Even before the novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright Gore Vidal, who died on July 31, is buried in Washington, D.C’s Rock Creek Cemetery alongside his life companion Howard Austen, bloggers have hastily called Vidal an anti-Semite. The reality is more complex.
Vidal will be remembered not for his political views, but his historical novels such as “Lincoln” and “Burr,”, plays (later filmed) such as “The Best Man,” which recently enjoyed a Broadway revival, and screenplays, co-writing William Wyler’s “Ben Hur” (1959) and adapting Paddy Chayefsky’s play “The Catered Affair” (1956).
The last-mentioned reveals a rarely-seen side of Vidal, in its empathetic view of domestic life and the struggles of companionship. From 1950 until 2003, when Austen died of cancer, he — an American Jewish advertising copywriter — and Vidal lived together. Indeed, it was Vidal who suggested that since Auster could not find a job on anti-Semitic Madison Avenue, he change his name to sound more goyish. As Vidal recalled decades later to interviewer Amy Goodman on the public access TV show “Democracy Now”:
[Howard] was turned down by every advertising agency — and he had graduated from NYU — because it was a Jewish name. Can you imagine? He was rejected because he was Jewish. And I said, “Well, this is silly.” I said, “Change the ‘R’ to an ‘N.’” So he became Howard Austen, which has caused a lot of confusion to biographers, but immediately he was hired at Doyle, Dane & Bernbach, a very good house. Amazing to think how recently all that was still in effect.
Practical effectiveness in the face of bigotry was a trademark of Vidal’s durable literary and journalistic careers, as well as successful Hollywood and Broadway stints. Vidal was accompanied by Austen, who was no mere domestic accessory. “Liberation: Diaries Volume 3” the final volume of journals by Christopher Isherwood, out in May from Chatto & Windus, with U.S. publication still to be announced, makes this clear. At a 1970s dinner chez Vidal and Austen in California where other guests included the German Jewish-born superagent Sue Mengers, Isherwood burst into an anti-Semitic rant, to which Austen took immediate and lasting exception. Despite the depth of their acquaintance and the height of their literary esteem for Isherwood, he was not forgiven for a long time.
Vidal could enjoy caustic disputes, such as the televised 1968 squabble during the Democratic Convention with William F. Buckley, Jr. whom he called a “crypto-Nazi,” later claiming that he meant to say “crypto-Fascist.” This accusation preceded Buckley’s proposal in “The New York Times” that all AIDS patients be tattooed, which struck some observers as reflecting not just Fascist ideas, but also Nazi ones.