One afternoon I went to a cafeteria on Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue and sat down beside two men. When we started talking, one man spoke with a thick Texas accent, so I asked him where he was from.
“New York,” he said.
“How did you get that Texas accent?” I asked.
“But why would you get a Texas accent in the army?” I’m sure I had a look of puzzlement on my face.
“It was protective coloration,” he said, “because if you were a Jew in the army, they called you all kinds of names, teased you and made it hard on you. So I pretended to be a Texan.” He said he had been out of the army for about eight months, but still hadn’t broken the habit. Then we introduced ourselves. He told me his name was Norman Mailer. (New York, 1943)
We were living then in a converted brownstone on Pierpont Street whose normal quiet was blasted one afternoon by a yelling argument in the hallway outside. Thinking violence was about to break out, I opened the door to find a small young man in army uniform sitting on the stairs with a young and beautiful woman whom I recognized as our upstairs neighbor. They went silent on seeing me, so I figured everything was under control and went back into our apartment. Later the young soldier, by now out of uniform, approached me on the street and introduced himself as a writer. His name, he said, was Mailer. He had just seen my play ["All My Sons"]. “I could write a play like that,” he said. It was so obtusely flat an assertion that I began to laugh, but he was completely serious and indeed would make intermittent attempts to write plays in the many years that lay ahead. Since I was at a time when I was hammering out my place in the world, I made few friends then, and Mailer struck me as someone who seemed to want to make converts rather than friends, so our impulses, essentially similar, could hardly mesh. (I am at the age when it is best to be charitable.) In any event, although we lived for years in the same neighborhood, our paths rarely crossed. (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1947)
I had written a “Talk of the Town” story about him in 1948, when his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” was published and became a best-seller. (“Mailer is a good-looking fellow of twenty-five, with blue eyes and big ears, a soft voice, and a forthright manner … Mailer has an uneasy feeling that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, between them, have written everything worth writing, but he nevertheless means to go on turning out novels.”) After that, although he told me he didn’t think much of my “ear” for his talk, we became friends … Long walks I took with Mailer … We told each other what we wanted. I said I wanted to be “the best woman reporter in the world.” (It was before women’s lib. I was deliberately careful to use the qualifying word “woman.”) He said he would be “the best novelist of our time” (no qualification).
From “Here but Not Here: My Life With William Shawn and the New Yorker,” by Lillian Ross (Random House, 1998)
Shelley Winters, actor: Looking for a film deal
… to La Pavillon for supper …
Norman Mailer sat down with us and began talking to Burt [Lancaster] about buying his great war novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” for a film. I couldn’t figure out what I could play in that book, so I kept trying to change the subject. Finally when Burt got up to call the Gotham for our messages, Norman said, “Gee, thanks Shelley. Here I am making a quarter-of-a-million-dollar sale on my book, and you keep trying to sit on Lancaster’s lap.”
I knew he was kidding, but I got very dignified and explained to him that Burt and I had just seen a great show ["South Pacific"], and it was a very romantic evening, and he was lousing it up. When Burt came back from the phone, he suggested that he and Norman meet for lunch at 21 the next day … Mailer kissed my cheek as he got up to leave and whispered, “You’re on the fast track, kid.” (New York, late 1940s)
From “Shelley, also Known as Shirley,” by Shelley Winters (Morrow, 1980)
Irving Howe, academic and critic: Sophomoric sincerity
… a young literary star, Norman Mailer — still flushed with the fame of “The Naked and the Dead” and still a bit of a fellow traveler — got up to speak [at the Waldorf Conference of intellectuals]. His speech was good, bearing the print of a new mentor, the French anti-Stalinist writer Jean Malaquais. Mailer said both the United States and Russia were drifting toward “state capitalism,” he saw little hope for peace, he regretted having to declare his pessimism.
The session over, I jumped up to introduce myself to Mailer — so baby-faced at close range — telling him I thought his speech “honest.” He grinned with that charm of his which has since brought him to the gateway of heaven and the first circle of hell. No, he said, nobody is “really honest.” Come on, I wanted to say, drop this sophomoric sincerity; but I kept quiet, and we agreed to meet again. (New York, 1949)
From “A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography,” by Irving Howe (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982)
Gore Vidal, novelist and essayist: Interesting, long-winded
I met Mailer at the novelist Vance Bourjaily’s house. Vance and his wife had organized a sort of New York literary salon, which tended to net writer-writers rather than teacher-writers.
Mailer tells me that I was curious about his age, and that of his parents. He says that I then calculated that I would “win” as I was bound, actuarially, to outlive him. I do think that this ancient saw has a limited truth. Between outliving one’s contemporaries and the ignorance of journalists, there is something — not very much — to be said for living a long time.
