Why Mailer Matters


Norman Kingsley Mailer may have been his own biggest fan and, without doubt, he was his own worst enemy.

By his own invitation, most of his postmortems focused on his literary ranking, or lack of one. It was a comparison Mailer steadily encouraged over the years as he fretted over his status like some aging minor-league ballplayer.

Likewise, you couldn’t write his obituary without telling about the near-fatal wife-stabbing, the ear-ripping wrestling match, or the too-trusting mentor who helped win the release of a talented but murderous convict who promptly killed again.

In life, he so pissed people off that even Budd Schulberg, the gentle nonagenarian who shared his love of all things boxing, felt no compunction about relating in the pages of the New York Post last week the embarrassing tale of Mailer’s graceless performance and flat-out-wrong predictions at the 1962 Floyd Patterson–Sonny Liston bout.

The kindest salute came from gossip columnist Liz Smith, who manages to make a living by never saying an unkind word about anyone, alive or dead. “He was a big soft-hearted guy in my book,” wrote the tabloid sweetheart.

But take it from this child of the sixties, someone who cheerfully passed over his last four or five door-stopping novels, but who devoured every word of The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?, and most of the big journalistic tomes: No one, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, loomed larger in the imagination of my particular generational faction than Norman Mailer.

That’s why we come to praise Mailer. Not just the writer—others are better equipped for that job—but the feisty, irascible New Yorker who tried to carry a generation on his shoulders: the son of Crown Heights, the Boys High grad who made it to Harvard, the jug-eared young man who went to war, the imaginer of alternative newspapers, the brief inmate of Bellevue’s psych ward, the passionate, kamikaze mayoral candidate, the head-butting, put-your-dukes-up saloon intellectual, the perpetual celebrator of himself. We sing of him.

Norman Mailer. Relentless radical, ultimate hipster, pugilist poseur, feminist scourge, outrageous rake. Think of him what you will, his like will not pass this way again.

From the first encounter, his name and words hit like an electric jolt. If his language was sometimes obscure, the shock still measured in megawatts.

The first jolt came from a sighting of a little pamphlet from City Lights Books, the reprint of his essay, “The White Negro.” Along with the startling title, it had that Bizarro World cover, a photographic negative of a white man turned black, that leaped out from a table on a long-vanished downtown bookstore. For 50 cents, how could you miss? It was published in 1957, but reading it in the early ’60s, it still sounded new and dangerous. “A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life,” he had told you by page two, “and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve.” If that was the ailment, he also had a prescription: “Hip,” he wrote, “is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.”

Jolt two came in sequential issues of Esquire, to which I subscribed in order to find more Mailer. Parents and friends assumed it was the soft-core porn sprinkled through the pages. The porn didn’t hurt, but it was Mailer that mattered. Imitating Dickens, he wrote An American Dream against deadline and it ran across eight issues, each episode steadily more disturbing and intriguing.

Yet it wasn’t just the words. It was the man who wrote them.

By the late ’60s, he had become an anti-war stalwart. Arrested and jailed in the 1967 march on the Pentagon—the basis for his The Armies of the Night—he kept following the radical trail. In August 1968, he joined a crew of other renegade intellectuals, including Jean Genet and William Burroughs, in Chicago, where they took part in the massive protests at the Democratic Convention. That was my first direct sighting. With a police riot raging one night along Michigan Avenue, three of us had taken sanctuary in the quiet streets behind the Hilton hotel where the delegates were housed. From out of the darkness, a short, barrel-chested man with a massive head swaggered and swayed toward us. He lurched left and then right, the telltale march of the inebriated.

We stopped in our tracks as we recognized the unmistakable form of the famous writer-turned-antiwar-partisan. He halted as well, presumably conducting his ritual head-to-toe survey of potential opponents. “Mr. Mailer,” one of us blurted. The ice was broken. “My troops!” he cried as he threw himself around our shoulders one by one. “You’re beautiful. You’re beautiful. My troops!” We might have followed this drunken general anywhere, but he staggered past us into the night.

A year later, the general was sighted again, back in New York this time, and leading a different brigade. This one was composed of writers who imagined themselves politicians, a boxer or two who thought themselves writers, and a phalanx of political enthusiasts aflame with the hopeless notion that Norman Mailer could somehow be elected mayor of New York, and the more attainable idea that a hell of a lot of fun could be had in trying.

