November 12th, 2007
He had two Pulitzer Prizes, and six wives.
But while sex remained a fascination for Norman Mailer (along with power and celebrity), he lived his ideas — the good ones and the bad. His life became an 84-year fantasmagoria of fulfilled impulses, and the strange and wonderful knowledge that resulted. Woody Allen once joked that when Norman Mailer died, he'd donate his ego for medical research.
Calling ego "the buzzword of the century," Mailer boldly explored his passions in nine different decades, leaving behind a secret second body of work — amazing stories about the story-teller's life.
Here's some of the highlights.
Movies Gone Bad
Attracted by Hollywood intrigue, Mailer devoted his third novel The Deer Park to the depravation of the entertainment industry, naming it after the notorious 18th-century pleasure groves of King Louis XV. ("...that gorge of innocence and virtue in which were engulfed so many victims.")
But in 1968 Mailer pioneered a new form of excess, filming five days of unscripted improvisation "to dissolve the line between fiction and actuality," one biographer wrote — "to set the stage for an explosion of human passions." Fist fights broke out, and the movie ends with a genuine brawl between Mailer and actor Rip Torn.
Publisher Barney Rosset lent his house for part of the filming, and remembered that things quickly descended into chaos.
My mother in law went outside, then came back into the house screaming, "There's a midget in the swimming pool...!"
Someone had thrown Herve Villechaize into the pool, and he was drowning.
Rosset drove to Mailer's hotel room, banged on the door, and shouted "Norman, you've gotta come back and get your midget!" Villechaize was taken to a hospital where his stomach was pumped (possibly for alcohol), but the next day, the future Fantasy Island star was back on the set.
The movie told the story of a movie director — coincidentally, with Mailer's name — who's considering a run for the Presidency. Mailer wanted to explore what provokes the assassination of political figures, but the cast unwisely included both Mailer's wife and his ex-wife, and at one point Torn even advised the actors to attack Mailer's film doppelganger with their harshest criticisms of Mailer himself.
"All you want to hear is how wonderful you are."
"You never listen to anyone but yourself."
The movie's ultimate achievement is probably the brutal honesty it uncovered. Torn's attack on Mailer — while wielding a hammer — was apparently triggered by disappointment that the movie hadn't followed through on its assassination premise.
"Four of Mailer's children — Dandy, Betsy, Michael, and Stephen — were terrified, screaming after Torn's assault on their father... Calling Torn a 'crazy fool cocksucker', Mailer wrestled him to the ground, biting and nearly tearing off Torn's ear."
Celebrity Gone Wild
In 1971 Norman Mailer showed up drunk on the Dick Cavett show. Backstage he slapped guest Gore Vidal, then literally butted his head, according to Mailer's recollections in a 1977 article in Esquire.
Vidal: Are you crazy?
Mailer: Shut up.
Vidal: You're absolutely mad. You are violent.
Mailer: I'll see you on the show.
Vidal had written a nasty remark about Mailer (comparing him to Charles Manson), and when Mailer finally took his seat, he sat in cold fury, spitting out fierce and cryptic insults.
Mailer: Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask a question?
Cavett: Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine.
The audience hated him — But then Mailer's competitive instincts kicked in, and during the commercial break he sobered up enough to collect his wits.
"Why do you have to answer them with insults and nasty statements and they're answering you maturely and with dignity?" a woman asked from the audience.
"They're mature and full of dignity," Mailer replied, "and they'd cut my throat in any alley..."
In that moment a famous feud began with Gore Vidal that lasted nearly 20 years. "I've been misrepresented, by my own paranoid lights, for twenty-five years in this country..." Mailer told Cavett's audience. "I have presumed with all my extraordinary arrogance and loutishness and crudeness to step forth and say, 'I'm going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off...' But you know, they don't knock you off because they're too damned simply yellow, and they kick me in the nuts, and I don't like it."
It was one of the great moments of live television, and Mailer regretted only that his points hadn't come through clearly, though he'd definitely made an impression. (As he himself described it, "The good byes were short. Mailer turned around and Vidal was gone.")
This fascination continued, Mailer holding a fierce contempt with the mass media while occasionally also flirting with it. In 1981 he appeared as the doomed architect Stanford White in the movie version of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. And in 2004 he even played himself in an episode of The Gilmore Girls.
The episode was titled "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant."