Years later, Norman told me, “I thought you were the devil.” I found him interesting if long-winded. (New York, 1950s)
From “Palimpsest: A Memoir,” by Gore Vidal (Random House, 1995)
Salka Viertel, actress and author: Wisdom, naiveté
But with all our varied difficulties [with McCarthyist blacklisting], life went on … people were still drawn to Maberry Road, especially the young. One of them was Norman Mailer, who seemed a mixture of ancient wisdom and astonishing naiveté, somehow thrown out of balance by his world fame; and much too young and complicated to be married. We were very fond of him. (Santa Monica, Calif., 1950)
From “The Kindness of Strangers,” by Salka Viertel (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969)
Christopher Isherwood, novelist: Vulgarity as literature
Norman Mailer was in town (I think) because of a project to film his novel “The Naked and the Dead”… Norman and Christopher got along well together. Norman, in those days, was a deceptively quiet and polite young man who amused Christopher by his sudden outbursts of candor … my memory of Norman entertaining a fairly large group of paraplegics [involved in making the film "The Men"] at Christopher’s house. According to my memory, Christopher had asked his paraplegic guests in advance if there was any available celebrity they would like to meet. All had agreed on Mailer. He arrived on time, neatly dressed, demure and sober. The women present were obviously reassured. Then he began to tell stories about his army life — perfectly harmless funny little stories, with no horrors in them, no sex, no venereal disease. All that was startling was the dialogue. “By that time,” the sergeant was beginning to get a little bit impatient, so he said to me — ” Mailer kept the same nicey-nice party smile on his face, as he continued, without the least change of tone, “Why, you mother-fucking son of a bitch, another word out of you and I’ll ram this mop right up your ass!” The male guests roared. The women blinked and tried to smile — reflecting, no doubt, that they had read talk as rough as this in Mailer’s novel; coming from his mouth, you couldn’t call it vulgarity; it was practically literature. (Hollywood, 1950)
From “The Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945-1951,” by Christopher Isherwood, ed. By Katherine Bucknell (HarperCollins, 2000)
Adele Mailer, wife of Mailer (1951-1962): Sensitivity in his face
… I was just drifting off into sleep when the phone rang.
“Who the hell is this?”
It was Dan [Fancher]. “Del, how are you, kid?”
“I’m fine.” He sounded like he’d been drinking heavily. “Dan, it’s two o’clock. Are you okay? You must be at some kind of party.”
“No, it’s not a party. I’m at Norman’s apartment.” He was mumbling.
“Dan, I can’t hear you, whose apartment?”
“Norman Mailer, we’re just sitting around having a few drinks.”
“I thought you said he was living in Vermont.”
“Not anymore. He split up with his wife.” Dan hesitated a moment. “Why don’t you come up here for a drink?”
The cab stopped in front of a seedy old brownstone, a shade better than my tenement …
I followed Dan down the hall along a string of rooms … into a parlor with a lot of dark down furniture. I saw a skinny little guy sitting on the couch. I knew he was twenty-eight, but he looked much younger …
The boy wonder was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and dungarees, baggy on his slender frame. He looked at me, and his eyes were beautiful, not only in their color blue, but for their soft, almost melancholy expression. He was good looking, with a strong nose, a beautifully shaped sensual mouth, and a delicate chin with a small indentation. He had a lot of dark brown curly hair that I immediately wanted to touch and a warm smile that crinkled his eyes. There was a sensitivity in his face that I responded to. He half rose from his seat. (New York, 1951)
From “The Last Party: Scenes From My Life With Norman Mailer,” by Adele Mailer (Barricade Books, 1997)
Michael Harrington, author and socialist: Marvelous memory
…to a party at Norman Mailer’s huge loft over on First Avenue where, only two years out of St. Louis and goggle-eyed, I talked with writers and painters and gallery owners … Mailer — and I mean no harm to his image as an enfant terrible — is one of the nicest men I have ever known, with a marvelous memory for names of nobodies from St. Louis. In the world he dominated I became friends with Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, who were to found The Village Voice… (New York, early 1950s)
From Fragments of the Century: A Social Autobiography, by Michael Harrington (Saturday Review Press/E.P. Dutton, 1973)
Louis Auchincloss, novelist: Writer’s true compliment
…Sunday afternoon meetings of young writers in a Greenwich Village bar called White Horse Tavern …
Norman Mailer congratulated me on a short story entitled “The Gem-like Flame” which had just appeared in a periodical called New World Writing. He gave me the only true compliment that one writer can give to another. He said that he would not have minded having written it himself. I was so pleased that I went right home. I wanted to leave one such assembly with a happy impression. (New York, 1953)
From “A Writer’s Capital,” by Louis Auchincloss (University of Minnesota Press, 1974)
Edward Abbey, writer and environmentalist: A listening, centripetal man
Last night I went to this Greenwich Village party and there was Norman Mailer, surrounded by a circle of listeners and interlocutors. I was too timid to butt in, though I wanted to very much. Fortunately, my pretty and resourceful Rita was there to help me out; she tapped the celebrated young man on the shoulder, calling out his name like a respectful acquaintance, and without wasting breath on apology or self-introduction informed him that there was someone here who wanted to meet him, then cheerfully introduced him to me and a couple of others.
