Friday, November 16, 2007

Memories of Mailer: Mr. Nice Guy

So much has been written about Norman Mailer since his death was announced. So much about what a ferocious dare he made out of his life, about his (eventually reconsidered) glorification of violence and pseudo-hipsterist amorality, his roaring off-page rhetoric, his boozing, his brawling, his self-advertising--in short, his cult of himself. But one simple, quiet fact should not be lost. He could also be--even in his most hellacious decades--a very nice man.

I was first introduced to what may seem this very odd perception of Mailer by my husband, Michael, before he was my husband, when Michael had been a person about Greenwich Village for about 13 years, I for only two. As Michael's biographer, Maurice Isserman wrote, the Village was a place of "successive waves of old timers and. . .newcomers."

In 1950, when Michael was a newcomer-- having had the gee-whiz innocence of his midwestern upbringing and four years at Holy Cross eroded only slightly by graduate school at The University of Chicago and a few months of hanging out a literary-political Bleecker Street bar--a friend took him to a party at Mailer's First Avenue loft. And the FAMOUS WRITER, an "oldtimer" all of two years into his reign as a literary lion king, was so kind to the "newcomer," making him welcome and putting him at his ease, that Michael never forgot it.

Just five years later they were writing for the same publication. Michael, having, by then, established himself first as a left-wing Catholic writer and then socialist intellectual and activist, wrote for the first issue of The Village Voice, which Mailer, together with its editor, Dan Wolfe, and publisher, Ed Fancher, launched in 1955.

That was also a year in which Mailer put Michael at ease with another act of kindess--or at least forbearance. Mailer's third novel, "The Deer Park", had just been published to reviews as disappointing as those of his previous book, "Barbary Shore." I.e.: no critical raves for Mailer since 1948, when "The Naked and the Dead" had made him the young author for others (like James Jones) to beat. And when a literary lion in Mailer's mold was hungry, he was primed to not just roar but bite. So Michael was understandably apprehensive when, out of some misguided refusal to lie, he responded noncommittally when Mailer asked him what he thought of his latest effort. But, instead of chewing Michael up, Mailer just let it go. (It might have comforted him to know, however, that when Michael was earning his pennies writing reviews for The Book-of-the-Month Club and was assigned "Catcher in Rye," he dismissively asked, "Who would want to read a book about some wise-guy adolescent?")

Another time Norman just let things go was one night, in a scuzzy Hudson Street bar named The Ideal, which we, who hung out across the street at the estimably literary White Horse Tavern, nicknamed The Ordeal. It was a longshoremen's place, frequented by Horse regulars only when they had imbibed sufficiently to have lost their sense of direction. As, apparently, had both Norman and Michael when they encountered each other there. Recognizing, if somewhat fuzzily, a familiar face and cocking his fists as steadily as he could, Mailer announced, "I can take you, Mike!" "Yeah," said Mike, hoping his easy preemptive capitulation and boozy smile would dissuade Mailer from proving his point. It did. Very--if not with clear intent--nice.

My own acquaintance with Mailer didn't begin until after I went to work at The Voice in 1962. By that time, Norman and Dan, who was married to the childhood friend of Norman's sister, had had a serious falling out--so serious that Dan kept a very large, very sharp letter opener in the top right-hand drawer of his desk, should Norman have come to the office to pursue the argument, whatever it was.

Their reconciliation was marked by the decision that The Voice would run a kind-of welcome-back interview of Mailer, who requested that I do it. And that was the first time I met this very nice, almost courtly man who showed no sign of the ferocity that would warrant having a letter opener at the ready. And though his demeanor was a relief, as a young reporter geared up for an attention-getting interview, I was more than a little deflated to find myself engaged with an enfant terrible who was no longer so enfant and on that occasion definitely not at all terrible.

Our next encounter was decidedly more memorable--more for the occasion than Norman's behavior, though he did have his moment that night. It was a dinner for Che Guevara at Bobo Rockefeller's upper East Side townhouse. Guevara was in New York to represent Cuba at the 1964 session of the United Nations General Assembly. Bobo, perhaps by design, was out of town. The host of the dinner, Look magazine writer Laura Berquist, was a friend of Michael's, which is why we were invited. Berquist had covered Cuba for Look and done interviews in Havana with Fidel Castro and Guevara. She was also a friend of Bobo's, hence the venue.

Norman was there, presumably because he was Norman (though, no doubt, he would have preferred to be Che). Also present was I. F. (Izzy). Stone, who edited an influential left-leaning Washington newsletter, as was a gaggle of elegantly attired Argentinian lovelies whose families ran in the same social circle as Che's. He, too, was sartorially impressive in his very crisply pressed military fatigues. He was also charming, quiet-spoken and--nice. Indeed, when another guest, a young man who identified himself as the leader of the Northern Student Movement, asked Guevara for advice about mounting an assault on New York City from the Adirondacks, as the Fidelistas had descended on Havana from the Sierra Maestra, Guevara very gently replied that the two situations were somewhat different and that it didn't seem to him that conditions in New York were ripe for insurrectionary success.

The Rockefeller townhouse was, of course, heavily guarded for the event by the NYPD, which prompted Norman to show off his well-honed, if off-key, Irish cop routine, shouting out the big bowed windows to the officers below, taunting them, albeit good-naturedly, in his not-so-Irish brogue, about having to protect a Commie like Guevara.

