Mailerby Mary V. Dearborn
Undeniably one of the most controversial figures of the past half-century, Mailer has also been one of the most influential. He has both made the news and commented on it with an originality that has permanently altered America's literary landscape. Mary Dearborn had unprecedented access to Mailer's friends, relations, and antagonists, who provided key insights to… See more details below
Undeniably one of the most controversial figures of the past half-century, Mailer has also been one of the most influential. He has both made the news and commented on it with an originality that has permanently altered America's literary landscape. Mary Dearborn had unprecedented access to Mailer's friends, relations, and antagonists, who provided key insights to fill in the familiar outlines of the Mailer myth, the brilliant successes and notorious failures. As splendidly told by Dearborn, Mailer's story is, for good or ill, the story of our times.
Ms. Dearborn deals effectively with Mr. Mailer's predatory sexual habits and his notion that motherhood is the primary function of all women. It is greatly to her credit, and typical of her eminently sensible approach to biography, that she judges him by the standards of his time, not today's. She does not expect to find him in the vanguard on all fronts. If only more biographers were as intelligent and as mature.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Observer
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PROLOGUE: COCK OF THE WALK
He was to go on in ten minutes, and the air in the room was charged. Over five hundred people eddied around the Four Seasons, the legendary dining spot on Manhattan's East Fifty-second Street. Near the buffet tablescovered with silver trays of Hungarian goulash, quiche Lorraine, paté with hazelnutsthe jazz harpist Daphne Hellman plucked her instrument, which was nearly inaudible over the party noise. Avant-garde composer and musician David Amram and his quartet played on the mezzanine, and a country and western group called the Foodstamps waited in the wings, to perform after midnight when the guests, it was hoped, would want to dance. At his side stood his assistant, Suzanne Nye, whom the columnists called his "great friend"; Carol Stevens, his mistress and the mother of his youngest child, was elsewhere in the room, as were his current wife, number four, Beverly, and his second wife, Adele, the one he had stabbed and nearly killed fourteen years before. His third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, with Paris Review editor Frank Crowther, had planned this evening; four of his seven children, and his mother, Fanny, were present. The buzz in the restaurant was tremendous: invitations had promised an announcement of "a subject of national importance (major)." It was Norman Mailer's fiftieth birthday party, and anything might happen.
The suspense had been building for weeks, ever since the five thousand invitations for the February 5, 1973, event, elegantly designed on purple paper, had gone out. The invitation had raised eyebrows: it stipulated an admission fee, to be donated to something called the "Fifth Estate"what this might be was not specifiedof fifty dollars a couple, or thirty dollars per person. As Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn later commented, "In Manhattan, nobody who's anybody ever pays to go to a party." In 1973, charity events were staid affairs, drawing mostly established Upper East Siders, and for the art openings that drew the hippest crowds extra passes were always available. Usually the press simply stayed away from parties that charged admission. Many invited guests elected to boycott Norman's party. But as the date approached, checks flooded in to the suite at the Algonquin Hotel where Lady Jeanne and Crowther were managing the arrangements.
Norman and Carol Stevens had arrived at the Algonquin from their home in the Berkshires around noon, hoping to rest before the party. But calls kept coming in all afternoon. Some were from theater people who had Monday night off and heard there was to be some action at the Four Seasons. The press, undeterred by the admission fee, was clamoring to get in. Calls came from the New York Times, Newsweek, Women's Wear Daily, the Detroit Free Press, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Oui, and from French, German, Italian, Canadian, and Japanese publications. The Four Seasons called: columnists Leonard Lyons, Suzy, Earl Wilson, and Eugenia Shepherd refused to come unless the entrance fee was waived. Would Mr. Mailer make an exception in their case? (He would.) Shirley MacLaine called to ask if she could bring Jack Lemmon. Actor Alan Bates and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, something of an enfant terrible after the recent release of Last Tango in Paris, were in town and wanted invitations. Senator George McGovern had sent in a check but was forced to cancel after learning that his wife had arranged a dinner party for that evening. Gloria Steinem, who had stood by Norman through the contretemps he created with his 1971 contribution to the dialogue on feminism, The Prisoner of Sex (and whom Norman had once taken to bed, unsuccessfully), called to send her regrets but added, "Tell Norman it's been a breathless ten years" in the interval since she'd met him.
