by Norris Church Mailer
Random House, 2010, 432 pp., $26
by Carole Mallory
Phoenix Books, 2010, 203 pp., $22.95
Mornings with Mailer:
A Recollection of Friendship
by Dwayne Raymond
Harper Perennial, 2010, 342 pp., $13.99
Between the second and third anniversaries of Norman Mailer’s death in November 2007 at the age of 84, the last of his six wives, one of his many mistresses and one of his assistants all published memoirs about their experiences with the attention-seeking, prize-winning writer. The books vary wildly in quality, but taken together they testify to how much of Mailer’s enduring reputation has to do with non-literary matters. Say what one will about New Journalism—the label given to those writers who deliberately sabotaged convention by making themselves part of their own stories—in Mailer’s case his posthumous aura makes the point as well as he ever did in life.
A sustained airing of an artist’s personal life can distract from what made him notable in the first place. Sometimes that is fortunate for a writer, as in the case of the gonzo king Hunter S. Thompson, arguably the poster boy of the New Journalism. Take away Thompson’s deliberately public personal excesses and not a whole lot remains beyond the meretricious obsessions of celebrity culture. Not so with Mailer. While Mailer eagerly contributed to his own cult of personality, there was real ability in addition to the carnival-barker antics. Several of his books deserve the status of classic. Yet Mailer’s manic ego got the better of his talent. Mailer was a model of ambition and industry who hoped his fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry and screenplays would foment a revolution in the consciousness of his time (as he so modestly put it). Yet by encouraging consideration of his biography as much as or more than his writing, he compromised his stature as a serious and skilled, if inconsistent, author.
Now we see the result: Norris Mailer, Carole Mallory and Dwayne Raymond have all tried to harness Mailer’s ego for their own purposes. They have signed on to extend the self-scrutiny to which Mailer devoted so much energy. As they attempt to trade on his name, they exchange their own privacy for publicity, just as Mailer did. Thus has the professional narcissist left a legacy of once-removed narcissism. Mailer monopolized all the oxygen around him, and Norris Mailer, Mallory and Raymond suck in his exhaled fumes.
Not surprisingly, the trio of Mailer memoirists all wanted to be writers themselves before penning books about him. Upon learning in 1975 that the then-52-year-old “famous writer” planned to visit her neck of Arkansas, Barbara Davis—the 26-year-old woman who eventually became Norris Church Mailer by inserting a middle name of Mailer’s devising between the last names of her first and second husbands—thought, “Maybe he could give me some tips or something.” In A Ticket to the Circus, she recounts the more than thirty years she spent with Mailer. Included here is their decision to hire Dwayne Raymond, an overqualified waiter and aspiring novelist, to help with the research for Mailer’s last work of fiction, The Castle in the Forest (2007). While both Norris Mailer, who became a novelist, and Raymond, who has written for magazines and television shows, may have hoped Mailer would help advance their careers, neither is as shamelessly explicit about their mercenary intentions as Mallory. “I dreamed about getting published and being Norman Mailer’s mistress”, the ex-model and ex-actress recalls in Loving Mailer. “I would make him my mentor, and he’d make me his muse.” She felt “valued” when he looked at drafts of her novel Flash.
As if to prove the point that Mailer’s personality overshadowed his writing, these members of Mailer’s circle remark on his work as an author only in passing. Regarding his astonishingly self-assured, name-making debut, The Naked and the Dead (1948), Norris says it “was a good war story that had funny, true moments.” This is a little like saying Shakespeare kind of had a way with words. Mallory, with whom Mailer carried on an affair for much of the 1980s, “loved” his disastrous, malformed follow-up, Barbary Shore (1951), about which Mailer’s much put-upon last spouse says nothing other than that her husband could quote verbatim lines from negative reviews. Norris also notes that 1983’s Ancient Evenings received “mostly bad” reviews, but calls it her “favorite of all his books.” Mallory enjoyed it for the sex scenes.
