Sunday, August 10, 2014

139. Norman Mailer and the Chaos in Chicago

File:Norman Mailer 1948.jpg
Mailer in 1948

     I never knew the man, never even glimpsed him, know him only from his works, only some of which I have read.  Nor was he someone I would have cared to know.  Why then this post?  Because he’s huge and inescapable, and because sometimes we feel a morbid attraction to our opposite.  And he was certainly my opposite.  Consider:

·      He was macho, I am not, nor have I ever felt the need to be so.
·      He was straight, I am gay.
·      He loved attention, craved it, wallowed in it, regardless of whether it was favorable or not, whereas I don’t need it, would prefer to fade away like a flounder into sand.
·      He liked to box and made a big thing of it, whereas I don’t.  (See the personal aside below.)
·      He was drug- and booze-ridden, out of control; I am not.
·      He was capable of physical violence, whereas I, to the best of my knowledge, am not.
·      He was a successful writer, I am not.  (Published, yes, but hardly successful in the usual sense of the word.)
·      He was a womanizer and went through six wives and any number of mistresses, whereas I am by nature monogamous, have been in one gay relationship for 46 years.

And so on and so on.  But by defining this renowned egomaniac in contrast with myself, I risk making this post as much about myself as about Mailer.  And this from someone who claims not to be an egomaniac himself!  Well, we’ll see.

     I first heard of Mailer – as did most people – when his war novel The Naked and the Dead was published to great acclaim in 1948, though I didn’t read it until years later.  It’s a good novel, though  I’d hardly call it his best work, as some critics do; but it launched him, at age 25, into fame and notoriety, which he reveled in and would enjoy for the rest of his life.

     It was in the 1960s, and as a journalist, that Mailer really came to my attention, gripped me, impressed me.  I read his essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” first published in 1957, though I read it a little later, when I was flirting with Beatnik culture and in a mood to break away – for a while – from the safe middle-class life I was living and experiment with peyote.  But I was hardly a hipster, wasn’t into jazz, which Mailer associated with apocalyptic orgasm (he was always big on orgasm) and with living for instant gratification.  (For instant gratification and mindless escape I’ve always preferred dancing – wild, crazy dancing, and I don’t mean the waltz.)  Especially controversial in the essay was Mailer’s citing the murder of a white candy-store owner by two 18-year-old blacks as an example of “daring the unknown.”

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The march on the Pentagon
     Then came the Vietnam War, which Mailer vigorously opposed, and his award-winning book The Armies of the Night (1968), recounting his participation in the march on the Pentagon by tens of thousands of war protesters on October 21, 1967.  He is of course the center of the account, but hardly glamorized.  He sees the stars of the demonstration as the novelist, the poet, and the critic: himself, Robert Lowell, and Dwight Macdonald (though there were plenty of others, too).  What does Lowell really think of him as a novelist? he wonders, then reflects that Lowell may be wondering what he, Mailer, thinks of Lowell as a poet.  Does Mailer perhaps prefer Allen Ginsberg?  The goals of the march are gradually whittled down by what the authorities will allow, but the march does take place, with Mailer, Lowell, and Macdonald conspicuously in the lead. 

     Mailer knows he risks arrest, and thinks longingly of the party that awaits him afterward, if he is free to attend, a party that promises to be tasty (perhaps not quite the word he used, but close).  When they get to the Pentagon, they are met by ranks of National Guardsmen.  Mailer is confronted by a young Guardsman who is obviously nervous but tells him to go back.  Mailer presses on and gets arrested.  Reporters ask him about the arrest, and he replies that it was done quite correctly; there was violence elsewhere, but he did not experience or witness it.  He spends a night in jail with hundreds of other protesters.  Some of them approach him, but he spurns them as mindless; finally he is released. 

     What I esteem in Mailer’s account of the march is his honesty: the compromises, the self-doubt, the need to create a public image of the protest and the calculations that went into it.  He is totally convincing.

     Again, I find him at his best in Miami and the Siege of Chicago (also 1968), his account for Harper’s Magazine of the tranquil Republican convention and the turbulent Democratic convention of August 1968.  Irving Howe once observed that there were two Norman Mailers: a “reflective private Norman” and a “noisy public Norman.”  True enough, and the noisy one often obscures the reflective one, but in his journalism the reflective one prevails.  At Miami, where he always refers to himself as “the reporter,” he is admitted by mistake to a Republican Grand Gala from which the press has been excluded, and senses in the wealthy and powerful Republicans present an enduring faith in America as “the world’s ultimate reserve of rectitude, final garden of the Lord.”  Following that he describes with intelligence and understanding the “New Nixon,” a Nixon chastened by recent political setbacks that could easily have ended his career.  His take on Nixon at his only press conference, prior to his winning the nomination on the first ballot: still uneasy with the press, guarded and unspontaneous and devoid of charisma, but showing the kind of gentleness that ex-drunkards acquire after years in Alcoholics Anonymous, and fielding questions with a newfound dignity and modesty.  And this from an observer who admittedly up till now had always been hostile to Nixon.