"This is his answer to Truman Capote's party," a Women's Wear Daily writer was overheard to say that evening, referring to Capote's celebrated black-and-white ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966. (On that occasion Norman had appeared with Beverly and had distinguished himself by asking national security adviser McGeorge Bundy to step outside.) Others were not so sure what this party was all about. A joke circulated that Norman would announce his upcoming vasectomy, to be paid for by the admission fees. Others speculated that the guests' money would fund the writer's considerable alimony and child support payments. Many, remembering Mailer's run for mayor of New York City in 1969an often inspired campaign, with a disappointing finishspeculated that he might announce another election bid.
Lily Tomlin, making her way past two burly bodyguards borrowed frrom the Rolling Stones, told a reporter that she supposed she had been invited "out of the telephone book, like everybody else here." This wasn't quite truuuuue: a small coterie of Mailer's close friends was present: boxers Jose Torres and Joe Shaw; historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and his statuesque blond wife, Alexandra; writer and editor George Plimpton; former campaign staffers Joe Flaherty and Jack Banning; writer Dotson Rader, escorting Princess Diane von Furstenberg; journalists Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, and Murray Kempton; and cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy. But few guests knew each other, though many faces seemed familiar. Flashbulbs popped as photographers caught such personages as A&P heir Huntington Hartford, restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, New York magazine editor Clay Felker, writers Larry McMurtry and Jessica Mitford, filmmaker Melvin von Peebles, musicians Charles Mingus and Bobby Short, former senator Eugene McCarthy, actor Rod Steiger, New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff, artist Andy Warhol, and Senator Jacob Javits and his wife, Marion.
Those who remembered Mailer's parties of the past might have expected a raucous brawl. There was the party at a Lower East Side loft where Norman was clubbed by invading neighborhood youths; the 1960 affair at which street thugs mingled with celebrities and Norman stabbed Adele; the nonstop party that was the filming of Mailer's Maidstone in 1968; and countless parties at his Brooklyn Heights home or his summer place in Provincetown that had ended in fistfights, head butting, and general mayhem. Still, though this seemed to be a sober affair by comparison, expectations ran high. Nobody left before the "announcement." Near midnight, after an hour or two of milling about, the partygoers drew near a makeshift dais when columnist Jimmy Breslin, who as candidate for comptroller had shared a ticket with Mailer in his run for mayor of New York, appeared with a microphone. Ascending the dais, he called the crowd to order, complaining of the noise: "Hey, what is this? The place sounds like a Reform Democratic club over a Chinese restaurant on Broadway." He introduced Norman as "the one person whose ideas will last" and as "one of the half-dozen original thinkers in this century." Norman took the dais. Dressed in a blue shirt and tux, his hair in a modest pepper-and-salt "Jewish Afro," he cut a rumpled, paunchy figure. Under a spotlight, waving a fresh bourbon-and-ice in his left hand and pumping his right fist at his side, he immediately put his guests on the defensive. "Can everyone hear? Then I know if I hear people talking, they are simply not interested in what I have to say. All right. Must size up the opposition." He continued, trying to warm to his subject, "I want to say I've discovered tonight why Nixon is president. Tonight I found myself photographed more times than I can count. You see green, you see red, and then you see your own mortality. Now I know why Richard Nixon is president. He has gristle behind the retina." The remark was met with mild laughter. It hadn't made much sense, but he'd eased a little of the tension in the room. Clearly, however, Mailer was very, very drunk. He soldiered on, and, to the horror of many of his old friends, told one of the most offensiveand often repeateddirty jokes in his repertoire. The gist of it was this: A man sees his ex-wife in a restaurant with her new, younger husband. He makes his way over to her table and asks her how her new husband is enjoying her "fucked-out cunt." She looks up at him and says sweetly, "Just fineespecially when he gets past the fucked-out part." A few people in the audience tittered, but the joke was met otherwise by silence, and knots of people started walking out. David Amram, who had heard the joke before, turned to his sax player and said, "You're about to see someone really bomb out big-time." "Christ, he's done it again," Channel 13's Judith Freed was heard to mutter. Sitting at the bar, Joe Flaherty, Norman's campaign manager in 1969, put his head in his hands, groaning, "Oh sweet Jesus, here we go again." Both were remembering Norman's catastrophic, drunken, obscenity-laced performance at the Village Gate during his mayoral campaign, when he'd called his student volunteers "pigs." That time, he'd alienated not only his hardworking campaigners but hundreds of potential voters who read about the incident in the press.
