Literary giant Norman Mailer dies at 84
By the Boston Globe City & Region Desk
November 10, 07 12:19 PM
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff
Norman Mailer, the self-proclaimed heavyweight champion of postwar
American letters, whose six decades in the public eye helped make him
one of America's most acclaimed and controversial authors, died this
morning of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 84.
Mr. Mailer was 25 when he published his first book, "The Naked and
the Dead" (1948). Based on his experiences as a combat infantryman in
the Philippines, the novel was a great literary and commercial success.
Mr. Mailer went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes: for "The Armies of the
Night" (1968), a nonfiction account of a 1967 anti-war march on the
Pentagon, and "The Executioner's Song" (1979), which Mr. Mailer
described as a "real life novel," about executed murderer Gary Gilmore.
The key book among the dozens Mr. Mailer published -- the one that
did the most to create his outsized persona -- was "Advertisements
for Myself" (1959). An audacious gathering of fiction, journalism,
essays, and interviews, it served as Mr. Mailer's announcement that
he was king of the literary hill.
"I am imprisoned with a perception," he wrote, "that will settle for
nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our
time." His writing, Mr. Mailer went on to say, "will have the deepest
influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years."
What may be most striking about such bold claims wasn't Mr. Mailer's
failure to achieve them but rather that so many people seriously
considered the possibility that he might live up to them -- this
despite the fact he then had just three novels to his name, and only
"The Naked and the Dead" had been well-regarded.
In a sense, Mr. Mailer was the chief advertisement for himself. No
book stands out as his masterpiece. Many of his books, quickly
written for money or attention or both, do not stand out at all. Or
they do so for the wrong reasons.
His 1983 novel, "Ancient Evenings," remains one of the great debacles
in 20th-century literature. The most memorable character he created
-- and it was no small accomplishment -- was himself. The novelist
Gustave Flaubert remarked of his most celebrated creation, "Madame
Bovary, c'est moi" ("Madame Bovary is me"). Mr. Mailer could say the
same thing about himself. "Norman Mailer" was Mr. Mailer's own most
enduring creation: a roisterous, rebellious, shameless figure, at
once seer and clown, man of letters and man of action, who sought in
his writing to grab hold of very nearly all of contemporary American
experience and make it his own.
When he published a collection of political journalism called "The
Presidential Papers" (1963), it wasn't completely clear whether Mr.
Mailer meant the title as a description of the contents or as a
campaign declaration. The grandiosity of his ambitions extended that
far beyond literature. Nor did Mr. Mailer's sense of self-importance
diminish over time. In 1997, he published a novel about Jesus Christ,
"The Gospel According to the Son," written in the first person.
"I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity,
personality, and status," Mr. Mailer wrote in "Advertisement." It was
a condition he embraced. Late-night talk shows became his home away
from home. He appeared as a presenter at the 1977 Academy Awards,
acted in the movie version of "Ragtime," and played himself in a 2004
episode of the television series "Gilmore Girls."
"His career seems to be a brawl between his talent and his
exhibitionism," the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in his New York
Times review of Mr. Mailer's novel "Why Are We in Vietnam?" (1967) --
another characteristically expansive title.
Mr. Mailer's heyday was the 1960s. He was very much a transitional
figure between the '50s, whose buttoned-down sensibility he strove
mightily to subvert, and the turbulence of the '60s.
The radical organizer Abbie Hoffman remembered seeing him give a
speech at Brandeis in 1959, looking like "some tousle-haired Hebraic
James Dean." Even as he recalled Dean, Mr. Mailer also looked ahead
to Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali (about whom he wrote two books). He was
their pop-cultural peer, although he was a generation younger, as one
of the decade's totemic personalities.
In his 1957 essay "The White Negro," Mr. Mailer lauded the hipster, a
figure who would evolve into a '60s archetype: the noncomformist who
flouts authority "to set out on the uncharted journey into the
rebellious imperatives of the self."
With those words, Mr. Mailer could have been describing his own
journey, both personal and literary. He was at once instigator,
register, and recipient of the mad, transformative energy of the
'60s. As the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1963, Mr.
