Army of One

Mailer speaks at an antiwar rally in New York's Central Park in 1966. During the Vietnam War protest era, he styled himself a
Mailer speaks at an antiwar rally in New York's Central Park in 1966. During the Vietnam War protest era, he styled himself a "left conservative" and wrote "The Armies of the Night." (By Dave Pickoff -- Associated Press)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer was celebrated in Washington last month and, true to form, he came out looking larger than life.

Mailer, who died Saturday of kidney failure at 84, was far too sick to make it down from New York for the occasion -- a conference at Georgetown University -- though he had wanted to.

But if you'd been in Gaston Hall for the screening of a 40-year-old documentary called "Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?" you'd have caught a glimpse of this combative, innovative, ego-driven literary contender in his prime.

Key word: glimpse. The real Norman Mailer, an aggressively visible public figure for much of his six-decade writing career, wasn't easy to know.

The documentary was shot in 1967. It is built -- as was the Georgetown conference -- around Mailer's participation in that year's Oct. 21 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, a protest the writer was to immortalize in "The Armies of the Night."

Mailer had had doubts about marching. At 44, he was older than most of the protesters and he styled himself a "left conservative." He thought it proper to wear a three-piece, dark-blue pinstriped suit to the proceedings.

He had also come to understand, as he would write in "Armies," that there was a "wild man" within him who could appear without warning. Sometimes the creature showed up when Mailer was "frightened and furious at the fear," sometimes more randomly.

Now here that wild man was on-screen, swigging bourbon from a stolen coffee mug, ranting obscenely and incoherently to a pre-protest gathering at Washington's Ambassador Theater. Shot from below, looming squat and dark over his startled listeners, this Mailer looked more like Louisiana rabble-rouser Huey Long than a New York intellectual.

Before the film was over, a number of other Mailers would appear.

There was Mailer the litterateur, lining up with blue-blood poet Robert Lowell and highbrow critic Dwight Macdonald to help lead tens of thousands of demonstrators as they moved out from the Lincoln Memorial and across Memorial Bridge.

There was Mailer the unafraid, deciding it was time to get himself arrested and striding purposefully into the ranks of the military policemen and U.S. marshals defending the Pentagon.

There was Mailer the preacher, emerging from the resulting detention to sermonize -- slowing his cadence so reporters could catch every word -- that while he wasn't a Christian himself, he was married to one and in his view, we Americans were "burning the body and the blood of Christ in Vietnam."

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