A pleasant young man, Mailer. He shook hands firmly, grinned, looked at me for a moment with apparently friendly, interested eyes. (Not remarkable eyes, if I may contradict myself.) My nervousness vanished almost at once and in a moment we — three or four of us — were talking about books (his), Shakespeare, the theatre, the last war. He told us about some of his wartime experiences, how they were connected with his famous book ["The Naked and the Dead"].
I can’t recall that he said anything particularly brilliant or memorable, perhaps because he did more listening than talking. I thought him unnecessarily patient, tolerant; he had to listen to some dreadful crap: A simple young man talking about his easy life in the army, how he couldn’t understand how anyone could dislike it (he was drafted after the war was over); another guy, an insolent jerk, blowing smoke in [Mailer's] face, in his wine cup, describing in prolonged detail his experiences as a taxi driver (Mailer seemed to be sincerely interested). And so on.
Mailer had short curly sandy hair, a kind of pale fuzzy unhealthy looking face, soft brown eyes, big flapping ears, round shoulders, small hands. He is not tall, stands always in a slumped position, head between hunched-up shoulders, hands in pockets, chin on chest, cigarette dangling, the attitude and posture of a listening, centripetal man. He wore a dark brown suit, not too clean, rumpled, a short not too clean, shoes as badly in need of a shine as my own. (New York, 1953)
From “Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections From the Journals of Edward Abbey 1951-1989″ (Little, Brown, 1994)
Hiram Haydn, editor: Pugnacious
Back when Norman Mailer was submitting “The Deer Park” simultaneously to a number of publishers, after Rinehart had backed out of their contract, we [Random House] turned it down. I was primarily responsible for our decision. Yet he insisted on blaming and ridiculing Bennett [Cerf], whom he kept referring to as “Sally Cerf.”
Soon thereafter all three of us attended a party at the [William] Styrons’ in Roxbury, Connecticut. Mailer was his most pugnacious self that night. Throughout dinner he kept goading Cerf with “aspersions” on his manhood. He challenged him to “step outside.” Finally, to everyone’s astonishment, totally ignoring the twenty-five years’ difference in their ages, Bennett marched to the front door and went into the yard. Norman did not follow; he contented himself with ridicule. (New York, mid-1950s)
From “Words & Faces,” by Hiram Haydn (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)
Jay Landesman, dramatist, producer and publisher: Amongst sycophants
Norman Mailer came to town promoting a new book. We went back to the days in the mid-1950s when he first became interested in hipsters and Beats, a piece of research that led to his famous essay on the White Hipster. Told that I was one of the originals on the Beat scene, he was extremely accessible when we got together. In London, we met up at his publisher’s party. Andre Deutsch had rounded up the usual suspects: critics, columnists, PRs, Sonia Orwell and Jonathan Miller. Surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, Mailer looked so self-satisfied in his three-piece Savile Row suit I felt it was my duty to dirty him up a little bit. Unable to get anywhere near him, I slipped the joint that would do the deed to Deutsch instead. “For Norman,” I whispered, “he’ll probably need it about now.” Instead of thanking me, Deutsch grew quite upset. “He doesn’t do that any more,” he hissed …
At dinner at our house, and later in his speech at the Mayfair Theatre, Mailer’s view of America confirmed that we’d left [the U.S.] just in time. “Fucking has become a matter of status in America,” he told a contentious audience. “The civil rights movement will never solve anything. As long as people see themselves as a minority, there is no hope for them. The matter will be decided by an increase in violence … Modern man is becoming schizophrenic, caught in a double bind, between the dream that the culture tries to sell him and the realities of life.” (New York, mid-1950s; London, 1965)
From “Jaywalking,” by Jay Landesman (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992)
Norman Podhoretz, magazine editor: Cultural radical
It was at Lillian’s [Hellman's] home … that I first met another famous fellow traveler of old, Norman Mailer …
In the eight years since I had last seen him [speaking at a Progressive Party rally], Mailer had moved away from Stalinism .. .he had gone over to the species of Trotskyism (reflected in his second novel, “Barbary Shore”) … he soon lost faith in Marxism altogether. But here he diverged into a track of his own … Mailer in giving up on revolutionary socialism proclaimed himself the leader of a new revolution: a cultural rather than a political revolution, a revolution that would “move backward toward being and the secrets of human energy” instead of forward toward the struggle for control over a more and more highly industrialized world. In his own eyes, in other words, he was still a radical — indeed more of one than ever before. (New York, 1956)
From “Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir,” by Norman Podhoretz (Harper & Row, 1979)
Mike Wallace, broadcast journalist: Papa for president
Norman Mailer … deigned to grace Night Beat with his presence. Mailer was then known primarily as a novelist. He had only just begun to branch out into the kind of highly charged, intensely personal journalism that would become his literary forte in the sixties and seventies. Nor had he yet developed his outsize television persona — part guru, part buffoon — that would make him, variously, an object of mirth, admiration and wonder in later years. But there is no doubt that when he appeared on Night Beat he was starting to move in that direction.
