THE TIME OF HIS TIME
A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE OF NORMAN MAILER
The Random House Publishing Group and the family of Norman Mailer honored his life on Wednesday, April 9, 2008, in a memorial tribute at Carnegie Hall. Below are some of the tributes from Norman's family and friends. Click on an individual's name to read their remarks.
Gina Centrello | Charlie Rose | William Kennedy | Tina Brown | Peter McEachern | Barbara Wasserman | Sam Radin | Peter Alson | Susan Mailer | Danielle Mailer | Elizabeth Mailer | Kate Mailer | Michael Mailer | Stephen Mailer | Maggie Mailer | Matthew Mailer | John Buffalo Mailer | Sasha Lazard | Don DeLillo | J. Michael Lennon | David Ebershoff | Neil Abercrombie | Ivan Fisher | Norris Church Mailer | Lawrence Schiller | Joan Didion | Sean Penn | Lonnie Ali
On behalf of Random House and the Mailer family, I welcome you to "The Time of His Time: A Celebration of the Life of Norman Mailer."
I am Gina Centrello, President and Publisher of Random House.
Random House was Norman's publisher for 24 years, and I was privileged to be his publisher for the last five.
What began as a somewhat surreal experience—Did I really have the author of The Naked and the Dead sitting in my office?— developed into a relationship of fun, challenge and friendship. Norman was a consummate professional, simultaneously inspiring us with his passion and ideas and charming us with his wit and warmth.
I will never forget my thrill when he called me shortly after The Castle in the Forest, his last novel, hit the bestseller list, to thank Random House for helping to make it his bestselling fiction in years. He was as excited as if it were his first bestseller.
I had been told that Norman's legendary temper had mellowed years ago. But I did get glimpses of his mischievousness. He delivered The Castle in the Forest to us, a fictional account based on the life of young Adolf Hitler, on a Thursday and left word that he would appear in my office Tuesday to discuss publication plans.
Like all writers, Norman wanted immediate feedback, in this case immediate feedback on his 800+ page manuscript.
Of course, David Ebershoff, Norman's editor, and I read the manuscript over the weekend.
Of course, it was brilliant.
And, of course, we had some editorial suggestions.
Those of you who have read The Castle in the Forest will remember that there is a long section in the middle where our narrator digresses, and tells of another evil, Nicholas II. David and I both agreed that this interrupted the narrative and should be cut. But how were we going to get Norman to consider this?
Tuesday morning we told him all the things we admired about the novel. Norman then asked if we had any suggestions or changes to propose.
So I began, "There is one section that perhaps needs a little work . . . ."—A publisher's euphemism for, "This section needs to be cut."
I barely got the sentence out before Norman jumped in, "You don't like the Nicholas II section, do you? I know the critics will hate it," he said.
I nodded sheepishly.
"If I delete it, the book will be more of a page-turner," said Norman.
Feeling encouraged, I responded, "That's right, Norman, it would be much more of a page-turner."
Then, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, he announced, "Gina, I hate page-turners!"
Needless to say, the section remains in the novel.
Norman wrote with an infinite love of literature and of the written word until the day he died. It is Norman, the working writer, who we at Random House love and honor as we continue our mission to bring readers—new and longstanding—to his life's work. I cherish my 5 years of memories of Norman, and today you will hear from others who have decades of memories to share.
We are fortunate to have the very talented Charlie Rose—host of PBS's The Charlie Rose Show—to lead us through this celebration of the life of Norman Mailer. Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Charlie Rose . . . .
GINA CENTRELLO is president and publisher of the Random House Publishing Group, which has been honored to publish Norman Mailer since 1984.
Thank you. Um, let me just say one thing. We are in Carnegie Hall and we are celebrating a great man. And in that context, would you please make sure your cell phones are off. Or we'll ask Norman to think of something to make you sorry. So shut down. Let me start this evening, this afternoon, evening, early evening, with two words, those words are "Norris Church." She has seen the morning and the evening, the fear and the pride, and the pride, she has seen the applause and the attacks, and I know that she has felt it all. And I'll bet you this, she knew how much Norman loved her.
I'll never forget one night after he came to my table, and we had finished the conversation and I said, "Where are you going?" And he said, "To the hospital." And he looked at me with soft fear in his eyes, and he said, "I don't know how Norris is doing, but I know she's a fighter," and so she is, and she is with us this afternoon. Norris Church, thank you for coming. Would you please stand for this audience? I, uh, in one of my brilliant questions I once said to Norman, "What about the novel?" He said, "It's the finest moral judgments that can be made, moral judgments not to be found in science, in psychoanalysis, in social work, or in the clergy." I said, "Or in journalism or whatever." I said, "Why a novel? Take me back to the novel," I'm reading the transcript now, he said, "It offers the highest challenge for moral inquiry, writing a book is like being married to a woman you're not too happy with. You're worried about it all the time. You want the marriage to be better. I mean, being married right now for me is much easier than writing a book.
"Because you are married to a woman you want to be with?" I said. He said, "Yes, but when I'm writing a book it's like I'm married to a woman who I've got to improve now. I've got to tell you, any man who thinks they can improve his wife is a fool."] The words of Norman Mailer. I loved him for so many reasons. I loved the way he was obsessed about fame and the famous, Marilyn Monroe and Jesus, Adolf Hitler, and Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Gilmore, and Jack Abbot, and people he loved, like Muhammed Ali. I loved him for his ambitions and his obsessions, like war in The Naked and the Dead, like fame, Marilyn, like crime, Executioner's Song, like revolution, Armies of The Night, like secrets, Harlot's Ghost, like sex, everything. Like history, Ancient Evenings. He obsessed about all of this and he also obsessed about his favorite topic, himself. That's the topic that I explored in 12 Conversations, it was so much fun to be there because he was so many people, and there
CHARLIE ROSE is the anchor of the Charlie Rose Show, a weekly PBS interview program. Norman Mailer was Rose's guest a dozen times.
She has just been saluted, but I want to salute her personally again, my dear friend, Norris Church Mailer and express my gratitude to her for asking me to speak here today.
I met Norman in 1968 in New York when I was a movie critic, and he was editing his film Maidstone. I wanted an interview but he said no. I don't hold grudges for more than five years so after a while we got to be friends.
I valued him enormously, but our friendship developed in a very peculiar way. Well, let's face it, Norman was peculiar. He'd been trying to change my consciousness since before I could read. And then I grew up and found out he was trying to change everybody's consciousness. And did he? Who else was as rewarding and brilliant and exasperating for the past 60 years?
In recent speeches, Norman warmed up all his audiences with one particular joke. He forgot where he heard it until Mike Lennon had said I had told him. Well, you've probably heard the joke, maybe from Norman, but I'll tell it again anyway in homage to his low threshold for sexual irony. Max's wife dies and he's so depressed he won't go out. His doorbell rings and it's a gorgeous young woman wearing a mink coat and nothing else. "Max," she says, "your friends sent me to cheer you up." "Come in, girly," he says, and she takes off her coat, and she hugs him and she says, "Max, your friends want me to give you a night of super sex." And Max smiles and says, "That's very nice girly, I'll take the soup."
I don't think Norman would've taken the soup. He came to Albany last May to read from his Hitler novel at the Writer's Institute and Russell Banks and I talked to him for an hour on tape and there sat this venerable atheist justifying his belief in God and reincarnation and Devil, but also, and this impressed me most, asserting the primacy of fiction in everything he ever wrote, including his combative essays, his spectacular journalism, and his books of non-fiction. "It's all fiction," was his line, and he added, "It's a great swindle that civilization is pulling on itself that there are two literary forms, non-fiction is fiction, because you never get it right."
His rationale on this is much too dense for a three-minute speech, but it partly hinges on the presence of his novelist's consciousness on the page. He said more than once that "the novel was on the way out," but he had single-handedly kept alive the archaic concept of the great American novel. He decided neither he nor any writers of his generation ever achieved it, but he was resolute that the novel was how you reach the broadest and deepest possible meaning of human experience. Four months later, in September, I was at The Cape and my wife Dana and I drove over to see Norris and Norman. The multiple assaults on his body had further crooked his back. He was much frailer than he had been in May. His face had shrunken and the illnesses had wasted him into a 90-pound specter of the ol' electric Norman that we just saw in all those photographs.
He speculated that he had a secret cancer. His rumored memory loss was not on display but his spirit and his wit were. And with our wives and an old Mailer friend, we lunched on lobster and wine, and we talked about Texas Hold 'Em, we hashed over my novel-in-progress and the play he'd convinced me to write, and we talked about Marlon Brando and the movies, and Fidel and Cuban politics, and how he might telescope his colossally ambitious trilogy into one sequel. He knew, really, that any sequel was beyond him. But there it was, the big novel, still driving the creative impulses left to him. Our talk was unpredictable and funny, as usual, but after two hours he slapped the table with the palms of both hands and he said, "Gotta go up, I'm really tired."
We both agreed that without a doubt this had been one of the great lunches, and he pushed himself back from the table, and we shook hands and talked about seeing each other again, and then we said, "So long." And then he picked up his two canes and he went slowly up the stairs to lie down.
WILLIAM KENNEDY is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Albany Cycle of novels, the latest of which is Roscoe (2002).
