Sunday, August 17, 2014

140. Norman Mailer: Wife-Stabber, Brawler, and Man of Many Wives

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Norman Mailer in 1988.
     Who was the reporter who was doing such brilliant reporting of the 1967 Pentagon march and the 1968 conventions?  Photos show a man with a massive frame and an impressive head with tousled hair and memorable features – an overgrown teddy bear, you might say, or a lionlike head, albeit with wrinkles and bags under his eyes: the head of an aging lion.  One thinks of Norman Mailer as a man in his middle years with a somewhat worn look, never young, and one who surely took himself very seriously.  There are pictures of him as a boxer, and in those he is taking himself very seriously indeed.  No spoofing in these photos, never a wink of complicity at the rest of us.  He admired boxers, liked their courage, discipline, and aggressive self-assertion, and when drunk – and Mailer was often drunk – he was quite ready himself to take a swing at someone, even a friend.  But if he had a boxer’s aggressiveness and courage (or at least a drunken bravado), he totally lacked the discipline.

     His antics were notorious.  In November 1960, while drunk at a party in New York, he stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife, just missing her heart, and then stabbed her again in the back.  As she told it later (his women had a way of publishing tell-all memoirs), when someone tried to help her as she lay on the floor bleeding, Mailer blurted out, “Get away from her.  Let the bitch die.”  Adele’s wounds required emergency surgery, but she did not press charges.  After seventeen days in Bellevue Hospital under psychiatric observation, Mailer was released, only to be indicted by a grand jury for felonious assault; later he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence.  It has been suggested that this event kept him from later receiving a Nobel Prize.  Adele divorced him in 1962.

Gore Vidal in 1948.
    But the favorite target of Mailer’s drunken ire was author Gore Vidal, whose critical review of one of Mailer’s books incensed him to the point that, just before they were to appear on Dick Cavett’s TV show in December 1971, Mailer head-butted Vidal backstage, then during the show traded insults with him and the host.  But this was just the prelude.  At a New York dinner party in 1977 attended by the cultural elite, Mailer evidently threw a gin and tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head.  The distraught hostess exclaimed, “God, this is awful!  Someone do something!”  But another guest told her, “Shut up!  This fight is making your party.”  Vidal’s reaction to these assaults: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.”  An elegant WASP known for his wit and urbanity, Vidal was a natural target for the rough-hewn Mailer, the son of immigrants, whose physical attacks failed to dent Vidal’s patrician aplomb.

     Mailer had been born to a family of Jewish immigrants in New Jersey and grew up in Brooklyn.  After graduating from Harvard he served in the Army during World War II, then came back to write The Naked and the Dead.  His next two novels garnered negative reviews, and after a frustrating period as a screenwriter in Hollywood he returned to New York in 1951 and lived at various addresses on the Lower East Side.  Several acquaintances got him to invest in and help launch the iconoclastic Village Voice, an alternative weekly that first appeared in October 1955.  Steeped in liquor and drugs, he began a short-lived column that was meant to be outrageous, and reaped volumes of hostile fan mail as a token of his success. 

     In 1969 he launched another venture that was not just outrageous but quixotic, entering the Democratic mayoral primary and calling for a “hip coalition of the right and the left” to rescue the crime-ridden and debt-burdened city.  Columnist Jimmy Breslin ran with him for City Council President, and feminist Gloria Steinem ran for Comptroller.  “No More Bullshit” and “Vote the Rascals In” were their slogans, as they proposed to make New York City the 51st state.  Their other proposals: reduce pollution by banning all private cars from Manhattan; expand rent control; return power to the neighborhoods; legalize heroin; and offer draft exemptions to those enlisting for short-term service in the police.  Though Mailer and his colleagues wanted to be taken seriously, the newspapers found the idea of a Mailer-Breslin ticket preposterous, and Mailer seemingly confirmed their opinion when, during a fund-raiser, he railed drunkenly at his own supporters, calling them “a bunch of spoiled pigs.”  It was no surprise to observers – and perhaps a great relief -- when embattled Mayor John Lindsay easily triumphed in the primary and then went on to get himself reelected.