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Nixon and supporters, 1968

     Memorable as well is the reporter’s observations on Nixon’s reception for delegates, this again prior to the nominations.  Here Nixon and his wife greet patiently the long line of followers eager for a few seconds with their revered candidate, who shakes the hand of each and gives them a few precious seconds of greeting.  And who are these followers back in that distant pre-Tea Party time?  Not the biggies present at the Gala, but the little Republicans: small-town druggists and bank tellers and high school principals, widows with a tidy income, retired doctors, minor executives, farmers who own their own farm, salesmen, librarians, and editors of the local newspaper – older Wasps from the Midwest and Far West who lead quiet, orderly lives and adore their candidate in a way to deep for applause.  These are Nixon’s people and he knows it and is at ease with them, as he never quite is with the press.  This is sensitive reporting from a reporter for whom these people have to be aliens, since he is the Brooklyn-raised son of a Jewish immigrant father and now hobnobs with (and sometimes head-butts and punches) literary lions and the elite of the urban intelligentsia.

     (A personal aside:  They are my people too, or were, since I grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago that was quietly but staunchly Republican, my father a corporation lawyer, and our neighbors Chicago businessmen, local merchants, university professors, the night editor of a Chicago newspaper, and a dentist -- good, solid, orderly folk for whom the name of Roosevelt was anathema and who surely voted for Nixon, as for Eisenhower and Dewey before him.)

     A further surprising conclusion of the reporter:  Too long a damned minority, perhaps it is time for the Wasp to come to power again.  The Left, he opines, lacks a vision sufficiently complex to give life to America; it is too full of kicks and pot and orgy, the howls of electronics and LSD.  And again, this from a man steeped in booze and drugs, ever ready for an altercation or a fight.  As for Nixon, in his acceptance speech he pledged “to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam,” proving once again that, for all his faults, politically he was no fool.

     What a contrast were these tranquil scenes in Miami with the riotous events of the Democratic convention in Chicago later that same month of August!  There, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier in the year, all the furies of the war protest movement converged, joined by anarchists and Yippies and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other groups, for a dramatic confrontation with Mayor Daley’s police and National Guardsmen.  Bearded, balding, and spectacled, Allen Ginsberg showed up prepared to calm the Yippies’ Festival of Life with his meditative chant of OM.  With him came Beat author and heroin addict William Boroughs, and French author and ex-thief Jean Genet, both of whom Esquire magazine had commissioned to cover the convention.  Whatever their stated motives, in counterculture circles Chicago promised to be a rich stew of protest that no one wanted to miss out on.

     To understand the two conventions in August 1968, one needs to understand the events preceding them in that eventful year.  Here is a brief chronology:

·      January 16.  The first manifesto of the newly organized Youth International Party announces that the Yippies will be in Chicago in August for a Festival of Life, coinciding with the Democratic convention, which they label a Festival of Death.  The threats of LBJ (President Johnson) and Mayor Daley will not stop them, they insist.
·      January 31.  The North Vietnamese launch the surprise Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam, catching the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces off guard; even the U.S. embassy in Saigon is briefly invaded.  The attack is repulsed, but, contrary to statements by the Pentagon and the Johnson administration, it proves that North Vietnam is far from defeated in the war.
·      March 12.  Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, an opponent of  the war, wins 42% of the New Hampshire primary vote to President  Johnson’s 49%, surprising everyone by the strength of his support.  He is now the hope of the antiwar movement.
·      March 16.  Senator Robert Kennedy of New York announces his candidacy, splitting the antiwar movement.  McCarthy’s supporters denounce Kennedy as an opportunist and Johnny-come-lately for having entered the contest only after McCarthy showed the strength of that movement (an opinion that I at the time shared).
·      March 31.  Aware of his growing unpopularity, Lyndon Johnson stuns the nation by announcing he will not seek reelection.  The race to succeed him is now wide open.
·      April 4.  Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis.  Black ghettoes in many cities, including Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago, erupt in riots.  Daley, who rules Chicago with an iron hand, tells the police to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand.  Reported in the press, this order causes a sensation and becomes highly controversial.
·      April 23.  To protest university administration policies, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and militant black students occupy buildings on the Columbia University campus and seven days later are violently evicted by police.  These events are emblematic of campus unrest throughout the nation, as students rebel against authority, and young men threatened by the draft burn their draft cards and vow, “Hell no, we won’t go!”
·      April 27.  An antiwar march in Chicago organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam ends with police beating many of the marchers.
·      April 27.  Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, a longtime liberal, announces his candidacy.  A supporter of Johnson’s policies, he gets the backing of the Democratic establishment.
·      June 5.  Robert Kennedy is assassinated In Los Angeles.  His supporters are in disarray, disliking both McCarthy and Humphrey.
·      August 8.  The Republican convention in Miami Beach nominates Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate.
·      August 10.  Urged on by many Kennedy supporters, after some hesitation Senator George McGovern of South Dakota announces his candidacy only two weeks before the Democratic convention.  Long an opponent of the war, he is backed by many Kennedy followers.
·      August 26-29.  The Democratic national convention in Mayor Daley’s Chicago, with antiwar demonstrators out in force.  Daley has vowed that “No thousands will come to our city and take over our streets, our city, our convention.”  The stage is set for a violent confrontation.