This time, as a broad swath of the crowd started heading for the doors, hoping to avoid witnessing more embarrassment, Norman called out, "Will my agents get the names of the people leaving?" He may have meant the line to be funny, but his choice of wordswho were his "agents"?indicates the paranoid and pugnacious state of mind that had come over him. Gradually people started talking, at first quietly, among themselves: Norman had lost the crowd.
Uncowed, he announced that what he had to communicate was "the best single political idea of my entire life," adding, inexplicably, "It has nothing to do with me." The entity that the party invitation referred to, the Fifth Estate, was to be a tax-free foundation that policed the CIA and the FBI, "a democratic secret police," he said. "I want a people's CIA and a people's FBI to investigate the CIA and the FBI. If we have a democratic secret police to keep tabs on Washington's secret police, we will see how far paranoia is justified." He rambled on, alluding to J. Edgar Hoover, state-sanctioned electronic eavesdropping, and the Kennedy assassination. His slurred diction and the rising noise level in the room made him bring his comments to an abrupt halt, saying he hoped his guests would "let the idea sink in tonight." Then, disastrously, he opened the floor to questions, first posing a few of his own: "Is there one plot going on between the scenes in America? Two, are there many plots? Three, is there no plot?" Silence from the audience. "Won't someone ask a question, a heartfelt question . . . a hostile question?" he asked, repeating, "We must see how far our paranoia is justified." "What about paranoia, Norman?" called out one guest. "What about paranoia?" Norman shot back cryptically. He tried questioning the audience again: "What one word best sums up the point of this party?" "Love," offered one optimist. "Paranoia," shouted another. "Publicity," muttered a man near enough to the podium for the speaker to hear him. Norman mercifully cut things short, but not before announcing that he would return to the dais in half an hour for "more conversation and questions." There was no applause.
"Mailer looked confused," Pete Hamill later wrote, "exactly like an actor who was being hooted for a performance he thought was brilliant." As Norman walked off, complaining, "There's a lack of humor in these fucking people," a guest, himself quite drunk, approached him, pleading, "I'm with you, Norman, I'm with you . . . But what the hell is it you want?" "I don't know," Norman said dismissively. "I'm too drunk and too stupid." Murray Kempton ushered his friend away to a quiet spot and replenished his bourbon. He tried to comfort him: "Somehow, Norman, somehow out of your embarrassments always seems to come great writing." The thoroughly antagonized audience headed for the bar to exchange postmortems. Women's Wear Daily writer Daphne Davis, who had earlier said she wouldn't miss the party for anything, now called it "a bummerwhat can you say about a man whose time has gone?" Jack Lemmon defensively announced to anyone who would listen, "I didn't know a thing about it. I didn't even know it's his birthday. I don't even know him." "Well, there goes one more culture hero down the drain," someone else commented. Carol Stevens wouldn't comment on Norman's performance, simply saying, "You figure it out." Adele was overheard to say, "I think he blew it." Reporters approached Shirley MacLaine as she was leaving. "Norman's party was a disaster," she said.
