14 August 2012

Oscar Wilde and Gore Vidal

    On the last day of November, 1900, Oscar Wilde gazed up from his deathbed at the walls of the dingy hotel room in Paris that was to be his last refuge and reportedly muttered “either that wall paper goes, or I go.”  He then died.  One hundred and twelve years later, on the last day of July, 2012, Gore Vidal, a man described as the twentieth century answer to Oscar Wilde, died in his bed in Hollywood, California.  There are many common threads shared by these men of different centuries.   Each was a celebrated author of novels, mysteries, and plays.  But each was also known, perhaps even more so, for their celebrated caustic wits.  And each grappled throughout their respective lives with their own complicated sexuality.

Oscar Wilde
Gore Vidal
    Wilde and Vidal were each blessed with the privileges that come with having been born into aristocracy.  Oscar Wilde’s parents were Dublin intellectuals, Sir William Wilde and his wife, the poet Jane Francesca Wilde.  Oscar Wilde was raised with the assistance of a French governess, and later studied the classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Magdalene College at Cambridge.  Gore Vidal’s lineage was just as august, but seeped in the aristocracy of the New World.  Vidal’s father, James Lucas Vidal, served as Commerce Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt and then went on, in partnership with Amelia Earhart, to found Eastern Air Lines, Northeast Air Lines and TWA.  (If you have seen the 2009 movie Amelia you may have noted a young Gore Vidal, portrayed by William Cuddy.)  Gore Vidal’s mother, Nina Gore, was the daughter of a former Oklahoma Senator and later, after divorcing Vidal’s father, was the wife of Louis Auchincloss, who was later to become the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  And like Wilde, Vidal’s education was robust – he attended Sidwell Friends School and St. Albans in Washington, D.C., and then Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Unlike Wilde, Vidal did not attend college, but instead enlisted in the Navy and served as a warrant officer in the Pacific during World War II.

    Both Wilde and Vidal also shared what can only be described as complicated sexual identities.  Wilde was married for a number of years to Constance Lloyd, a wealthy London heiress, and they had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan.  The marriage crumbled, however, soon after Wilde became enamored of Alfred Douglas, a brilliant but incorrigibly fey Oxford graduate and frequenter of the London gay nightlife community.  The ensuing flamboyant relationship between Wilde and Douglas soon became a cause célèbre in London.  Wilde, unlike Vidal, had the bad fortune to be borne into a less forgiving era.  The relationship in any event infuriated Douglas’ straight laced (even for Victorian times) father the Marquess of Queensberry, who on February 18, 1895 left a calling card for Wilde at his London club, the Albemarle.  The incorrectly spelled message said simply:  "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite"
The Marquess of Queensberry
(in all his rabid glory)

   While Wilde had embraced Douglas he could not bring himself to embrace his own sexuality, and his response was an outraged denial.  In short order Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  There was, to say the least, ample evidence that Wilde was, indeed, homosexual and, no surprise, the Marquess of Queensberry was acquitted.  The acquittal rendered Wilde liable for the defense of the case, which ruined him financially.  But even worse, it provided the basis for Wilde’s own conviction for sodomy, his incarceration in London, the collapse of his health, and (doubtless) his death in that cheap Paris hotel room in November of 1900.

    By contrast, Vidal led his life in a far more open and less judgmental time.  He, too, reportedly was involved with a number of women – Vidal, for example, was engaged to Joanne Woodward just before her marriage to Paul Newman – but his longtime companion was Howard Austen, who died in 2003, and his essays and novels – notably The City and the Pilar and Myra Breckenridge are rife with homosexual themes.  And while Vidal never stooped to denial (the catalyst to Wilde’s downfall), this is not to say that he did not stoop to litigation.  The analog to Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry was Vidal’s 1969 court battle with William F. Buckley.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal
    The feud between the two began, for all intent and purpose, in 1968 when ABC News decided to pair Buckley and Vidal for contrasting views on the Democratic convention in Chicago.  The pair had debated before, but by the penultimate Chicago broadcast – as the Democrats’ convention was descending into anarchy and ruin, and riots spread throughout Chicago, any hope of civility between Vidal and Buckley also washed out with the tide.  A report of the climactic exchange that took place on the broadcast, preserved in the archives of the University of Pittsburg, provides as follows:
[B]efore long the men began exchanging words that one simply didn’t hear on TV at that time. Vidal called Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi," a modest slip of the tongue, he later said, because he was searching for the word "fascist" and it just didn't come out. Inflamed by the word "Nazi" and the whole tenor of the discussion, Buckley snapped back: "Now listen, you queer,” he said, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
    That ended the face-to-face appearances of the two:  the last ABC "debate" featured Vidal and Buckley in separate rooms.  But the feud continued in various published articles authored by the two and culminated in a libel suit, brought initially by Buckley, charging that Vidal had defamed him by referring to him as “anti-black and anti-Semitic.”  Vidal counter-sued alleging that Buckley libeled him by describing his novel Myra Breckenridge as “pornography.”  Both cases were dismissed, although pursuant to a settlement agreement, damages were paid by Buckley.

