Gore Vidal Dies at 86

Gore Vidal - P 2012
Getty Images

The novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist and political activist ran for Congress and pushed boundaries with such works as "Myra Breckinridge" and "The City and the Pillar."

Gore Vidal, an iconic writer and outspoken political activist, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 86.

Vidal's family made the announcement Tuesday, leaving a brief message on his official website and Twitter account. His nephew, actor-writer-director Burr Steers, told The New York Times that Vidal died from complications of pneumonia.

A novelist, essayist, playwright and screenwriter, Vidal was a leading political liberal voice from the 1950s and forward; he ran for Congress in New York in 1960 and the U.S. Senate in California in 1982. Once a writer for MGM, he earned fame for his satirical novels, including Myra Breckinridge, which, with its transsexual themes, was a highly controversial and groundbreaking work when published in 1968. Twenty years earlier, his The City and the Pillar was one of the first novels to deal openly with homosexuality. It was dedicated to Jimmie Trimble, the love of Vidal's life, who died at Iwo Jima in World War II. The New York Times refused to review the book.

Vidal was born to a politically connected family: His father was a two-time Olympian who served in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; his mother once was married to Hugh Auchincloss, who, while a Republican, was later Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' stepfather; and his maternal grandfather and namesake was Thomas Gore, the celebrated blind senator from Oklahoma. Vidal grew up in Washington, D.C., and after attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, enlisted in the Army as a private, serving in World War II.

His on-air fight with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic National Convention became the stuff of legend. He also took on Ayn Rand in a famous column for Esquire. In fact, it was his essays that earned him the most fame. A writer for The New York Review of Books, among many other publications, Vidal would win the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1993 for his collection, United States: 1952-1992. In all, he published 25 novels, two memoirs and volumes of essays.

A revival of his play, The Best Man, is being staged on Broadway. Both Best Man and an earlier play, A Visit to a Small Planet, were made into hit films. He wrote the screenplays for a pair of Tennessee Williams adaptations: Suddenly Last Summer (1959), which featured Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in Oscar-nominated roles, and Sidney Lumet's Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970), with James Coburn and Lynn Redgrave.

In more recent years, Vidal continued to write on political themes and advocated the impeachment of President George W. Bush.

Vidal wrote Visit to a Small Planet as a television play, then reworked it two years later for the Broadway stage, where it debuted in February 1957 and became a critical hit and ran for 11 months. A satire on the post-World War II fear of communism and McCarthyism in the U.S., it starred Cyril Ritchard on stage and Jerry Lewis in the 1960 film as an alien intending to visit Earth for the Civil War but errantly lands 100 years later.

The Best Man became a 1964 film starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as backstabbing candidates from the same party vying for the ex-president's endorsement. The play, which ran for 520 performances, starred Melvyn Douglas in the Fonda role and Frank Lovejoy in the Robertson role.

His novel Myra Breckinridge, written in the form of a diary, became the bizarre 1970 film comedy that starred Raquel Welsh, John Huston and Mae West in her penultimate movie.

His teleplay for The Left-Handed Gun became a 1958 film directed by first-time helmer Arthur Penn and starred Paul Newman as Billy the Kid (he also played the role on TV).

Vidal also wrote the original draft for the infamous 1979 pornographic film Caligula but had his name removed when the script was rewritten by director Tinto Brass and star Malcolm McDowell.

Vidal, who was briefly engaged to actress Joanne Woodward, Newman's future wife, had a cameo in Federico Fellini's Roma (1972) and voiced himself on TV's The Simpsons and Family Guy. He played a senator in Bob Roberts (1992) and had small roles in the films With Honors (1994), Gattaca (1997), Igby Goes Down (2002) — directed by his nephew Steers -- and Shrink (2009).