File:AnAmericanDream.jpg     Mailer’s fourth novel, An American Dream, was published in 1965.  A friend once told me that, after reading it, he gave up on Mailer as a novelist.  When I read it years later, I understood why.  In a drunken rage the book’s supremely successful protagonist strangles his estranged wife, then has sex with her maid, who has no knowledge of the murder; after that, to make the wife’s death look like suicide, he throws her body out a window.  Later that same night, after being questioned by police detectives, he initiates an affair with a night-club singer who, he learns later, once had an affair with the wife’s father.  All this, and much more, including two more murders, within 24 hours.  Even if the writing is impressive – the account of his questioning by detectives is quite convincing -- the overburdened plot doesn’t just strain credibility, it shreds it.  From then on I viewed Mailer as a brilliant journalist but a failed novelist.

     The wife-stabbing incident, and its fictional reprise in the strangling in An American Dream, hardly endeared Mailer to the feminists; there was in fact an ongoing war between them.  He was the very image of the brawling, boozing, womanizing super macho male, and as such an inevitable target for feminists.  This was fine by him, for he relished the fight.  Women’s writing, he opined, was “fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque” – and so on, to which he added, “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”  Was he dead serious or just being deliberately provocative?  When he suggested that women “should be kept in cages,” his last wife Norris insisted that there was a twinkle in his eye.  If there is a trait in him that I esteem, it is his refusal to be politically correct no matter what the cost.

     In 1977 Mailer received a letter from convicted murderer Jack Abbott, offering to give an accurate account of prison life.  Mailer agreed, and in 1981 In the Belly of the Beast, comprising Abbott’s letters to Mailer, was published with an introduction by Mailer and became a bestseller.  In Abbott Mailer probably saw an example of the hipster outlaw eulogized in his essay “The White Negro.”  Mailer and others had been supporting Abbott’s appeals for parole, and in June 1981 he was released, despite the misgivings of prison officials who were worried about his mental state and considered him dangerous.  Coming to New York City, Abbott was hailed by the literary community.  Six weeks after his release, Abbott got into an argument with a young actor working as a waiter in a restaurant and stabbed him to death.  I remember the shock of this news, and the widespread condemnation of Mailer that followed.  Abbott fled the city but was later arrested in Louisiana, tried for murder and convicted of manslaughter, and given a sentence of 15 years to life.  Mailer, who attended the trial, later admitted that his advocacy of Abbott was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in.”  When the parole board rejected another of his appeals, Abbott committed suicide in a New York State prison in 2002.

     I shan’t linger here over Mailer’s other works, some of them unworthy of him, being written in haste to make money (as he accumulated ex-wives, he also accumulated alimony claims), and some of them significant.  The year 1980 was eventful for him: he finally got a divorce from his fourth wife;  married his fifth wife, a jazz singer, thus legitimizing their daughter, then flew to Haiti one day later and got a quickie divorce; and three days after his return married his sixth and last wife, Norris Church, who in spite of his many affairs stayed with him to the end.  All of which was, for Mailer, no small accomplishment, for how many men could boast of having been married more or less legally to three different women within the space of one week? 

     As for Norris, who was from Arkansas, in her memoir she claimed to have had a brief earlier fling with Governor Bill Clinton.  When an acquaintance later said to her, “I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you, Norris,” she replied, “Sorry, I’m afraid he got us all.”  A 1983 photograph of her with Mailer shows a mature but attractive woman in a frilly pink hat and pink scarf, but I suspect that she was a lot tougher than frilly pink might suggest.  To live with Mailer she would have to be.