The big hero in Mailer’s life at that time was Ernest Hemingway. In fact, he had proposed in a newspaper article that Hemingway run for President because “this country could stand a man for President since for all too many years our lives have been guided by men to were essentially women.” Needless to say, I referred to the article in our interview:
WALLACE: What do you mean by that — men who were essentially women? Who among our leaders is so unmasculine that you regard him in that light?
MAILER: Well, I think President Eisenhower is a bit of a woman. (New York, 1957)
From “Close Encounters: Mike Wallace’s Own Story,” by Mike Wallace and Gary Paul Gates (William Morrow, 1984)
Alfred Kazin, literary critic: Cancer theory
Mailer has me to lunch at the Oak Room in the Plaza. Norman can be studiously correct and most polite when he is not pursuing his favorite demons. But even here at the Plaza he is trying, with a missionary’s sweet earnestness, to persuade me that cancer is produced by sexual repression. Cancer or no cancer, there is a fashion show going on in the Oak Room, and the models dip and circle most deliciously as they parade their sexy dresses around our table. Norman, utterly absorbed and intent on persuading me, never looks up for a moment. (New York, late 1950s)
From “A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment,” by Alfred Kazin (HarperCollins, 1996)
Paul Krassner, satirist: Spelling and doing
When Norman Mailer wrote his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” he used the euphemism “fug” for “fuck”. At our first encounter in [Exposé editor] Lyle Stuart’s office, I asked Mailer if it was true that when he met actress Tallulah Bankhead she had said, “So you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.” With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he had replied, “Yes, and you’re the young woman who doesn’t know how to.” … (New York, 1960)
From “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut,” by Paul Krassner (Simon & Schuster, 1993)
Willie Morris, magazine editor: Well-mannered
I first met him in Austin in ’61…The novelist Barbara Probst and her husband Harold Solomon, New York intellectual exiles at the University of Texas, gave a party for him after a lecture, and he ended at Celia’s and my house for nightcaps. I saw little in that initial encounter of his reputation as a veritable Coriolanus of the city pavements. Quite the contrary. He was gracious, witty, well-mannered, and for one who had grown up among Jewish Southern boys with their sunny and expansive countenances, and deep abiding drawls, a rather nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn: short, blue-eyed, with outsized ears and an abundant crown of wiry hair. Beyond the hair and ears he had a strong, almost suffering, Jewish face, Old Testament somehow to me in its lines and contours in repose. Was it not true that he built model airplanes all through high school? …
From “New York Days,” by Willie Morris (Little Brown, 1993)
Ved Mehta, New Yorker staff writer: Pugilistic challenge
…to a party given by a New York woman who liked to entertain a lot of literati…the writer Norman Mailer and his girlfriend (later his third wife), Lady Jeanne Campbell, arrived….
The hostess brought Mailer and Lady Jeanne around, and introduced my friend to them. “You must have read Mr. Mailer’s famous book ‘The Naked and the Dead,’” she said.
I expected Mailer to lash out. I knew he got angry if only his first book was mentioned, as if to imply that his later books were not as good. Also, he seemed the kind of writer who thought his name alone was sufficient introduction. But he put on a gallant face.
“I’m very happy to meet you, sir,” my friend said. “I’ve not read your book, but now that I’ve met you I most certainly will.”
Mailer simply turned away abruptly.