Norman was now conferring with his advisers, and Crowther talked him out of returning to the dais, which he was very much inclined to do. At that point, he was ready to admit failure, echoing Adele: "I blew it. It was a great party, and I blew it. I have a demon in me." But Sally Quinn, who stuck it out until the party's end, noted that she heard him several times revert to his more characteristic defensive posture, saying, "I don't think it's a matter of whether I succeeded or failed tonight." The bulk of the guests left shortly after the "announcement," and a small group remained until about 3:30. Norman had elected to get even drunker and forget about his performance. By early morning he was engaged in two of his favorite activities. He butted heads with stockbroker and boxing maven Tom Quinn and boxed with Joe Shaw, a welterweight whose contract he had once co-owned with Quinn. "This time I'll be Frazier and Ali, and you be yourself," Norman challenged. Joe Shaw pulled his punches, Norman was barely able to land one, and no one was hurt.
Damage control began the next afternoon, when a very hung-over Norman held a press conference at the Algonquin to try to salvage his vision of the Fifth Estate. The "news" was that he intended to form a steering committee composed of the "best literary, scholarly, and detective minds." It was to be a nonprofit organization engaged in objective, scholarly work on such matters as the Warren Commission and the possibility of Republican involvement in the leaking of Senator Thomas Eagleton's history of shock treatments during McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. "We have to face up to the possibility that the country may be sliding toward totalitarianism. I have an absolute distrust of the American government," he said, adding that he believed in participatory democracy. He compared the Fifth Estate to Nader's Raiders, the ACLU, and Common Cause.
What Norman didn't say was that it wasn't his idea in the first place. An anti-CIA organization already existed in Washington. Called CARIC (Committee for Action/Research in the Intelligence Community), it had been founded in 1972 by veterans of the antiwar movement. Part of its credo was the necessity of publishing the names of CIA operatives, which the group did in its magazine, CounterSpy. Tim Butz and Winslow Peck, leaders of the group, had approached Norman in 1972 and asked him to join. Norman explained: "There was an organization in existence already, and I said to them if you call it the Fifth Estate I'll join you." The Fifth Estate would be the fundraising arm of CARIC.
This did not surface at the press conference. The press diligently took notes, but the question period was devoted to his behavior the night before. Norman gave a fairly comprehensive statement:
The party part went beautifully. Because of the people who planned it. It was the man in whose honor the party was held that failed. My speech never took off. It was not a good speech. It was a fair-to- mediocre speech. I failed because I was a "hint too drunk." That's three words, quote unquote, "hint too drunk." I will have a karmic account to pay. I was furious at myself. Once a philosopher, twice a pervert. I don't trust myself. There's a demon in me.
His statement was a very public postmortem on the gala celebration of a very public writer's personal milestone. And Norman Mailer had played it in characteristic fashion, achieving embarrassment rather than the accolades he might have won and burying his latest intriguing idea with a painful public scene.
The Four Seasons party marked not just Norman's fiftieth birthday, but the quarter-century point in one of the most exhibitionistic careers in literary history. His was a career marked by stunning successes, breakdowns, violence, many social embarrassments, and a body of work that reflected and at times seemed to shape the diverse cultural changes in postwar America.
The story was already well known and well rehearsed by the time Mailer stumbled to the Four Seasons dais that night in 1973, and it now read much like something out of a success-obsessed F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, or the summation of a sometime champion prizefighter's career.
With the publication of The Naked and the Dead in 1948, Mailer became an instant celebrity; the public was as charmed by his boyish persona as it was impressed by his talent. Overnight, he became the writer to watch. But his next two books were not well received, and Mailer spent the 1950s obsessed with his position in the public imagination. A feeling of failure gnawed at him, but he exorcised it with the rebellious, attention-getting gesture that was Advertisements for Myself (1959), in which he wrote, "I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." He delivered on his promise immediately, including in Advertisements the groundbreaking essay "The White Negro," which identified the dangerous, transgressive, underground hipster and his connection to the Zeitgeist. In the 1960s, he turned to journalism, a genre he revolutionized by including himself in his political reportage as an active participant.