On November 10th, 2007, I was in a hotel room in Udaipur, India, channel-surfing for something that wasn't a Bollywood soap opera. Suddenly that familiar and beloved wide face with the questing blue eyes and the halo of white curls and the koala bear ears appeared on the TV screen, ablaze with life. He was holding forth, of course, with great animation - but I couldn't hear his voice, that unmistakable cultivated growl. The CNN commentator was talking over him so I knew instantly that he had died. Not even CNN would dare to talk over one of the best conversationalists in America when he was still here.
Norman Mailer was everything I came to America for. His large scope, his flamboyant risk, his vast imaginative sympathy, his refusal to be defined by anyone but himself. There was no writer remotely like him in England.
I come from - and fled from! - the land of the writer as monk, sequestered from the fray. Mailer was the glorious opposite of that. He subscribed to the Hemingway model, but kicked it up a notch and made it his own, the Mailer model: the novelist as pugilist, the novelist as man of action, the novelist as fighter, doer, provocateur, the novelist as beater of worlds - and maker of worlds.
He was interested in fame; it was one of his great subjects. And his own fame was honestly come by. He earned it at his desk, with pen and paper.
He was already well into his fourth decade of fame by the time I first met him. A few weeks after I arrived from London in 1984 to edit Vanity Fair, he suddenly showed up in person at our office. We were working on an excerpt of his new novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, but this visit of his was unannounced and unexpected. I was barely out of my twenties and completely ready to be intimidated by this man, who after all was not only the most famous writer on earth but also the most notorious male chauvinist.
My anxiety didn't last beyond his first gregarious greeting. From the moment he barreled through the editorial corridor in his dandyish three-piece suit and sat down in my office with his legs splayed like a boxer on a bar stool, I was in his camp, permanently. After that first meeting he often dropped by when he wanted to get my involvement in a cause or a promoting an idea. Sometimes he would open up the conversation with a riff that had clearly been forming in his head on his way up in the elevator. One I won't forget began "I've never met a beautiful woman who wasn't angry."
Actually, you could argue that Norman never seemed to meet a woman of any kind who wasn't angry - usually at him! But the truth is that he loved us and understood us even as he drove us nuts.
One of the causes he lured me into was fundraising for PEN when he was president in 1986. That was the year he bullied and charmed fifty major writers from overseas and a hundred from here to participate in its international Congress in New York. Such a tremendous turnout gave Norman an unparalleled opportunity to break all his own records for getting into it with his fellow writers. One of his verbal sparring partners in that week-long literary smack down was E.L. Doctorow, whom I happened to run into the other day. Ed remarked that Mailer's decision to make of himself a public figure was a calculated risk. It had the larger social benefit of keeping alive the idea of the novel as a major act of the culture. But there was a downside too in that his rambunctious personality often stood between readers and his books.
Scholars and readers, said Doctorow, have been set free to rediscover Mailer's work now that it is out from under the shadow of his public persona. That is the only consolation I can think of today for having lost him - that as the immediate memory of Mailer the celebrity fades, the stature of Mailer the writer will grow. That is certain to happen, because Norman Mailer's body of work is unparalleled.
This semester our 17 year old daughter will be reading her first Mailer essays at school. We can be sure that when she and other young readers of the twenty-first century set out to understand what American life was like in the second half of the twentieth, Mailer will be there to show them. The Second World War, the corruptions and glories of politics and protest, the sexual revolution and the conquest of the moon, an astounding array of full-blooded characters - grunts and presidents, criminals and champions, killers and saints. It's all there, in the fullness of its texture and history, between covers, waiting. We miss you, Norman. But we have you.
TINA BROWN has been the editor of Tatler,Vanity Fair, and The NewYorker. She is the author of The Diana Chronicles (2007).
(Played his own composition on trombone, "Requiem for a Boxer")
PETER MCEACHERN has toured and recorded with blues legend Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and minimalist master LamontYoung.The recipient of a fellowship from the Connecticut Commission for the Arts, he is currently chair of the music department at the Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut.
As an amateur pianist, I've always liked the story about Vladimir Horowitz, perhaps apocryphal, that when asked by someone howto get to the stage of Carnegie Hall, he said, "Practice, practice, practice." However, he didn't have it quite right. It turns out you can also get here by being related to Norman Mailer.
People sometimes ask me what it was like to be Norman's sister. Some of them are delighted and some dismayed when I say that mostly, it was wonderful. He was loving and supportive, and he was certainly exciting to be with. Not only did he include me in much of what went on in his life, he always made me feel that he really liked having me around.
Since we had grown up in the same household with the same parents, he was in some ways just my brother. But as time went on, he began to evoke in me a strange mixture of familiarity and astonishment. Where, really, had he come from? I never bought into his belief in reincarnation, but I've often thought that he was his own best argument for it. Indeed, I think Ancient Evenings is his most autobiographical novel, though whether he was Rameses or Menenhetop, I really couldn't say.
One day last summer, we were talking and I had a small epiphany. I don't remember what we were talking about, but I told him that I had just decided that the reason I always found him interesting was that I never knew what he was going to say next. He laughed and said, "Neither do I." So, perhaps he was a mystery even to himself.
Shortly after Norman died, I received a letter from my good friend, Jillen Lowe. She had not seen him for a number of years, but she wrote that when she heard the news, color faded from her world. I thought yes, that is the way it feels, and the way it is going to be. But for those of us for whom the world seems grayer now, there is comfort in all that Norman has left -- his books, of course, memories, ideas, the sense of his spirit. And, to use one of his favorite expressions, most agreeably, his large, wonderful family, Norris and all the kids. Now his children, all nine of them, talented, interesting individuals, imbued with his elan, along with my son and our cousin, will talk and reminisce.
BARBARA WASSERMAN, Norman Mailer's sister, has worked as a researcher for film and television documentaries, as a book editor, and in 1967 published The Bold NewWomen, an anthology of contemporary women writers. At present she is writing short memoirs.
My mother, Osie Rembar, was Norman's older, first cousin and perhaps his earliest literary advocate and critic. They were fourteen years apart. From about 1936 to 1943, Norman spent summers at her family's hotel in Long Branch, where the staff was instructed not to disturb him while he was working. It was she, who not only encouraged his early writing endeavors but argued vehemently against his studying engineering at MIT. She believed that he should attend Harvard where, in addition to engineering, he could write and study literature. She was confident in her advise because her brother, Cy, who one day would be Norman's lawyer and a leading authority on the First Amendment, had graduated from Harvard in 1935. Norman wrote his prize winning story "The Greatest Thing in the World" as a sophomore there and proved her correct.
Because of her, I knew Norman for fifty years. As my perspective changed, my regard for him deepened. It was with Norman that I first rode in a true sports car, crammed in the rear shelf of a British racing green Triumph TR3 that he hurled around the roads at Fort Monmouth with frightening speed. From that day, I knew he saw the world unlike anyone else.
Often, I would see Norman at his parents' home for holiday dinners. I remember one such dinner at which my parents and Norman discussed James Baldwin's then recent Nobody Knows My Name in which Baldwin had written about Norman. Not having read the book, I just listened with fascination and expressed my interest in knowing more about him. Norman stared at me with an odd, questioning glance. Toward the end of the evening, Norman stood up, left the living room and returned a few minutes later with a copy of the Naked and the Dead. In an act that I have always regarded as strong literary criticism, he inscribed it "In lieu of Jimmy Baldwin".
I believe Norman's total oeuvre will stand as the preeminent American window to the second half of the Twentieth Century and the beginning of this century. Two of Norman's qualities will make his novels and other writings important for many years to come.
The first was his insatiable curiosity: From war to the CIA, from Picasso and Marilyn Monroe to Hitler, Gary Gilmore and Lee Harvey Oswald. From boxing to graffiti and architecture. From ancient Egypt and god and the devil to the role of the artist and novelist. From politics to sex. Nothing eluded his interest. And it was this curiosity that enabled him to envision the world from a different perspective. Often, he would remark, "As a novelist, I want to put myself in his position to imagine and to understand how he would see the issue and the challenges he would face."
The second quality was his ability to speak to anyone in a way that was at once engaging and sincere. It made no difference whether they were ordinary people or intellectuals. The person with whom he was speaking was the absolute focus of his attention. Norman could walk into a room of people and instantly bring it to life with his energy, humor or anger. His personality was huge. When he looked at you, his sharp, blue eyes gave only a hint of its magnitude. People wanted to be in his company because it was such a pleasure. The same quality is repeated in his writing.
About two years ago I visited Norman in the hospital after he had had heart by-pass surgery. He had been reading the Iliad and told me of his epiphany. He said, "You know, in this book, the warriors are killed when their chests are cut open by an opponent's axe or spear. That's what I've been through. I realize that I'm like them. I am a warrior and I have been all my life."
To Norman, the warrior.
SAM RADIN is an attorney and the founder of the National Madison Group, a leading wealth planning firm. He was Norman Mailer's first cousin, close friend, and attorney, and is the executor and trustee of his estate.
While he was writing The Fight, his account of the epic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, my uncle discovered a book of bantu philosophy that excited him because it articulated an idea he had always held but never expressed that people were not so much beings as they were forces.
I thought of that when he was in the hospital at the end of his life, in a weakened state, voice muted by the tube in his trachea, because his force, or what the African tribesmen called muntu, was still so powerful. On what would turn out to be the last day of his life, the whole family gathered in his hospital room. The doctors had warned us that his organs were failing, but when we saw the light in his blue eyes along with the return of some of that irrepressible Mailer energy, none of us could believe they were right. Don't read too much into it, they said. A dying man sometimes receives a last gift of clarity and energy before the end.
