Gore Vidal bought a house upstate for $16,000 in 1946—a full 62 years ago. His Barrytown home, called Edgewater, is one of the only Hudson Valley mansions located on the west side of the railroad tracks. (It’s now owned by the financier and historic preservationist Dick Jenrette, who purchased it from him in 1969 for $125,000.)
Considering that the Hudson Valley seems to get rediscovered every 10 years or so, it’s tempting to view Vidal as the original “newcomer,” except that he was born at West Point. But apart from his birthplace, Vidal must have come across to his new neighbors on the River as the ultimate City interloper. A novelist, critic, playwright, occasional actor, Army veteran, quipster and quixotic political candidate, Vidal was also a tart-tongued tastemaker: contrarian, iconoclastic, left-wing, blue-blooded and promiscuously bisexual to boot. (He claimed a tally of conquests that rivals Wilt Chamberlain’s.)
Theatrically immodest, Vidal said that “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” He was much more out of the British mold of journalist/authors, cultivating high-profile feuds (with Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Charlton Heston, et al.) both out of personal conviction and also to milk their publicity value.
Unlike his sparkling earlier essays, Vidal’s later work could feel a bit overly-vehement and repetitive, even when one agreed with his politics. Though celebrated as a supreme stylist, the prose of his well-known historical novels is less than fluid, though still enjoyable for their imaginative leaps, bordering on outright fabications—such as his attempt to rehabilitate Aaron Burr, at the expense of Hamilton and Jefferson. More purely enjoyable is lighter fiction, such as Kalki (about a hapless would-be savior arriving on earth near the end of the world). His late-life cameos on TV and film, from The Simpsons to Gattaca, made better use of a persona that was long-since established, and by his own admission a relic of a different time in American history.
Intellectually and socially elite, Vidal was at the same time a political populist, writing that “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”
Of his time in the Valley, Vidal wrote:
When a writer moves into the house that he most wants or needs, the result is often a sudden release of new energy. Henry James's move to Lamb House produced The Wings of the Dove, Somerset Maugham's move to Villa Mauresque resulted in his only satisfactory novel, Cakes and Ale. In my case, there was a burst of energy and imagination of a sort not accessible to me before. Overnight—the result of the octagonal library?”I jettisoned what I called ‘the national manner,' the gray, slow realism of most American writing, not to mention the strict absence of wit and color...
According to The Poughkeepsie Journal, the actress Joanne Woodward told Vidal he “never should have sold that house,” and that the writer “dreamed” all the remainder of his life of moving back.