On the fiction front, he wrote An American Dream, a scandalous tale of an existential hero who murders his wife and gets away with it, a tour de force even if one overlooks the extraordinary fact that it was written on deadlines, serialized in a magazine as Dickens's novels had been. In 1968 he wrote the incomparable The Armies of the Night, an account of his participation in the 1968 march on the Pentagon and a moving exploration of the meaning of protest, the workings of the left, and his position in relation to the antiwar movement. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and in the same year his Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about the violence in Chicago at the time of the 1968 Democratic Convention, was nominated for the National Book Award.
Riding on these successes, Mailer made a run for mayor of New York City, fashioning, with Breslin and others, an innovative and exciting platform whose slogan was the characteristic "No more bullshit." Not surprisingly, he lost. Returning to more familiar territory, he plunged headfirst into the feminist debate with The Prisoner of Sex. And, of course, since the early 1960s he had been promising the public his "big one," which by 1973 had assumed the proportions of the Great American Novel, though he had barely begun it.
In the case of Norman Mailer, the man and his life are of equal, often competing stature with his work, and it is for his life as well as his work that he will be remembered. Pete Hamill, Norman's friend, wrote a sad column in the New York Post on the fiftieth birthday party, in which he acknowledged this fact. "He is our best writer," Hamill began, "which is not to say our best journalist, or our best moviemaker, but quite simply the best uncategorized writer the country now has. He has lived a life on the edge, a defiant, dangerous life, filled with riot and desert, waste and rebirth." With his writing, Mailer has achieved literary stature; in his life, he has achieved celebrity. His hero has always been Hemingway, who was not only the most famous writer of Mailer's youth, perhaps, but a legend because of his outsized personality and exploits. Like Hemingway, Mailer is known for heroic drinking, multiple marriages, an affection for bullfighting, a fixation on boxing, and the cultivation of a macho image. He is no stranger to violence. Yet he protested the war in Vietnam in a meaningful way in the 1960s and has produced journalism that, as he had hoped, affected the course of events. In spite of, or perhaps in part because of, his reckless personal style, his determination to tackle any and every issue that seems to bear on the nature of American identity and community has very often resulted in some of the most essential writing on these subjects since World War II.
Yet he so often seems determined to shoot himself in the foot. He alienated almost every one of his literary peers with two essays written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which dismissed them each in a couple of paragraphs. He has constantly undermined his friendships with other writers, most notably William Styron, James Baldwin, and James Jones. He has earned a reputation for using obscenities colorfully and constantly, in his speech as well as in his worktoo often gratuitously. And he seems drawn to attention-getting antics, often with devastating results. The purpose of the 1960 party at which he attacked Adele was to announce his (abortive) candidacy for New York City mayor, and he had invited numerous luminaries and members of the intelligentsia, as well as people off the street. In 1968, just before the march on the Pentagon, he gave a drunken speech about his inability to locate the bathroom, a scene that he describes hilariously in The Armies of the Night but that also made the papers and the newsmagazines, which were not amused.
The press has rewarded his behavior, both good and bad, with unrelenting attention. In the years before his personal life seemed to stabilize with his sixth wife, Norris Church, in the late 1970s, reporters had his numerous marriages and his many offspring to comment on. And, over time, they chided him about the long-promised "big one," the major novel he seemed unable to deliver. When Mailer gave such infamous performances as the Four Seasons birthday dinner speech and the Village Gate harangue during his 1969 mayoral campaign, the papers were there to provide lovingly detailed coverage. Certainly by the time of the fiftieth birthday celebration, people had begun to expect him to screw up, especially under pressure: the suspense became not whether he would make a fool of himself, but how, and how badly. His celebrity has often been in ascendancy over his reputation as a writer, and Mailer has not always handled celebrity very well.