Our own energy, by contrast, seemed to ebb and flow, and go up and down, and so we took turns and spelled each other, and people went out and people came back. At one point, several of us were in the room, and my phone rang. It was Michael Mailer. He was out having lunch with some of the others. He said, "Do you think Dad would like a last drink?" This immediately struck me as a great idea. I leaned in close to the bed and said, "Norm, Michael wants to know if you'd like him to bring back a drink for you..." My uncle's eyes did a veritable jig. "What'll it be?" I asked him. "Scotch? Vodka tonic? Rum and OJ?"
Waiting for Michael to get back with the booze, Norman began to get impatient. Twice, he mouthed the words, Dammit, where's that drink?
Michael finally returned with a bottle of rum and a container of orange juice. But all we had was a plastic cup, which if you knew my uncle was worse than no cup at all. So Michael went to the nurses' station and managed to get a real glass, and we started to mix the drink. Norman at this point took over, indicating the correct proportions for water, oj and rum. One last problem: how to give it to him. Because of the breathing tube in his throat, he wasn't supposed to drink; he could choke. Sacrilege, but we had to give him the drink with one of those lollipop-shaped sponge-on-a-stick thingies. I dipped the sponge in the glass then put it in his mouth. He gave a look of utter exasperation. Then he grabbed the glass out of my hand. I looked to Michael. He shrugged. We all watched as Norman put the glass to his lips and took a nice long sip. Then another. He was going to drink that drink the way it was supposed to be drunk even if killed him.
After a few sips, he allowed himself a smile. We all did. Norman held up the drink and pointed at each of us. He wanted us all to share the drink with him. So we passed the glass around and we each took a sip, drinking in the Mailer muntu and the sweet taste of the rum.
PETER ALSON, Norman Mailer's nephew, is a writer, journalist, and poker player whose most recent book, Take Me to the River, is a memoir of poker, love, and luck. He is married to the writer Alice O'Neill, and they have a daughter, Eden River.
A couple of months before dad died, my husband and I went to Provincetown to visit him. The morning we left I went up to his bedroom to say goodbye. He looked at me with his very blue eyes and said "Susie our family is a fine tapestry, you must take care it doesn't unravel". I panicked! I felt that as the oldest, he had left me the legacy of keeping the family together. On second thought, I realized or perhaps hoped, he had meant it was a job for all of us: his nine children, Norris our stepmother for 30 years, aunt Barbara and Peter our cousin.
I got to thinking about how this tapestry was woven and went back to the time I was 3 or 4 years old, living in Mexico with my mother. Dad would drive down with Adele, put me in the 50's version of a child's seat and then drive back to New York on a voyage that took 8 days. I used to take this for granted until I had children of my own and realized the amount of energy and devotion such an endeavor demanded.
Later on as the family grew larger, he repeated this kind of emotional involvement in different ways with all his children. We would spend one month of every summer with him, usually in Maine. We were not allowed to invite friends, and as a result we learned to be a family. Dad would coax us, sometimes bully us into activities, from plays to games to sports which not all of us appreciated. It could have been a disaster, but in spite of the grumbling and groaning that went on, we enjoyed each other's company immensely.
As my own children were born, we traveled every year from Chile to Provincetown gathering at Dad and Norris' home. Many times there were more than 20 of us around the dinner table; everyone speaking and laughing at once, with stories streaming up and down the room; a zany and unruly group. In 25 years I think I only missed one summer.
And now... the tapestry has a life of its own, it tightens and grows without the master's direction. Each one of us has an email list of 22 members called "family" which keeps the threads of the fabric strong and vibrant.
Most people think of dad as a great writer. I like to think of him as a master weaver.
SUSAN MAILER is a psychoanalyst and a faculty member of the Chilean Institute of Psychoanalysis. She lives and works in Chile with her husband, Marco Colodro, and their three children.
Despite my father's impatience with the language of pop culture, I would venture, albeit timidly, to call him, a "Foodie." From his pot roast fixation to his jelly omelet, his tastes were nothing if not eccentric. His love for Hershey's chocolate, his distrust of garlic, he carried to the end. But in his last months, nothing gave him more culinary pleasure than the unlikely delicacy, the oyster.
Holding tight to his family, a handful of friends and his poker game his decline had turned his days uncomplicated. Often he would sit for hours, a dark silhouette against the backdrop of the sea, studying the social hierarchy of the seagulls. His movie star blue eyes were now more reminiscent of the pale color of the Provincetown bay. His body, grown thin, was camouflaged just barely by what had become his attire for every occasion: Uggs, blue sweats and a polar fleece vest. My husband Peter and I would make the long trip to visit and were rewarded with his pure delight, and a promise for an oyster dinner.
Navigating the terrain from house to restaurant all but did him in. Thankfully though, cocooned in a corner booth, revived by a whiskey sour, and a bosomy waitress, he found his second wind. We spoke of politics, family gossip, and his work. When the oysters arrived, my husband and father conspiratorially downed the slippery creatures extolling their virtues, as aphrodisiac, perfect protein, brain food. As the meal ended, we watched with amusement as my father carefully examined each shell. He placed a few reverently in his takeaway box. "If you're lucky," he said with quiet authority, "you'll find that the shells reveal the most remarkable faces." With that, enlivened by the good company, flanked by my beautiful stepmother, Norris, he gripped his canes and made ready to go. Sadly, as I watched him exit, his bent over form, part hermit crab, part king, I sensed his end was near.
The morning of my father's funeral, I stepped out on the deck to take in the Provincetown light. Sheltered from the elements, his collection of shells caught my eye. Hundreds of these invertebrates lay neatly placed, their bone white shape exquisitely offset by the grey splintered wood. In honor of my dad, I peered down to take a careful look. Their craggy faces stared back ghoulish and wizened like bereft old souls. But they were fantastical too, with wild expressions running across the topography of their surfaces. And it came to me then that these creatures of the sea were a gift: A testimony of a man who was not afraid to claim the extraordinary in the ordinary, and to hold and finally to pass on a small but enduring piece of the cosmos.
DANIELLE MAILER is a visual artist and the owner of a gallery in Goshen, Connecticut, where she lives with her three children and her husband, Peter McEachern. She is currently head of the art department at Indian Mountain School in Lakeville, Connecticut.
It is Day 42 in the I.C.U. at Mount Sinai Hospital. My father is a "7" out of "10" on the malnutrition scale, with starving children in Africa being a "5." Dad is thinner now than he was sixty years ago, when discharged with jaundice from the Army. He is unable to speak, eat or swallow and he cannot breathe without a ventilator. The tracheal ventilator—a small, plastic, adaptor-like device—protrudes from the front of his neck near his Adam's apple.
A tube inserted into Dad's chest pulls yellow-gray mucus out of his lungs and siphons it into a bag that hangs over one side of the bed; a catheter is draining urine into a second bag nearby. Liquid nutrients enter his system by way of a feeding tube inserted into his nose. A hydrating I.V. is inserted into a vein in the crook of his arm while a second I.V. delivers an arsenal of antibiotics to combat the spike in his white cell count.
The doctors tell us that his lungs, kidneys and heart are failing and his body is shutting down. There is nothing more that they can do for him. His end is near.
He is a prisoner in his own body.
After we meet for a final word with the doctors, the nurses move my father from the I.C.U. to a room on the 11th Floor. With fern-green armchairs, forest green carpeting, floral-print curtains and Abstract paintings on the papered walls, it looks more like a hotel suite than a hospital room. Except for the ventilator, there are no more tubes, bags, wires, I.V.'s, beeping machines or fluorescent lights. A bit of Dad's dignity is restored. I grab hold of the guardrail alongside his bed, as though I am standing on a train that is about to pull out of the station. With his cloudy blue-gray eyes, pale sunken cheeks, thin lips and toothless grimace, he has the face of an old tortoise. The once-prominent, distinct bridge of Dad's very large nose is now flattened from several invasive procedures.
My father is dying and yet he is wide-awake and hyper-alert. Death is imminent yet I do not know what to say or how to be around him. At this moment, I feel driven to buoy his spirits, which is most likely the last thing he wants. Regardless, I bombard him with an overly solicitous tone:
"Dad, are you o.k.? Are you comfortable? Do you need anything? Are you in pain?" I practically shout since he is hard-of-hearing. He shakes his head.
"Dad, I'm sorry but I don't understand; is that a "no" to the comfort?"
Now he gestures with a nod of his head.
"Dad, I'm still not clear; is that a "yes" to the pain?"
This time he shakes his head with a vigorous "no." Now I am utterly confused. And he is utterly frustrated. He eyeballs me with a sideward glance, with something akin to annoyance. I reach out to take his hand. It feels like dead weight. His fingers are puffy and his hand is hot and swollen. I miss Dad's small, square, powerful hands; I miss those short fingers and strong thumbnails with their distinct, half-moon cuticles. I don't recognize these puffy hands; they have a generic quality, like the hands of Any Old Sick Man.
As I try to take hold of Dad's hand, he pushes my arm away with a forcefulness that surprises me. Cheap sentiment is easy at a time like this but Dad wants no part of it. This moment is not about my coddling him or his humoring me. There is no room for false piety. There is no time to waste. It is his time. It is my time. It is an initiation.
