It is Sunday morning at the NBC-TV studios in midtown Manhattan; the feature attraction of today’s Sunday show is Norman Mailer, 52, the perennially disputed heavyweight champ of American letters and undisputed media superstar. Mailer arrives in a bustle only minutes before air time. His locks are by now entirely silver, his paunch more than substantial. Still, he gives an impression of fitness, of immense energy. As usual, he has paid scant attention to dress; he has his tie in his jacket pocket, and dons it only at the last moment. Yet Mailer is not without vanity; even though he is healthily tanned from a summer in Bar Harbor, Maine he calls for a touch of pancake.
The subject this morning is Mailer’s 19th book, The Fight (Little, Brown), a blow-by-blow account of the heavyweight championship fight in Zaire last year between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. At his age, Mailer the infamous bantam rooster has acquired the prudence to stay out of bar brawls, but he has lost none of his fascination with fighters. “Boxers, athletes and artists are very complex people,” he tells the interviewer. “People are full of hostilities and aggressions that they’re trying to turn aside. So in the civilized world the boxer is the reverse of most of us. That’s the reason so many old boxers return to the ring. They can’t find the intensity of experience anywhere else.”
After the show, Mailer drives back to his apartment in Brooklyn Heights—his boyhood turf and the place where he still feels most at home. He proves an amiable conversationalist. Turf, another Mailer theme, has occasionally been turned against him. He tells of an encounter with South Carolinian James Dickey, author of Deliverance. “Dickey said all the major writers should divide the country up, each writing only about his proper territory.” Mailer laughs. “He meant that he should get the South, and I’d get Brooklyn.” The combativeness returns as he regards his own limited frame. “I guess Dickey [6’2″, 205 lbs.] would be favored over me,” says Mailer, who is 5’4″, “but it shouldn’t be any more than 3-2 odds. No,” he muses, “mine wouldn’t be a lost cause.”
No cause into which Mailer flings his physical energies and towering intelligence should be written off. Just his wars with himself are savage enough spectacle. But he has always managed to rally his conflicting personalities into a united front against a succession of book critics, film critics (he has produced, directed and starred in three underground flops), wives (he has had four marital disasters; a common-law arrangement with former model Carol Stevens survives at the moment), politicians (he and Jimmy Breslin half-seriously ran for mayor and city council president in New York City’s 1969 Democratic primary) and a score of fellow writers (William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Germaine Greer, to name a few). Meanwhile, toiling in a rounded longhand in his Brooklyn Heights aerie (a rope ladder is required to reach it) or his home near Stockbridge, Mass., Mailer has produced some of the most diverse and dramatic prose in American letters. If Mailer doesn’t always come up a winner, he is certainly an outrageous crowd-pleaser.
Consult the record. “Within 24 hours after World War II began,” he says, “I decided that I was going to write the great American war novel.” He did. By the time he was 25, The Naked and the Dead had made him famous. He could have played it safe, so manifestly popular were gutty war novels, and gone on from that succès obscène to write what he jokingly referred to as “The Naked and the Dead Go to Japan.” But if Fitzgerald saw personality as an unbroken series of successful gestures, Mailer early on viewed it as a progression of rough-and-tumble risk-takings—whether they worked or not. He probed the taut agonies of American socialism (Barbary Shore), the tainted ecstacies of Hollywood Babylon (The Deer Park, which he still considers his best novel), his own inner chaos in Advertisements for Myself, the precarious psychology—and psychoses—of American politics (The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago), the metaphysics of space flight (Of a Fire on the Moon) and, of course, his most passionate obsession, the terrors of An American Dream. Armies won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Other battles, such as Marilyn, his fantasy-laden biography of Marilyn Monroe, caused his critics to accuse Mailer of producing a glossy ripoff.
“It is just as easy to ridicule Norman Mailer as it is to admire him,” wrote critic Anatole Broyard in the New York Times—a concise summation of the paradoxes of Mailer.
Yet whatever their merits or demerits, his previous books were mere prelims. The main event is the big novel that critics and the public—and Mailer—have waited two and a half decades for him to write. Given the cosmic breadth of his ambition, imagination and slightly failed expectations, that book, now in progress, is destined to be a colossal success, or an equally colossal failure. Since it begins in ancient Egypt and ends up in a spaceship, it clearly could go either way. Part of the novel will deal with a Jewish family 50 years ago, but much of it will be contemporary, too. He has so far written about 100,000 of a projected 500,000 words, and the task becomes an increasing struggle. “Right now I have a professional confidence,” he says, “but I’m definitely slowing down. Still, the novel is on my mind all the time. One problem is the fear of the novel. Journalism is much easier because the story is given to you.” He adds, with mock pomposity: “If I can’t bring this book off, it may be all right to say of me that I started off as a novelist and converted into something else. I would not be pleased to decide that’s true.”
