Why Mailer Matters

Appreciating the rascal writer who started it all

He quickly lived up to that vow. Four months later, he declared himself through with the paper and its ham-fisted editors. Their crime? A copy-editing error had changed the word "nuance" into "nuisance."

But he couldn't really stay away. He showed up periodically in its pages, never more eloquently than in 1964, when he took up the then-raging debate on New York's left as to whom to prefer: the longtime liberal darling, Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, or the carpetbagger Bobby Kennedy.

It was true, Mailer wrote, that Kennedy had "that prep-school arrogance" and had once been "that punk who used to play Junior D.A. to Joe McCarthy." But Mailer spied the makings of a leader. "To vote for a man who is neuter is to vote for the plague," he wrote. "I would rather vote for a man on the assumption he is a hero and have him turn into a monster than vote for a man who can never be a hero."

photo: Fred W. McDarrah

Such was the force of word and attitude that drew so many to him for so long. But by the mid-'70s, a Mailer awash in success had happily turned himself into a Brillo-headed institution, adding movie director, television celebrity, and no-holds-barred debater to his résumé. In 1973, he threw a 50th birthday party for himself at the Four Seasons, charging $50 per couple. Several hundred came to pay homage, but when he made an incoherent speech containing a pointless dirty joke, he suffered the consequences. "Grotesque," wrote one critic. The Voice, like everyone else, was soon giving him a dose of his own medicine.

"My Norman Mailer Problem and Ours" was the headline of a 1977 Voice piece by James Wolcott that critiqued Mailer's debates on the Dick Cavett show with Gore Vidal. And that was one of the milder ones. "Norman Mailer Wastes Away"—a 1985 Voice story by the late Paul Cowan—was more typical.

And those weren't even the feminist writers. Kate Millett's scathing attacks on his sexism took up numerous pages. "Norman's Ugly Conquest" was how the Voice's Laurie Stone greeted Mailer's 1980 ode to Marilyn Monroe.

There is one small, pleasing fragment that has survived from those battleground years. It is contained in a front-page illustration for the Voice of July 1, 1981, by the paper's former stellar cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty. At the bottom of a scrambled New York tableau, Stamaty drew a perfect, pint-sized Mailer holding a copy of the Voice. "Scumbag Journalism, Page 42" is the caption popping out of his mouth. A blowup of the cover has long hung in the Voice's lobby, and since the single slow elevator gives us so much time there to ponder, I've looked at it often and wondered what prompted that particular blast.

Last week, I finally pulled one of the old green bound volumes off the library shelves to find out. As it happens, the hoped-for screed was only a small boxed correction. Mailer had telephoned, a nameless editor wrote, accusing the Voice of practicing "scumbag journalism" for having published a photo montage that made it seem as though he were together with Jack Henry Abbott, the murderous writer Mailer had helped free from prison. "He was also mighty angry," the editor added, "that we published a photo of him in a dinner jacket." Even then, Mailer had his pride.

There was one last sighting a couple of years ago. At a memorial service for a friend's father, Mailer was sitting in the front row, still instantly recognizable from the back of the room by his formidable and now-frosty mane. When asked to speak, he grappled with the twin canes that he used in his last years and struggled to his feet. You had to fear that the old lion in winter was too weak for the task. But as soon as he faced his audience, the years slipped from his face and he let loose with his old mighty roar, a general summoning his troops.

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