The Boxer's Rebellion
Boxers are artists, Mailer argued, facing the same high stakes of ego and punishment that a writer faces when staring at a blank page. Or maybe Mailer was just attracted by the brutal pageantry. ("I respect most boxers," he once wrote, "because they're violent people who learned to discipline themselves...") His book The Fight captures all the social nuances of Muhammad Ali's 1974 re-match against George Foreman in Zaire.
But Mailer didn't just watch boxing; he'd step into the ring, sparring recreationally with light heavyweight champion Jose Torres even when he'd reached his 50s. And at least once, it went even further. Yesterday one online boxing fan remembered Mailer's most bizarre boxing moment, interrupting the post-fight press conference after the 1962 world heavyweight championship.
...after Sonny Liston flattened Patterson, Mailer had stayed up partying most of the night. He returned to his room early in the morning, but instead of getting some rest, or at least a shower, had spent the remaining time before the post-fight press conference drinking some more while trying to chat up the chamber maid cleaning his room. He made Liston's victorious post fight conference but preceded to barge onto the stage and attempt to explain to Liston that he could existentially prove that Liston hadn't won, and that he, Norman Mailer, was the only man who could promote the rematch into a million dollar event.
Liston, apparently, stared in impassive, silent, disbelief as Mailer was carried out of the room on his chair.
In 1967 Mailer wrote a book titled Why Are We In Vietnam in which the word "Vietnam" occurs only on the last page. Instead the plot concerns two hormone-addled teenaged boys who wonder which one will bugger the other first. (The back of the swaggering book featured a picture of Mailer himself with a black eye.) Two years later Mailer ran for mayor of New York City, backed by columnist Jimmy Breslin, on a platform proposing that New York City should become the 51st state.
"I felt God wanted me to go into politics to save New York," Mailer remembered last year. "I was a high-octane fool."
He brought his novelist's ambition to covering the political scene, once receiving an invitation to meet President Kennedy, and remained fascinated by political personalities for nearly sixty years, and their suggestions about the national mood. In 2003, at the age of 80, he published a new book titled Why Are We At War — this time filled with an unusually timely analysis of the post-9/11 world.
"Since I believe in reincarnation, I think the character of your death is tremendously important to you. One wants to be able to meet one's death with a certain seriousness.. Terrorism's ultimate tendency is to make life absurd."
But he felt that a crazy religious fervor lurked behind the Bush administration's response. "Once we become a twenty-first-century embodiment of the old Roman Empire, moral reform can stride right back into the picture."
His political insights continued to the end. Last year a collection of interviews found him weighing in on Bill Clinton's statement about the Monica Lewinsky affair, that "I did it because I could." "I think the style of phrasing comes because of his wife.
"Having been married six times, I have some idea of what one says on such occasions."
Sex and Beyond
Norman Mailer didn't just write a biography of Marilyn Monroe, he wrote two — one, written in the first person.
The 70s also found him writing a book of essays called The Prisoner of Sex, much of it rebutting the new wave of feminists who were criticizing his public statements.
One year before his death, he published a collection of interviews performed by his son John Buffalo Mailer. Bill Clinton's remark that "I did it because I could" had been labelled by Playboy as the epitomy of the boomer generation, an "amorality" that frees the fool to pursue all courses with abandon. But Mailer made a simple yet irrefutable distinction for his own life.
"My amorality — if we're going to get into it — was a search. I wanted to learn more about sex."
Throughout his life, Mailer remained forcefully unapologetic, clinging to his own sense of the sexes and insisting human relations couldn't be reduced to simple formulas or sweeping generalizations. 1974 found him sending this letter to Women's Wear Daily.
It has come to my attention that Gore Vidal has been speaking in your pages of my hatred of women. Let me present the following items.
Number of times married: Mailer 5 Vidal 0 Number of children: Mailer 7 Vidal 0 Number of daughters: Mailer 5 Vidal 0
These statistics of course prove nothing unless it is to suggest that the reason Vidal may have married no lady and fathered no child is due perhaps to his love of women and his reluctance therefore to injure their tender flesh with his sharp tongue.
Ultimately Mailer's feud with Vidal ended with a rapprochement in 1992, and after Mailer's death it led to one final irony. In a New York Times profile, it was Vidal's kind words which were offered as Mailer's ultimate vindication.
"Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist.
"He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements."
When Kurt Vonnegut Met Sammy Davis Jr.
Is The Net Good For Writers?
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes
Author Slash Trickster "JT Leroy"
When Cory Doctorow Ruled The World