Death of a Killer
Long before Norman Mailer helped convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott win both literary fame and a moment of freedom, Abbott told the macho novelist to quit romanticizing his wretched world. “My life is not a ‘saga’ and I resent your using the term like that,” he wrote. On Feb. 10 Abbott—author of the 1981 bestseller In the Belly of the Beast, a collection of prison letters to Mailer—got the last word, hanging himself with a bedsheet and a shoelace in his cell at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, N.Y. He left a note, but authorities would not reveal its contents. Serving a life sentence for the stabbing of waiter and aspiring actor Richard Adan, 22, Abbott had recently been denied parole.
“I never knew a man who had a worse life,” Mailer said when he heard of the apparent suicide. A prostitute’s son, Abbott spent nearly 50 of his 58 years in custody. In 1977, while doing time for bank robbery and killing a fellow inmate, he wrote Mailer (then researching The Executioner’s Song, on murderer Gary Gilmore) offering to share his insights into “violent men.” They struck up a correspondence that became In the Belly. Mailer helped get the book published and its author released, telling the parole board, “Mr. Abbott has the makings of a powerful and important writer.”
But in July 1981, six weeks after leaving prison, Abbott knifed Adan during a quarrel outside a Manhattan restaurant. Mailer, criticized for sponsoring a sociopath, accepted responsibility but said he “never thought Abbott was close to killing…I just was not sensitive to the fact.”
In 1990 Adan’s widow, Ricci, won a $7.5 million lawsuit against an unremorseful Abbott, who told the judge that Adan’s life “was not worth a dime.” Of the death of her husband’s slayer, Ricci, now 42, said simply, “I am happy he will not kill again.”