Mailer "probe[s] modern society on a level deeper than that of
political and economic determinism."
He was most in his element, perhaps, with all hell breaking loose,
and that description certainly fit the '60s. Between 1959 and 1973,
Mr. Mailer published 19 books, made three "underground" movies, and
ran for mayor of New York. (He finished fourth, in a five-man field,
in the 1969 Democratic primary.)
During these years, Mr. Mailer was arguably the most important,
presumably the most publicized, and certainly the most exciting
writer in America. The brilliance and unconventionality of his
reportage made him a founding father, along with Tom Wolfe and Truman
Capote, of the New Journalism. "Norman, I really think you are the
best journalist in America," he recorded the poet Robert Lowell
saying to him in "The Armies of the Night." Using Lowell's nickname,
Mr. Mailer replied, "Well, Cal, there are days when I think of myself
as being the best writer in America."
The great issues, themes, and events of the '60s drove Mr. Mailer's
writing _ writing which, in turn, helped define them. His essay
"Superman Comes to the Supermarket" (1960) began the mythologizing of
John F. Kennedy. His novel "An American Dream" (1965) reveled in
sexual license and criminality. "Why Are We in Vietnam?" was about
American excess and violence. "The Armies of the Night" dealt with
the anti-war movement. "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" (1968)
described the '68 presidential campaign. "Of a Fire on the Moon"
(1970 meditated on the first Apollo lunar landing. "The Prisoner of
Sex" (1971) confronted feminism.
"Mailer does not have to try to keep up with the times," the novelist
Wilfrid Sheed wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1968. "He
cannot help it."
In "Armies of the Night," Mr. Mailer described his thought as a
"private mixture of Marxism, conservatism, nihilism, and large parts
of existentialism." The unruliness of Mr. Mailer's personal life --
his six marriages, his loudly proclaimed indulgence in alcohol and
drugs, the prominence of the words "orgy" and "ogasm" in his lexicon
-- makes it easy to overlook the importance of "conservatism" in that list.
Mr. Mailer had a near-Luddite abhorrence of technology (he was fond
of saying that plastics "caused" cancer). He had serious misgivings
about contraception, and feminists mocked his views on women. Mr.
Mailer assumed an uncharacteristically plaintive tone when he told
Time magazine he'd supplied the text for "Marilyn" (1973), a
best-selling coffee-table book about Marilyn Monroe, because "I
wanted to say to everyone that I know how to write about a woman."
No small part of Mr. Mailer's difficulties with feminism sprang from
his almost-parodic obsession with masculinity and violence. His
acknowledged literary idol was Ernest Hemingway. He gravitated to
violent characters in his fiction: from the murderous Sgt. Croft in
"The Naked and the Dead," to Stephen Rojak, who kills his wife in "An
American Dream," to Gilmore, in "The Executioner's Song." The moral
crux of "The White Negro" is the murder of a 50-year-old candy-story
owner. "Mailer's waddle and crouch may look like a put-on but he
means it when he butts heads," the critic Pauline Kael wrote in The
New York Times Book Review of "Marilyn."
Violence figured in Mr. Mailer's life as well as art. He relished
bullfighting and boxing -- the latter as both participant and fan --
and had a penchant for getting into fistfights. In 1960, he stabbed
his second wife at a party with a penknife (she declined to press
charges). Twenty-one years later, that incident had a gruesome echo.
Mr. Mailer had befriended a convict, Jack Henry Abbott, and helped
earn his release. Within weeks of getting out of prison, Abbott had
stabbed a man to death.
Mr. Mailer's fascination with violence had its incongruous aspect.
His generosity toward other writers and frequent graciousness was
well-known in literary circles, as was his devotion to his children
and amicable relations with all but one of his ex-wives. How to
account for his tough-guy side? (Mr. Mailer published a novel in 1984
called "Tough Guys Don't Dance," and in 1987 directed a film
version.) Perhaps it was an attempt to scrub away what he called in
"Armies of the Night" "a last remaining speck of the one personality
he found absolutely insupportable -- the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."
Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31,
1923, the son of Isaac Barnett Mailer and Fanny (Schneider) Mailer.
