Norman Mailer is probably the only man in America who could give himself a birthday party, charge $50 a couple admission to the posh inner sanctum of the Four Seasons, secure a packed and hungry house, and leave at least a portion of those in attendance feeling, as one chic young woman in a black velvet pantsuit put it, eyebrow arching/burgundy fingernail plucking her guitar-string-thin mouth, “Well, there goes one more culture hero down the drain,” not 10 minutes after she had declared breathlessly, “I would have come 1000 miles for this — wouldn’t have missed it for the world — maahhvelous!”
He gives rise to that kind of social schizophrenia, Norman Mailer does, whether by diabolical intent or by some weird Pavlovian psycho-stimulus/response over which he has no control. No matter, really. It was in the air Monday night at the Four Seasons, thick among the hanging copper rods over the bar, thicker still among the seated watched and the cruising watchers, positively zero visibility around the bubbling pool in the middle of the room in which Mailer delivered his “announcement of national importance (major)” as was advertised in purple print on more than 3000 invitations to the affair. Proceeds from the birthday part were said to be destined for “the Fifth Estate,” an organization, or foundation, or publication, or something, anyway, about which no one seemed to know much.
And so there was a bit of mystery attached to the event, a Mailer touch of course, leaving those people wondering where the hell their $50 was going, all the same sucking them in as surely as if the price itself were a magnet or great vortex, a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort. At its center 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 to the rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing the man, making him quiet and still. It was too much to pass up, the possibilities were too enormous, we could watch a man celebrate his birthday as a knave and a fool both, and of course a year from now see him come back strong, admire him for making clear to us once again with the printed word our own weaknesses and strengths whereas we could only poke pins in him, in the voodoo doll he always seems to make of himself in public. And so some 600 of us gathered to go through all the bullshit we knew could be expected to herald Norman Mailer’s 50th birthday.
Christ, here I am blithering about killing Norman Mailer in order to figure him out, running on about schizophrenia and mystery and fog and … next thing I know I’ll be using words like “dark,” and “evil,” Mailer will be faced off against Nixon in a dewy glen, pistols at the ready, the spirit of America flying with the bullet which is aimed straightest and truest at the heart of the other man. It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him. The impulse is there, hanging over the page like a great vulture … Pay homage to me, it says, beak droopy in a crooked grin; pay homage with your sweat and your name come hell or 6 a.m. Fuck up and pay the price I have paid before you. Stumble and suffer. Okay, vulture.
The time has come. Someone is banging on the microphone, readying the crowd for The Announcement. The Introduction:
“Hey, what is this?” coughs Jimmy Breslin, disheveled, gruff, impatient with the noisy crowd. “The place sounds like a reform Democratic club over a Chinese restaurant on Broadway.” Breslin introduces Mailer as “the one person whose ideas will last.”
The Applause: Heavy Whistles. Everyone has come in from the other room, and they seem prepared.
“Can everyone hear?” asks Mailer, looking fit, grinning in that squinty way of his. It seems everyone can. “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. I want to say I’ve discovered tonight why Richard Nixon is President. I’ve been pondering it for many years, you know, and having written a book on the subject, I’ve given it some deep thought. But I realized tonight that I found myself being photographed more times than I can count, and I couldn’t see. You see green after a while, you see red, you see your own mortality. I know why he is President. Richard Nixon has gristle behind the retina.”
The Laughter: Medium. Restlessness. They know he has not called this convocation to joke about Nixon’s eyeballs.
The Dirty Joke: “A man goes in a restaurant, an elegant place not unlike the one you’re in now, and he sees his ex-wife across the room. They eye each other for a while, and finally he decides he must cross the room and speak with her. ‘Darling, you’re being wonderful,’ he says. ‘And you’re being splendid,’ says the wife, who was recently remarried to a much younger man. ‘Darling, I have a question to ask: How does your young husband like sticking it up your worn out old pussy?’ ‘He likes it fine,’ she replies, ‘once he gets past the worn out part.’
The Laughter: Hisses, boos, some scattered giggles, snickers, guffaws. “This is terrible,” says an irate woman. “He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. A woman would never get away with shit like that.” The point, of course, is that Mailer didn’t either.
Mailer recovers nicely from the joke and tells the crowd that he had asked Frank Crowther, who had organized the affair, to give him some examples of the worst things people were saying about it. “Mailer is throwing this party in order to pay for his vasectomy,” was the worst retort.
