Sometimes you can’t fight history, even when it’s wrong. That’s what biographer Christine Wallace, author of the recently published “Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew,” is learning.
In a recent story for the Associated Press, Sue Leeman profiles Greer, who has also just published a book, “The Whole Woman” — an update of her bestselling 1970 feminist classic “The Female Eunuch.” In the profile, Leeman describes Greer as “the woman who once demolished Norman Mailer in debate.” The reference is to the legendary “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” held at New York’s Town Hall on April 30, 1971, in which Mailer appeared with a panel of feminist writers that included not only Greer but also Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos and Jill Johnston.
But as Wallace meticulously details in “Untamed Shrew,” Greer most decidedly did not “demolish” Mailer, despite what Leeman claims and many believe today. “It was really more of a mutual love-in, atmospherically speaking,” Wallace explained to Salon Books in an e-mail from Australia, where she lives. “Germaine had, in fact, organised some ammunition for the Town Hall debate but confronted by the reality of Mailer declined to use it.”
That ammunition involved applying Mailer’s dismissive description of D.H. Lawrence — “no stud” — to Mailer himself. Writing in Esquire shortly after the debate, Greer attributed her change of heart to “pity” sparked by the realization of how “cruelly apt” that description was. In the same article, she confessed to later dining with Mailer and practically begging for his affection: “‘I love you,’ I kept saying, with the unsaid corollary, ‘so why do you treat me this way?’”
“While Germaine and Norman were the glam couple of the evening,” Wallace observes, “it was Jill Johnston [author of 'Lesbian Nation'] who stole the show.” Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus documented the evening memorably in “Town Bloody Hall,” which is what Wallace used as her source. According to Wallace, “Johnston had audience members laughing and squirming simultaneously” with a provocative, impressionistic rant “until Mailer called time” — whereupon two women from the audience leaped onto the stage and began passionately kissing Johnston. Enraged, Mailer exhorted her to “be a lady.” (Panel discussions, it seems, are not what they used to be.)
Johnston, “rolling around the stage pashing with a couple of girlfriends, sent Norman off his nut,” Wallace reports. “‘Town Bloody Hall’ ought to be rerun by your public broadcasting network. It’s a blast.”