Many commentators have suggested that the passing of Gore Vidal at age eighty-six on July 31 marks the end of a remarkable generation of postwar American novelists the likes of whom we shall never see again.
When people speak of that generation of novelists, they are usually referring to exactly three people: Norman Mailer (born in 1923), Truman Capote (1924), and Vidal (1925). All three made splashy literary debuts in the years shortly after the war. All three were not just writers but celebrities. Their arrival on the national scene was followed shortly by the advent of television and the TV talk show, on which all three excelled in their different ways at making an indelible impression.
Vidal was the pompous, formidable intellect and wit, serving up well-turned putdowns of those he considered his inferiors – which included pretty much everyone – in an authoritative upper-crust dialect. Capote was the flamboyant quipster and gossip with the pronounced Southern accent, more explicit on national TV about his sexual orientation than any other gay man in America would dare for another generation. And Mailer, in contradistinction to these two gay men, was the embodiment of post-Hemingway machismo – a Brooklyn Jewish kid by way of Harvard with a chip on his shoulder and a determination to prove that he, and no other, was the natural heir to Papa Hemingway.
Back then, big authors were big TV. These three loved doing the talk shows – and the talk-show hosts loved having them on. Both Vidal and Capote were regulars on Carson (Carson actually invited Vidal to be a guest host, and Capote died at the home of one of Carson’s ex-wives, who’d become a close chum); Vidal and Mailer appeared together on a legendary episode of The Dick Cavett Show (whose wife and Vidal became good friends) on which they all but got into a fistfight on the air.
Nowadays they’d all be lucky to get on C-SPAN.