All the violence in prison is geared for murder, nothing else. You can't have someone with ill feelings for you walking around. He could drop a knife in you any day . . . you learn to 'smile' him into position . . . So when you are raging inside at anyone, you learn to conceal it, to smile or feign cowardice. You have to move into total activity from a totally inactive posture to sink a knife as close to his heart as possible . . . Slowly he begins to struggle . . . you can feel his life trembling through the knife in your hand. It almost overwhelms you, the gentleness of the feeling at the center of a coarse act of murder. -- Jack Henry Abbott
"In The Belly of the Beast, Letters From Prison"
NEW YORK -- In a Greenwich Village restaurant, a month ago, a few powerful members of the New York literary community had a celebratory supper together.
Norman Mailer and his wife, Norris Church, were there, along with Bob Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, novelist Jerzy Kosinski and his companion Katherina Von Fraunhofer, and Random House editor Jason Epstein.
The mood was warm and friendly: The writers and editors were welcoming into their circle one they perceived to be one of their own, Jack Henry Abbott, a 37-year-old former convict whose just-published book promised to be a great success. Mailer, who had sponsored Abbott while he was in prison, had written the introduction to Abbott's book. While "In the Belly of the Beast, Letters from Prison" was a violent book, sometimes loving toward violence, and Abbott's had been a violent life, there was almost no conversation about that. Nor was there, in the memory of the few who will now discuss that evening, anything overtly angry in Abbott's personality. He had, they would say later, a "very sweet disposition" that night, even "fragile." The writers were solicitous of him, protective. He had spent so much time in prison, they noted, he could not deal with the menu. He could not tell the difference between a rum and a baba au rhum. Touching, really.
Two weeks later, at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Abbott had a meal in another restaurant, with two women, but without the literary friends. It was an inexpensive restaurant, a 24-hour hangout for actors and dancers and neighborhood people where dinner could be had for $4. Abbott asked the waiter, a 22-year-old actor named Richard Adan, if he could use the men's room. Adan, following restaurant policy, said he could not. The argument, according to a half-dozen witnesses, continued outside.
When it was over, Abbott had fled and Adan lay dead on the sidewalk, stabbed in the heart. A doctor would later say it had taken only eight seconds for him to die.
"One well-placed blow," the New York City detective handling the case said.
Not unlike the one described in Abbott's book.
Prominent folks coming to the aid of convicts are not uncommon, and neither are the barbs suffered by prominent folks when the people they've aided fail. William F. Buckley Jr. helped get a man named Edgar Smith out of prison, believing in his innocence, until Smith was charged with attempted murder and sent back to prison. Bob Dylan, years ago, helped get a new trial for boxer Hurricane Carter, and Carter was once again convicted of murder. Abbott's case was somewhat different: The day he was being sought for questioning about the fatal stabbing, he received a rave for his book in the Sunday New York Times. The irony did not go unnoticed by writer Murray Kempton: Jack Henry Abbott, he said, could be the first fugitive to give himself up to The New York Review of Books.
Still, behind the jokes there are serious questions: Was Abbott, a man who spent almost all of his life between the age of 12 and 37 in prison and has been called by his own attorney "a really hostile type of individual," a good candidate for parole? Did the intervention of Mailer, and Random House, and Silvers, and literary agent Scott Meredith affect early parole? Had Mailer acted responsibly in sponsoring a man prison authorities generally held to be an incorrigible -- a man whose prison sentence had been extended and re-extended because he was continuously in fights, a man who, after being treated by a prison doctor, sat up on the edge of the examining table and slugged the doctor in the face?
The questions might be more easily answered if some of the people who had surrounded Abbott in the beginning of his literary celebrity would talk, but many will not. Silvers does not return calls, Jason Epstein is unavailable for comment. Mailer, pursued by reporters from his home in Brooklyn Heights to vacation homes in Provincetown (July) and Maine (August) will say -- through his wife -- only that the whole thing is "tragic."
Agent Meredith, who will talk, says that the letters he and others wrote attested only to Abbott's writing talent, not his character. Abbott's young editor at Random House, Erroll McDonald, who molded a stack of handwritten letters into a manuscript and tried to acclimate Abbott to New York life, echoes that.
"I wrote a letter to the Utah State Board of Parole and in that letter I wrote I attested to his literary ability and the fact that he could support himself as a professional writer," says McDonald, a soft-spoken man who seems sad and depressed by the turn of events. "I did not attest to his character because I did not know him."
Intellectual of Violence
Neither McDonald nor Meredith says he ever saw anything angry or hostile in Abbott. Meredith says that Mailer is also puzzled. He seemed a gentle man, they say. With his wire-rimmed glasses, he looked like an intellectual or a graduate student.
Only Kosinski, speaking of the celebratory supper, says he perceived anything unusual about Abbott.
"He was very frail emotionally . . . one sensed it in him . . . and very impatient," he said. "I remember when I said he might have difficulty renting an apartment, he said, 'Why should I talk to these a------- ?' I said, 'you should talk to them because you need an apartment. We are not here to be liked, we are here to peacefully coexist.'
"I feel guilty, terribly guilty," Kosinski adds of that evening. "We had chosen to ignore that we had a violent man in our midst. Instead I think we preferred to see him as a man who is going to become an intellectual of violence . . . Maybe I share with my intellectual friend Norman Mailer the feeling that talent redeems . . . How could we disregard the 25 years of his prison, his past which was still his present, and instead talk about his forthcoming best-sellership, his week-old career as a writer?"
The Beast Within
A source very close to the case has said that if some of Jack Abbott's literary friends did not see the angry side of his nature, it was because they did not want to see it. But he also says that Abbott often displayed two personalities.