He is sober and quietly apprehensive; and yet I know that he views what is to come with a profound sense of adventure. He may be ready to die but I am not ready to let go. My gut is churning and my heart is heavy. I feel a void that is deeper than sadness.
He is breathing with a ventilator and cannot speak but the gravity of this moment goes far beyond words:
He looks at me in a way that I will never forget. His eyes are searing. Like a laser, they cut through my reticence. His look is neither tender nor sentimental; it is fierce yet intimate. In his eyes, I see both the newborn and the ancient. The beginning and the end. His gaze reaches way back into the past and stretches far into the future. In his eyes, I glimpse the essence of our father-daughter journey, with all that is settled and unsettled; as though 48 years are distilled in a moment. In my father's eyes, I see the Master, when at the hour of his death, he chooses to pass on his power to the student. I don't know how or why but I know what his eyes are saying: "I see you. I know who you really are. You know what your work is. Now do it. I do not have long. But don't pity me. I have had an amazing life. It's been one helluva ride. Now I am ready to move on."
ELIZABETH MAILER is a writer and lives in NewYork City with her husband, Frank, and their daughter, Christina. She is currently writing a novel that explores the existential nature of sexuality, midlife angst, and the void.
It is hard to rebel against your father when your father is Norman Mailer. But because of my genetic proclivity toward rebellion; I am his daughter, after all, I did, as a pugilistic and disagreeable teenager, do my damnedest to rebel against our Dad. I was most often terribly unsuccessful at this effort, because Dad, as we all know, was convincing.
Dad had the task of rallying and entertaining us kids during our Augusts in Maine, and he did so with required projects and physical challenges. Each summer we had something new to take on. We started out with artistic endeavors. One summer he gave us all movie cameras, to film, splice and edit our own creations. Another we were to work on scenes from "Streetcar Named Desire," cast and directed by him, and yet another he handed us copies of "The World According to Garp," and we had to "Read and discuss," as this author was "a formidable talent, one to be reckoned with." I was perfectly amenable to these activities, as they suited my lay about temperament. But then an unfortunate convergence hit: my adolescence and Dad's shift of emphasis from the arts to sports. Dad would say something about "improving our souls by going beyond what we thought we were good at." On the whole, the other kids responded well to the new sports regimen. Dad was so enthusiastic about it, that it became infectious for everyone else but me. Each and every suggestion of a sports activity was met by me with various non verbal grunts. Tennis-- "phaw," running-- "ugh," and sailing,--" nawww." Dad wanted to take each of us out on on our own sail with him, on the Luter 16, to sail the "brig" as he affectionately called it, so that we could really "get to know each other under dire circumstances." Everyone came back from their individual sails with Dad sea salt kissed and glowing from the great wind on their faces. On my turn, the boat ended up totally in irons, and I was solemn, and sweating. He urged us to jump off of the deck of the house fifty feet into the ocean upon arrival to the house, so that "we'd really feel we were here," and he once even walked the edge of the roof as it "scared im," and it was something he "hadda do."
"We have to face our fears by engaging with our fears," he would say.
"Dad," I complained, "I don't really feel like improving my soul by engaging with my fears. Please. I just want to read my book."
Then there was the perennial mountain climbing. These were no mere walks in the woods. These were the rock face kind of hikes, with ladders. A favorite of Dad's was called The Precipices. One summer, the summer I turned sixteen, Dad decided we had to take on Mount Katadhin. The climb involved an overnight stay in a motel the night before, in another part of Maine, as it was a good five hours up and five hours back. The morning of the planned hike there was a thunderstorm and crashing rain at the foot of the mountain, and a sign up warning: "Climb in inclement weather at your own risk."
"Dad, I whined in my high-pitched tone, "we cannot climb the mountain, we will all be killed, it says so on the sign."
"Oh come on, Katie, Katoosh, you have to learn to question authority, we should all be so lucky to die on a mountain top. This will clear up no time. We're here, come on gang, we are going up!"
So, with me grimacing and grumping, we headed up. The weather soon cleared. Betsy and I pulled up the rear chatting with Norris, our gorgeous new stepmother, who was holding hands with the little ones, Maggie and Matthew. Danielle, Susie and the boys were miles ahead, cantering along Dad like mountain goats and gazelles. Norris was good humored and totally game though she looked mysteriously overwhelmed, and kept gracefully disappearing into and then reappearing from the pines on the side of the path. Betsy and I kibitzed and gossiped like two old biddies thinking she was out of earshot. Of course she heard everything:
"Um, Katie, Do you think that she is - you know - pregnant?"
"Oh, she is so pregnant, Bets, she is so pregnant." We giggled and huffed up for about three hours until we arrived at the plateau, where the ultimate challenge faced us: a passage made up exclusively of random rocks thrown helter skelter onto the narrow--15 foot wide--path, and on either side, a drop, directly down to --the clouds, beneath us. It was appropriately named the Knife's Edge. I stood at the entrance to the path, planted my feet quite firmly, and snorted with a guttural sound. "I am not going across there. No way. I am headed back down."
"Honey, honey," Dad said, his feet also planted, us at a face off in a twin stance of righteousness and determination. "Honey, Katie, we have to go across in order to go down. We can't go back."
"I am not doing it."
"Come on, this will be good for you in ways you never dreamed of, you will grow and change and this will develop parts of you that you never knew were possible. It will be good for your karma."
"My karma, my karma? I don't care about my karma. You might care about your karma. You're fifty-five years old. You have lived! You've written thirty books, You've had six wives and soon to be nine children, I am sixteen years old and I have never even been kissed! I have never even had a boyfriend! I DONT WANT TO DIE, I WANT TO HAVE SEX! "
"God, you're cute when you're mad, Katoosh. Of course you're gonna have a boyfriend, Boober, I have no doubts about that, but if you cross this Knife's Edge, you will have an even better boyfriend. C'mon, let's do it." His blue eyes blended with the blue sky. The man's will and charm were no match for mine, and so I begrudgingly got across. And he was right, I felt none the worse for it, and even a bit better, though I would never quite admit it. And indeed, I did graduate eventually to the status of a girl with a boyfriend, and after awhile, I even got the best boyfriend who then became the best husband anyone could ever dream of, and I think sometimes it was something to do with Dad and the mountain, courage, will.
Over the years, I continued to argue with Dad. I somehow felt it was my duty to do so, even though I hardly ever won. It is hard to win an argument with your father when your father is Norman Mailer. Most often we fought if he made the slightest comment or critique of a member of the family. I would come, almost in an automatic way, to their defense. He once said to me: "You know, you're like a cop, and you have your beats, and one of your beats is, I protect my brothers and sisters."
But when Dad died, I cried for five days straight, the strong taut wire of our connection slackened as it does with death. Who would I turn to with my objections, who would stand and take it in his same disarming, charming way?
KATE MAILER is a writer and performer of monologues, short stories, and memoir pieces. She also secretly likes doing art, and lives in a very colorful and chaotic apartment in GreenwichVillage with her husband, Guy Lancaster, and their seven-year-old daughter, Natasha Annabelle.
I was born on Saint Patrick's Day and my father had a dream that when I turned six years old I would walk into the toughest Irish bar in town and say in my finest brogue: "My name is Michael Mailer, I'm six years old and I can lick any man in the bar". I wasn't a very tough kid at six and so never fulfilled my father's vision of a prepubescent St. Patty's Day brawl but his life long love of boxing and his determination to share it with me formed in many ways the bedrock of our relationship. Boxing was his way of breaking the ice with a young son easily intimidated. He knew instinctively that the best way for me to confront my fears was the knowledge that I could handle my own in the ring, a confidence which would of course extend to the school yard if need be.
And so began my father's tutelage of the sweet science. He would drill me in the fundamentals of the Peekabo style, a boxing language made famous by his friend and legendary trainer, Cus D'Amato, who employed it to great effect with his three champions: Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and Mike Tyson. It was a style in which a fighter kept his gloves glued to his chin and thus proved difficult to hit while the bob and weave would open the way for glorious assaults.
Often in my pre-adolescenct years when I was at odds with my dad he would have me wail away at his belly. I remember how satisfying the feeling was - to punch my father with wrathful abandon and get away with it. It probably saved me years of therapy. In calmer moments when the instruction turned to sparring - he would gently tap me wherever I left myself exposed. On occasion when those taps would sting more than I thought justified and I would protest, he would sit me down and look my in the eye and say, "I'm harder on you than the others because I believe in you the most." Later I was to learn that he would express similar sentiments in one way or another to all of his children.
As I approached my early teens and moved to Brooklyn to live with my father our boxing routine evolved into an ad hoc Boxing Club. A group, consisting of my father, my self, Jose Torres, my cousin, Peter Alson, Jeffrey Michaelson, and whatever friend or visiting dignitary was in town who wanted to get manly would assemble at Gramercy Gym on 14th Street on Sunday mornings. It was during those times that my legendary battles in the ring with my father took place. We would pound away at each other - the young buck striving to prove he had the mettle to dethrone the aging lion who still had a few tricks up his sleeve. I remember after one of our particularly hard hitting sessions, an old Puerto Rican janitor who lived at the gym looked at my father and said: "THAT IS YOUR SON!!!"