I, however, was leery of Mailer still, and rightly so, for later on, without any provocation, he came back to me, thrust a fist in my face, and called me an impostor. “You are faking being blind,” he said. I thought he was referring to the visual elements in my writing, but then realized from something he said that he was talking about the way I got around. I tried to move away, but he challenged me to a boxing match outside. “If you don’t come out and fight with me, you will show yourself to be a coward,” he said. Luckily for me, Lady Jeanne intervened. (early 1960s)
From “Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker,” by Ved Mehta (The Overlook Press, 1998)
William F. Buckley, Jr., conservative commentator: Heavyweight prelim and TV show host
…a number of encounters with Mailer over the years, including a great big brawling extravaganza the night before the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago which the press turned into a kind of polemical prelim before the main athletic event. The theater, seating two thousand, was sold out, and our exchange was published in Playboy magazine. For years, Norman had wandered all over the land ventilating his impression that he had won that debate. (1962)
From “On the Firing Line: The Public Life of Our Public Figures,” by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Random House, 1989)
Diana Trilling, author and critic: “He got my attention”
Norman and I…met…at a party at Lillian Hellman’s where he had turned to me at the dinner table with the opening remark, “And how about you, smart cunt?” I am usually addressed with appalling respect: he got my attention. We became good friends… (early 1960s)
From “The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling,” by Diana Trilling (Harcourt Brace, 1993)
Budd Schulberg, novelist and screenwriter: To maintain fame
When we were covering the Liston-Patterson heavyweight title fight together…Norman expressed this hunger [to be in the limelight] quite nakedly. He told me he was going to usurp Sonny Liston’s place in the winner’s circle at the press conference. I questioned whether this would be a dignified move for a novelist. Should the author of “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Deer Park” have to compete with the prizefight champion of the world? Norman’s answer was a revelation. Since he had not had a successful novel in some years (and of course, like so many gifted young Americans, had never been able to equal his first great success), he felt driven to execute a “caper” (I believe that was the word he chose) that would help to keep him in the public eye. (Chicago, 1962)
From “The Four Seasons of Success,” by Budd Schulberg (Doubleday, 1972)
Mordecai Richler, novelist: Sexual revolution
…Mailer spoke at the Mayfair Theatre. Once more you had to admire his courage, but regret his recklessness. There were more than 300 people in the theatre, an audience that included critics, other novelists, editors, and playwrights….
He spoke with regret for the eighteenth century when society was orderly and the British navy and the orgasm were both going good …He was, like most of us, against the piggish rich and for an end to the war in Vietnam….He complained about the shrinking purchase power of the pound and the decline of craftsmanship, ugly architecture, greedy doctors, and high taxation…
It was inchoate, but charming, for Mailer is certainly an engaging man. When he smiles his whole face rumples; it is suffused by the most infectious warmth. Then pulling at his ear lobe, making a fist, discovering it with something like admiration, he told us we were living through a sexual revolution. Sex, once so ring-a-ding, had been corrupted by the search for status, and now Mailer felt that all the cool cats in the house had to be brave in bed. He also seemed to think that promiscuity was a malaise peculiar to the twentieth century.
By this time I held Mailer in a double-vision. I could hear the self-inflated programmist going on and on about a sexual revolution, but what I saw was a warm chunky man of forty-two who was really saying that screwing today wasn’t nearly as satisfying as when he was a kid and that, like the rest of us, he suffered sourness and insults in and out of bed, and wasn’t it a shame, a bloody shame. (London, 1965)
From “Hunting Tigers Under Glass,” by Mordecai Richler (McClelland and Stewart, 1968)
Edmund Wilson, literary critic: On good behavior
We went…to dinner at the [Robert] Lowells’: Norman Mailer…was unexpectedly quiet — I had never met him before — not throwing his weight around… (New York, 1966)
From “The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960-1972,” by Edmund Wilson (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993)
Anthony Burgess, novelist: My last book
…at a party given by Panna Grady in Manhattan…a literary hostesss of strange but compelling beauty, had her apartment filled with the great cultural names of the period…Norman Mailer, who said: “Burgess, your last book was shit.” (New York, 1966)
From “You’ve Had Your Time,” by Anthony Burgess (Heinemann, 1990)
Andre Dubus, novelist: Using “Advertisements”
…my editor phoned and summoned me and my wife to New York…we would have lunch at the Algonquin with the publisher and the house lawyer… …….
I turned on the bedside lamp. On the floor was Mailer: a paperback copy of “Advertisements for Myself.” I had not started reading it, but there it was, and I picked it up and read Mailer, who by then had endured every writer’s peril I could imagine…
Mailer was at the Algonquin. I saw him as we walked in, Pat and my editor and I. In the night, he had been with me, and now he was eating lunch with a woman. We were passing him, he was on our right, and farther down the room, the publisher and house lawyer were waiting. I told my editor I wanted to meet Mailer. We went to his table, and my editor spoke to him, Mailer stood, his eyes merry and intent. I extended my hand and as we shook, I said: “Mr. Mailer, I spent last night reading ‘Advertisements for Myself,’ and I’m using it the way boxers use resin on the soles of their shoes before going into the ring; because I think these guys are going to screw me.”