Mr. Mailer's father, a South African immigrant, was an accountant.
His mother operated an employment agency. The family moved to
Brooklyn when he was 4.
"Norman was not an ordinary child," his mother said at his 50th
birthday party. "Other children always had that sameness about them,
but not Norman. He was just different."
Mr. Mailer attended New York public high schools and wanted to go to
MIT. Instead, he entered Harvard at 16 to study aeronautical
engineering. He quickly turned his attention to writing. "All through
December 1939 and January 1940 I was discovering modern American
literature," he later wrote. "I had formed the desire to be a major
writer." In 1941, he won Story Magazine's annual college writing contest.
The influence of the writers who meant the most to him at the time,
John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell, is apparent in "The Naked and
the Dead." Mr. Mailer was very conscious of wanting to write a "big"
book about World War II. After being drafted, in 1944, he was
relieved to find his unit assigned to the Pacific. He was convinced a
great book was likelier to come out of that theater of operations
rather than the more familiar Europe.
Mr. Mailer became increasingly interested in radical politics after
the success of "The Naked and the Dead." His next novel, "Barbary
Shore" (1951), dealt extensively with left-wing ideology and was
widely deemed a failure. "The Deer Park" (1955), which drew on Mr.
Mailer's experiences as a fledgeling screenwriter in the late '40s,
offered a scabrous view of Hollywood and received mixed reviews.
Journalism began to attract Mr. Mailer's interest. He helped found
The Village Voice, an alternative New York weekly, in 1955 and wrote
a column for it.
By the 1980s, Mr. Mailer had acquired grand old man status -- and was
visibly enjoying it. He became a much-sought guest on the New York
society circuit and served two years as president of the American
branch of PEN, the international writers organization. In that
capacity, he presided over the 1986 World PEN Congress, in New York.
Once again, he became embroiled in controversy, for having invited
Secretary of State George Shultz to address the meeting. It was a
mark of just how much of an establishment figure Mr. Mailer had
become that this, rather than some scandalous behavior, should be the
occasion of outrage.
Yet even as he mellowed in his personal life and grew more august as
a public figure, Mr. Mailer kept up many of his old literary
compulsions and remained a man of the left. In his massive novel
"Harlot's Ghost" (1991), he examined the power and influence of the
CIA. He attacked George H.W. Bush and his handling of the Gulf War in
"How the Wimp Won the War" (1991). His longstanding fascination with
John F. Kennedy took a new turn in "Oswald's Tale" (1995), a
nonfiction account of JFK's assassin.
In the 1990s, Mr. Mailer began living year-round in Provincetown,
where he had begun spending summers in 1945. "There's something comic
about the town," he said in a 2003 Globe interview. "You have the
spot where the Pilgrims landed -- and right next to it a giant motel.
I've always loved that. There's the very spirit of America expressing itself!"
Mr. Mailer leaves his wife, Norris Church; five daughters, Susan,
from his first marriage, Danielle, and Elizabeth, from his second
marriage, Kate, from his third marriage, and Maggie, from his fifth
marriage; three sons, Michael, and Steven, from his fourth marriage,
and John Buffalo, from his sixth marriage; a stepson, Matthew Norris;
and 10 grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.
Mailer's talent was never as big as his ego
A fitfully brilliant journalist, an indifferent novelist, Norman's
noisy ambitions outstripped his achievement
November 12, 2007
by Jay Parini
Norman Mailer died this past weekend, as anyone who has glanced at
the morning papers or listened to the radio or television will know.
The obituaries and commentaries have been extravagant, which seems
appropriate for a life lived so extravagantly.
Mailer said he wanted to write a novel that "Dostoyevsky and Marx,
Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner,
and even old moludering Hemingway might come to read." He never did
this, of course. Who could?
The odd thing about Mailer was that he was never at heart a novelist
but a remarkably gifted journalist. As a young man, I read The Naked
and the Dead (1948) with deep admiration for its epic sweep, the
passion and occasionally brilliance of the writing. Barbary Shore
(1951) and The Deer Park (1955) left me cold, as they did most
reviewers. I tried, without success, to push through Why Are We in
Vietnam? (1967). I did so because I liked the image of Mailer: the
literary hipster with a good deal of bravado, the outsider, the man
who dared to tell society what its faults were. I admired the vast
ambition. But it seemed to me he was not much of a novelist.