Another problem is that Mailer the solitary writer is under constant pressure from Mailer the multiple provider to ex-wives and children and Mailer the public ham. He claims, “People who capture the imagination today are freaks. That sort of thing has no interest for me. It’s the irony of my life that I’m considered a freak.”
If so, it’s a self-inflicted irony. True, Mailer didn’t set out to be a freak; he was a good Jewish boy from Brooklyn who went to Harvard at age 16 to study aeronautical engineering. But along the way he walked out on his first wife (Bea Silverman); stabbed his second (Adele Morales) with a penknife; stole his third (Lady Jean Campbell, granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook) from another man; left a fourth wife, actress Beverly Bentley, for his present companion.
And in all the boozing and brawling, roiling and ranting, polemicizing and procreating, Norman Mailer neglected the Great American Novel he was supposed to be writing. Then one day he turned 50.
Bar Harbor, where Mailer rents a summer home, is vermilion radiance at sunset. Youngsters wander in and out of the kitchen, an attractive, disparate group who look like a gathering of the brightest of the neighborhood children: here two dark Mediterranean beauties, there two handsome Nordic boys, another lovely girl of medium coloring and finally a dazzling, little blue-eyed girl who bears no resemblance to the others. Of course, they are brothers and sisters or half-brothers and half-sisters, united by a father with some of the most publicized genes in Western civilization.
The pater multa familias bursts in through the kitchen door, back from a day in which he had escaped from the family to hole up in a motel room and write. He is wearing his summer undress tans: a T-shirt, cut-off jeans and ratty sneakers. Carol, a no-nonsense woman who looks like the classic gypsy wench but is in fact a fugitive from Philadelphia’s Main Line, orders Norman to put on a clean shirt for dinner. Mailer, who will play the willing prisoner of sex when it suits him, complies without a word.
However, when the subject arises at dinner as to whether Norman can take Carol’s car for the next day’s mountain-climbing trip, he gives Carol a blood-and-feathers grin and says, with an accompanying obscenity, “You’re right I can take it.” But that is his only sharp word of the evening. This is Mailer as Fred MacMurray, the patient, affectionate father with his children for the summer.
The kids squabble briefly over who sits next to Daddy tonight. Then the trip is discussed in detail. Mailer explains to the children how they must pace themselves climbing over the rocks, and learn to breathe slowly and not panic in the high mountain air. The children are obviously well-reared and well-behaved; Daddy don’t allow no painful, celebrity-child neuroses round here.
Indeed, he must love them, for they cost him a pretty penny. To help support them and his four ex-wives—not to mention his accountant, his agent, his lawyer and his government—Mailer must earn $150,000 a year before he can even start to live. Says Mailer, who ought to know, “Economics is half of literature.”
After dinner Norman spends a good half hour checking the children’s camping gear and putting them to bed. Then he retires to his den with a bottle of rum and a bucket of ice. “I don’t drink nearly as much as I used to,” he says. “I just can’t do it anymore and keep up with the writing. I’ll have a couple of drinks in the evening, but after six or seven drinks you’re into booze and even if your mind stays clear you don’t do anything else.” He believes one has to be in reasonable shape to write at the rate he does (generally 1,500 words a day), and he battles his waistline with a morning round of pushups and leg lifts.
Finally, as the twilight deepens and the rum dwindles, Mailer turns to the subject of mysticism in his writing and his life. “I know I’m accused of being a mystic, and I don’t mind that. In fact, I was an atheist for years because of this God who was supposed to be all-powerful and all-good. You see, I see God in a crude sense as a general who, because of the extraordinary demands on Him, because of the rigors of the battle, may not succeed in His vision or even take care of His troops properly.” Then Mailer the ironist cannot resist: “I have to add that I don’t feel that near to God, and I don’t think He’d like to be near me. That would be a dispiriting experience…
“Right now my life is simple as to its objectives,” he says. “I want to write this novel more than anything else.” He is aware of the repercussions of his very public life and philosophical about them. “I think that if you can isolate a part of yourself sufficiently, you can learn to live with separate halves. If I can write something really good, then twenty years from now it won’t make any difference what other things I’ve done. Those things will just be a historical curiosity.”