As my skills advanced and the stamina of youth became too much for my father to handle we called it quits after one brutal bout in which I had given him a bruised eye. It was the passing of the torch and I remember the look in his eyes, a mixture of pride and remorse that I had graduated beyond him and that we would no longer be communicating with each other so eloquently if mutely between the ropes.
When I went on to college and fought in the Golden Gloves, thus achieving the apotheosis of my boxing career - it was my pop who was at ringside shouting instructions much to the dismay of my trainer. After the bout in which I ultimately lost to a fighter slicker than me, I remember trying to hold it together in the shower at the arena while Dad set about interviewing my opponent - ever the journalist - to get a detailed analysis of my strengths and weaknesses. My father dutifully reported the verdict: "A strong puncher, but a little slow." Afterwards when we dinned quietly on cheeseburgers and fries, his eyes welled with the faintest trace of a tear as he said to me, "It's a great feeling to have pride in your kids."
If my father had trouble expressing the words, "I love you" to me he had something better to offer, a shadow boxing routine when I would walk through the door after having been away for a while. We would raise our hands in peekaboo style and dance around each other, feinting and jabbing. It was his way of signaling that he loved me, that he was my father and I was his son and the intimacy of that equation would never change.
My father used to joke that if he could box the way he wrote he would be heavyweight champion of the world. Well pop, you were the heavy weight champ of letters and if you could throw a decent punch, your best knock out was with words. You wrote as a champ, fought for what you believed in and rarely. if ever, backed down from a good fight. Your writing leaves as indelible a mark as any in American letters and I believe, in generations to come, the reader who enters your ring of words will forever be dazzled by the speed, seduced by the charm and floored by the substance and prescience of what you had to say.
MICHAEL MAILER is a writer-producer with sixteen feature films under his belt.
In honor of my father I'm first gonna clear my throat. I forgot what I was gonna say. Good afternoon, thank you all for coming. Uh, my name is Stephen Mailer, I am the sixth child of my father, his second son. And I'm known as 'the wild card' in my family. Because nobody ever knows what I'm gonna say or what I'm gonna do. There are a lot of members right now who are sweating bullets. And there are other members of my family who are chomping at the bit that I may do something off-the-wall. But I'm gonna turn this time over to the real wild card in my family, my father, Norman Mailer.
I'm going to channel him for your viewing pleasure. I've never done this before, I don't know what to expect, so please bear with me. Okay Dad, here you go, man, Carnegie Hall baby, I'm all yours! Hmm, [as his dad] Can you hear me in the back? How do? Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall. Well why the fuck not? I think it's the perfect place for my memorial. In deference to the joke my sister Barbara told, I practiced my ass off, dammit! So I'll take it. Thank you. Now, it was reported in the New York Post that my son Stephen sang a sappy version of Elton John's "A Candle in the Wind," at my funeral.
When, in fact, he sang a sappy version of Elton John's "Your Song." And on completing this number, he gave the stage to his older brother Michael, who turned to Stephen and said, "Stephen, Dad would've been appalled by that song! But you sang it, well." And while I was appalled at that song, I was touched. Because, you see, the song is about writing. It's about writing a love song. And writing is a gift that I hope to have left to all of my children, and my nephew, and their children, and so on and so on. So keep on writing, you rat fucks!
Now. In terms of my being a candle in the wind, that is the worst fucking metaphor for myself and my life I have ever heard. If anything, I was a forest fire in a hurricane. And Stephen, I've got one more thing to say to you. I love you, buddy. [As himself again] Wow. Well, I think that gives a whole new meaning to "the father's shadow." I recommend it to everyone. Thank you very much.
STEPHEN MAILER is an actor and the proud father of two extraordinary little guys, eight-year-old Callan and five-year-old Theodore.
I would like to share with you a seminal work of non-fiction by my father: until now a hidden literary gem, and one that helped me get started in my career as an artist.
I was 15, spending the summer in Provincetown with my father, Norris, and my eight siblings. Privacy was scarce, but somehow, a two-week stretch emerged in which I had my own room.
As an only child living with my mother the rest of the year, I was well equipped psychologically to spread out. I decided to tackle a sculpture that I'd been thinking about for some time. As any serious contemplative will do, I began by collecting driftwood. Soon, buckets of sand, and seaweed appeared on the floor. The carpeted floor.
From the Army Navy store in town came more buckets, filled with brass buttons, and machine gun bullets, rusted ones, which looked to me like beads for a necklace.
All the while, in my artistic fervor, clothes and wet bathing suits and towels were strewn across the room. I think, subconsciously, I was recreating scenes from The Naked and the Dead. Even though, I hadn't read it yet.
At 15 I was still too shy to speak easily with my father. Days might pass without conversing, but we would always exchange meaningful looks. We were both absorbed in our work, and I felt we shared the unspoken understanding of artists. I was sure too, that he recognized in me a fellow genius. So I was not surprised on the day when, returning to my room, I found a note from Dad, placed at the entrance, so as not to disturb. "He must be really impressed to put it in writing" I thought, and eagerly read his assessment of my work:
Dear Maggie, Do you look upon your father as some kind of Twit, who is not to be reckoned with? Please take a long, careful, look at this room, through my eyes. Love, Dad
My father was always superstitious about giving compliments. And I knew this. Nonetheless, I was devastated. But, only partially. Because I realized, with real happiness, that my habits mattered to my father. And on some level, he had stopped being Norman Mailer and become just my father. I cleaned up my room.
Dad had a great generosity whereby, if he felt you were serious or excited about something, he would forget his anger, and give you his full attention.
He found me a little later and said, "Listen, I didn't realize you were up to something in there. I took another look, and I'm pleased. I think you may be an artist. Finish the sculpture, I'd like to live with it a while. Maybe we'll put it in the Living Room."
MAGGIE MAILER is a visual artist. In 2002 she founded the Storefront Artist Project in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit providing studio residencies for artists in vacant storefronts.
As a kid, I was often asked, when someone actually recognized the last name, "Any relation to Norman". "Yeah" I'd reply. "You're Grandfather"? They'd likely ask. "My father" I'd say. Then the real question would come; "What's THAT like? Having Norman Mailer for a father"? They might have said; "You were raised by wolves? What's THAT like"? I never trusted the question so I never truly answered.
My relationship with Dad is a little different. I'm the only stepchild. When I came into this family at the age of five, I had two brothers and five sisters to contend with and it was pretty damn intimidating, then there was Dad, who I kind of tiptoed around with a mixture of fear and respect. He spoke about our getting to know each other in a toast at my wedding three years ago;
"If you don't love a stepson automatically, you get to love them or you don't get to love them. If you love your wife, you do your best to love the stepson, if you don't love your wife, the stepson has no chance. Well, I love my wife, so I studied Matthew and he studied me. I got to love him over the years".
The last time we had dinner one on one, I expressed my concern about him being alone for a stretch of time in Provincetown. He shrugged it off and said;
"If I fall down the stairs and die, then it's my time to go. It's okay".
I told him; "Well Dad, I love you and you have a lot of people who care about you". To which he said; "Hey, we have love for each other, we don't have to say it. We know it". That was pretty typical of our relationship; a mutual love and respect that were quietly acknowledged.
I took my wife and one year old daughter to P-town last July. While we were there, I could feel Dad studying me as I played with my daughter Mattie, changed her diaper or what ever I happened to be doing to keep her entertained. One night I went up to Dad's studio where he was working to tell him dinner was ready and he sort of beckoned me over to his desk and told me how impressed he was with me, what I great father I'd turned out to be. That praise meant so much to me, more than anything, because for the first time, from one father to another, I felt on equal ground with him.
I'll close with the blessing Dad gave my wife and me at our wedding;
"If this marriage works out. I'll be blessing you from up there, or down there, I don't know where I'll be, but if they allow you to bless people in Hell, watch out".
MATTHEW MAILER is a screenwriter and director who made his directorial debut in 1998 with The Money Shot, a feature film he collaborated on with his brother Michael.Matt and his wife, Salina, are the proud parents of two:Mattie James and their soon-to-arrive son.
John Buffalo Mailer:
A close friend of my Father's and mine, Hans Janistchek, passed away in February. He was an international journalist of Austrian descent, loved by his peers and readers alike. He was there at my Father's funeral in Provincetown, and at one point, he said to me:
"Well, if you think it was hard being Norman Mailer's son before, get ready!"
And he was right. It is harder without Norman Mailer. To accurately describe the sense of loss that no longer having my Father, who was my best friend, in the trenches with us, is a task I imagine I will never have the words to properly convey. But it's not just harder for me and my family. It's harder for all of us. Because now, it's on all of us. It's on every teenager who ever picked up a book by Norman Mailer and realized for the first time, they weren't crazy, just taking a deeper look at life than they were told they should or could. It's on all of us who understand the spirit of Norman Mailer, who share the burning need to leave this world a slightly better place than when we entered it. On us to carry his spirit into the new millennium, that spirit of tackling the truth head on, no matter how beautiful or terrifying. The struggle is in our hands now, but I guarantee you, armed with the words my Father left behind, we are up to the challenge.
The following is an excerpt from an obituary my Father wrote for himself in 1979.
When I was fifteen, he showed it to me and asked that I read it here. His title:
"Norman Mailer passed away today after celebrating his fifteenth divorce and sixteenth wedding. "I just don't feel the old vim like I used to," complained the writer recently. He was renowned in publishing circles for his blend of fictional journalism and factual fiction termed by literary critic William Buckley, Contemporaneous Ratiocinative Aesthetical Prolegomena. Buckley was consequently sued by Mailer for malicious construction of invidious acronyms.