With thousands of others (including Mailer), I marched on the
Pentagon in 1967. This was one of the first major anti-Vietnam
marches, and I remember eagerly buying Armies of the Night (1968),
Mailer's compelling account of that protest. I was, however, dismayed
by the focus on himself: the Vietnam War was not about him. The
apparent attempt to become Walt Whitman, who celebrated himself,
seemed false: Whitman's ego was not about Whitman; he identified with
the common man. He suggested that every atom of his body was his and
the reader's as well. Mailer's ego was Mailer's alone.
Despite these misgivings, I admired the sharp portraits, the vivid
evocations of the protest, his musing on the era. His extravagance
here carried him a good deal of the way to greatness of a kind. It
was an extravagance already found in his earlier journalism,
contained in memorably books like Advertisements for Myself (1959)
and Cannibals and Christians (1966). These were uneven books, but
they contained some of the best writing of the period.
Mailer came into his own in the sixties and seventies, as a
journalist, and probably his best work was The Executioner's Song
(1979), with its bare style, its clipped reportage. It's not a very
"Maileresque" book, in fact. The style doesn't seem like his. Yet it
does reflect his reverence for the outlaw, his understanding of the
connections between love and death. On the other hand, I have always
found the idea of the "psychic outlaw" rather ridiculous - a
pretentious notion that justifies bad behavior. There are too many
outlaws in America, in high places - such as the White House. It's
hardly a thing of beauty.
After The Executioner's Song, Mailer seemed to flounder. His novel
about Egypt, Ancient Evenings (1983) was beyond bad. I had been sent
the book for review; I read it, with difficulty and dismay; I quietly
laid it aside. After that, I rarely read his books, although I met
him several times, and had dinner with him once, finding him in
private a rather sweet and friendly man, quite unlike his public persona.
Mailer sought fame, and found notoriety, finding himself in the
gossip pages more than the literary pages. His excessive life - the
six marriages, the stabbing of his second wife, the quarrels with
public figures, the quixotic run for the mayor's job in New York, the
public drinking and brawling - were good gossip, of course. In a
sense, this public extravagance can be thought of as sparks from the
massive flywheel of his turning life and imagination. He churned up a
great deal that was marvellous, and lots that wasn't. But we should
be glad that he was among us for so many years. He often made us
reconsider our own lives, and his best work will continue to challenge us.
Norman Mailer Brawled With Bush to the Bitter End
by John Nichols
Published on Saturday, November 10, 2007 by The Nation
There is much, much to be said of Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer-prize
winning author and world-class rabble-rouser who has died at age 84.
But the pugilistic pensman would perhaps be most pleased to have it
known that he went down swinging. The chronicler of our politics and
protests in the 1960s with two of the era's definitional books -
1968's Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, did
not rest on the laurels - and they were legion earned for exposing
the dark undersides of the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
He went after George Bush with a fury, and a precision, that was born
of his faith that all politicians - including 1969 New York City
mayoral candidate Norman Mailer - had to be viewed skeptically. And,
when found to be lacking, had to be dealt with using all tools
available to a writer pocketed two Pulitzers, a National Book Award,
a George Polk Award, a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to
American Letters from the National Book Foundation and a global
prominence rarely accorded the pushers of pens.
Mailer did not hesitate to suggest that Bush and his compatriots were
setting up "a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America" and he saw the war
in Iraq as an imperialistic endeavor destined as all such attempts
are to diminish democracy at home.
"Iraq is the excuse for moving in an imperial direction," Mailer
wrote on the eve of the conflict. "War with Iraq, as they originally
conceived it, would be a quick, dramatic step that would enable them
to control the Near East as a powerful base not least because of
the oil there, as well as the water supplies from the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers to build a world empire."
Mailer recognized in the president's schoolboy militarism the most
dangerous of instincts. So it was that, when Bush made his 2003
appearance in flight-suit drag before a sign declaring "Mission
Accomplished" as part of the first - though certainly not the last
celebration of the fantasy of "victory" in Iraq, Mailer responded
with a critique that remains the most damning assessment of a
president who has known more than his share of damnation.
