Norman Mailer - Biography
Norman Kingsley Mailer (January 31, 1923November 10, 2007) was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and film director.
Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, John McPhee, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once. In 1955, Mailer, together with John Wilcock, Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, first published The Village Voice, which began as an arts and politics oriented weekly newspaper distributed in Greenwich Village. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.
In 1992, Mailer received the annual Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award presented by the Tulsa Library Trust.
Norman Kingsley Mailer was born to a well-known Jewish family in Long Branch, New Jersey. His father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was a South African-born accountant, and his mother, Fanny Schneider, ran a housekeeping and nursing agency. Mailer's sister, Barbara, was born in 1927. His second sister, Norma, was born in 1930. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he graduated from Boys' High School and entered Harvard University in 1939, where he studied aeronautical engineering. At Harvard, he became interested in writing and published his first story at the age of 18, winning Story magazine's college contest in 1941. As an undergraduate, he was a member of The Signet Society. After graduating in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. In World War II, he served in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry. He was not involved in much combat and completed his service as a cook, but the experience provided enough material for The Naked and the Dead.
In 1948, while continuing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, (1948) based on his military service in World War II. A New York Times best seller for 62 weeks, it was hailed by many as one of the best American wartime novels and named one of the "one hundred best novels in English language" by the Modern Library.
Barbary Shore (1951) was a surreal parable of Cold War left politics set in a Brooklyn rooming-house. His 1955 novel The Deer Park drew on his experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1949–50. It was initially rejected by seven publishers due to its purportedly sexual content before being published by Putnam's.
In the tradition of Dickens and Dostoevsky, Mailer wrote his fourth novel, An American Dream, as a serial in Esquire magazine over eight months (January to August 1964), publishing the first chapter only two months after he wrote it. In March 1965, Dial Press published a revised version. His editor was E. L. Doctorow. The novel received mixed reviews, but was a best seller. Joan Didion praised it in a review in National Review (April 20, 1965) and John W. Aldridge did the same in Life (March 19, 1965), while Elizabeth Hardwick panned it in Partisan Review (spring 1965). Except for a brief period, the novel has never gone out of print.
In 1980, The Executioner's Song—Mailer's novelization of the life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore—won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Mailer spent a longer time writing Ancient Evenings—his novel of Egypt in the XX dynasty (about 1100 B.C.E.)—than any of his other books, working on it off and on from 1972 until 1983. It was also a bestseller, although reviews were generally negative.
Harlot's Ghost, Mailer's longest novel (1310 pages), appeared in 1991. It is an exploration of the unspoken dramas of the CIA from the end of WWII to 1965. He performed a huge amount of research for the novel, which is still on CIA reading lists. He ended the novel with the words "To be continued," and planned to write a sequel, titled Harlot's Grave. But other projects intervened and he never wrote it. Harlot's Ghost sold well.
His final novel, The Castle in the Forest, which focused on Hitler's childhood, reached number five on the Times best-seller list after publication in January 2007, and received stronger reviews than any of his books since The Executioner's Song. Castle was intended to be the first volume of a trilogy, but Mailer died several months after it was completed. The Castle in the Forest was awarded a Bad Sex in Fiction Award by the Literary Review magazine.
Mailer wrote over 40 books. He published 11 novels over a 59-year span.
The New Journalism
From the mid-1950s, Mailer became known for his counter-cultural essays. In 1955, he co-founded The Village Voice for which he wrote a column from January to April 1956. Mailer's famous essay "The White Negro" (1957) "analyzes and partly defends the moral radicalism of the outsider and hipster." It is one of the most anthologized, and controversial, essays of the postwar period.
In 1960, Mailer wrote "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" for Esquire magazine, an account of the emergence of John F. Kennedy during the Democratic party convention. The essay was an important breakthrough for the New Journalism of the nineteen sixties. Mailer's contributions to the New Journalism include major books such as The Armies of the Night (1968—awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award); Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968); Of a Fire on the Moon (1971); and The Prisoner of Sex (1971). Hallmarks of these works are a highly subjectivized style and a greater application of techniques from fiction-writing than common in journalism.
Mailer wrote a Playboy article about Elmo Henderson, a boxer who had defeated Muhammad Ali in 1972. In the 1970s Henderson filed a $1 million libel action against Mailer and Playboy. The magazine and Mailer lost the lawsuit.