     Mailer and Norris lived together in a brownstone at 142 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, just across the East River from Manhattan.  Their fourth-floor co-op apartment overlooked the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a sweeping view of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.  Mailer had bought the building in 1960 and moved into the top-floor apartment in 1962.  His extensive renovation raised the roof and remodeled the apartment as a light-filled multilevel nautical curiosity; to access the “crow’s nest” where he wrote, you had to climb ladders, traverse catwalks high above the living room, and walk a narrow gangplank.  All this because he had a fear of heights and was determined to conquer it.  The apartment witnessed many 

celebrity-studded parties, as well as meetings to plan his 1969 mayoral campaign, and his and Norris Church’s wedding.  In 1980 a costly divorce from his fifth wife forced him to rent out the lower floors of the building.  But Mailer, who fancied himself a sailor, wanted to be closer to the sea.  So in 1986 he and Norris bought a spacious beachfront house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and spent part of the year there.

     What do I finally make of Norman Mailer, a much published author, provocative, outrageous, perennially drunk, who married six wives in turn (thus matching Henry VIII) and by them had eight children and adopted a ninth, his last wife’s son by another marriage?  Though a gifted writer, he was a child who never grew up.  He totally lacked the very thing that my grade school teachers preached to callow minds endlessly: self-control.  He yielded to impulses, with dire results for both himself and others.  Brilliant at times, but a child.

     Mailer’s health failed in his later years, when he suffered from arthritis and deafness and had to walk with two canes.  He underwent lung surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and a month later, on November 10, 2007, at age 84, died of acute renal failure.  That he lasted that long, given his heavy intake of drugs and alcohol, is remarkable.  He is buried in Provincetown.

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The noble sport goes back to the Minoans.
     Personal aside #1: Me and Boxing.  Since Mailer idolized boxing and boxers, and I present myself as his opposite, it may be surprising that I once also found myself boxing.  It was the second semester of my first year in college, and all male students were required to take a semester of either boxing or wrestling, and I, with great misgivings, chose boxing.  (My father had always lamented the failure of American youth to engage in bodily contact sports, even as he overprotected me.)  The head coach presided, but he immediately introduced a bruiser named Kelly, tall and massive with a steel-like chin, who had boxed professionally and would therefore be our instructor.  At the mere sight of him I was nervous, and so were plenty of others.  

      With a resonant voice Kelly told us that knowing we could hold our own in a boxing match would build self-confidence, but added with emphasis, “It takes a gentleman to walk away from a fight.”  Daily lessons followed.  “Bloody Monday!” was Kelly’s hearty greeting at the start of the week, though in truth not much blood was spilled.  Unaggressive by nature, I wasn’t out to land a forceful punch.  Instead, I saw boxing as a kind of dance, since footwork was involved, and a game where you tried to touch your opponent’s face or shoulder.  Once a friend walked right into one of my gentle punches and, dazed, had to leave class at once.  I hadn’t punched hard, but all my friends kidded me about knocking out a partner.  Then one day Kelly picked me to show how he could get past my defenses to touch my shoulder, which meant he could have punched me in the face; finally I started to dodge.  Again, my friends kidded me afterward for “taking on” Kelly.  On another occasion one of the guys did get hit hard in the midriff and was moaning in pain; Kelly had him lean his head against his massive shoulder, while he assured the rest of us that in a short while the kid would be all right – not too convincing at first, with the kid moaning and groaning, but in time he was. 

     In spite of this memorable incident, the dreaded class turned out to be bearable.  On the last day the head coach had all of us box for him, so he could award the grade.  My partner confessed that he wasn’t keen on boxing, so I told him I wasn’t either, but added, “Let’s give them a good show and get out of here.”  We did.  After several sluggish matches by others, we came on like fury, trading gentle punches vigorously, and the whole class gathered round and cheered us heartily on.  “I want to box with you!” several friends told me afterward, but I just smiled: it was the last day of the class, no chance.  So ended my career in boxing – not the total fiasco I had anticipated.  As for Kelly the bruiser, we saw him play a Christian convert in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and play the role very well, demonstrating that he wasn’t just a bruiser; he was an actor, too.  So “Bloody Monday!” wasn’t the whole story; there was more to him -- a lot more – than that.