"Democracy, more than any other political system, depends on a
modicum of honesty. Ultimately, it is much at the mercy of a leader
who has never been embarrassed by himself," Mailer, who as a young
Harvard graduate had served in the South Pacific during World War II,
wrote of Bush at the close of a brilliant piece for The New York
Review of Books. "What is to be said of a man who spent two years in
the Air Force of the National Guard (as a way of not having to go to
Vietnam) and proceededlike many another spoiled and wealthy father's
sonnot to bother to show up for duty in his second year of service?
Most of us have episodes in our youth that can cause us shame on
reflection. It is a mark of maturation that we do not try to profit
from our early lacks and vices but do our best to learn from them.
Bush proceeded, however, to turn his declaration of the Iraqi
campaign's end into a mighty fashion show. He chosethis overnight
clone of Honest Abeto arrive on the deck of the aircraft carrier
Abraham Lincoln on an S-3B Viking jet that came in with a dramatic
tail-hook landing. The carrier was easily within helicopter range of
San Diego but G.W. would not have been able to show himself in flight
regalia, and so would not have been able to demonstrate how well he
wore the uniform he had not honored. Jack Kennedy, a war hero, was
always in civvies while he was commander in chief. So was General
Eisenhower. George W. Bush, who might, if he had been entirely on his
own, have made a world-class male model (since he never takes an
awkward photograph), proceeded to tote the flight helmet and sport
the flight suit. There he was for the photo-op looking like one more
great guy among the great guys. Let us hope that our democracy will
survive these nonstop foulings of the nest."
Mailer would continue protesting the foulings of the nest, on the
streets of New York during the 2004 Republican National Coronation
and with a pugilistic pen that pummeled the empire builders and their
lesser stooges asking pointedly in final years that paralleled
Bush's "Patriot Acts" and an endless "war on terror": "What does it
profit us if we gain extreme security and lose our democracy?"
until it was finally laid to rest on Saturday.
Norman Mailer, pugnacious and prolific author, dies at 84
Controversy marked novelist's career
By Charles McGrath
New York Times
NEW YORK - Norman Mailer, the combative, controversial and outspoken
novelist who loomed over American letters longer and larger than any
other writer of his generation, died early Saturday in Manhattan. He
was 84. The cause was acute renal failure, his family said.
Mailer burst on the scene in 1948 with "The Naked and the Dead," a
partly autobiographical novel about World War II, and for six decades
he was rarely far from center stage. He published more than 30 books,
including novels, biographies and works of non-fiction, and twice won
the Pulitzer Prize: for "The Armies of the Night" (1968), which also
won the National Book Award, and "The Executioner's Song" (1979).
He also wrote, directed and acted in several low-budget movies,
helped found the Village Voice and for many years was a regular guest
on television talk shows, where he could be counted on to make
oracular pronouncements and deliver provocative opinions, sometimes
coherently and sometimes not.
Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded
novel-writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters
with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of
his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his
contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
He was also the least shy and risk-averse of writers. He eagerly
sought public attention. He was a celebrity long before most authors
were lured into the limelight.
At different points in his life Mailer was a prodigious drinker and
drug-taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician
who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an anti-war
protester, an opponent of women's liberation and an all-purpose
feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation
would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random
punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best
writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one,
he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.
He transformed American journalism by introducing to non-fiction
writing some of the techniques of the novelist and by placing at the
center of his reporting a brilliant, flawed and larger-than-life
character who was none other than Norman Mailer himself.
Norman Kingsley - or, in Hebrew, Nachem Malek - Mailer was born in
Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31, 1923. His father was Isaac Barnett
Mailer, a South African emigre; his mother was the former Fanny
Schneider, who came from a vibrant clan in Long Branch. When Norman
was 9, the family moved to Brooklyn.
In 1939, he enrolled as a 16-year-old freshman at Harvard, where he
intended to major in aeronautical engineering but fell in love with
literature. Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1943, determined on a
literary career. He was drafted in 1944 and was sent to the Philippines.