About The Executioner’s Song, Mallory’s favorite and certainly one of Mailer’s best, Norris says that Mailer worried about being able to finish it, and matter of factly records that it won him his second Pulitzer in 1980. (The first arrived in 1969 for Armies of the Night, which also received the National Book Award.) Both women hate his 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? Raymond comments mostly on the books he helped Mailer ready, such as “his remarkably delightful paperback Modest Gifts” (2003) and The Castle in the Forest, which the editorial assistant and cook deems “one of the most accessible books Norman had ever written—if such a thing can be said.” Though they recognize his fallibility, the three fully agree on Mailer’s greatness; the word “genius” pops up with insistent frequency.
The “genius” made poor choices regarding women in both art and life, as at least his female intimates notice in their own ways. At the start of her relationship with Mailer, Mallory wonders about his stability. “I mean, he had stabbed a woman”, she remembers thinking. “His wife, yet.” The incident, which involved Mailer’s second wife, Adele Morales, doesn’t deter her, however.1 Raymond, by contrast, doesn’t give it a thought. “Norman’s past didn’t sway my reverence one bit.” Norris simply “couldn’t reconcile that wild man with the funny, smart, loving man” she knew. Yet while the “drunken, drugged-out bout of psychosis” with Adele doesn’t bother her, Mailer’s writing about women does. “I found The Deer Park unbelievable”, she writes. “I didn’t like any of the characters; they didn’t seem real to me; every woman was, or wanted to be, a prostitute.” (The 1955 novel’s narrator, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, confesses his inability to understand women, which suggests that Mailer knew of his shortcoming, even if he couldn’t overcome it.)
Others have agreed. Writing in the June 2010 Vanity Fair, James Wolcott concludes that Mailer’s tone-deafness when it came to women handicapped him as a writer. Wolcott endorses a variant of what the character Lieutenant Robert Hearn in The Naked and the Dead calls “the labial interpretation of history.” In the novel, Hearn scoffs at a superior officer’s belief that women’s influence on men in positions of power makes them the real decision makers. Wolcott doesn’t think the women in Mailer’s life had equivalent control over him, but proffers that they should have. He thinks some of Mailer’s work would have benefited if he had heeded Norris, who argued with him over the importance of plot and offered ideas for improving particular novels and screenplays. It’s an untestable hypothesis.
Besides, it doesn’t take a woman to notice that Mailer littered his screenplay for the murder mystery Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984) with laughable lines (like “Oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh shit and shinola”); or that Harlot’s Ghost (1991) has what Wolcott dubs “interminable narrative detours.” Here’s another theory that can neither be proved nor disproved: Pugnacity and drive as much as cleverness and skill kept Mailer in the public eye. While the intrusion of his raw attitudes and character flaws may detract from some of his books, without that polarizing personality perhaps none of his books would ever have been written—or read. With Mailer, the good comes packaged along with the bad and the ugly.
If these three memoir writers offer little real insight into Mailer’s accomplishments as an author, it is precisely because he was never exclusively a writer. For much of his almost sixty years on the public stage, he was equally known for acts not strictly literary, such as stabbing a spouse and then doing a television interview with Mike Wallace before surrendering to the police. He was divorced five times and had nine children (including Norris’s son from her first marriage, whom Mailer adopted). The Long Branch, New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-raised writer made a quixotic bid to be elected mayor of New York City. He head-butted Truman Capote on a taping of the Dick Cavett Show. He urged the release of convict Jack Henry Abbott, who rather than going on to have a glorious career as a writer as Mailer had anticipated, stabbed a man to death just six months later.
Norris Mailer “hated the whole idea of him getting so involved with the lives of prisoners”, which makes her appear more clear-sighted than her husband when it came to Abbott. Yet if he had shared her squeamishness, he never would have written The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s novelistic rendering of killer Gary Gilmore’s crimes and punishment. That book could have ended up a true-crime horror show, but Mailer deftly balanced his high-art and lowlife predilections with atypical self-effacement and restraint.
When not contemplating murderers’ motivations, Mailer assembled his very own harem—Mallory was but one of many members—and when Norris uncovered it, he said the years of sexual subterfuge were necessary for him to write about espionage in Harlot’s Ghost. How convenient for the sake of art. In Loving Mailer, Mallory sums up the cumulative effect of such biographical information: “The more people knew about Norman, the less they respected him. . . . Norman Mailer made it hard to love Norman Mailer.”