He grinned and his eyes brightened, and still shaking my hand, he said: “Well, that book’s been used in a lot of ways, it may as well be used like this. Don’t let them get to you.” (New York, 1967)
From “Meditations from a Movable Chair,” by Andre Dubus (Random House, 1999)
Ultra Violet (Isabelle Collin Dufresne), model, actor and associate of Andy Warhol: Force of nature
In the late spring of 1968 I meet Norman Mailer at a birthday party for Senator Jacob Javits in the large Javits apartment on Park Avenue….
The minute I see Mailer, I recognize him as a force of nature. He radiates energy and belligerence. His crinkled black-and-white hair stands up; his blue eyes crackle. He is his own man, macho, cunning, provocative. Want to tell him how much I admire him for marching on the Pentagon in the huge protest against the Vietnam War and then celebrating that crusade in his book “Armies of the Night,” but I am a little afraid that if I choose the wrong words he may punch me. I’ve heard that he’ll punch anyone who antagonizes him, if he’s sufficiently booze-soaked, and I can see that tonight the booze is going down him fast. (New York)
From “Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol,” by Ultra Violet (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)
Alberto Moravia, novelist and journalist: Public figure, always successful
…to Cape Kennedy to witness the Apollo launching…I was sent by L’espresso…Norman Mailer…there for the same reason I was. Only he wrote a book, and I wrote three articles….
…you have to understand the difference between Norman Mailer and me in a professional and social sense. I am, or at least I believe I am, a writer whose success or lack of it depends on how the book is written. Norman Mailer, on the contrary, is a public figure, and he succeeds always. He wrote a first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” a good book, which went well. He wrote a second, not so good, and that was all right, too. He stabbed his wife, and that was all right; he married the daughter of a lord, and that was all right, too. He ran for mayor of New York and failed, but that was all right; he wrote five hundred pages on the flight of the Apollo, and that was actually all right. This said, it must also surely be said that Norman Mailer, who defines himself as a conservative revolutionary, is one of the most likable American public figures and the author of two or three important books. (1969)
From “Life of Moravia,” by Alberto Moravia with Alain Elkann (Steerforth Press, 2000)
John Updike, novelist: Hey handsome!
Mailer, as much shorter than I expected as [Robert] Lowell was taller, danced about me on a darkened street corner (44th and Second Avenue, if memory serves, taunting me with my supposed handsomeness, with being the handsomest guy he had ever seen. I took it to be Maileresque hyperbole, absurd yet nevertheless with something profound in it — perhaps my secret wish to be handsome, which only he, and that by dim streetlight, at a drunken hour, has ever perceived. (New York, c. 1970)
From “Picked-Up Pieces,” by John Updike (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975)
Germaine Greer, feminist and author: Positively blowsy
When at last I met the great man he was sitting in a snot-green dressing-room at the New York Hall, lit like a matinée idol, being photographed by a very apologetic (and rather plain) professional. Mailer feigned butch embarrassment, while I wondered if the star treatment was altogether normal, for Mailer does not strike one as a great photogenic. I was asked to pose beside him. ‘You’re better looking than I thought,’ he said. ‘I know,’ said I, remembering his descriptions of women’s liberationists…My convent education prevented me from saying how disappointed I was. I expected a hard, sort of nuggety man, and Mailer was positively blowsy. I contented myself with saying that his eyes were less blue than certain retouched colour photos had led me to believe. (New York, 1971)
From “The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays & Occasional Writings 1968-1985,” by Germaine Greer (Picador/Pan, 1986)
Jill Johnston, journalist and dance critic: Rude to me
…I was seated next to Mailer himself on the stage at Town Hall for the scandalous public forum on feminism that he moderated….Though I never liked Mailer or his writing, his outrageousness was an example that entered my own gestalt during the sixties. Moreover, the very vehicle of my fame, the Village Voice, was partially owned by Mailer, who had founded the paper in 1955 along with Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher….Mailer, who I could only suppose abhorred me personally (if not because of his attack on feminism, then because he was rude to me whenever I saw him), introduced me as “the master of free association of the Village Voice.” (New York, 1971)
From “Paper Daughter: Autobiography in Search of a Daughter, Volume II,” by Jill Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985)
Henry Grunwald, editor of Time magazine: Left-conservative
A long feud between Mailer and Time began, as he later explained to me, with a savage review of his second novel, “Barbary Shore” … So after I took over as managing editor [in 1970], I decided it was time for a truce, and I wrote to him suggesting a meeting. To my surprise, he agreed. Mailer walked into the Brussels Restaurant with that strange rolling gate suggesting a wary prizefighter, a diffident and engaging smile on the ruddy face beneath the Brillo hair. We realized quickly that we would like each other much better than we had anticipated. He thought me less of a hawk than he had expected, and I found him less radical than I expected. In fact, I thought him deeply conservative—left-conservative, as he put it. He declared himself bored by Marxism, but his conservatism was not so much political as instinctive and atavistic.