Mailer saw little combat and finished his Army career as a cook in
occupied Japan. But his wartime experience became the raw material
for "The Naked and the Dead," which remains his greatest literary and
Mailer drifted for much of the 1950s, frequently drunk or stoned or
both. In 1960, he stabbed and seriously wounded his second wife,
Adele Morales. She declined to press charges.
Mailer ran for mayor of New York in 1969 as a secessionist candidate,
campaigning to make New York City the 51st state.
In the 1970s, Mailer entered into a long feud with feminists and
proponents of women's liberation, and in a famous 1971 debate with
Germaine Greer at Town Hall in Manhattan he declared himself an
"enemy of birth control."
In 1977, Mailer began receiving letters from Jack Henry Abbott, a
Utah prison inmate. Mailer saw literary talent in Abbott's letters
and helped him publish them in an acclaimed volume called "In the
Belly of the Beast." He also lobbied to get Abbott paroled. In 1981,
a few weeks after being released, Abbott, by then a darling in
leftist literary circles, killed a man in New York, and his champion
became a target of national outrage.
The episode was the last great controversy of Mailer's career.
Chastened perhaps, and stabilized by his marriage to Norris Church, a
former model whom he wed in 1980, Mailer mellowed and even turned
sedate. The former hostess-baiter and scourge of parties became a
regular guest at black-tie benefits and dinners.
Mailer's later important works include "Ancient Evenings" (1983), a
lengthy tale of pharaonic Egypt; "Tough Guys Don't Dance" (1984), a
quickly written thriller that Mailer called his personal favorite;
"Harlot's Ghost" (1991), a complex story about the CIA; and "The
Gospel According to the Son" (1997), a first-person novel about Jesus.
Mailer was married six times, counting a quickie with Carol Stevens,
whom he wed and divorced within a couple of days in 1980 to grant
legitimacy to their daughter, Maggie. Besides Morales, Stevens and
Church, his other wives were Bea Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell and
Beverly Rentz Bentley. His marriage to Church lasted until his death.
By his various wives, Mailer had eight children, all of whom survive
him. Also surviving are an adopted son and 10 grandchildren.
Perhaps uncharacteristically, Mailer was an old-fashioned, attentive
father. The financial burden of supporting his offspring, as well as
keeping up with alimony payments, caused him to churn out several
novels and articles for a quick payday.
At his death, Mailer was writing a sequel to "The Castle in the
Forest" (2007), a story about Hitler narrated by the Devil. He was a
tireless worker, and if some of his books were not as good as he had
hoped, none of them were forgettable or without his distinctive stamp.
Mailer fights to the end
Robert Lusetich and Hillel Italie | November 12, 2007
HIS friends all tell similar stories. Norman Mailer at a dinner
party, awards ceremony or afternoon gathering, hobbling on canes up
or down a few steps, short of breath, as if getting from one place to
another was harder than finding the right word to finish a paragraph.
Then he would be seated, and was himself again.
"We would talk about everything," novelist William Kennedy said of
Mailer, who died yesterday aged 84 after spending more than two
months in and out of hospitals.
"He knew he wasn't going to live very much longer, but he would still
talk of taking on the greatest subjects. He always was working on something."
The first real celebrity author of the television age died of acute
renal failure in New York. He had been battling serious health
problems for years, even though he continued writing - with pen and
paper, as always - until recently.
With Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and others, Mailer
pioneered the writing form that Wolfe dubbed New Journalism - a genre
that applied the style and perspective of the novel to journalism.
Although Mailer, a man not without ego, was obsessed with writing the
great American novel, he was often at his best in writing about
The Pulitzer Prize was twice awarded to him, for The Armies of the
Night and The Executioner's Song.
Didion said yesterday that Mailer had achieved his dream of the great
novel, on par with the greats of literature.
"There was no voice like his," she said.
"He was a great stylist. The shape of the sentence, the way the words
worked together, he understood that and it was very, very important to him."
Mailer was famous not just because of his works but because of the
image he had crafted of himself: a curmudgeonly contrarian who loved
boxing and, like Ernest Hemingway, other manly pursuits.