    The difference between the 1800s and the Twentieth Century was significant for Vidal.  While Wilde, for all of his intellect, was nonetheless forced into denial, even in the face of his own open behavior, Vidal had the option to more freely embrace who he was.  It is true that earlier in the 1950s homosexual themes in Vidal's novel The City and the Pillar affected his ability to sell books.  Indeed, that is why his series of three detective novels written at that time – Death before Bedtime, Death in the Fifth Position and Death Likes it Hot were written under the pseudonym Edgar Box.  But by the late 1960s sexual orientation had become less of a public concern and Vidal’s litigation with Buckley, and his flamboyance, if anything, simply increased his notoriety.  Regarding his sexual preferences Vidal openly wrote “[t]here is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”  Gore Vidal frequently described his role in life as “Gentleman bitch.”

    In any event, and as mentioned at the outset, both Wilde and Vidal are known, and will continue to be known, for their caustic wit.  So let’s end with a salute to that.

Oscar Wilde:

  • A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally.
  • A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
  • A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.
  • A poet can survive everything but a misprint.
  • Alas, I am dying beyond my means.
  • All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.
  • Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much.
  • America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
  • America has been discovered often before Columbus, but it was always hushed up.
  • An excellent man; he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him.
  • A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen above him.  
  • Biography lends to death a new terror.
  • Anyone who lives within his means suffers from a lack of imagination.
  • I think God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.
  • One should always play fairly when one holds the winning cards.

And, Gore Vidal:

  • A good deed never goes unpunished.
  • All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.
  • A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.
  • Andy Warhol is the only genius I've ever known with an I.Q. of 60.
  • Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.
  • Fifty percent of people won't vote, and fifty percent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same fifty percent.
  • It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
  • One is sorry one could not have taken both branches of the road. But we were not allotted multiple selves.
  • Television is now so desperately hungry for material that they're scraping the top of the barrel.
  • The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.
  • There is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.
  • Always a godfather, never a God.  
Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal
    One of my favorite Gore Vidal stories involves another television appearance, this time on Dick Cavett’s ABC show in 1971  Vidal was scheduled to appear with Norman Mailer, and while the two were in the green room, prior to their introductions, an argument erupted.  Vidal had recently published a not-so-glowing critique of Mailer’s latest work.  Mailer groused about the critique and an exchange of words ultimately culminated in Mailer decking Vidal.  Bloodied, and lying on the floor, Vidal reportedly looked up, raised one eyebrow and said, “Once again we find Mr. Mailer at a loss for words.”


  1. Brilliant! I enjoyed every word of this! Thank you for such a witty and engaging retrospective on both incomparable men.

  2. Dale, this was priceless. Really enjoyed it, buddy.


  3. My parents inculcated us kids with Oscar Wilde literature.

    When it came to Vidal and Buckley, I felt like Alice believing six impossible things before breakfast… well, at least two incompatible things. I liked both men, often for conflicting reasons, and concluded both were mad, which didn't diminish appreciation of either.

  4. I fear that off your selection Gore Vidal can't hold a candle to Oscar Wilde.
    Very funny.

  5. Vidal was a screenwriter as well as a novelist. When TV decided to film one of his movels he complained that the studio said he was not nearly an important enough screen writer to be allowed to write the script based on the work of such an important novelist.

  6. I loved "The Picture Of Dorian Gray" when I was young--still do, actually.

  7. Thanks for all of the comments, folks!

  8. One of my favorite Wilde quotes is: "To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early or be respectable."


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