"Once a philosopher, twice a pervert." What did Mailer mean in quoting Voltaire at his press conference the day after the birthday party? He has used the quotation often, including it in his fiction, journalism, and countless interviews. He first used it, in the 1950s, in relation to sex. It fit other situations as well, often metaphorically to a man as obsessed with success and failure as Mailer. For him, it has meant that you can fail once at something, but if you fail a second time, you are marked as a failure.
Another favorite saying is "Repetition causes cancer," according to his second wife, Adele. This sayingor its variant, "Repetition kills the soul"is one that Mailer has used over and over, as recently as December 1998, in a review of Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full, seemingly unaware that he has been repeating himself ad nauseam. Nevertheless, Mailer clearly has a horror of repeating himself, both in his writing and in his experiences. His life has a certain order that demands regularity and thus a certain amount of repetition. But experience must remain fresh: he has always considered himself an existentialist, and as such he believes that a person who continually makes choices in life will never repeat.
A Freudian analysis of this behavior might conclude that this insistence on avoiding repetition, alongside the repetition of attention-getting bad behavior, illustrates the repetition/compulsion principle. According to that theory, as adults we endlessly repeat the experiences of childhood; only by recovering these experiences in analysis can we free ourselves from the compulsion to do so. Mailer as a child constantly demandedand receivedattention; his attention-getting tactics were rewarded. He seldom acted badly (though in adolescence he relished shocking his mother with four-letter words), but, as he would acknowledge years later, he had a horror of being a "good" Jewish boy from Brooklyn. So, as an adult, he was to make outrageous bids for attention, repeating a practice he had learned in childhood, each act a declaration that he was most emphatically not a "good" Jewish boy from Brooklyn.
Mailer would scorn such an analysis: he scorns Freudian explanations and psychological introspection in general. To his thinking, his grand failures, like his fiftieth birthday party, were caused by a "demon" inside him. It is a convenient belief for a man not inclined to self-analysis, and perhaps it is useful as far as it goes. But it seems quite clear that if Norman Mailer were possessed by a demon, the demon was born in his childhood.
Consider Fanny Mailer's experience of her son's fiftieth birthday party. Given a table in the corner, she was joined by several of her grandchildren, Carol Stevens, her daughter, Barbara, and Barbara's husband, and some close family friends. Reporters hovered over her all evening. "I'm always included in everything," she proudly told one who commented on her son's thoughtfulness in inviting her. She was being truthful: she had always been present at every important occasion in her son's life, and at lesser ones like small, at-home dinner parties. A reporter admired her yellow brocade dress and matching jacket, and asked her age; all she would say was, "I'm older than sweet sixteen." Many reporters asked the same question; on another occasion Fan answered flirtatiously that she was fifty-one, one year older than Norman. "It's because my son is such a great man that makes me so young." She seemed oblivious to the fact that her son had made a fool of himself. About the Fifth Estate, she said, after Norman's drunken remarks, "I didn't know what he was going to announce, but I thoroughly approve." At three in the morning, Fan was still at her corner table with a few friends. She was still beaming, telling Sally Quinn, "I think it's all wonderful." Norman had celebrated many birthdays, she said, but he hadn't changed a bit: "He still has that same wonderful smile." Out of all the parties he'd ever had, she said, "This was the best party for Norman. The second best was his bar mitzvah in 1936." Her son, Fanny Mailer said single-mindedly, was a genius. "Norman was not the ordinary child. Other children always had that sameness about them, but not Norman. He was just different." Hers was a rather extraordinary statement. Many parents believe their child is special, but few would present this, as Fanny did, as an objective fact. Different her son certainly was, and Fan Mailer's insistence on his difference was a profound force in shaping the psyche of this enormously complicated man.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Mary V. Dearborn. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Mary V. Dearborn is the author of MAILER: A BIOGRAPHY, as well as biographies of Henry Miller, John Dewey and Anzia Yezierska, and Louise Bryant. Dearborn holds a doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where she was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. Dearborn currently resides in New York.
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