File:Robert Kennedy speaking before a crowd, June 14, 1963.jpg
Robert Kennedy in 1963.  He knew
how to reach people.
     Mailer liked Chicago, quickly realized that Chicagoans resembled the people of Brooklyn he grew up among: simple, strong, warm-spirited, sly, rough, tricky, and good-natured.  (With most of this I agree, having grown up in a Chicago suburb.)  But he was there for other reasons.  Like many, he mourned the loss of Robert Kennedy and for an antiwar candidate found himself stuck with Eugene McCarthy, whom he remembered from a cocktail party in Cambridge soon after Kennedy’s death.  At the party McCarthy had looked weary beyond belief, his skin a used-up yellow, as he tried to answer the inevitable idiotic questions of others.  McCarthy was not a mixer, Mailer concluded, and a man too private for the mixing required in politics, seeming less like a presidential candidate than the dean of the finest English department in the land.  (I had reached a similar conclusion from the fact that he was also a poet.  A poet in the White House? – no way!  In some countries, perhaps, but in this one, never.) 

Eugene McCarthy.  Too much of a thinker
to be President?

     When McCarthy arrived now at the airport in Chicago and was welcomed by five thousand enthusiastic supporters, he seemed full of energy and happy.  But when he addressed the crowd for a few minutes, he spoke mildly with a certain detachment; they wanted fire, he gave them ice.  When Mailer encountered McCarthy with some friends a few days later in a restaurant, the senator, no longer a serious candidate since Humphrey had been chosen, seemed relaxed and in good humor.  Yet when Mailer looked across the table at the senator, he saw a toughness in his face.  A complex man, probably too complex to be President.

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Hubert Humphrey, with the famous smile 
that helped win him the name of the
Happy Warrior.
     For Hubert Humphrey, Mailer has less to say.  In sharp contrast to McCarthy, he arrived with almost no one to greet him at the airport, just a handful of his staff.  He would then go against political common sense and forfeit any chance of winning by remaining Johnson’s boy, afraid to face the collective wrath of the President and the military-industrial establishment by coming out against the war. 

     But while a divided and turbulent Democratic convention was proceeding inside the International Amphitheatre, on the city’s south side near the stockyards, outside in the streets an even more turbulent drama was unfolding.  Mayor Daley had decreed that no one would be allowed in the parks after 11p.m., so thousands of protesters decided to remain.  And since Daley had decreed that the protesters would not be allowed to march, they vowed to march whenever and wherever they wished.  Daley had massed thousands of police and National Guardsmen, but there were thousands of demonstrators, making violent clashes almost inevitable.  And clashes there were, night after night.  When not fighting the police, the young demonstrators shouted “Dump the Hump!” (meaning Humphrey), sang “We Shall Overcome,” and called out “Join us!” to bystanders, some of whom actually did.

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Mayor Daley (left) with President Johnson.

     Witnessing some of these events and getting reports about others, Mailer provides vivid descriptions of many. He himself, being Mailer, manages to get arrested twice by the National Guard, but is released when brought before the officer in charge.  Here are some of the highlights of his reporting, which he supplements with firsthand Village Voice accounts of events that he missed:

·      Allen Ginsberg in Lincoln Park chanting OM and tinkling his finger cymbals peacefully, with William Boroughs and Jean Genet close by, when huge tear-gas canisters come crashing into the center of the gathering, sending people running and screaming in all directions, while a line of police advance, swatting at stragglers and crumpled figures on the ground, until angry fugitives swarm into the streets, blocking traffic, fighting plainclothesmen, setting fire to trash cans, and demolishing police patrol cars with a rain of  missiles.

