The prolific and outspoken novelist of The Naked and the Dead was 84

By Alex Tresniowski
Updated November 10, 2007 12:00 PM
Leonhard Foeger/ Reuters/ Landov

Norman Mailer, perhaps the most towering figure in 20th-century American literature, died today of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City at the age of 84, his literary executor said.

Boldly creative and defiantly original to the end, he published two books this year, one about Hitler and one about God, to cap a prodigious six-decade literary career. Mailer barreled his way through a life that was at least as dramatic and scandalous as that of any character in his 10 novels.

He fought in a war and hung out with hippies; he acted, directed and produced several films; he ran for mayor of New York City; he brawled with men and women alike; he befriended killers and bashed presidents; he wrote some of the seminal works of the past century, including 1948’s The Naked and the Dead, the World War II novel that made him famous, and 1979’s spare and powerful The Executioner’s Song, which won him one of his two Pulitzer Prizes.

Indeed, Mailer clearly relished his role as a front-line chronicler of the American experience, allowing the torrent of history to sweep from one adventure to the next, fearlessly embracing risk and endlessly indulging his obsessions with manhood and mortality. His legacy will reflect an admittedly Promethean ego and ruthless faith in his own intellect – as much as it will his accomplishments as perhaps the most ambitious and least compromising author of his time.

Mailer was born in Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31, 1923. His father was an accountant and his mother ran a housekeeping and nursing agency. He grew up in Brooklyn and studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard before serving as an infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II. His experiences there were the basis for The Naked and the Dead, which launched his parallel careers as a daring, important writer and a charismatic celebrity.

Besides The Executioner’s Song, which told the story of the death of killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer would never again receive as warm an embrace from critics as he did during his early years as a writer; some of his later, lengthy works, such as Ancient Evenings, would be panned as staggeringly self-indulgent. But that hardly seemed to matter: By the time he was 40, Mailer had already secured his colossal reputation by helping create an art form, “new journalism,” which espoused tough, personal reporting and a blurring of the lines between story and storyteller.

He was not short on ego, but he made the whole enterprise seem delightful, his fellow new journalist, Tom Wolfe, told CNN after Mailer’s death. “He was a tremendous source of energy in the whole literary world, he was a motor, a generator.”

Mailer was married six times and had nine children, one of them adopted. He spent much of his later life in an Oceanside home in Provincetown, Mass.