We continued to run into Norman on and off through the years. Sometime in the '60's, Michael and I attended a black tie affair, of which I have no recollection except that, when it was over, Norman and his wife at the time, Beverly Bentley, asked us back to their Brooklyn Heights apartment, along with the liberal Republican (these days an oxymoron) U.S. Senator Jacob Javits and his wife, Marion. That top-floor apartment, as Norman's widow, Norris Church Mailer described it in a recent interview, is "sort of one big open space with a view of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty" that Norman designed "to be kind of like a ship." It now has "a sort of staircase leading to the top bedrooms," she noted, "but you used to have to climb straight up the wall, like on a boat. It was really very precarious."

To Michael and me, both committed acrophobes, it was downright terrifying. It seemed to us another of Norman's stratagems for challenging himself in every way he could, even to just go upstairs to bed--except without the stairs. But there were ropes--to climb up and on which to swing from an upper room on the west side of the apartment to a bedroom on the east side. Norman, of course, invited Michael, the good senator and another fellow in our party to join him for a climb and a swing. Michael declined; Javits, who was probably about 65 at the time but who prided himself on his physical workouts, seemed unwilling to refuse in front of his wife. The other fellow, too, seemed to feel his manhood was at stake. So, there they were, three middle-aged men in black ties and tuxes--a U.S. Senator, a celebrated writer and a who-knows-who--swinging around on ropes at one o'clock in the morning, in a kind of evolutionary regression. Norman had a way of doing that to other guys. Unless, like Michael, they didn't rise to the bait.

A few years later, it was only because Michael refused another kind of bait--the urging of then Voice writer and later New York Post columnist Jack Newfield and another Voice writer, Joe Flaherty, that he run in New York City's 1969 Democratic mayoral primary--that Mailer was substituted and, with Jimmy Breslin as his running mate, tried on the role of political candidate. He didn't last long on that stage, but, in losing, Mailer and Breslin were in good company because the incumbent, Mayor John Lindsay, lost the Republican primary to John Marchi and had to wage his successful campaign against Marchi and Democrat Mario Procaccino on an independent line.

However, while Breslin played his run for laughs, Mailer, who assumed alternate personae full throttle, ran hard. And though the main plank of their platform--that New York City should secede from the state--has no more resonance today than the intermittent threats of Staten Island to secede from the city, the Mailer-Breslin demand that automobiles be banned from Manhattan has born-again relevancy in Democrat/Republican/Independent/whatever-works-for-him Michael Bloomberg's proposal for congestion pricing.

A desire to ban feminists was also high on Mailer's agenda in those post-"Feminine-Mystique" years, which were not Norman's finest. It was an impulse that, so to speak, climaxed in a hair-raisingly hilarious battle of the more evolved sex against the opposite one, which still found occasion to swing from ropes. I refer to the 1971Town Hall symposium that pitted Norman against the beauteous bi-sexual feminist writer Germaine Greer; the lesbian Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnson; the never undignified, anglophilic literary critic and essayist Diana Trilling; and the president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, Jacqueline Ceballos.

And, if you're wondering why, in the picture at the top left of this blog, Andy Warhol and I are looking somewhat dazed, it's because we were caught by Voice photographer Fred McDarrah in the act of witnessing that sexual-intellectual happening. I was covering it for The Voice. As for Warhol, how could he not be there? And the same can be said of Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick and Anatole Broyard, who were also, necessarily, there. However, Mailer's wielding of a sexist knife, as it were, by referring to Greer, et. al. as "lady writers" and his threat that he might put his male member on the table right there and then, were, uh, deflated by the far more fearless Johnson, who proved herself the champ of scandalous shtick by running down the aisle of the venerable auditorium and demonstrating a bit of devil-may-care same-sex lovemaking with a girlfriend in the audience.

Just the year before, Michael and I had seen Norman display quite another sexual attitude--and it was the only time I ever saw him really embarrassed. It was 1970. I was pregnant with Michael's and my second son, Ted, and when we walked into the first session of our Lamaze natural childbirth class, there was Norman, with actress Carol Stevens, who was carrying Norman's daughter, Maggie. They were married only briefly, just long enough to establish their baby's paternity, which was, we thought, very, very nice. But Norman turned red-faced and flustered at the sight of us, unable to mask his acute discomfiture at being seen by people he knew, kneeling on the floor timing breaths. He never showed up for another session, and I couldn't help worrying that, if he did not play his role well in the delivery room, it would have been our fault.

The last time I saw Norman was in 1991, two years after Michael had died of cancer, at a party for Gregor Gysi, a communist in the Gorbechav/glasnost mold who had just brought East Germany's ruling communist party into the post-soviet world by transforming it into the Party of Democratic Socialism. Victor Navasky, then the editor and now publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there. So were socialist essayist and author Paul Berman and New York State Senator Franz Leichter, who retired just this year after having served more than three decades in the legislature.

Yet, for all of the evening's compelling cross currents, what fixed my attention was the simple fact that Norman was wearing a hearing aid. I found myself trying not to look at it. That was not supposed to happen to Norman Mailer. Not even an aging Norman Mailer. And certainly not at the age of 68. He was, finally, meeting his match, and it was his own body. He also envied me my martini, lamenting that he couldn't handle them anymore.

I never saw him after that, but I did read, over the last years, about how dramatically that body was accelerating its turn against him. And, after hearing he was dead and reprising that last night I saw him, I was again reminded of what a nice guy he could be. I remembered that my older son, Alexander, was at the party, too. He has directed and produced a good number of plays off-off Broadway, and Norman, despite the fact that our relationship, though it spanned decades, was not close, was always very helpful to Alec. He let him use his name in fund-raising, and, despite all the alimony and child support to which his five truncated marriages had obligated him, Norman would contribute some of his own money when he could.

And the night of that party, when I walked in the door, Norman greeted me with, "Ah, the great lady." Well, I'm really not. But how nice was that?


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