The Notion: The Fifth Estate, reports Mailer, was widely predicted to be an organization to defend the press. It will be nothing of the sort. “I wanna start a foundation,” says Mailer, left arm pumping defiantly at his side, “with a few people who would be willing to explore this notion: I want a people’s FBI and a people’s CIA to investigate those two. The notion I have in mind is let’s get a steering committee together to find out if there’s any interest in this: is there, one, a plot going on behind the scenes in American lives, two are there many plots, or three, is there no plot? It will obviously have to begin as a completely sober organization. Let’s look into the idea that we’re all living a scenario that we’re writing only a part of … the entire government of the United States is conceivably being managed secretly. Now. I’d like some questions, a critical question.”
The Response: “Norman, what about paranoia?” Laughter. People are talking with each other all around the room. He is losing control of the crowd, and he knows it. “He’s doing a vasectomy on his own mind,” says a woman near me. “Honey, why don’t you wear something groovy like this?” asks her husband, fingering the necklace of the woman next to him. Finally he announces he’ll give the crowd 30 minutes to consider his “notion” and then take “serious” questions again.
“I think it’s rather sad,” says a British investment banker standing next to me. “I’m interested in what he had to say, but no one gave him the chance.”
Mailer leaves the podium and begins pumping hands in the middle of a pack at least 10 deep. He smiles, not broadly, not contentedly. Bravely. He has taken his “notion” to this crowd, and though they didn’t reject it, they didn’t give it a proper hearing. With only New York professional boredom as a foe, Mailer had nothing substantive, nothing solid to push up against. Inevitably, the confrontation Mailer had hoped for became mushy, with no real energy or form on either side.
Later on, I approached Mailer with the idea that his “notion” would have been more interestingly delivered, and most probably better received at a Lion’s Club luncheon in Effingham, Illinois, than thrown in the gaping maw of The Big Yawn.
“I did it the only way I knew how,” he replied. “The history of the world is a history of people doing things the only way the know how, and I’m no different.”
A crush of people pressed between us, and I began edging away. Suddenly his hand snaked through them and gripped me firmly by the arm. “Come back here,” he growled. “I’m not finished talking to you. You’re not supposed to walk away from your commanding officer like that. I’ll bet you never tried that at West Point.” I had to admit I hadn’t. Then I noticed his smile. It wasn’t the playful grin so often worn when he was harangued crowds and created scenes in the past.
There is and always has been a solid totalitarian streak running through the heart of Norman Mailer. He is a leader, and because he cannot lead with commands or orders, he must lead with ideas. Many of them have taken the form of the written word; many have damned and condemned the forces of totalitarianism as only one who truly understands it could. Still, there is something lacking in the force of the written word which can only be found in placing oneself in physical command of a situation. This Mailer has often found it necessary to do, and the conflict both within himself and between him and those he has attempted to command with his ideas has formed the center of some of his best work.
And this is the dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche which is not completely yielded to. There is a visceral, almost sexual excitement about command and control. Yielded to once, the desire to lead is never lost. It can only rarely be replaced with the impulse or willingness to follow. And yet there is the inner knowledge that such an admission violates all manner of logic, has its distasteful moral aspects, borders virtually on the edge of a peculiar form of madness: the willingness, or drive, to take responsibility not only for oneself, but for others. The great generals of the past killed themselves inside while in command of divisions, corps, armies. And perhaps their eventual deaths were more suicidal than one once thought.
With the failure of the government to fully prosecute the My Lai and LaVelle affairs, not to mention the Watergate case, the old requirement that he who accepts responsibility for other men or for a unit is “responsible for all that unit does or fails to do” has finally fallen completely by the wayside. And perhaps in Mailer’s desire to establish a “people’s FBI and People’s CIA,” there is the subliminal urge not only to plumb the new origins of control in American life, but to help rediscover and re-establish the old. Though he may occasionally pretend to the contrary, Mailer is hardly one to throw order away in favor of chaos. He is, after all, the man who marches armies of words across fields of paper.
My grandmother is an admirer of Norman Mailer, and watching him on the Dick Cavett show one night several years ago, she remarked out of the blue, “That man reminds me so much of George Patton.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she replied it was in his writing, but was far more evident in his personal manner. “They are almost the same person, in some ways,” she said, she who knew Patton through my grandfather and through lord only knows what intuitions come upon in situations and places now unknown.
Stick that in your craw and chew on it, vulture. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2020