Work for film
In addition to his experimental fiction and nonfiction novels, Mailer produced a play version of The Deer Park (staged at the Theatre De Lys in Greenwich Village in 1967), and in the late 1960s directed a number of improvisational avant-garde films in a Warhol style, including Maidstone (1970), which includes a spontaneous and brutal brawl between Norman T. Kingsley, played by Mailer, and Kingsley's brother, played by Rip Torn. Mailer received a head injury when Torn struck him with a hammer. In 1987, he adapted and directed a film version of his novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, starring Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini, which has become a minor camp classic.
A number of Mailer's nonfiction works, such as The Armies of the Night and The Presidential Papers, are political. He covered the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1992, and 1996, although his account of the 1996 Democratic convention has never been published. In the early 1960s he was fixated on the figure of President John F. Kennedy, whom he regarded as an "existential hero." In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s his work mingled autobiography, social commentary, history, fiction, and poetry in a formally original way that influenced the development of New Journalism. In October 1967, he was arrested for his involvement in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the Pentagon. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
At the December 15, 1971, taping of The Dick Cavett Show, with Janet Flanner and Gore Vidal, Mailer, annoyed with a less-than-stellar review by Vidal of Prisoner of Sex, apparently headbutted Vidal and traded insults with him backstage. As the show began taping, a visibly belligerent Mailer, who admitted he had been drinking, goaded Vidal and Cavett into trading insults with him on air and continually referred to his "greater intellect". He openly taunted and mocked Vidal (who responded in kind), finally earning the ire of Flanner, who announced that the discussion had become "extremely boring", telling Mailer "You act as if you're the only people here." As Cavett made jokes comparing Mailer's intellect to his ego, Mailer stated "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?", to which Cavett responded "Why don't you fold it 5 ways and shove it where the moon don't shine."
The headbutting and later on-air altercation was described by Mailer himself in his essay "Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots." The Wikipedia article about landmark episodes of the show states:
A 1971 interview with Norman Mailer was not going well. Mailer moved his chair away from the other guests (Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner), and Cavett joked that "perhaps you'd like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?" Mailer replied "I'll take the two chairs if you'll all accept finger-bowls." Mailer later said to Cavett "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?", to which Cavett replied "Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?" A long laugh ensued, after which Mailer asked Cavett if he had come up with that line and Cavett replied "I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?".
In 1980, Mailer spearheaded convicted killer Jack Abbott's successful bid for parole. In 1977, Abbott had read about Mailer's work on The Executioner's Song and wrote to Mailer, offering to enlighten the author about Abbott's time behind bars and the conditions he was experiencing. Mailer, impressed, helped to publish In the Belly of the Beast, a book on life in the prison system consisting of Abbott's letters to Mailer. Once paroled, Abbott committed a murder in New York City six weeks after his release, stabbing to death 22-year-old Richard Adan. Consequently, Mailer was subject to criticism for his role. In a 1992 interview with the Buffalo News, he conceded that his involvement was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."
In 1989, Mailer joined with a number of other prominent authors in publicly expressing support for colleague Salman Rushdie in the wake of the fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination issued by Iran's Islamic government for his having authored The Satanic Verses.
In 2003, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, just before the invasion of Iraq, Mailer said: "Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it."
From 1980 until his death in 2007, he contributed to Democratic Party candidacies for political office.
In 1969, at the suggestion of Gloria Steinem, his friend the political essayist Noel Parmentel and others, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic Party primary for Mayor of New York City, allied with columnist Jimmy Breslin (who ran for City Council President), proposing the creation a 51st state through New York City secession. Although Mailer took stands on a wide range of issues, from opposing "compulsory fluoridation of the water supply" to advocating the release of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton, decentralization was the overriding issue of the campaign. Mailer "foresaw the city, its independence secured, splintering into townships and neighborhoods, with their own school systems, police departments, housing programs, and governing philosophies." Their slogan was "throw the rascals in". Mailer was endorsed by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who "believed that 'smashing the urban government apparatus and fragmenting it into a myriad of constituent fragments' offered the only answer to the ills plaguing American cities," and called Mailer's campaign “the most refreshing libertarian political campaign in decades.” He came in fourth in a field of five. Looking back on the campaign, journalist and historian Theodore White called it "one of the most serious campaigns run in the United States in the last five years. . . . [H]is campaign was considered and thoughtful, the beginning of an attempt to apply ideas to a political situation."
His biographical subjects included Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali, Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Marilyn Monroe.