All the same, it is not entirely clear that Mailer lied in any simple way about his artistic need for adulterous deception. Mailer led an eventfully tawdry life, yet he did clearly make it part of his work, just as he made himself part of his subject matter, vulgar and otherwise. He appears as “the reporter” in his coverage of the 1968 presidential conventions, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), where he discusses his own activities as well as those of the candidates. (“The reporter enjoyed his drinks.”) He is “your protagonist” in The Armies of the Night. In the aptly named Advertisements for Myself (1959), he collages essays, stories and novel excerpts with background on their composition, including the state of his physical and mental health at the time, as if the mundane process of authorship matters to readers as much as the end result.
This is precisely the sort of assumption underlying many a memoir, just as, in a slightly different way, a lazy scriptwriter will default to writing a script about scriptwriting, or a tapped-out film director to making a film about film directing. For Mailer almost every opportunity to write was an opportunity for memoir. Mailer “finds in boxing another reason to write about Mailer”, as essayist Arthur Krystal observes. And indeed, it’s hard to read The Fight (1975) without wishing he’d written more about the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman bout, his putative subject, and less about himself, his preferred one. He wrote as if others would find him as fascinating as he found himself.
When the writing and the author’s life cannot be separated or evaluated independently, and when the life is easy to condemn, the work becomes easier to dismiss or misrepresent. Certainly, Mailer’s penchant for provocation spurred misinterpretation of particular works, such as “The White Negro”, an essay that does not celebrate criminal violence, as it has frequently been mistaken to do. If one needs to care about or approve of the author to appreciate the work, then such a writer gives critics ample reason to open fire. And Mailer did.
Since Mailer treated anything he did or thought as automatically important, if not profound, it comes as no surprise that those who learned from him dispense with discretion and assume readers will want to know about their own intensely personal experiences as well as their dreary routines. Following his mentor, Raymond gives the impression that any incident is worth recording and making public, even if it’s no more than installing new tires on a car or sorting the mail. His glamorous tasks consisted of photocopying, faxing and transcribing, and he thoroughly details the administrative side of authorship. He also describes how his partner Thomas, “this strong man, this carpenter, the love of my life, was, beneath it all, female”, and chose to recast himself as Sarah. Norris interweaves glimpses of her and her husband’s domesticity (she cut his hair) with truly harrowing personal events (she was raped). She reveals the flakiness she and Mailer shared, such as the belief that reincarnation was “the only thing that made sense.” (He evidently couldn’t imagine a world without himself in it in one form or another.) She also chronicles her own adultery, as well as a liaison with a young striver named Bill Clinton.
Mallory analyzes Mailer, too, annoying readers with the same speeches about alcoholism that aggravated him. She wanted Mailer to see himself a victim of sexual abuse even though he didn’t think in those terms about the enemas his mother administered when he was a child. She borrows her vocabulary from the psychotherapists with whom she has spent a great deal of time. (“Psychobabble” was how Mailer correctly characterized her prattle about self-esteem issues and addiction—her own and those she attributes to him.) She kicks off Loving Mailer with a gratuitous depiction of a tryst with Warren Beatty, one of many movie stars she supposedly bedded before becoming sober and pursing “a love affair with a genius”—and a famous one, no less.
Recognition and notoriety mattered greatly to Mailer; he attained it, and memoirists remark on it. Norris opens A Ticket to the Circus with a revealing anecdote about the egotist’s much-publicized volatile blend of arrogance and insecurity. “You’re one of the most famous writers in the world!”, she replies when he wonders aloud whether anyone would remember him after his death. Mailer immediately shifts from self-doubt to self-regard by proceeding to tell her what to write about him. At the time, she insisted that she never would publish a book about their lives together, but, of course, she did. (He didn’t want Mallory to write about him—and it’s not difficult to see why, judging from what she ended up perpetrating in print—but she knew from the start that she would.)
Even before they married, the woman who became Mailer’s last wife couldn’t think of him as primarily an author; his renown meant just as much as his profession. Indeed, the former was an intrinsic element of the latter. “Would you be with him if he weren’t Norman Mailer?”, Ethel Kennedy asked the first time she met Norris Church Mailer, who reasoned, reasonably, “If he hadn’t been the writer-celebrity and personality he was, he would have been someone else entirely.”
