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Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

A Blustery Force in Life And Letters

In December 1960, Norman Mailer appeared in a New York City court after stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales Mailer, the month before. She recovered and declined to press charges; they eventually divorced.
In December 1960, Norman Mailer appeared in a New York City court after stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales Mailer, the month before. She recovered and declined to press charges; they eventually divorced. (By Anthony Camerano -- Associated Press)

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By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 11, 2007

Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote compellingly about sex and violence, conflict and politics, and love and war as the tempests of his personal life complemented the turbulence of his prose, died yesterday at 84.

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Mailer, who died of kidney failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, achieved literary fame at 25 with his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," based on his experiences during World War II with the Army in the Pacific. The book led the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks in 1948 and 1949 and was made into a movie.

Its publication launched Mailer on a parallel career as a celebrity who became notorious in a variety of roles. He was widely known as a drinker and brawler, womanizer, political campaigner, social critic, talk-show guest, self-promoter and symbol of male chauvinism. He had six wives and nine children.

As a writer, Mailer produced novels, essays, social commentaries, movie scripts and nonfiction narratives about national events and public figures. His subjects included ancient Egypt, political conventions, Marilyn Monroe, the CIA, Adolf Hitler and the first moon landing. He won the first of his two Pulitzers for "The Armies of the Night" (1968), based on his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon against the Vietnam War.

Mailer used fictional techniques in "Armies" to describe his arrest during the protest and to address the philosophical underpinnings of the United States' military involvement in Vietnam. The title of one chapter -- "Why Are We in Vietnam?" -- became a popular antiwar slogan.

Mailer won his second Pulitzer for "The Executioner's Song" (1979), which he described as a "true-life novel" about Gary Gilmore. In 1977 in Utah, Gilmore became the first convict to be executed in the United States in more than a decade.

Author Sinclair Lewis once called Mailer the greatest writer of his generation. But critics were neither uniform nor consistent in their evaluations of his work. Orville Prescott of the New York Times praised "The Naked and the Dead" as "the most impressive novel about the second World War that I have ever read."

But Time magazine condemned Mailer's second novel, "Barbary Shore" (1951), as "paceless, graceless and tasteless." When his 1983 novel "Ancient Evenings" received tepid reviews, Mailer responded with full-page newspaper ads, juxtaposing the attacks on his book with similar criticism of classics such as "Moby-Dick," "Anna Karenina" and "Leaves of Grass." He considered "Ancient Evenings" his finest work.

He broke ground in political commentary with his 1960 essay about John F. Kennedy, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," which deftly described the aura of sexuality and romance surrounding the Massachusetts senator. Published in Esquire magazine three weeks before Kennedy was elected president, the essay helped establish the Kennedy mystique.

"For a heady period, no major public event in the United States seemed complete until Mailer had observed himself observing it," a Time critic wrote in 1983.

As a celebrity, Mailer made headlines by running for mayor of New York in 1969 on a ticket with columnist Jimmy Breslin. They finished fourth in a field of five.

There was a mystique of personal violence about Mailer, which he encouraged. He often wrote about boxing, and he liked to spar with former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, who was a friend.

Mailer's reputation as a rowdy, unpredictable personality was confirmed during a bacchanal at his New York apartment in 1960, when he stabbed his second wife with a penknife. In 1970, while Mailer was directing the film "Maidstone," actor Rip Torn attacked him with a hammer. In a fight that lasted several minutes and was captured on film, Mailer bit off part of Torn's ear.

Mailer also had a notorious dispute with writer Gore Vidal. The confrontation, which Vidal later called "the night of the tiny fist," had its origins in a bitter verbal battle between Mailer and leaders of the feminist movement.

Over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, Mailer once asked Gloria Steinem what women had against him. "You might try reading your books," Steinem told him. Kate Millett, in her 1970 study "Sexual Politics," described Mailer's prose as "blatantly and comically chauvinist."

Never one to retreat from battle, Mailer said on a talk show, "Women should be kept in cages." In a Harper's magazine essay titled "The Prisoner of Sex," he wrote: "The prime responsibility of a woman is to be on earth long enough to find the best mate for herself and conceive children who will improve the species."

Vidal entered the fray with an article in the New York Review of Books, finding "a logical progression" from Henry Miller to Mailer to Charles Manson. Mailer and Vidal later traded insults on "The Dick Cavett Show." Then, at a Manhattan dinner party in 1977, Mailer threw his whiskey in Vidal's face, head-butted him and punched him in the mouth. When the hostess, Newsweek and Washington Post journalist Lally Weymouth, begged other guests to pull the men apart, Clay Felker, then editor of Esquire, told her: "Shut up. This fight is making your party."

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J., and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant from South Africa who worked as an accountant.

As a schoolboy, the young Mailer convinced his parents that he was a genius. His mother, Fanny, expected great things from him. When he received a low mark on a report card in the third grade, she marched into his school to protest.

