Mailer Onstage

Norman Mailer was born on this day in 1923. The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s first novel, was published just a few days after he turned twenty-five. A bestseller for over a year and now on most best-of-the-century lists, Mailer’s novel incited the first controversy of his long, often belligerent career. A front-page editorial in the London Sunday Times lobbied to have the book withdrawn from publication based on the “incredibly foul and beastly” language, while many other reviewers agreed with The New York Times that, despite being “virtually a Kinsey Report on the sexual behavior of the GI,” the book ranked among the best war novels and was “a commanding performance by a young man…whose failures are a matter of reach rather than of grasp.” The outrage and praise immediately catapulted Mailer to a celebrity status that he often embraced and sometimes claimed to regret.

Mary Dearborn’s biography Mailer begins in 1973, with the fiftieth birthday party Mailer organized for himself in hopes of capitalizing on that celebrity status. Five thousand guests had been invited to join Mailer and his extended family (current wife and mistresses, many former wives and mistresses, many of the children produced by those relationships…) at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant. The invitation offered not only a party but an announcement about “a subject of national importance (major)” — all for the price of thirty dollars per person, to be donated to something called the “Fifth Estate.” The five hundred who paid the money included some who were asked because they were rich or famous, as well as many picked “out of the telephone book, like everybody else” (Lily Tomlin’s quip to an inquiring reporter).

By the time he was introduced by Jimmy Breslin as “one of the half-dozen original thinkers of this century,” Mailer was too drunk to make much sense. Puzzled by his plans for a Fifth Estate — apparently a tax-free foundation that would fund “a democratic secret police” to watchdog the government — and offended by his dirty jokes, most guests left long before their host was seen head-butting and boxing with his friends.

In her Epilogue, Dearborn concludes that, in his writing, Mailer “turned his celebrity — however much of a curse it has been in his life — to excellent account,” achieving “a new kind of cultural expression in which the artist’s personal and creative lives inform each other in beneficial ways.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.