Much later Mailer and I reminisced about the sixties. We were both drinking mineral water, not martinis. He had grown stouter, grizzled and patriarchal and in many ways even more conservative. … (New York)
From “One Man’s America: A Journalist’s Search for the Heart of His Country,” by Henry Grunwald (Doubleday, 1997)
Sally Quinn, print and broadcast journalist: “Poison Quinn”
…Norman Mailer and Norman Rosten. They both had books on Marilyn Monroe coming out that month. August 6, the day we were to go on the air [CBS Morning News], was the eleventh anniversary of Monroe’s death. That sounded jazzy, and Mailer is always entertaining, if not a little dangerous, to take on live. Earlier that year I had covered his fiftieth birthday party for the Post and afterward he had referred to me in The New York Times Book Review as “Poison Quinn,” which of course gave me a modest cachet. I didn’t know whether Mailer was annoyed with me or not, though we had maintained a sparse and arch correspondence since.
He was to have a press conference that afternoon at the Algonquin Hotel. I waited around through the conference and, as I tried to approach him, his female secretary pushed me away, telling me that Mailer refused to speak to me because he was so furious. I tried crawling behind a curtain and inching my way toward him, but the same secretary, dressed from head to toe in a leather motorcycle outfit, threatened to crush me personally if I didn’t leave Mailer alone.
So much for Norman Mailer. (New York, 1973)
From “We’re Going to Make You a Star,” by Sally Quinn (Simon and Schuster, 1975)
Andy Warhol, pop artist: Looking Irish
…to Norman Mailer’s in Brooklyn Heights. He used to live in a whole house but now he lives on just the top and rents the bottom out and he’s had the front part made all glass looking out over Manhattan and it’s beautiful.
Wall to wall, it was an intellectual party like from the sixties…Norman looks good now, white hair, looks Irish. His little mother was there…. (1976)
From “Diaries,” by Andy Warhol (Warner Books, 1989)
Liz Smith, gossip columnist: Liked my column
I had been bylining the Liz Smith column [in the New York Daily News] for a year when I first met Norman Mailer at a cocktail party on the Upper West Side. I can’t remember the host and would like to bless his name, but I had been watching the Aquarian closely before he turned and came my way. He introduced himself. I made some gushing remarks. “You are one of my heroes!”…
He seemed genuinely amused by this outpouring, said something nice about liking my column, finding it fresh and engaging. This turned my head all the way around. (New York, mid-1970s)
From “Natural Blonde: A Memoir,” by Liz Smith (Hyperion, 2000)
< Edward Robb Ellis, journalist, author: Short and fat
…the B. Dalton book store at 666 Fifth Avenue had announced that Normal Mailer would appear there today to autograph copies of his latest book, The Executioner’s Song…
…I saw him and instantly had two impressions: Short…Fat. Although I knew Mailer had put on weight, I was unprepared for the sight of a man with such a thick body. I would have known his face had I passed him on a street — which, in fact, happened to me many years ago.
Stepping down into the pit, Mailer held out his arms, flashed a smile and said: “This is the first time in my life I ever signed books, but I’m glad to do it for such a worthy cause.” Meaning, of course, that the proceeds would go to the Public Library.
Mailer is perhaps five feet eight inches tall. He wore a dark jacket, a maroon turtleneck sweater, tan slacks and black Oxfords. I sat 15 feet from him. His rumpled hair is now not just gray but rather the color of silver. It is thinning out a the top of his head. He has grizzly eyebrows, a rutted forehead, electric blue eyes and a ruddy complexion. This morning he must have cut himself shaving, because there was a tiny bandage on the left side of his chin.
A sunburst of laugh wrinkles radiates from his eyes. Mailer is 56 years old. He smiled often and spoke in a soft voice, which somewhat surprised me, for I’ve seen him ever so boisterous on television. His hands are square, fingernails clean….
…Many folks carried not only “The Executioner’s Song,” but also copies of his previous books which they wanted autographed, and Mailer obliged them….
I began to think I’d better get in line myself, but when I arose and walked back along it, I discovered it consisted of more than a hundred people, so I decided to leave without an autograph because I had been privileged to sit near him, to observe him. (1979)
From “A Diary of the Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist,” by Edward Robb Ellis (Kodansha International, 1995)
Milos Forman, film director: Film role
A number of the characters in “Ragtime” were based on real people. Studying their portraits in old magazines and books, I noticed that one of them, the famous architect Stanford White, looked remarkably like Norman Mailer. There was additional symmetry to their lives because both men had unleashed famous tabloid furors, so I asked Mailer, whom I’d met socially, if he’d be interested in reading for the small role. Mailer did a fine audition, and I cast him as Stanford White.
