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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, November 11, 2013

NY Times: Gore Vidal's Family Challenges Bequest of Entire $37 Million Estate to Harvard

New York Times:  For Gore Vidal, a Final Plot Twist:

Burr[Burr] Steers revealed ... that his uncle [Gore Vidal] had left nothing to his family or intimates in his will. Instead, he bequeathed his entire fortune and assets to Harvard University. .... Nina Straight, Mr. Steers’s mother and Mr. Vidal’s half sister, is challenging her half brother’s will on the grounds that Mr. Vidal was not mentally competent when he changed the terms of his will the year before he died. On Nov. 22 in Los Angeles County Court, there will be a second hearing of case No. BP138192. On one side is Ms. Straight and on the other Andrew S. Auchincloss, son of Mr. Vidal’s distant cousin Louis Auchincloss and the trustee of the Gore Vidal Revocable Trust, which oversees Mr. Vidal’s estate.

The Harvard bequest mystifies Ms. Straight and Mr. Steers and many of the author’s closest friends, but it is also vintage Vidal: an appropriately ornery final salvo from a master contrarian. A close friend, who asked not to be identified because of the family’s sensitivity, said: “Anger was Gore’s default mode. He wanted to go out like Ebenezer Scrooge, with a huge finger to everyone around him.” ...

Mr. Steers said Mr. Vidal, in his original will, left everything to Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years who died in 2003, then amended it in 2011, awarding it to Harvard. ... Mr. Vidal’s fortune, according to Ms. Straight, is estimated at $37 million; representatives for the estate would not confirm this or any other details about the will. ...

Harvard has not yet been drawn into the case. “The University has been provided with notice of an interest under Mr. Vidal’s testamentary plan and is aware of ongoing proceedings related to it, but is not involved in those proceedings and awaits resolution of all issues,” a spokesman said in a statement. ...

Mr. Vidal’s bequest could be the culmination of a late-in-life relationship with Harvard. He believed his papers had not been treated with the respect they demanded at the University of Wisconsin, where they were previously held, Mr. Parini said.

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One cannot think of Gore Vidal without also thinking of his sparring partner William F. Buckley Jr., so I looked up how the founder of the National Review distributed his wealth. From reports in 2008 and 2009, it seems that the father specifically excluded one of his three grandchildren from his estate – the one born out of wedlock, whose father Christopher Buckley also chooses to ignore.

Posted by: Bob Kamman | Nov 11, 2013 11:04:11 AM

I must admit I found the bequeath a bit surprising given a late-in-life interview with Gore Vidal wherein he did not seem overly impressed with Harvard:

Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.

"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'

"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "

The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.

"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."

But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Nov 11, 2013 12:46:24 PM

Vidal gave his papers to Harvard in 2002. He also gave a series of lectures there that he reportedly enjoyed very much. He worked with the renowned Harvard professor David Herbert Donald while researching his novel, Lincoln. This does not come entirely from nowhere.

Posted by: CHS | Nov 11, 2013 4:31:51 PM

Did Vidal make an unrestricted gift to "Harvard University" or did he specify a certain department, program, or scholarship fund?

Posted by: Robert Gould | Nov 12, 2013 6:40:34 AM

I don't think that has been stated publicly.

Posted by: CHS | Nov 12, 2013 11:56:31 AM