It was his unequivocal “Bring the troops home now” demand that won our hearts. Not that the mayor of New York had much clout in that area, but it was better than the waffling John Lindsay, who then held City Hall. On local matters, Mailer’s campaign had some singular ideas as well. Its chief battle cry was that the city should become the 51st state, a goal Mailer and his running mate, the then equally hard-living columnist Jimmy Breslin, acknowledged was politically unfeasible. The other was “All power to the neighborhoods,” a something-for-everyone scheme aimed at fueling minority hopes, while defusing the fears of whites in the outer boroughs.

“Vote the rascals in” was their delightful slogan, mounted on a lone billboard hung above their rickety headquarters in a walk-up across from the old Coliseum on Columbus Circle. They were guided by campaign manager Joe Flaherty, an ex-longshoreman turned Village Voice writer who later wrote the magnificent political book Managing Mailer. Starting in late April 1969, they took their show on the road. Speaking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to police students about their anti-crime ideas, they encountered, as Flaherty recalled, a few skeptics. “If you and Breslin go ape on the same evening,” one cop asked, “who will run the city?”

They got even less respect on a chaotic night in the auditorium of P.S. 41 on West 11th Street in the Village. A small, boldfaced notice in the May 8, 1969, Voice announced that Mailer would speak there on the subject of “Dr. Strangelove in the Seats of Power: City, State, and Nation”—not exactly your standard political stump speech. But that night, all we knew was that the great Mailer and Breslin were speaking nearby, and those of us eager to see and hear the charismatic duo squeezed into the hall and squatted on the floor near the stage.

The back of the room, however, and soon the stage itself were commandeered by members of a radical group known appropriately as “the Crazies.” Deciding that this was a prime opportunity to confront the ruling class and its liberal puppets, they hooted, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,” and “Free the Panthers,” blew whistles, bounced a ball back and forth, and refused to let the candidates be heard.

Mailer, his feet planted squarely apart in boxing mode, was for once outmatched. He tried to shout past his hecklers, denouncing them as CIA agents, but it was hopeless. Breslin bellowed that these loudmouths wouldn’t “have the balls to try the same crap” at a rally for Mario Procaccino, the law-and-order Democrat from the Bronx who later won the primary. Eventually, the candidates fled as mutual epithets flew back and forth.

That spring, we wore buttons that read “Mailer-Breslin 51,” and another keeper—”No More Bullshit”—that unfortunately has long since disappeared. But few of us believed this was the ticket to political power. It was the thrill of the thing. Norman Mailer, America’s greatest writer, had said, “March.” We’d followed.

On sober reflection, it’s clear now that without Mailer in the race, the Democratic nomination might well have gone to Herman Badillo, the Puerto Rico–born borough president of the Bronx, who finished third and who ran on a platform of political empowerment and helping the poor. Mailer even said so himself to The New York Times in his own sober moment after he finished next to last with 41,000 votes in the June primary. “If I had known Badillo would do so well,” he admitted, “I might have hesitated about running.”

But there were other perks. In the midst of the campaign, it was announced that The Armies of the Night had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Then publishers agreed to hand Mailer an unheard-of $1 million to write another nonfiction novel, as he called those works, this for the book that would become Of a Fire on the Moon.

Mailer and Voice Editor Dan Wolf in March of 1960
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

Despite that enormous success, no slight—real or imagined—rolled off his back. When Mailer decided that his campaign wasn’t getting the attention it deserved, he called a press conference—to denounce the press. “If you continue to treat us this way, you’re going to be a disgrace to your profession,” he scolded.

Included on his list of shame was the Voice, which had only featured large photos of Mailer and Breslin on its front page, run two lengthy stories announcing his campaign, and carried a detailed account of his appearance at a Brooklyn Democratic clubhouse. Not enough, Mailer insisted. He deserved day-long coverage, not just individual events.

By that time, his history with the weekly he’d helped to found was already fairly complicated. For a few short months after its 1955 launch, Mailer authored a regular
Voice column in which he scoped out his views on “The Hip and the Square,” and other themes that caught his fancy. It was an early example of his head-butting approach to the world.

“The only way I see myself becoming one of the cherished traditions of the Village,” he wrote in his maiden effort, “is to be actively disliked each week.”

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.”

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.