Raymond mentions Mailer’s fame so often that it is impossible to take him seriously when he proclaims his indifference to it. Early in Mornings with Mailer, Raymond recalls his first meeting with “Mr. Mailer”, who, he realized, “was not only one of the world’s greatest writers and foremost political thinkers, but also ridiculously famous.” Raymond admires a photograph that shows the author as someone in “complete possession and charge of his celebrity.” He admits never growing accustomed “to being so close to someone whose name popped up regularly in the New York Times or on Page Six of the Post.” Raymond says that for “children of the seventies” like him as well as for “almost everyone who came of age in America in that period, the name Norman Mailer was as recognizable . . . as the term Watergate or the music of Pink Floyd.” Raymond also claims that Mailer “was among the first writers in America to meticulously exploit the medium [of television] to elevate his status to the level of Literary Rock Star.” Despite references to fame and Mailer’s assiduous cultivation of it, Raymond insists that “Norman was essentially a private man.” Mailer’s wife understands the situation more accurately, even if she doesn’t convey it with precision. She grasps that “when you fall in love with somebody like Norman Mailer, you have to understand publicity is a given.” It was a given because he would take all he could get.
While Raymond is obviously in awe of the man he served for more than four years, he perhaps unintentionally implies that his boss’s legacy has unsavory aspects. Raymond describes a poem from Deaths for the Ladies (and other disasters) (1962) as “a running observation on immodesty published far ahead of its time” and then explains its prescient prematurity: “Pseudo-virtuous public confession had yet to become accepted atonement.” Mailer either committed immodesty of the “pseudo-virtuous” sort Raymond disdains, or he helped make revelations of private matters mainstays of television talk shows and tell-all autobiographies by giving them an veneer of respectability. Either way, Mailer lent credibility to the sorts of inferior self-exposures that ensued.
Raymond, writing as though still seeking to curry favor with his deceased employer, fails to realize that not everyone shares his esteem for the man. “Norman was a political giant of American letters, a distinction attached to him as indelibly as his skill as a novelist.” As if that weren’t enough, Mailer was also “one of the world’s most respected men of letters” and “an American icon.” One of Mailer’s other assistants told Raymond, “Norman is his own best PR firm”, and if by that she meant the ability to interest the media in his affairs, then she’s absolutely right.
But getting press and getting respect are not the same things, as Raymond, like Mailer, doesn’t always recognize. Even were it possible to measure such things, it’s almost certainly an exaggeration to call Mailer “one of the world’s most revered writers.” Raymond repeatedly notes that Mailer produced more than forty books, as if his prodigious output alone warrants admiration. Nonetheless, Mallory thinks alcohol (as well as the demands of his wife Norris) reduced Mailer’s literary output, as if he didn’t generate more than enough thick tomes. Although she insists that Mailer’s downfall as a person was his refusal to seek psychiatric help, in terms of what he created, his prolificacy was his problem. For every Naked and the Dead he produced a misfire like Barbary Shore; for each Executioner’s Song a reputation-diminishing mediation on Marilyn Monroe or Pablo Picasso.
Mailer’s fame, and his unconcealed hunger for it, also interfered with understanding of his work. Raymond doesn’t develop this idea, but he does notice a related phenomenon—that “outsiders . . . were more concerned about the legend than the man.” Norris Mailer similarly sees a discrepancy between assessments of Mailer’s standing and his work: “It seemed to me that most reviewers wanted to kill Norman. With one breath they would say he was our greatest writer, and with the next they would say the book he had just written was crap.” But too often those reviewers were right. Mailer’s poor judgment undercut his undeniable talent, resulting in a body of work with as many deep low points as exceptional high ones. He alternated between disciplined craftsmanship, which sometimes yielded sterling results, and debilitating self-regard. His less admirable qualities turned out to be easier to imitate, and have provided an unfortunate example that these three voyeur memoirists, and rather too many other writers, have chosen to follow.
1Adele Morales also wrote a memoir of her life with Mailer, The Last Party (1997).