Raised in Brooklyn, the son of a South African Jew, Mailer was on the
one hand a devoted Democrat and liberal, and on the other, a strident
opponent of the women's liberation movement and not especially
supportive of homosexuals.
He was married six times, mostly to models and writers: one, the late
Lady Jeanne Campbell, was the daughter of press baron Lord
Beaverbrook, while another, Adele Morales, he notoriously stabbed
with a knife at a party.
Mailer struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.
He published more than 30 works and helped found the Village Voice newspaper.
Even Gore Vidal, with whom he often sparred, called him "a man whose
faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his
Lightning struck early for Mailer, and he struck back. In his 20s, he
was the prodigy behind The Naked and the Dead, the World War II novel
that made him instantly, and prematurely, famous.
He came back in his 30s as the master self-advertiser, the anointer
of John F. Kennedy as "Superman" at the supermarket. In his 40s, he
was the fighting narrator-participant in The Armies of the Night, and
in his 50s, he became the cool chronicler of killer Gary Gilmore.
His hero was the authentic, autonomous man - the boxer, or graffiti
artist, or maestro of jazz, or the "Norman Mailer" who starred in The
Armies of the Night and other works of journalism.
Jason Epstein, who edited several of Mailer's books at Random House,
said: "He was absolutely dauntless. He was quite weak in the end, but
he still planned to write a seven-volume novel about Hitler."
EL Doctorow, who worked with Mailer in the 1960s as an editor at Dial
Press, said: "He was by nature bound to a style of excess. There were
times when you would be fed-up with him, but if you could conceive of
American culture of the past 50 years without Norman Mailer, you
would find it a lot drearier."
Author Gay Talese said: "He could do anything he wanted to do: the
movie business, writing, theatre, politics. He never thought the
boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything. He was
a courageous person, a great person, with a great sense of optimism."
Columnist and author Jimmy Breslin said: "From one end of his life to
the other he sat in solemn thought and left so much to read, so many
pages with ideas that come at you like sparks spitting from afire."
A loss beyond words
By K.C. MYERS
November 11, 2007
Known throughout the world as a pugnacious, fast-living literary
genius, those in Provincetown knew Norman Mailer as an exciting
conversationalist and a generous friend.
"Every time we had dinner with Norman, it was a feast, a mind-feast,"
Fred Ambrose, a longtime friend, said yesterday.
"Norman was like a boy with a watch. He always wanted to take it
apart and put it back together again. He was always trying to figure
out what made mankind tick."
Mailer, who wrote many of his famous novels from a third-floor study
overlooking Provincetown's East End, died at 4:30 yesterday morning
of renal failure at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, said Dwayne
Prickett, his editorial assistant.
He was 84.
Mailer authored more than 30 books, which earned him two Pulitzer
Prizes and the National Book Award. A literary celebrity for six
decades, Mailer built and nurtured an image over the years as
street-wise and high-living.
He drank, fought, smoked pot, married six times and stabbed his
second wife, almost fatally, during a drunken party.
He had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New
York, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew
gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan
Young Women's Hebrew Association for reciting obscene poetry, feuded
publicly with writer Gore Vidal, and crusaded against women's liberation.
Still, his friends in Provincetown, where he lived for 20 years in a
brick house on the waterfront, remember mostly how he served up
unforgettable conservation during dinner parties, agreed to do
countless readings to raise money for local causes, and nurtured a
softer image as generous, open and accessible.
"He was a warm guy," said Susan Seligson, a neighbor and old friend.
"He was open, warm, and had a really compelling mind. It was
impossible to have a dull conversation with him."
He loved Provincetown and lavished the town with poems and prose.
His description of Provincetown in the mystery novel "Tough Guys
Don't Dance" brings the town's extremes to life. "There could be no
other town like it. If you were sensitive to crowds, you might expire
in summer from human propinquity. On the other hand, if you were
unable to endure loneliness, the vessel of your person could fill
with dread during the long winter. ... Conceived at night (for one
would swear it was created in the course of one dark storm) its sand
flats still glistened in the dawn with the most primeval innocence of
land exposing itself to the sun for the first time."