At the author's bedside were eleven of his fifteen ex-wives, twenty-two of his twenty-four children, and five of his seven grandchildren, of whom, four are older than six of their uncles and aunts.
Talk of near friends revolved around the estate. Executors warn that Mailer, although earning an average income of one and a half million dollars a year, had to meet an annual overhead of two million, three hundred thousand, of which, two million, two hundred and fifty thousand went in child support, alimony, and back IRS payments. It is estimated his liabilities outweigh his assets by eight million, six hundred thousand.
When asked on occasion why he married so often the former Pulitzer Prize-winner replied, "To get divorced. As a novelist with an insatiable curiosity about people, I've discovered that you don't know a damn thing about a woman until you meet her court."
At the memorial service, passages from his favorite literary works, all penned by himself, were read, as well as messages from prominent Americans. His old friend Truman Capote said,
"He was always so butch, I thought he'd outlive us all."
Andy Warhol said, "I always thought that Norman kept a low profile. That's what I liked so much about him."
Jimmy Carter, serving his fifth consecutive term as President, replied in answer to a question at his press conference this morning,
"It is my wife's and I regret that we never did get to invite Norman Mailer to the White House, but we will mourn his passing. He did his best to improve the state of American book-writing. Which we all need and applaud."
JOHN BUFFALO MAILER is a playwright, actor, producer, and journalist. In 2005 he cowrote The Big Empty with his father.
(Sang "Romance," accompanied by Emily Olin on piano and Dave Eggar on cello)
SASHA LAZARD is a recording and performance artist whose accomplishments include two albums for EMI records and a PBS special. She is married to Michael Mailer.
When the future writer, Norman Mailer, was seven years old, the famous novelist, Sinclair Lewis, spoke about American writing of that era.
Generous praise for young Hemingway, for Thomas Wolfe in "Look Homeward, Angel." For Dos Passos, Wilder, Faulkner and others. Young writer, he said, "who refuse to be genteel and traditional and dull."
These writers gave to America, he said, "a literature worthy of her vastness."
Mailer would become such a writer, of course. In his case the vastness wasn't "mountains and endless prairies and enormous cities," in Lewis' words, but the great spill of the culture itself - the rich, crazed, spacious and dangerous times in which he lived and wrote.
A novelist is supposed to be an individual alone in a room. But Mailer seemed to be everywhere, writing everything - novels, poems, plays, stories, essays, journalism, movies and advertisements for himself.
He was the writer in opposition, the individual who confronts power, and in his case reaches for a handful himself - "running for President," he said, "in the privacy of my mind." And of course running for Mayor as well, not so privately, a spectacle in three dimensions, or maybe four or five.
In the converging tides of war, politics, protest, liberation, assassination, conspiracy, sex and death, God and the Devil, Mailer was not just a voice but a force - chronicler, participant and provocateur.
But finally a novelist. A novelist of history as lived and imagined. And one of the interesting things about his later fiction is the way in which it expanded - grew and deepened in subject and conviction. He wrote novels of sweeping range, books that overwhelm the pale gaze of readers not fully prepared for the breadth and intensity of this work.
And he engineered, at the end, a kind of reverse chronology. From World War II, the first novel, he built an epic career that draws to a close with the bir
th of Hitler, roughly thirty-five books later. Here's the first one - The Naked and the Dead. I've had this book, hard to believe, for fifty years. A Signet book. Complete and unabridged. Seventy-five cents. "Over two million copies sold. Now a major motion picture."
America's vastness, now diminished - America and beyond - here was the challenge that Mailer had no choice but to accept. This was his pulse beat, a great novelist working his themes, figuring out the world, sentence by sentence.
This is what gives a writer something to do after breakfast every morning.
DON DELILLO is the author of three plays and fourteen novels, including Underworld and White Noise, which won the National Book Award.
J. Michael Lennon:
Norman Mailer had only one salaried job. He served as a clerk, rifleman and cook in the U.S. Army. It was, he said, the worst experience of his life and the best. After his discharge, he wrote a novel based on his two years in the army. It appeared when he was 25 and rocketed to number one on the Times bestseller list on June 20, 1948. Although The Naked and the Dead was his only book to reach number one, ten more of his books made the list, including The Castle in the Forest, published a week before his 84th birthday. No other writer of Mailer's generation had bestsellers in each of six consecutive decades.
Norman was biologically a writer. He was also a man of action-making movies, running for mayor of New York, lecturing at colleges, serving as an unpaid (and usually unheeded) advisor to presidents, launching the Village Voice, protesting American imperialism - but except for his profound family commitments, all these activities were in liege to his writing. The "assorted bravos of the media and the literary world," as he referred to them in The Armies of the Night, criticized him for making movies, debating feminists, boxing on the Cavett Show and getting into scrapes at cocktail parties, never entirely grasping his need to mix it up, get a black eye perhaps, so he could return, enriched, exhausted, chastened, to his monkish life. "I'm an old club fighter," he would say, "I get mad when you miss."
As Joan Didion once pointed out, Norman was "a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of a sentence is the story." He sounded out, again and again, every sentence he wrote. In his Provincetown study, there are bookcases filled with etymological dictionaries and handbooks, some of them almost clawed to pieces. He had no care for books; when he needed some pages, he tore them out, sometimes using duct tape to make them whole again. In his later years, he began each day with a crossword puzzle and a few hands of solitaire - "combing his mind," as called it - and then trudged up to his third floor study to write.
Under the biological genus, writer, is the species, novelist. For Norman, the novel was always the high road, so much so that he insisted much of his nonfiction was really fiction: Armies was "history as a novel"; Marilyn was "a novel biography"; The Executioner's Song was "a true life novel." Most of the protagonists in most of his fiction, from Sam Slovoda, Sergius O'Shaugnessy and Rojack to Harry Hubbard and D.T., are storytellers.
On the day he finished Castle, April 3rd, 2006, we went to dinner to celebrate. I expected he would want to savor the accomplishment. Not hardly, he was moving on. He wanted to talk about the recent Provincetown town meeting, which had given him the idea for a novel. "Let's say," he began, "that a 50-year old writer was looking for new material and so got himself elected selectman for a term so he could immerse himself in the issues and problems of a small town." At 83, it was still a novel-centered world. Norman believed that a great novel could change your life, put you through a wringer. Asked why he thought fiction was so important, he said "I think it's the place where art, philosophy and adventure finally come together. I love the idea of a novel; a novel is better than a reality." He was a great friend to the Lennon family. We salute Norman Mailer, novelist.
J. MICHAEL LENNON is Norman Mailer's authorized biographer, archivist, and president of the Norman Mailer Society. He collaborated with Mailer on projects over three decades, including his final book, On God:An Uncommon Conversation.
I had been Norman's editor for only two weeks when he called me up one day in February 2003 and said he wanted to write a book explaining why the U.S. was going to invade Iraq.
I said that made a lot of sense but by the time we published the book we would be well past the invasion. That's when he stopped me. "David, I don't think you understand. I want to write a book about why we're going to war before we go to war."
Suddenly I realized I had not asked a critical question. "Norman, have you written this book?"
"I tell you what," he said, "Give me one week."
In fact, Norman ended up delivering the manuscript of his 33rd book, Why Are We at War?, a day early.
This would be my first personal experience with Norman's almost supernatural energy and courage. Shortly after, I visited Norman and Norris in Provincetown. Norman and I were beginning to edit what would be his final novel, The Castle in the Forest - a complex reimagining of the childhood of Adolph Hitler. As we were sitting down to the dining-room table to start working, something behind Norman drew my eye. On the buffet were a dozen or more antique dolls dressed in satin, taffeta, and ribbons. Norman caught me staring at them and laughed. "I imagine this is not what you expected," he said. "Tough-guy Norman Mailer working on his book about Hitler in a room full of fucking dolls. But what can I say: I love my wife."
As we edited, Norman let me in on a secret: he was writing a trilogy about Hitler's entire life. The Castle in the Forest would be the first volume in the saga. Norman estimated the trilogy would take him eleven years. Although now in his early 80's, he was convinced he was up for the task. Early in Norman's career many dismissed this kind of self-belief as egomania, while later critics wrote it off as self-delusion. In truth, it was something far more special: an overflow of optimism, industry, and faith in the word. I remember once telling Norman about the German movie "Downfall," which is about Hitler's final weeks in 1945. I suggested he might want to see it for his research. "Since I'm going to write that scene myself one day," he said, "I don't want to see how someone else has done it." Then he added, "Endings are far more difficult than they might seem."
When he went into the hospital last fall, he took a small bag packed with books about Hitler to continue his work on Volume Two. Yet now, in hindsight, we can see that Norman understood, at some level, that The Castle in the Forest would be a farewell. In the final paragraph, he wrote, "So I must admit to a surprising degree of affection for those of my readers who have traveled all this way with me."
And yet any memory of Norman must put the ironic beside the serious. In fact, only a few pages before this Norman wrote, "Irony is, of course, vital to one's pride." Which is why it seems apt to say good-bye to our friend by quoting his prediction of the critical reaction to The Castle in the Forest: "It will be declared either a work of genius or repugnant," he said. "Each claim is not without its merits." As Norman's editor, I must disagree.
