Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 12, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 28
Mailer’s 5th Estate: Who’s paranoid now?
by Frank Crowther
“Paranoia is the most useful or the most destructive faculty of the human spirit. One never knows when it’s devoted to you or your destruction.” — Norman Mailer
While most of us are still stumbling about in the euphoric dreck of the Senate Watergate hearings, I think it’s time we admit that Norman Mailer was right. As usual.
Some of you may remember the rather elegant bash at the Four Seasons restaurant last February 5 in celebration of Norman’s 50th birthday (which was January 31, but never mind). Many were drawn to the event by the enticement that Mailer would make “an announcement of national importance (major).” While Norman was up in Massachusetts writing his biography of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Campbell and I made the arrangements. Tickets were $50 per couple, and, outrageously, we made the press pay.
The stage set, the booze swilling, the crowd swelling, midnight approaching…Mailer blew it. In the grand and glorious manner. Or as he put it in the New York Times Book Review, the speech “was a disgrace. It had neither wit nor life–it was perhaps the worst speech on a real occasion that the orator had ever made.”
Nevertheless, the idea had been planted, however badly. Mailer said he wanted to establish something he called “the Fifth Estate,” essentially an organization to investigate whether the United States was slipping into totalitarianism through a series of carefully manipulated conspiracies. He said it was the best political idea he ever had.
The press, many of them stunned at having paid hard cash to attend the party, went for the jugular. After all, wasn’t Mailer one of the best targets around? And hadn’t he asked for it? Hadn’t he literally set himself up for a wipe-out?
Pete Hamill reported, somewhat sadly, that “the best writer in America was reduced to the role of a nightclub comic trying to squelch drunks.” In Saturday Review, Patricia Bosworth observed: “When he tried to elaborate on the proposition that our nation is veering toward totalitarianism, nobody was listening.” Shirley MacLaine was quoted in Women’s Wear Daily: “Nobody here could make a pimple on Norman’s ass, but nobody listened to him, and the thing is, he’s right.”
John Leonard, editor of the New York Times Book Review, disagreed: “As Mailer’s ideas go, this is not a good one. It is, as proposed, just another vigilante group.”
Tim Ferris of Rolling Stone picked up a bitter remark: “The guy’s a hell of a writer, but he’s just getting so grotesque, so silly. What a clumsy, awkward, cumbersome man he has become.”
Then, of course, there were those panic-stricken by the announcement, like Jack Lemmon, famous liberal movie star. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he stammered. “I don’t even know him!” And we heard shrill notes from a viper or two. Sally Quinn wrote her standard florid feature for the Washington Post (“The Rise and Fall of the Fifth Estate,” February 7), causing Mailer to dub her “Poison Quinn.” In his forthcoming book on Marilyn Monroe, Mailer characterizes this kind of writing as having “fewer facts than factoids (to join the hungry ranks of those who coin the word), that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper…” And Daphne Davis of Women’s Wear Daily, quote in Newsweek by Linda Francke, denounced the whole affair as “a bummer — what can you say about a man whose time has gone?” (For Ms. Davis’s edification, it might be pointed out that Mr. Mailer this year, 25 years after “The Naked and the Dead” will publish his 22nd and 23rd books, not to mention the several volumes already published evaluating his life’s work. The first printing of “Marilyn,” by the way, is 300,000 copies. Not bad for a writer whose time has gone.)
Finally, we come to The Village Voice, in the prose of Ron Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris, and Lucian K. Truscott IV, honorable gentlemen all.
Rosenbaum covered Mailer’s press conference, held the next afternoon (February 6) at the Hotel Algonquin. He played it fair and straight, noting Mailer’s combativeness (“I have the misfortune of being a talented writer who is in the position of being written about by less talented people”), and concluded that “the skeptics among the reporters remained unconvinced.”
Sarris, who said he wouldn’t have missed the party for the world, claimed that “Aquarius” was upstaged that evening by Bernardo Bertolucci (not true, save in the eyes of a film critic), then launched into a medium silly diversion about “Last Tango in Paris” and “Deep Throat,” in the process dropping a few asides about Mailer’s “ballsy literary swagger” and his “piddling penis joke.”
But it was Truscott who, in my view, went into a purple prose funk over the party. Mailer himself said of the article that “on balance, it was fair.” Fairness is not what threw me, the prose did. Listen to this: “At its center (a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort) was sure to be Norman Mailer, in the flesh, feet wide planted, drink in hand, finger jabbing chests or tits or air, sterling silver Brillo pad hair bobbing up and down tot he rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing him, making him quiet and still.”
Truscott later admitted this stuff was “blithering,” but excused himself thusly: “It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him.” That’s damn near a perfect example of what we might call the simultaneous reversible pat-on-the-back and kick-in-the-ass. A very neat trick, indeed. But one must note, like any good checker for the New Yorker, that the soap in Brillo pads is red; S.O.S. has the blue, and would have been the more appropriate metaphor, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.
And, sure enough, the Truscott “West Point trauma” surfaced as he wrote of the “dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche” and “the almost sexual excitement, about command and control.” The part I liked best, though, was how his grandmother had likened Mailer to General Patton. That was an interesting thought — a left conservative General Patton. You could go somewhere with that.
Before I report some afterthoughts of Watergate hindsight, and tell you how Norman sees all of this, it might be well to explain what he was trying to say that night, and in fact did say the next day at his press conference, and subsequently in the New York Times.
The time has come, Mailer wrote, “for some of us to think of founding a high, serious, and privately funded Committee of Inquiry, stocked with the best efforts of literary scholars, investigators, and journalists. It would be an inquiry into a fundamental question of government: is our history developing into a string of connected conspiracies, or is there less ground finally for our national paranoia than any have supposed?” This country, he said, “may be sliding toward a kind of totalitarianism of the most advanced, subtle, and civilized sort…are we in a society which encourages us to be paranoid, or is our paranoia merely our impotent reaction to a set of 20th century processes which are entirely beyond us?”
After the February 6 press conference (the day after the Senate passed a resolution creating the Watergate Committee, and the day John Dean says a strategy meeting was held by the Watergate Cover-up Crew), several of us, forming something of an ad hoc steering committee, retired to a suite in the Algonquin and talked about the Fifth Estate — what it should and should not be, how it might be formed and funded, what project or projects it might investigate. Nothing much was accomplished, but we decided to meet again on February 21.
The next meeting was more formal and businesslike (booze at the first, coffee at the second). After about two hours, we decided that, because we lacked time, staff, and money, the one project we should undertake immediately was, you guessed it, Watergate. We all felt Watergate had the smell of a filthy scandal that well might reach the highest levels of government…
Not only was Mailer right, he was prophetic. But, he was not alone. As Jimmy Breslin said the other day, “He was right and everybody laughed, and the asshole dilettantes who laughed didn’t know what they were talking about, as usual. The only two guys who should have been at the party were Woodward and Bernstein, but they couldn’t come because they were too busy”…
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]