A Carnegie Hall memorial service offers a kaleidescope of impressions
about the late great writer.
By Liz Brown
April 20, 2008
An icon is many things to many people, but you don't usually see all
these things reflected in one place.
At the memorial for Norman Mailer at New York's Carnegie Hall last
week, I met an actor, director and licensed tour guide named Noel
Young, who wondered whether Rip Torn would be there. Young said he
met Mailer a couple of times in the 1960s and 1970s, "back in the bad
old days." There was the time at the Village Gate when the novelist
was running for mayor. "He kept swigging out of a bottle of Jack
Daniels," Young remembered. "Managed to insult everyone there." And
then he met Mailer once at the loft the author shared with boxer José
Torres and actor Torn.
I'd seen the YouTube clip of the Mailer-Torn fight during the filming
of the 1970 movie "Maidstone," which Mailer wrote and directed. And
I, too, was a little sorry that Torn's name was not on the program
for the memorial. But the lineup of speakers and performers was
impressive: William Kennedy, Tina Brown, Sean Penn, Don DeLillo, Joan
Didion, Muhammad Ali's wife, Lonnie. Charlie Rose was the emcee. It's
a truism that everyone in the media is smaller than you expect, but
Rose was taller than I'd imagined. He stooped slightly as he singled
out Mailer's widow, Norris Church, who stood and blew a kiss.
Watching the people below in the red cushioned seats, I thought --
with the kind of nostalgia you can have only for something you have
not experienced -- of another public gathering that took place nearly
40 years earlier.
On April 30, 1971, the Theater for Ideas sponsored a panel at New
York's Town Hall called "A Dialogue on Women's Liberation." It
featured Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos and Diana
Trilling. Mailer, who had recently published "The Prisoner of Sex" in
Harper's Magazine, moderated -- after a fashion. "I will try to wield
some limp sort of gavel," he told the excitable audience. Luckily,
D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus recorded the whole messy night for
posterity in the film "Town Bloody Hall."
Those were the days when hecklers heckled. At the microphone,
Johnston praised "the lesberated woman/the gay gay gayness of being
gay." Mailer cut her off for going over the allotted time. Then, two
women crashed the stage to make out with Johnston. Trilling took a
more restrained approach, although she did declare her hope that "we
can all have such orgasms in our individual complexities as we happen
to be capable of."
The stage wasn't the only place for combat. When Mailer opened the
discussion to the audience, Elizabeth Hardwick, Betty Friedan, John
Hollander and Susan Sontag each took the microphone. One high point
of the evening belonged to Cynthia Ozick, who put a sweet-voiced
query to Mailer that cannot be printed here. Anatole Broyard wanted
to know what sex would be like after the revolution; an exasperated
Greer replied, "You may as well relax, honey, because whatever
they're asking for, it's not from you."
With Mailer, writers were always at the center of things, and it was
this riotous conversation that came to mind in Carnegie Hall as Brown
recalled the man. She quoted E.L. Doctorow, who saw Mailer's
outrageousness as a calculated risk, "having the social benefit of
keeping the novelist alive in the culture." That is the shock of
"Town Bloody Hall": just how alive in the culture the writers --
Mailer, Hardwick, Sontag -- were.
But a memorial is not a battleground, and so perhaps it was fitting
that the spirit of contention was absent at Carnegie Hall. Trombonist
Peter McEachern played "Requiem for a Boxer." Friends spoke of
treasured meals. Penn read from his BlackBerry. We live in different times.
Mailer's children did, however, understand the need for spectacle,
and they provided. There was Michael quipping, "We're not the Von
Trapp family," before recounting sparring sessions with his dad.
There was Stephen's spot-on impression of the paterfamilias -- hand
tucked in jacket pocket, clearing his throat and unleashing the
requisite expletives. And finally, more soberly, there was Elizabeth,
recalling with urgency the last days with her father in the hospital,
the way his hand was swollen and warm and her fear of cheap sentimentality.
When the novelists paid tribute, it was not so much the man they
invoked but what remained of him. For Didion, it came down to
sentences. She described Mailer as "a great and obsessed stylist" and
read from "The Executioner's Song," saying even the punctuation aloud.
DeLillo called Mailer "not just a voice but a force" and lifted a
copy of "The Naked and the Dead." A Signet paperback, 50 years old.
"75 cents," DeLillo said. Laughter. He continued reading the cover
copy. "14th printing. Over 2 million copies sold." Pause. "Now a
great motion picture," he intoned, and I remembered how with those
old editions, the cellulose dried out and the paper stiffened and
when you would bend the corner of a page to mark your place, the tip
broke off in your fingers.
DeLillo held up the small book. "This is what gives a writer
something to do after breakfast each morning," he said. "Thank you."
And then he turned and left the stage.
Liz Brown has written for Bookforum, Frieze Magazine and the New York
Times Book Review.