DAVID EBERSHOFF, editor-at-large at Random House, was Norman Mailer's editor from 2003 to 2007.
The danger is palpable and the discovery of the new meaning may live in the ambush at the center of a primitive fire. Cannibals and Christians
Raymond Chandler said it best, I think:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy. . .and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man.
But down these mean streets a man must go who is neither tarnished nor afraid. . .He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be a man of honor. . .
The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.
If the mediating factor between Gesture and Reality is the Symbol then the mediating factor between Values and Culture is Art.
Provincetown Arts magazine explored that proposition in 1999 celebrating 100 years of P- Town as an art colony. In it the painter Hans Hofmann asked, What is an artist? And concluded:
"The life's work of an artist is 'the work of art'. . .It is the life's work of an artist that creates a new dimension of the spirit."
On the role of the artist, Norman said:
"I think it is to be as disturbing, as adventurous, as penetrating, as his energy and coverage make possible.
How poor to go to death with no more than the notes of good intention. It is the actions of men and not their sentiments which make history.
The best sentence I've ever written."
In that same 100th anniversary issue he said,
"I'm arguing...that novelists. . .occupy the same position that high priests used to have. . .I believe it.
I prefer the notion that God is doing the best that He or She can do. . .The best that can be done under the circumstances.
Eager to lend God a hand he gave us a world where
Remarks are large, they are grand, they roll off into the murk of the metaphysical storm. Still, there are quick clues to be sniffed and landmarks in the murk."
He hyped us with grandiose imagery and just when we were ready to call him on his hyperbole he yanked the play away from us with genius self-deprecation hauling us through the metaphysical storm grinning all the way.
But of course, that wasn't all. Scarcely pausing, now that our critical fists were lowered he counterpunched with a startling hypothesis or two punching holes through the murk. We were sandbagged on the primrose path of curiosity with a verbal timing that would do credit to Richard Pryor.
LAYDEEZ AND GENTLEMEN:
Step right up and witness a modern marvel
Mailer the Magnificent
CHEER!! As he forms a
WEEP!! As he seemingly reneges with a
THRILL!! As he neatly recovers and offers an
INVITATION TO THE DANCE
It was next to impossible to resist ribbing Norman's seeming pretensions if only as relief from the weightiness. Everything was always so HEAVY! But, his pronouncements had a way of being so intriguing.
You found yourself practically racing through the words to see how he was going to bring it off - whether he could bring it off. More times than not upon completion of the argument you went back to the beginning carefully searching out the key phrases not so much seeking to refute but to absorb the flow of language - letting the rush of words, so often ideas in cosmic contention, arrive in compelling metaphor seizing your imagination.
To the last he was the Mailer of paradox, of contradiction; to the last ready to enter the camp of the enemy seeking confrontation and conversion.
His work is the culmination of a lifetime of agonizing which has served to bring him to his ultimate conception that God is an Embattled Vision.
God is in danger of dying. . .He exists as a warring element in a divided universe, and we are a part of - perhaps the most important part - of his great expression, His enormous destiny. . .Maybe we are in a sense the seed, the seed-carriers, the voyagers, the explorers, the embodiment of that embattled vision; maybe we are engaged in a heroic activity. . .
The odor of time and mortality has summoned Norman to the end of the course he set so bravely - his vision of God and Humankind made manifest in a searing bond with his artist's blood.
There's a whiff to bring us up to the mark of history.
His work now ends as it began seeking to sniff out roots of the past and intimations of the future and in this heady fusion, Norman, I remember you said,
I was an outlaw—a psychic outlaw—and I liked it
And I thought on Jack London and the Call of the Wild,
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. . .This ecstasy comes to the artist caught up and out of himself. . .sounding the deeps of nature. . .going back into the womb of time, mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being. The perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint and sinew. . .
A glow and rampart expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars. Norman The Vision is clear Your battle has ended God is well pleased and content with you
Norman Beloved outlaw and friend Fly Away!!!
NEIL ABERCROMBIE has represented the 1st District of Hawaii (urban Honolulu) for nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. His doctoral thesis on Norman Mailer led to a friendship with him that abided until his death.
Wow, it must take quite a guy to get all of you here. I was thinking that I made a terrible mistake in the 25 years I've known Norman, probably one of many, but the one I'm thinking of now is I should've recorded everything he ever said to me. I want to share with you a, a night I recall, from the early, uh, mid-eighties, uh, a night we spent at Elaine's, one of many nights we spent at Elaine's, and this was a night, uh, not unlike the others. Norris and Norman arrived and Diane and I arrived together. Norman entered first. Norris and Diane both unbelievably tall, beautiful women, flanked him, and here he is walking into Elaine's.
Now I'm— I'm in the back so I can actually watch everybody watch. And the part about Norman subtly, not too obviously, taking it all in. And loving it. We would sit down, Diane and Norris being thin, could huddle at the table, they could put their chairs close together. Norman and I not having that physique, couldn't get too close. So our conversation was, of course, louder than theirs. And Norman and I would talk, that is to say, Norman would talk and I would listen.
And so I heard how plastic is ruining the world. "If we could just somehow extract all of it, get that plastic out of our lives, it would be a clear, clean, vivid universe. Another thing, those— those damned commercials. No more commercials. There shouldn't be anymore commercials." If you've ever watched television with Norman, as soon as the commercial comes on, he goes nuts about the commercial, making the commercial triply unpleasant. And then, of course, those atavistic, soulless, grasping, greedy entities, Corporations. Now there he may have actually hit a bull's-eye.
And these were the— the conversations we'd have, and we were having one of those that night. And I don't know if it was at Plastic Time, or Intermission Time, or Corporation Time, but some, at some point Norman's distracted. And he looks away, looks at— at Norris and Diane. And he smiles and he says, "My God, you're so beautiful!" No segue at all. And then, his blue eyes gleaned, and looked at Norris, and said, "Baby, I love you."
IVAN FISHER is a prominent criminal defense attorney who in 1981 became close friends with Norman Mailer, the godfather to Ivan and Diane Fisher's twins, Kittredge and Clay. Fisher was Mailer's attorney and serves on the board of the Norman Mailer Society.
Norris Church Mailer:
(Sang, on video, "You'll Come Back (You Always Do)", music by Angelo Badalamenti, lyrics by Norman Mailer, which was used in the film of Mailer's book Tough Guys Don't Dance, which Mailer also directed.)
NORRIS CHURCH MAILER is a painter and writer. She has published two novels with Random House, Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds, and was married to Norman Mailer for the last thirty-three years of his life.
Norman has spoken and written about our relationship. Today I want to speak about his influence on my life. Not as a writer, but as a very caring, caring person. You see, he helped me become a better person, but never made a point of it. When we first met in 1972, we were so different that nobody thought we could survive a month together. I was an accomplished, insecure, 34-year-old journalist who could not read or really write properly. He was a literary giant, rumored to have been bogged down in mid-life. What we had in common, we soon discovered, was that we were both looking to how to reinvent ourselves.
At first, working on the book Marliyn we fought and screamed at each other. While working on The Executioner's Song we disagreed so much on how he was using one of my interviews that we didn't talk to each other, we only communicated through our wives for close to a year. And then after that he sent me a fax. "Larry, if I knew I had to kiss your ass I wouldn't have shaved." I ran to the phone, it was an opening. And when he answered, I said, "Hello lover!" And we were talking again.
But on a plane ride from Portland, Oregon and L.A., while working on The Executioner's Song in the late seventies, I was writing some notes in longhand and I turned to him and said, "Norman, how do you spell this word?" He just turned and spelled the word. No look, no attitude. I soon realized, you see, that Norman didn't look down upon me or anybody for any lack that they might have, whether it was my English skills, or something else. He accepted everybody the way they were. Not long after that plane ride, I was walking with him in Brooklyn Heights and he was involved in one of his real real long sentences, and I stopped him dead and I said, "Norman, what does that word mean?" And without a pause he not only gave me the full meaning of the word, but explained in detail to me why he had selected to use in that sentence.
He then continued the conversation. In private, I don't know if it was my imagination or what, but I always had the impression that he took the care to speak to me more simply. You see, it was in 1992 in Minsk, Belarus, when we were working on Oswald's Tale, that he informed me that I was dyslexic. Several months later he gave me a few books by a writer I was unaware of, the French novelist, Simenon. And he said, "Larry, read these and see how simply one can write. You don't have to have that vocabulary." In public, to the world, he was Art Aragon, the boxer. To me, he was my rabbi. He brought to my table the wisdom learned by being run over by so many trucks in his life.
And that wisdom, little by little, by osmosis, I believed, helped me become a better person. We once talked about our children. He had nine, I had five, and we talked about how easy it is to hurt our children without ever knowing it. We spent hours talking about the mistakes we both made, and how some of them should have become opportunities to do something better. Many years after he married Norris, and I married Kathy, my wife, he said to me, "You know, Larry, we've landed for the last time, and we better not fuck it up."
During the last two months of Norman's life, much of which was, as you know, spent in Mount Sinai Hospital, my wife Kathy and I were there with Norris, Mike and Donna Lennon, and members of Norman's family. In early October he woke up after six hours of surgery, and he looked up at Norris and Mike and myself, and he said, "Larry, I had a dream. I was God and you were the Devil! And we've made a pact together. We're gonna fight Technology! It's our last stand, Larry, against Technology!" Four weeks later the doctors told everyone at bedside, his children, Norris, that the time had come.