Mailer's description of Provincetown to Jacqueline Kennedy when he
was waiting in the Kennedy's Hyannisport compound to interview Jack
Kennedy, who was running for president at the time, is more compact.
The future first lady asked Mailer what Provincetown was like, and he
replied, "It's the wild west of the East," said Keith Bergman,
Provincetown's former town manager for 17 years and a friend of the author.
While he divided his time between Brooklyn and Provincetown, Mailer
spent more and more time in Provincetown as he grew older.
In his house by the sea, he wrote seven of his books in their
entirety and parts of 18 of his others, Bergman said.
Mailer earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard
University, where he decided to become a writer.
He was drafted during World War II and used his military experience
in the Philippines to form the basis of his first book, "The Naked
and the Dead," published in 1948. It was a best-seller, turning the
then 25-year-old into a literary "enfant terrible."
He embraced the beat counter-culture in the 1950s and helped start
the Village Voice in New York.
His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, "The Armies of
the Night," won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
His personal life was, at times, turbulent.
In 1960 during a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, Mailer stabbed
his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press
charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed, in her own
book, how close she had come to dying.
In a 1971 magazine piece about the burgeoning women's liberation
movement, Mailer equated the dehumanizing effect of technology with
what he said was feminists' need to abolish the mystery, romance and
"blind, goat-kicking lust" from sex.
Time magazine said the quote should "earn him a permanent niche in
their pantheon of male chauvinist pigs."
Mailer later told an interviewer that his being called sexist was
"the greatest injustice in American life."
His distaste for technology prevented him from using a computer or
even a typewriter to compose his books. Mailer wrote all his novels
putting pen to white typing paper.
"He didn't like lines," Prickett said of his boss.
Mailer had "bull-like" energy and great discipline right to the end,
writing seven days a week, according to Ambrose. "Dinner was never
served before 9," he said.
Mailer's last book, "On God: An Uncommon Conversation," was published
Oct. 16, said Mike Lennon, his literary executor.
He is survived by his wife of 33 years, Norris Church Mailer, and his
children, Susan, Danielle, Elizabeth, Kate, Michael, Stephen, Maggie,
Matthew and John Buffalo; a sister, Barbara Wasserman; 10
grandchildren; and a nephew, Peter Alson.
A private funeral for family and close friends is planned for next
week in Provincetown, Prickett said. There will be a public memorial
service in New York City in the coming months, he added.
Material from Associated Press writer Richard Pyle contributed to
this report. K.C. Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan. 31, 1923 Norman Kingsley Mailer born in Long Branch, N.J.,
1939 Graduated Boys High School in Brooklyn, after which he
enrolled as a 16-year-old freshman at Harvard.
1943 Graduated from Harvard, determined on a literary career;
started on 1,000-page novel about a mental hospital (never published)
while waiting to be drafted.
1944 Called up by the Army after marrying Bea Silverman in January;
sent to the Philippines; finished his military career as cook in
1948 Wrote "The Naked and the Dead," about a 13-man platoon
fighting the Japanese on a Pacific atoll, in 15 months.
1951 Wrote "Barbary Shore", a political novel about, among other
things, the struggle between capitalism and socialism; earned what
Mailer called "possibly the worst reviews of any serious novel in
1955 Together with two friends founded The Village Voice.
1965 Wrote "An American Dream."
1971 Wrote "Of a Fire on the Moon," about the 1969 lunar landing,
which began as a series for Life magazine; made his most famous
movie, "Maidstone," during the filming of which he bit off part of an
ear of the actor Rip Torn after Torn attacked him with a hammer.
1984 Elected president of PEN American Center, the writers' organization.
1991 Published "Harlot's Ghost," a 1,310-page novel about the CIA,
in which he conceived of it as a kind of Cold War church, the keeper
of the nation's secrets and the bearer of its values.
1997 Published "The Gospel According to the Son," a first-person
novel about Jesus.
2003 Launched tirades against the Iraq war, criticizing President
Bush in college lectures and a book, "Why Are We at War?"
2007 "The Castle in the Forest," his 10th novel, about Hitler, with
the devil as the narrator.