Breckinridge to scholarly works like Burr and Lincoln). But he also wrote more than 200 essays, seven plays (his 1960 political drama The Best Man had a critically praised revival on Broadway in 2012 starring James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury), and nobody knows how many TV and movie scripts (including an uncredited rewrite on the 1959 classic Ben-Hur). He was a political pundit who famously came close to fisticuffs with William F. Buckley Jr. during a live TV debate at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He was also an actor (in movies such as Gattaca and With Honors), a game show panelist (What’s My Line?), and a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s sofa (where he made witty banter during 16 Tonight Show appearances, almost as many as Charo).
“I never thought about myself as a ‘personality,’’’ Vidal told EW back in 2006, when he was promoting Point to Point Navigation, a second volume of personal memoirs. “To go around in a purple suit or something just to get attention — that’s not my style. But you’ve got to amuse yourself somehow, you know? And I find that being on TV is a lot more amusing than actually watching it.’’
Vidal’s health—and luck—had been on a long slide since 2003, starting with the illness and death of his longtime partner, Howard Auster. He was forced to sell Swallows Nest, his beloved cliff-side villa in Ravello, Italy, and spent his final years ensconced in his Hollywood Hills home, a sprawling abode filled with framed photographs of the famous friends he’d made over the years. In his living room, he kept a somber picture of Jackie Kennedy, apparently taken in the early 1960s. “To Gore,” she scrawled across her frowning visage, “who makes it impossible to look this serious.”