Norris, Mike Lennon and I, sat that night in the cafeteria and decided that a death notice needed to be written. It would be prepared and I would program it into my laptop, and all I would have to do was push the word "Send," and all the newspapers would have the information. Less than six hours later Norman passed. I sat in my hotel room looking at the computer. I was unable to press the button. I couldn't. Maybe Norman had really slipped into a deep coma. I cried. Maybe a miracle would happen. I truly wept. I then picked up the phone and I called Norris, and said, "Should I send it?" And she said, "Yes." I felt the full weight [FIGHTING BACK TEARS] of the responsibility of telling the world that the man that I truly loved so much, had died. Still weeping I— I had to press the button, and I did. Thank you, Norman, for helping me, I believe, to become a better person. I love you. And, of course, for my wife Kathy, I thank you too. Thank you.
LAWRENCE SCHILLER is an award-winning producer-director and nonfiction writer. Over the course of thirty-five years, he was a friend and colleague of Norman Mailer's and collaborated with him on The Executioner's Song, Oswald's Tale, and other works of nonfiction.
On the day Norman died I looked up an interview he gave the Los Angeles Times in 1971. He had talked about the nerve it takes to get up every morning and say this is the way it happened. He had talked about writer's block as a failure of ego.
I had saved this interview because it offered a lesson. The lesson was that doing what he did was no easier for Norman than it is for most of us. He knew the risks. But he kept on taking them.
Eight years after that interview he took a risk, in The Executioner's Song, that might have seemed insurmountable. The Executioner's Song began as a project put together by Lawrence Schiller, and was widely referred to as "the Gary Gilmore book." This "Gary Gilmore book" was understood in a general way to be a reflection on a life that would have seemed to yield no further meaning. Gary Gilmore, at the time he was executed for murder in 1977, had been in and out of prison for 22 of his 36 years. He had a highly developed con style that caught the national imagination. The visibility of that style guaranteed that the execution itself would be covered to a pitch at which the coverage itself might seem the only story.
What Norman could make of this apparently intractable material was unclear. Many of us expected a return to familiar territory, ground he had mined before. Instead he wrote a novel, a thousand-page novel in a meticulously limited vocabulary and a voice as flat as the horizon, a novel that took for its incidents and characters real events and real people. The Executioner's Song was ambitious to the point of vertigo, and the extent of its ambition becomes clear at the end of the first chapter, where a curious sentence appears. Gary Gilmore's cousin Brenda has gotten a call from the penitentiary at Marion saying that Gary is coming home - by way of St. Louis, Denver, Salt Lake - to Provo. "With all the excitement," this sentence reads, "Brenda was hardly taking into account that it was practically the same route their Mormon great-grandfather took when he jumped off from Missouri with a handcart near to a hundred years ago, and pushed west with all he owned over the prairies, and the passes of the Rockies, to come to rest at Provo in the Mormon Kingdom of Deseret just fifty miles below Salt Lake."
Against the deliberately featureless simple sentences of The Executioner's Song, sentences that slide over the mind like conversations at a K-Mart, the complexity and length of this sentence is a chill, a signal that the author is telling us a story of some historical dimension. In fact this author's sentences never got long or short by accident, or because he was in a hurry. Where he put the comma was a question of considerable concern to him. Gary Gilmore's cousin Brenda may not have been taking into account those prairies, those passes of the Rockies, but the author was, and, in that single sentence, the terms of the novel laid themselves out: a connection would be attempted here, a search for a field of negative energy linking these events to the place itself. In a landscape where every road runs into the desert or the interstate or the Rocky Mountains, people develop a pretty precarious sense of their place in the scheme. People get sick for love, think they want to die for love, shoot up the town for love, then move away, forget the face. People commit their daughters, then move to Midway Island. Gary Gilmore's true love Nicole got committed the first time at 14. Nicole's sister April was "a little spacey" on the night in Provo when she went to the Sinclair station and the Holiday Inn with Gary and he seemed to kill somebody.
The Executioner's Song, then, was to be a novel of the West, and the strongest voices in it would be those of women. Men tend to shoot, get shot, push off, move on. Women pass down stories. "Well, I am the daughter of the very first people who settled in Provo," Gary Gilmore's mother said to herself when Gary was 22 and sentenced to 15 years for armed robbery in the state of Oregon. She said it again on the July morning in 1976 when her niece Brenda called to say that Gary was under arrest in Utah on murder one, two counts. "I am the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of pioneers on both sides. If they could live through it, I can live through it." This is the exact litany which expresses faith in God west of the 100th meridian. I can think of no other writer with the character to have risked this much and brought it home.
JOAN DIDION is the author of five novels and eight books of nonfiction. Her latest nonfiction book, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), won the National Book Award.
Hello. The last and— and certainly most significant time that I spent with Norman was a few weeks before he passed, uh, with Richard Stratton and Norris and John Buffalo at the, at the Brooklyn pad. Um, in the last couple of nights I've tried to close my eyes in a dark room and reconnect with that, those eyes that have been so discussed tonight and ask him what I should say here. And, um, uh, he said, "Whatever it is, write it on a Blackberry, that way you know when it says 'full field' it'll be brief enough." Um, that's not, that's not really true but it is in relationship to Norman because he understands unpredictable women, and I— I was forced to write it on a Blackberry due to some unpredictable circumstances in the last 20 hours or so, so I'm gonna do it, but it is shorter than a full field.
Norman Mailer had a deep and very personal respect for what was earned. The boxer, a warrior in the ring whose prowess comes only with years of lonely warfare with his own mind and heart, the early morning runs, foot work, trunk work, bad work, punishing years of sparring and collecting a refinement of his instincts in the brutal competition of the game. He respected the ambitious politician who began forming their goals and hungers and cutting their trails at University, then slogging through the beaurocratic quagmires to hone their navigational skills. Norman himself was both a natural of the highest order, and an earner, who has left us with a literary legacy that can only be observed as towering.
And now, Norman Mailer is dead. He has earned something quite unique. This one sentence, "Norman Mailer is dead," is itself a literary line for our times of contest winners, and posy dolls and dolts. "Norman Mailer is dead" is a lament of what greatness once was, and a bold reminder of what greatness should be aspired to be. Thank you, Norman Mailer.
SEAN PENN is an actor and director who has appeared in more than thirty films. A four-time Academy Award nominee for best actor, he won an Oscar for his role in the 2003 film Mystic River.
While we are here to celebrate the life of a great literary giant, the irony of his life and the great affection he had for my husband does not go unnoticed.
I had the personal pleasure of meeting Mr. Mailer for the first time when he visited our Michigan farm in the spring of 1997 while attending a nearby literary festival. I remember how nervous I was to have Mr. Mailer visit because he was very much a celebrity and a legend in his own right. I'm not sure what I expected but I remember drinking coffee with him and Muhammad and how at ease he was sitting there talking to someone he had just met a few minutes earlier and how at ease I was with him. He reminded me of my uncle with his beautiful white hair that sort of went everywhere in wild curls around his head with no sense of direction.
He was warm, affable, lovable and funny. He and Muhammad had a great time reminiscing and catching up. I remember looking at Muhammad during his exchanges with Mr. Mailer and he would have that devilish, boyish look on his face and Mr. Mailer would be in a full grin and laughing at whatever Muhammad was saying, which was usually some recounting of things that happened long before, but most likely mischievous in nature.
They reminded me of two lions who had ruled the jungles in which they lived and now had reached an age where their growls were not as loud or threatening but their presence were just as intimidating and their belief that they were still the kings of their profession still held truth.
So it was obvious even to the casual observer that these two were kindred spirits who were separated by age and profession but shared a bond with all things that made life interesting; good and bad. Both had lived and were still living very full and colorful lives and neither took where they had been or where they were going to end life for granted. They were still hopefully expectant—expecting life to bring them something more wonderful, more laudable to add to the already vibrantly rich life tapestry, they each had woven. And for the short time they had to spend together before Mr. Mailer had to rush off to his appointed engagement, he and Muhammad reaffirmed that life had indeed been anything but boring and the ride had been well worth all of the efforts they had expended over the course of many years.
I remember thinking when he left, how incredibly nice it was of him to go out of his way and take time to visit, to take time to spend time. Something we don't do enough of anymore, with our cell phones, blackberries and e-mails and text messaging.
Obviously, Norman Mailer saw in Muhammad reflections of himself; the struggle for all things great. In that vein, I would like to offer just a few adjectives that describe them both. Although this list is full it is by no means exhaustive.
They were loud, loquacious, self-promoting, larger than life icons of opposition and champions in their respective professions. They were lovers of life, humanity and women. Dreamers with vivid imaginations, jokesters with huge egos who were ambitious, confident and at times irreverent. Only the biggest and the best. Colorful, refusing to be defined in socially acceptable terms. Fighters forever, vanguards for social justice, larger than life, stubborn, mischievous, controversial, philosophical, loveable, no sense of self-pity, slowed but not stopped by human afflictions, always courageous , admired by many, historical, legendary, real men to the end. Both will leave and have left large footprints to fill.
Although Mr. Mailer has left us to ponder a better place, his legacy is rich. Hopefully all of us here and those who are not, will find comfort in his spoken and written words and our memories of the times we spent together.
LONNIE ALI is a business leader, activist, and partner to one of the most beloved men in the world, Muhammad Ali.