·      The police tear-gassing protesters in Grant Park, with the wind blowing the gas across Michigan Boulevard into the Conrad Hilton, a huge looming structure housing the Humphrey and McCarthy headquarters, many delegates, and much of the press, who suffer smarting eyes and burning throats, and from their windows see the drama unfolding below.

·      A delegate, addressing the kids in the park, calls up to the delegates and campaign workers in the Hilton (his voice presumably amplified), “If you are with us, blink your lights,” and lights begin to blink in the Hilton, ten, then twenty, then fifty, till  whole banks of lights at the McCarthy headquarters on the 15th and 23rd floors flash on and off, and the crowd of bruised and bloodied kids, in spite of the sour vomit odor of the Mace that has been used on them, in spite of everything, cheer.

·      While Mailer watches safely from his 19th floor window in the Hilton (he admittedly has no appetite for tear gas or Mace), the police chase demonstrators, beat them, bloody them, only to find them reforming their ranks to taunt and challenge them again, till the police, in what becomes an out-and-out police riot, charge a crowd of bystanders watching quietly from behind barriers in front of the Hilton, crushing the bystanders against a plate glass window that shatters, tumbling the people into the hotel bar, where the police follow to beat the occupants, including some who had been quietly drinking at the bar.

Police attack protesters outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Police attacking demonstrators outside the convention.
·      Demonstrators, reporters, and McCarthy workers, along with doctors beaten by the police when they tried to help wounded demonstrators,  stagger into the Hilton lobby, blood streaming from their wounds, amid the stench of tear gas, and of stink bombs hurled outside by the Yippies.

·      In the convention hall Senator Ribicoff of Connecticut nominates George McGovern, saying that with him as President “we wouldn’t have those Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” at which point Mayor Daley leaps to his feet, shakes his fist at the podium, and shouts insults that most of those present can’t hear, but that TV lip-readers throughout the country interpret, rightly or wrongly, as “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch!”  The incident provokes roars from the floor and a buzz from the gallery.  (Ribicoff was indeed Jewish.)

George McGovern

     When the balloting began, there were no surprises, for Humphrey was nominated on the very first round; masterminding events from his ranch in Texas, where he was safe from the rowdy welcome his appearance in Chicago might have provoked, LBJ had managed things well.  But thanks to the TV cameras, the world had witnessed what went on inside and outside the hall, and the bruised and bandaged protesters knew it, shouting “The whole world is watching,” and considered the whole riotous event a victory.  There were excesses on both sides, but far more on the side of Daley and his goons.  Mailer reflects on the thin line that divides the police from criminals, observing that the mass of policemen are a criminal force restrained by their guilt, and by a sprinkling of career men working earnestly for a balance between justice and authority.

     Watching the televised events in Chicago, the nation decided, I suggest, that it needed someone safe and sane in the White House, someone speaking with a voice of moderation: Richard Nixon.  And so it came to pass.

     Note:  This post has focused on Mailer the journalist in Chicago and leaves out much else that happened there; anyone unfamiliar with the story should read a comprehensive account, including the subsequent trial of the Chicago Seven, leaders of the antiwar demonstrations who were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot.  The next post will tell how Mailer stabbed his second wife, assaulted Gore Vidal twice, ran for mayor of New York, helped get parole for a convicted murderer still capable of murder, and managed to be legally married to three different women sequentially in the space of one week.  Plus two Mailer-inspired personal asides: one on me and my brief career in boxing (Mailer fancied himself a boxer; I did not), and one naming which famous deceased writers I would want to avoid (Mailer being one of them) and which ones I would like to hang out with.

     Coming soon:  More Mailer, as indicated above.  Then: Hell House, the Latest Form of Christian Terrorism.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


  1. Hey, we are interested in the story of Norman Miller and how was he connected with the underground world of New York. Do you maybe have more information on that topic? I want to make a presentation for my seminar, held at one of the hotels at Hotelscheap Seminars in New York. You are always welcome to come by! Our entrance fee is really cheap!

    Best regards

    1. I don't know about his being connected with the underground world of New York. Novelist Saul Bellow, on the other hand, had connections with the underground world -- meaning gangsters -- of Chicago. Social connections, nothing more. I went to your page, couldn't read it. What language do you speak?