Gore Vidal, who died last year at the age of 86, somewhat puzzlingly decided to leave his entire fortune, some $37 million, to Harvard University.
Vidal did not attend Harvard, nor does he have any family connection to the school. He did lecture there several times.
Some members of his family, understandably, are a little annoyed about this. His half-sister, Nina Auchincloss Straight, is contesting the will, arguing that he was not mentally competent when he made the will. She also says that her brother owed her about $1 million for legal fees that she loaned him during his famous fight with National Review Editor William Buckley in the 1960s.
Straight’s claim is a little questionable. While it’s true that in his final years the writer became increasingly eccentric, and mean-spirited, it’s not like Harvard was exploiting the writer to get his money. Harvard has plenty of money, and didn’t appear to be aware that the institution was to be the main beneficiary of the author’s estate.
Vidal had no children, though several half brothers and sisters survived him.
It’s not just his own family that’s troubled by the bequest. He had originally intended to give his entire fortune to his long-term companion, Howard Austen, but Austen died in 2003. Two years ago the writer changed his will.
But by the terms of the will it appears virtually everything goes to Harvard, including his personal effects. Austen’s sister, Arlyne Reingold, protests that she would like some of her family’s stuff back, including her brother’s ring, belt buckle, and pictures of her family. Austen made of a collage of his father’s old driver’s licenses, for instance. These are surely items of limited scholarly interest to Harvard.
His literary editor, Jay Parini, said that the did have a certain affection for Harvard, however. According to the Times article, “During the 1990s he did a lecture series at Harvard, which brought him into close contact with faculty members,” Parini said. “He spoke about ‘the wonders of Harvard.’ …Harvard represented the Platonic ideal of a university.”
Well, perhaps, but this indicates one of the more complicated aspects of university endowments. As one friend, quoted in the article, said, “anger was Gore’s default mode. He wanted to go out like Ebenezer Scrooge, with a huge finger to everyone around him.” A bequest to an academic institution is not always about any great love for the school, but sometimes just a way to punish a family.