Gore Vidal's mother, Nina, was the daughter of Senator Thomas Pryor Gore. A Mississippian by birth, Senator Gore had traveled west as a young man and helped found the State of Oklahoma. He was one of the State's first two Senators, serving from 1907 to 1921. He won re-election to his final term in 1930. Senator Gore had been blinded in a childhood accident and prevailed upon his wife and grandson to read to him from his large library. The young Gore Vidal read widely from this collection, feeding a love of history, politics, and the joys of language and narrative.
Strongly influenced by the isolationism of his grandfather, the Senator, young Gore Vidal led his school's chapter of the America First Committee, a national group opposed to America's entry into the Second World War. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, opposition to American involvement in the war vanished, and immediately after graduation, the 17-year-old Gore Vidal enlisted in the United States Army.
Vidal was assigned to duty as a warrant officer on a transport ship in the Aleutian Islands, where his ship encountered the fierce arctic storm known to the native Aleuts as a williwaw. Vidal suffered hypothermia, which severely damaged his knee. While recuperating in military hospitals he wrote his first novel, Williwaw. The book was completed when he was 19 and was published by E.P. Dutton when he was 20. Along with his contemporary, Norman Mailer, he was one of the first of the returning World War II veterans to be published.
After his discharge from the army in 1946, Vidal joined E.P. Dutton as an editor and plunged into the literary life of New York City. His first novel had attracted attention; his second novel, In A Yellow Wood, about the dilemmas of a returning veteran, was also well-received, but Vidal soon chafed at the routine of the publisher's office and felt suffocated by the ingrown literary set of New York. He had begun work on a third novel and wanted solitude to finish it. He decamped to Guatemala, where he believed his small savings would stretch farther and where he could write in peace. He bought a house in the old colonial town of Antigua and settled down to complete his novel.
Over the next few years, Vidal traveled between New York and Europe. Although his name was anathema to many in the press, his work was well-received abroad, and he continued to write novels on a variety of subjects. A Search for the King revisited a medieval legend; Dark Green, Bright Red portrayed an American-led coup in Central America. In 1953 he achieved an artistic breakthrough with The Judgment of Paris, setting a contemporary story against a background rich with themes from classical antiquity. In this book he truly found his own distinctive voice as a writer for the first time. His 1955 novel Messiah was a futuristic fantasy of a dictator who rises to power in the United States by exploiting the new medium of television. Despite Vidal's great productivity and growing power as an artist, his work was studiously ignored by the American press.
Television dramatists like Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling were public figures in the 1950s, and Vidal was asked to appear on the new talk programs like Today and The Tonight Show. His mellifluous voice, ready wit, gift for mimicry, and unexpected candor about sex, politics and every other subject made him a sought-after guest. He was also called on to edit anthologies of television drama and to lecture on the new medium.
Film adaptations of Visit to a Small Planet, and Vidal's Billy the Kid drama, Left-Handed Gun, were disappointments to him. He accepted an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, eager to see first-hand how films were made, and to observe the last days of the old studio system. He was one of the last writers to be placed under long-term contract to any studio.
Vidal prospered in Hollywood, writing acclaimed screenplays for The Catered Affair (based on a play by his television colleague Paddy Chayefsky), Suddenly Last Summer (based on a play by his friend Tennessee Williams) and J'Accuse, based on the famous Drefyfuss case of official anti-Semitism in France at the beginning of the 20th century. He also worked as an uncredited script doctor on the epic film Ben Hur, in exchange for which he was released from his contract. His earnings from television, Broadway and Hollywood had now freed him to write what he pleased without taking on other work. But just as he was prepared to plunge full-time into literary labor, ghosts of his Washington past returned to draw him back into the world of electoral politics.
Meanwhile, Vidal had become friends with a Dutchess County neighbor, Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the 32nd president. With the encouragement of the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, Vidal decided to challenge the incumbent Congressman from Dutchess County, a strongly Republican area. One of the only Democrats ever to have won election in the area was Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, elected to the State Senate in 1910. The odds were formidable, but Vidal exceeded expectations. Although he lost the general election, he garnered more votes in the district than Kennedy, the party's presidential candidate.
For the first year of Kennedy's presidency, Vidal enjoyed the role of intimate to the first family, but he soon felt confined by the atmosphere of official Washington and was eager to return to literary work. He moved to Italy and began work on the novel Julian, about the fourth century Roman Emperor who attempted to turn the Empire away from its official Christianity and back to the ancient traditions of Greek philosophy. The book was published to great acclaim and topped the best-seller lists in 1964. After Julian, Vidal made his living as a novelist, turning to the essay or the lecture stage only to express his passionately held opinions on literature and politics.
In the 1967 novel Washington, D.C., Vidal revisited his native city, following a set of invented characters through the changing political atmosphere of the city from the New Deal to the Cold War. The following year, Vidal outraged a few and amused many with an offbeat satirical novel, Myra Breckenridge. Written in a wildly original style, the book combined themes of the movie business, transsexuality, drugs and religion. It was later made into a film he described as the worst movie ever made.
Between these massive works, he continued to explore his original brand of satire with works like Duluth, The Smithsonian Institution and Live From Golgotha. He explored the world of the fifth century, BC, with Creation, a tale that follows its protagonist from Persia to Athens to India and China, and touches on the origins of some of the world's major religions.
Beginning in the 1950s, Vidal published occasional essays on politics and literature. In later years, these most often appeared in The New York Review of Books. These essays were gathered each decade in best-selling collections like Rocking the Boat, Sex Death and Money, Homage to Daniel Shays, Matters of Fact and Fiction and At Home. A collection of 40 years of his work in the essay medium, United States: Collected Essays 1952-1992, won the National Book Award in 1993. The award confirmed Vidal's status as the greatest English language essayist of the 20th century.
From the 1960s, Vidal kept an apartment in Rome and a villa in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. At the same time, he maintained a home in the Hollywood Hills and made occasional appearances as an actor in films such as Bob Roberts, With Honors and the television movie Billy the Kid. When his longtime companion Howard Austen fell ill in 2003, he gave up the home in Italy and returned to Los Angeles for good. Austen died later that year.
In his later years, Vidal gave up writing longer novels, and published two volumes of memoirs, Palimpsest (1995) and Point to Point Navigation (2006). He also published a thoughtful study of the Founding Fathers, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003). He continued to publish book-length essays on political topics, such as Dreaming War and Imperial America. Unitl his final illness, he continued to speak publicly against what he saw as the erosion of constitutional liberty in America. He died at home in Los Angeles at the age of 86.