His 1973 Marilyn was particularly controversial. Arthur Miller, playwright and former husband to Marilyn Monroe, wrote in his 1987 autobiography Timebends of Mailer's biography that, "[Marilyn] was himself in drag, acting out his own Hollywood fantasies of fame and sex unlimited and power." In addition, the book's final chapter states that Monroe was murdered by agents of the FBI and CIA who resented her supposed affair with Robert F. Kennedy.
The biography was enormously successful, selling more copies than any of his works except The Naked and the Dead. It stayed in print for decades, but was out of print in the United States.
(Two works he co-wrote presented imagined words and thoughts in Monroe's voice; these were the 1980 book Of Women and Their Elegance and the 1986 play Strawhead, which was produced off Broadway with his daughter, Kate Mailer, starring.)
Marriages and children
Norman Mailer was married six times and had nine children. He fathered eight children by his various wives and also raised and informally adopted Norris' son from another marriage, Matthew.
Norman's first marriage was in 1944, to Beatrice Silverman, whom he divorced in 1952. They had one child, Susan.
Mailer married his second wife, Adele Morales, in 1954. They had two daughters, Danielle and Elizabeth. Mailer was violent to his wife. He was at one time involuntarily committed to Bellevue Hospital for 17 days; his wife would not press charges, and he later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault, and was given a suspended sentence. While in the short term, Morales made a physical recovery, in 1997 she published a memoir of their marriage entitled The Last Party, which recounted her husband stabbing her at a party and the aftermath. This incident has been a focal point for feminist critics of Mailer, who point to themes of sexual violence in his work.
His third wife, whom he married in 1962, and divorced in 1963, was the British heiress and journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell (1929–2007), the only daughter of Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll and a granddaughter of the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. The couple had a daughter, Kate Mailer, who is an actress.
His fourth marriage, in 1963, was to Beverly Bentley, a former model turned actress. She was the mother of his producer son Michael Mailer and his actor son Stephen Mailer. They divorced in 1980.
His fifth wife was Carol Stevens, a jazz singer whom he married on November 7, 1980, and divorced in Haiti on November 8, 1980, thereby legitimating their daughter Maggie, born in 1971.
His sixth and last wife, whom he married in 1980, was Norris Church Mailer (née Barbara Davis, 1949–2010), an art teacher. In her autobiography A Ticket to the Circus, Norris Church recounts of a rape and a miscarriage. They had one son together, John Buffalo Mailer, a writer and actor, and Mailer informally adopted Matthew Norris, her son by her first husband, Larry Norris. Living in Brooklyn, New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts with Mailer, Church worked as a model, wrote and painted.
Works with his children
In 2005, Mailer co-wrote a book with his youngest child, John Buffalo Mailer, entitled The Big Empty.
Mailer appeared in an episode of Gilmore Girls entitled "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant!" with his son Stephen Mailer.
Death and legacy
Mailer died of acute renal failure on November 10, 2007, a month after undergoing lung surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, New York.
The papers of the two-time Pulitzer Prize author may be found at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.
In 2008, Carole Mallory, a former mistress, sold seven boxes of documents and photographs to Harvard University, Norman Mailer's Alma Mater. They contain extracts of her letters, books and journals.
In 2008, The Norman Mailer Center and The Norman Mailer Writers Colony, a non-profit organization for educational purposes, was established to honor Norman Mailer. Among its programs is the Norman Mailer Prize established in 2009.
In the comedy Sleeper, Woody Allen remarks that Mailer "donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School." He's referenced in the Red Hot Chili Peppers song "Animal Bar" in the lyrics "Ever loving mug of Mr. Norman Mailer". Singer Lloyd Cole referenced Mailer in the song, "Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken" with the line, "If you really want to get straight, read Norman Mailer, or get a new tailor." Rapper Talib Kweli, in single Get By, proclaims to "paint a picture with the pen like Norman Mailer".
- The Naked and the Dead. New York: Rinehart, 1948.
- Barbary Shore. New York: Rinehart, 1951.
- The Deer Park. New York: Putnam's, 1955.
- An American Dream. New York: Dial, 1965.
- Why Are We in Vietnam? New York: Putnam's, 1967.
- The Executioner's Song Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979.
- Of Women and Their Elegance. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1980
- Ancient Evenings. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
- Tough Guys Don't Dance. New York: Random House, 1984.
- Harlot's Ghost. New York: Random House, 1991.
