The way Norman tells it, "I've been looking for Gore for six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore. I just felt like butting him in the head, so I did."
The way Gore sees it, was he "just innocently standing" in the crowded, star-studden living room of author Lally Weymouth when "I felt a hand on my shoulder, turned around and saw Norman who said, 'You look like and old Jew.' So I said in my wittiest repartee, 'Well, Norman, you look like an old Jew, too,' at which point Norman throws a drink in my face. Naturally, I was half-blinded and next thing I knew Norman shot his tiny fist upward, hitting me on the right side of the mouth."
So the festering and famous feud between literary heavies Norman ("The Naked and the Dead") Mailer and Gore ("Myra Breckenridge." "Burr") Vidal erupted into Kojakian violence around 11 p.m. Monday night to the startlement, but probably not the surprised eye witnesses at a genteel gathering of the country's literary giants.
Almost every one had a version of The Fight that differed in some respect from that of his neighbor.
The dinner party, honoring British publisher George Weidenfeld, included CBS board chairman Bill Paley, Jacqueline Onassis, Pete Hamill, writers Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, records mogul Ahmet Ehrtegun, Evangeline Bruce, Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, Esquire editor Clay Felker with author Gail Sheehy, British Ambassador Peter Jay, Gay Talese, Barbara Walters, William and ROse Styron, millionaire businessmen Max Palevsky, New York magazine editor Joe Armstrong, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Barbara Howar, New York Times assistant metropolitan editor Warren Hoge, Marriella Agnelli, Kathatine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post and mother of the hostess, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Random House chief and Vidal publisher Jason Epstein and wife. Barbara, David and Linda Obst, Shana Alexander and others.
According to Mailer, the motivation for his Monday night actions sprang from a similar confrontation between himself and Vidal six years ago, prior to a dual appearance they made on the "Dick Cavett Show." (Mailer writes about this in some detail in the current issue of Esquire.)
Since then, Mailer said yesterday, Vidal has spent the past few years "systematically insulting me to the point that when the man walked into the same room as I was in, there was no way I could ignore him."
There is no disagreement on the part of anyone at the party that the one thing Mailer did not do was ignore Gore Vidal.
Mailer said, "I butted him. Then he shoved me. I then threw my drink at him, and then my glass, which bounced off Gore's head. Now, frankly, I don't remember throwing a punch, but it is conceivable that I did. But I do remeber I did the best I could to rip his coat. A couple of minutes later invited him downstairs which provoked his constant companion Howard Austin to start yelling. So I said, 'Shut up, you flea' and then got inspired enough to ask both of them to come outside with me."
Mailer says he didn't even call Vidal "an old Jew."
"I said to Vidal. 'You look like a Jewish socialist,' which is to be differentiated from a Socialist Jew. The former is a way fo twitting him: the latter would be anti-semitie. You see, years ago, Vidal used to refer to me as a 'Jewish socialist.'"
Meanwhile, Lally Weymount - as she recalled it yesterday - walked into her living room from the kitchen to find "two guys punching each other out in my living room. It happened so quickly I didn't know who was hitting whom. Needless to say I was not thrilled to be having a fist fight at my party and when I said 'God, this is so awful: somebody do something' and Clay Felker said, 'Shut up, this fight is making your party.'"
According to guest lawyer-agent Mort Janklow, who finally did tear the two apart, Mailer didn't really attack - "he charged."
"There I was, see, standing there talking to Hamill and Felker when all of a sudden there was Norman pitching a full glass of booze all over Gore and taking a punch. Gore just stood there kind of frozen. I'd say they were scuffling, but actually Gore was being scuffled at.
"Running over I pulled Norman off of Gore which made him stumble into Max Palevsky who consequently spilled his glass of champagne all over Lally's dress.
"About this time Sam Spiegel came over to quiet Norman who was clearly ready to go back into battle. Gore meanwhile, walked over to the couch and sat down, using John Dodds' handkerchief to wash the blood off his mouth.
(According to Vidal the blood was the result of the punch. According to Mailer, blood was drawn when Mailer's glass hit Vidal's lip.)
"Frankly," said Janklow, "having spoken to both combatants, I consider the incident to be one of the great moments of modern literature."
But it wasn't over yet. Mailer then walked up to Weymouth and said, "Either he goes or I do," a declaration said Weymouth, that "put me in a real bind. I like Norman very, very much, but I am also an extremely close friend of Jason Epstein, a vice president of Random HOuse, which happens to be Gore's publisher. I wouldn't ask Gore to leave and insult Jason anymore than I would ask Norman to leave."
The decision provoked a Mailer walkout (with his friend Norris Church) and a challenge to Epstein to "go ahead and take your best psychic shot at me."
"Norman," Epstein said, "Norman, grow up."
Vidal stuck around to "hold court," as one guest put it.
Felker started signing up the big-name eye witnesses to write their versions of the fight for Esquire.
And the sniping continued into yesterday.
Mailer: "There just happens to be this lingering otion that I'm a gentleman who cannot listen to insults about himself and not respond . . . As for Vidal, well, he's nothing but a mouth."
Vidal: "As far as Norman thinking I go around insulting him, why that's ridiculous. I hardly ever mention him because I actually feel sorry for him. After all, it's not easy being a failure like Norman."
And so it went - a new chapter in literary feuds, obviously to be continued . . .