In September 1939, the 16-year-old Mailer entered Harvard University. Partly at the urging of his family, who wanted him to acquire practical skills, and partly because he liked making model airplanes, he majored in engineering. He graduated cum laude, but it was clear that literature and writing were his primary loves.

At Harvard, he began reading the works of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Especially compelling for the young Mailer was James T. Farrell and his character Studs Lonigan.

"In the figure of Studs Lonigan, Mailer found the first of his many Irish alter egos," Carl E. Rollyson wrote in his 1991 biography, "The Lives of Norman Mailer." "Studs swaggers. He is a small guy who has the nerve to take on bigger men. . . . He is a romantic who dreams of conquering the world and of mastering beautiful women, but he is also one of the boys, embarrassed by his mother's coddling of him."

In his first year at Harvard, Mailer began writing short stories, one of which won first prize from Story magazine. After graduating in 1943, Mailer went home to Brooklyn to work on a novel. In March 1944, one month after he entered his first marriage, he was inducted into the Army. He later shipped out to the Pacific, joining the 112th Armored Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines. He was a rifleman in an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon that engaged in a few skirmishes but experienced no heavy action.

After the war ended, he served with occupation forces in Japan, then returned to the United States in May 1946. He spent the rest of the year in a bungalow near Provincetown, Mass., transmuting his military experiences into "The Naked and the Dead."

His publisher, Stanley Rinehart, insisted that he clean up the language in the book. Mailer complied by inventing the word "fug" as a substitute for an expletive that the publisher found offensive.

In a "word to the reader" on the dust jacket, Rinehart compared Mailer's novel with Dos Passos's "Three Soldiers," Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."

After "The Naked and the Dead" was published in 1948, Mailer went to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne. His next two novels, "Barbary Shore" (1951) and "Deer Park" (1955), drew hostile reviews.

Ten years passed before he wrote his next novel, "An American Dream," about a professor of existential psychology who kills his wife. During the intervening decade, Mailer wrote essays, short stories and commentaries while becoming an increasingly public figure. In 1955, he helped found New York's Village Voice weekly newspaper.

Among his most provocative work of that period was "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," which caused a sensation when it was published in 1957 in Dissent magazine. Mailer wrote: "The psychopath murders -- if he has the courage -- out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred, then he cannot love."

The essay was included in the 1959 collection "Advertisements for Myself," in which Mailer commented on his literary career, describing the effort as the "biography of a style."

In November 1960, after stabbing his second wife, artist Adele Morales Mailer, Mailer spent two weeks in a psychiatric unit of Bellevue Hospital in New York.

His wife, who was wounded in the abdomen and back, fully recovered and declined to press charges. The couple eventually divorced.

Eleven years after the 1962 death of actress Marilyn Monroe, Mailer wrote "Marilyn," in which he suggested that she was killed by the FBI, the CIA or the Mafia because she was "reputed to be having an affair" with Robert F. Kennedy. Writing in Parade magazine, Lloyd Shearer called the book "a shameful, rehashed potboiler."

With the publication in 1979 of "The Executioner's Song," Mailer achieved his last major literary triumph. Even with its success, he was in dire financial straits because of his marriages and child support payments.

One of the most notorious episodes in Mailer's career occurred when he championed the literary career of Jack Abbott, a felon who had spent most of his adult life behind bars after being convicted for armed robbery and killing a man in prison. After the men corresponded for several years, Mailer helped publish a collection of Abbott's letters, "In the Belly of the Beast," in 1981. Mailer then helped win Abbott's parole.

Soon after he was released, Abbott stabbed a waiter to death after an argument about using the restaurant's restroom. Mailer testified for Abbott at his trial and said he was "sorry as hell about the way it turned out."

After the novel "Ancient Evenings," Mailer wrote a 1984 murder mystery, "Tough Guys Don't Dance," which he revised into a screenplay for a movie that he directed.

He wrote two interpretive biographies, "Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man" (1995) and "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery" (1995), about President John F. Kennedy's assassin. His later novels, including "Harlot's Ghost" (1991), about the CIA; "The Gospel According to the Son" (1997), an imagined life of Jesus; and "The Castle in the Forest," a fictional account of the youth of Adolf Hitler (2007), received mixed reviews.

Mailer's first marriage, to Bea Silverman, ended in divorce in 1952. He married Adele Morales in 1954 and divorced her in 1962, the year he married Lady Jeanne Campbell. They divorced in 1963, and he married actress Beverly Bentley that year. They separated in 1970 when Mailer began living with Carol Stevens, a nightclub singer, but did not divorce until 1980.

By November 1980, Mailer and Stevens had separated, but they got married to "legitimize," in his terms, their 9-year-old daughter. Mailer divorced her immediately and married his sixth wife, artist Norris Church, with whom he already had a son.

He had a daughter from his first marriage; two daughters from his second marriage; a daughter from his third marriage; two sons from his fourth marriage; a daughter from his fifth marriage; two sons from his sixth marriage; and 10 grandchildren.

Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.


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