- The Gospel According to the Son. New York: Random House, 1997.
- The Castle in the Forest. New York: Random House, 2007.
- The Deer Park: A Play. New York: Dial, 1967.
- The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York: Dell, 1967.
- The Armies of the Night. New York: New American Library, 1968.
- Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. New York: New American Library, 1968.
- Of a Fire on the Moon. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.
- The Prisoner of Sex. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
- St. George and The Godfather. New York: Signet Classics, 1972.
- The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger, 1974.
- The Fight. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.
- Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots. Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1980.
- Why Are We At War?. New York: Random House, 2003 ISBN 978-0812971118
- The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House, 2003.
- The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America. New York: Nation Books, 2006
- On God: An Uncommon Conversation. New York: Random House, 2007 ISBN 978-1400067329
- Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam's, 1959.
- The Presidential Papers.New York: Putnam, 1963.
- Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dial, 1966.
- Pieces and Pontifications. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982.
- Marilyn: A Biography. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.
- Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.
- Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery. New York: Random House, 1996 ISBN 978-0679425359
Famous essays and articles
- "The White Negro". San Francisco: City Lights, 1957.
- Norman Mailer by Michael K. Glenday. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
- Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer by Nigel Leigh. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
- Norman Mailer: Works and Days by J. Michael and Donna P. Lennon. Westport, MA: Sligo Press, 2000. Comprehensive, annotated primary and secondary bibliography with life chronology.
- Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work, edited by Robert F. Lucid. Boston: Little, Brown. The first collection of essays on Mailer.
- Norman Mailer by Philip Bufithis. New York: Ungar, 1978. Perhaps the most readable and reliable study of Mailer's early work.
- Acts of Regeneration: Allegory and Archetype in the Works of Norman Mailer by Robert J. Begiebing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980. Fine discussion of Mailer's "heroic consciousness."
- The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds. Bainbridge, WA: Pleasure Boat Studio, 2002.
- Political Fiction and the American Self by John Whalen-Bridge. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Subtle examination of Mailer's dual aptitude of representing and resisting American mythologies.
- Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, edited by J.Michael Lennon: Boston, G.K.Hall and Co., 1986.
- Norman Mailer, by Richard Poirier. New York: Viking,1972. One of the best studies of Mailer's writing, tracking his career through the early Eighties.
- Norman Mailer by Richard Jackson Foster. University of Minnesota Press, 1968. Pamphlet.
- The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer by Barry H. Leeds, New York University Press,1969.
- Norman Mailer Revisited by Robert Merrill. Twayne, 1992. Contains perhaps the best analysis of The Executioner's Song
- Mailer: His Life and Times, edited by Peter Manso. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Highly readable, but controversial "oral" biography of Mailer created by cross-cutting interviews with friends, enemies, acquaintances, relatives, wives of Mailer and Mailer himself.
- Conversations with Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
- Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Leo Braudy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972. Contains useful insights on Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
- Existential Battles: The Growth of Norman Mailer by Laura Adams. Athens: University of Ohio Press, 1976. Good discussion of early narrators.
- Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis by John W. Aldridge. New York: David McKay, 1966. Contains Aldridge's important essay on An American Dream.
- The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0-14-015102-8 (pbk). Contains "The White Negro."
- The Norman Mailer Review, edited by Phillip Sipiora. New periodical co-sponsored by the University of South Florida and The Norman Mailer Society (www.normanmailersociety.com).
- The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: Francis Irby Gwaltney http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=3034
- Van A. Tyson http://www.atkinschronicle.com/vantyson.htm
- The Norman Mailer Center
- The Norman Mailer Society
- Transcript of interview with Ramona Koval, Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 2000 broadcast on The Book Show, ABC Radio National, November 12, 2007
- "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," article by Norman Mailer on John F. Kennedy, Esquire magazine, November 1960
- Sunday New York Times review by Lee Siegel of The Castle in the Forest
- Norman Mailer on American Masters (PBS Broadcast)
- Norman Mailer: The American (Documentary)
- Norman Mailer's writing on The Huffington Post
- A conversation with Norman Mailer (Minnesota Public Radio)
- Norman Mailer and Günter Grass interviewed by Andrew O'Hagan at The New York Public Library, June 2007
- Norman Mailer speech at UC Berkeley Vietnam Teach-In, 1965 (RealAudio) (via UC Berkeley Media Resources Center)
- Joyce Carol Oates on Norman Mailer