When it came time for him to act, I was as jittery at the prospect of directing the great and notorious author as he was about acting, though he didn’t react the way a nervous actor typically does. He didn’t snarl at me or launch into an abrupt monologue about some long-winded abstraction as my actors sometimes do when they’re at a loss over something in the scene. He struggled bravely with the role. I like him a lot in the film. (New York, 1980)
From “Turnaround: A Memoir,” by Miloš Forman with Jan Novak (Villard, 1994)
Martin Amis, novelist: Missing booze
In his three-storey brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights, overlooking New York Harbor and the Dunhill lighters of Manhattan, Mailer perched on a stiff-backed chair, and told me to sit on the old velvet sofa. “I can’t sit on a soft chair. I writhe around a lot. Hurts my back,” he said with an apologetic wince.
Mailer’s sixth wife, the dark-eyed model and actress Norris Church…sat imposingly near by, reading a buxom magazine.
His face is more delicate and less pugnacious than you would expect, the body more rounded, dapper and diminutive. The tangled hair is white but plentiful, the frequent smile knowing but unreserved. Despite his long history of exhibitionism, he no longer enjoys giving interviews. You can sense him wondering how much of his charm he will need to disclose.
Mailer watched wistfully as I feasted on my drink. “It’s the terrible price you have to pay,” he said, referring to his own eight-month abstinence. “The day just wasn’t long enough, and I have to work so hard now, to make the money. My nerves have been pretty well encrusted by booze, thank God. It’s okay. It just means there’s nothing to look forward to at the end of the day.”
“Thanks a lot,” said Norris. “What about me?”
“No, the sex is great. The fucking’s great. I just miss it, that’s all.” (1981)
From “The Moronic Inferno, and Other Visits to America,” by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape, 1986)
Peter Whitmer, author: Friendly gentleman
…As the show [Open Mind on WPIX] was ending and the credits were running, somebody switched camera angles and came straight at Mailer from the front. His ears stuck out like satellite dishes.
The director of the show, Jan Weledman, turned on the lights and said, “I’ll take you in to see Mr. Mailer.” She led me through the door into the studio. This was it! Was there a real Norman Mailer? I almost expected to find an out-of-work, off-Broadway actor, madly gasping for air while struggling to pull off a rubber Norman Mailer mask….
What I found was an elegantly dressed, impeccably mannered, thoroughly cooperative, open, and friendly gentleman. He was seated on the dais at the round interview table, dutifully autographing a pile of books for the WPIX personnel. Finished, he buttoned his double-breasted blazer, stepped down from the dais, and shook hands politely; he was not only real, but a lot taller than I had expected. (New York, early 1980s)
From “Acquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counterculture That Changed America,” by Peter O. Whitmer with Bruce VanWyngarden (Macmillan, 1987)
Francis King, novelist: Slurping beer
Although I was International President elect, Mailer totally ignored me, as did the rest of American PEN…
After my election, I thought that I had better introduce myself to Mailer. I approached him as, in jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, he lolled in a chair, slurping at a can of beer. “Oh, Mr Mailer, I don’t think that you know me. I’m Francis King. I’ve just been elected International President.” He slurped once more at the can. He looked me over. “Yeah. They wanted me to stand for International President, but I decided that I wanted that like a hole in the head.” He said nothing more. I said nothing more. (New York, 1986)
From “Yesterday Came Suddenly,” by Francis King (Constable, 1993)
Roger Ebert, film critic: Movie director, tightly wrapped
With “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” he was determined to make a “real” movie, a commercial feature film that could play anywhere and draw the crowds on Saturday night…the location shoot in Provincetown …I visited the set in November 1986… ….
He was all bundled up in a goose-down jacket too small for him, so that he seemed tightly wrapped, leaning up against the wall at an angle, his tennis shoes braced against the floor. He had not spoken more tan six words before I recognized that he was in a good mood; he had been shooting nights and sleeping days, keeping a punishing schedule for the first three weeks of the first big-budget Hollywood movie he had ever directed, and he was not tired; the experience seemed to exhilarate him. He told me the happiest time of his life was when he directed his underground film Maidstone, and that he believed film directing satisfies a side of his personality that’s never been touched by writing….
Mailer had been fighting for years for the title of America’s foremost man of letters, and now he wanted to be a movie director, too.
From “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook,” by Roger Ebert (Andrews and McMeel, 1987)