     Personal aside #2:  What famous writers would I want to avoid, and which would I want to hang out with?   I know I wouldn’t have wanted to know Norman Mailer.  Which prompted a piquant thought: who else would I want to seek out or avoid?  Let’s start with those I’d want to avoid (which has nothing to do with their value as writers):

·      All the drunks.  (There goes half of American literature.)
·      All the egomaniacs.  (There goes the other half.)
·      Milton.  (Too sure of himself, little sense of humor.)
·      Dante.  (He might put me in hell.)
·      Sartre.  (Too fiercely intellectual.)
·      André Breton, head of the Surrealists.  (Too severely judgmental.  I should know, having done my thesis on him.)
·      Alexander Pope.  (He might skewer me in a satire.  A nasty little man, keen and vicious, though in print amusing.)
·      Rimbaud.  (Another nasty one; look how he savaged Verlaine, who had his reasons for shooting the kid.)
·      Jonathan Swift.  (Too fiercely satiric.)
·      Allen Ginsberg.  (He’d want me to take my clothes off.  And I wouldn’t want to see him naked either.

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John Milton.  For small talk he'd probably talk
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Alexander Pope.  A deft and savage satirist.
No thanks, why take a chance?

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Jean-Paul Sartre.  Brilliant, but too intellectual.
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Allen Ginsberg.  I remember him
with a beard and too much hair,
 but no matter.  At least he
has his clothes on here.

Ludwig Urning

That’s a lot of avoidances.  No women, interestingly enough.  So how about those writers I’d like to know, maybe find myself sitting next to at a dinner party? 

·      The Roman poet Horace.  (At the top of the list.  Gifted but modest, all for simple living, likable, a sense of humor, a supremely good conversationalist.)
·      Chaucer.  (Great sense of humor – sometimes a bit ribald, but that’s okay.  Loved people, very observant.)
·      Benjamin Franklin.  (Charming in society, could relate to almost anyone.  Witty, informed, good sense of humor.)
·      The early Whitman.  (The fervent lover of the Calamus poems, not the later “good gray poet” who seemingly repudiated his gay self for the sake of his patriarchal image.)
·      Victor Hugo.  (As healthy and upbeat as they come, a perennial optimist.)
·      Voltaire.  (Witty, irreverent, humane, sociable.)
·      Rabelais.  (If I’m in a mood for the boisterous and bawdy.)
·      Shakespeare.  (Seems to have been modest and gentle, but let’s face it, we hardly know anything about him.)
·      Byron.  (Could be charming, though at times a poseur.)
·      Colette.  (Sensitive, observant, deeply human.)
·      Dickens.  (Sociable, knowledgeable, congenial.)
·      Jane Austen.  (Sociable, to judge from the novels, and full of good sense, though I don’t know much about her personally.)
·      Madame de Sévigné.  (Warm, sociable, and witty, to judge by the famous letters.)


Ben Franklin.  Bright and witty, a charmer.
Voltaire.  Ah, that sly smile, hinting at
a wicked wit.
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Lord Byron.  To add spice to the party;
bisexual, with appeal to both sexes.
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Colette.  Worldly, observant, shrewd.
 She'd write a canny account
of the gathering.
     Lots of great names fall between the two camps – Goethe, Chekhov, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Proust -- not to be avoided but not among my top choices for dinner table companions.  I’m looking for those who would be friendly and open, easygoing, unpretentious, with no need to shock, and as willing to listen as to talk.  In other words, well balanced and not broody moody.  Among great writers I’m lucky to find any at all.

     Coming soon:  Hell House, the Latest Form of Christian Terrorism.  “Christian terrorism?” you may ask.  Yes, it’s an old tradition in this religion of love and compassion; I’ll trace it back via the Middle Ages to the Gospels.  And a Hell House here in secular New York?  Yes, once, back in 2006 in Brooklyn.  After that: Is bigger better?  MOMA and the Frick: museums and their lust to expand.  And after that: What do Elmo, Mickey Mouse, squeegee men, fake nuns, and Revolutionary War veterans have in common?   

     ©  2014  Clifford browder

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