"When he was with his literary circle, he overcompensated by portraying a very gentle person," says the source. "He did, in fact, have a beast inside him. If anyone said anything to him in an authoritative way, he would take it as a personal affront to his manhood or about himself and he would resent it. With his literary friends, he would always quickly calm down, but in other dealings -- with his bank -- he always had run-ins. There were a number of times there were verbal altercations."
But if Abbott's new friends were unaware of his dark side, prison authorities were not.
"He had misbehaved in the system since he was very young," says Utah Board of Pardons chairman Tom Harrison. "He had never been a happy man . . . I suppose a good word was nonconforming . . ."
He was born in Michigan and spent most of his childhood in foster homes. His mother, by some accounts, was a prostitute, by some a suicide. At 12, Abbott was sent to reform school. At 18, after breaking into a store and writing bad checks, he received a five-year sentence at the Utah State Penitentiary in Draper -- a fairly stiff sentence for rubber checks.
That sentence, according to attorney Leonard Munker, who represented Abbott at times throughout his incarceration and who handled his final, successful parole appeal, was compounded by Abbott's behavior behind bars. At 21, he was given a 3-to-20-year concurrent sentence at Utah State for fatally stabbing an inmate. Five years later, in '71, he escaped, robbed a bank, and was given a 19-year federal sentence.
The '70s, says Munker, were a turbulent time in prisons and Jack was "leader of the pack." In his book he claims to have spent 14 years in solitary confinement and, says Munker, "he wasn't exaggerating -- he spent a lot of time in the hole."
The incident that first introduced Munker to Abbott was in '75: In solitary confinement, Abbott slashed his wrist, and was stitched up by a prison doctor named Charles Jarvis. Later, Jarvis removed the stitches. Abbott lay on the table until the doctor had done his work, then sat up and punched the man in the face, hitting him so hard he almost lost consciousness.
"I can give you Abbott's version of it," says Munker. "He felt the doctors had been using drugs on the inmates all along. He also felt he had been awfully rough when he removed the stitches. That was his theory in the case. He finally went pro se -- appeared on his own behalf. He was a little difficult to get along with . . ."
While he was in prison, Abbott wrote letters. In 1973, he wrote novelist Kosinski, then the president of PEN, the activist writers group, attacking Kosinski on political grounds.
"Very violent letters," says Kosinski. "An unremittant litany of spiritual and intellectual abuse."
In '77, when Mailer was working on his book about Gary Gilmore, Abbott wrote Mailer, offering his insights on prison life. Mailer intervened with The New York Review of Books, which published the letters in June 1980. Within two months, Random House signed a book contract with Abbott, and Mailer agreed to do the introduction.
Abbott, meanwhile, was trying to get paroled -- and was doing badly. A federal parole date, originally set in '78 for 1980, had been put off for a year because of "relatively minor infractions," according to administrative hearing examiner D.E. Bernard of the U.S. Parole Commission.
It was at that point, says Munker, that Mailer's office stepped in.
"I got a call from them in August '80 -- from someone in Mailer's office named Judith McNally, I never spoke to Mailer himself -- asking if there was something I could do, either with the appeal or getting him out of solitary. He was losing a year and they were getting ready to finish the book and they wanted to get that book finished . . ."
Munker agreed to try to help. He forwarded the article in The New York Review of Books to the federal authorities. He also noted to them Abbott's improved behavior in prison, stressing that there was "what we call a parole plan, that Jack had some place to go, some occupation, all indications of being rehabilitated."
Did he ever discuss with Mailer's office his knowledge of Abbott's background?
"They never asked," he says. "I volunteered it. I told Judith that Jack was a very brittle man of extreme highs and lows, and I said no more 'cause they indicated they knew everything . . ."
In April word came down that Abbott's Utah sentence would be terminated and he would be transferred to a New York halfway house in June.
A New Life
Abbott was met at the airport in New York by Mailer, and took up residence at a federal halfway house run by the Salvation Army. It was located downtown, around the corner from the Bowery, across the street from a city men's shelter. The street is littered with garbage. On a summer's day it smells of urine. Mental patients and alcoholics from the city shelter walk the street. It is not a promising area to begin a new life.
But then, it is not known precisely how much time Abbot spent there: He spent some time at his publisher's modern office uptown and some time at his agent's office in a building that houses the British Consulate. He was introduced by Mailer to the French writer Jean Malaquais and several times had dinner with Malaquais and his wife. He did not mingle with the other inmates at the men's correctional center -- he seemed to consider himself superior, says the New York City detective handling the case. The shelter's assistant director, Ed Herzberg, told a reporter, "He was a loner." He was supposed to be doing research for Mailer on a book on Egypt, but it is not certain he was.
He did not seem interested in advice from his fellow inmates, but he did accept advice from his editor, who showed him how to open a bank account, and from his agent, who told him where he could go to buy toothpaste.
"He had a vast curiosity and enthusiasm for everything he was seeing," says Russell Galen, an agent at Scott Meredith's office, who describes Abbott as "very gentle." "Other than that, there was just the adjustment to New York life . . . he couldn't believe the rents, he had just looked at a studio in Brooklyn Heights Mailer lives in Brooklyn Heights and it was $500 and he was appalled by it -- he said it looked just like his cell, and he wasn't gonna pay $500 to live in a place that looked like prison. From the way he described it, it sounded exactly like my place, actually . . ."
Scott Meredith also recalls him as nonbelligerent.
"I once told him I thought he might consider doing a play and he said he didn't want to and I just said, 'Okay.' He was surprised. He said, 'Gee, I thought you'd get mad at me' . . . like he thought I was gonna sock him in the nose or something . . . and that was his continuous posture, very gentle . . ."
The agents last spoke with Abbott on a Friday, discussing his next work, which was to have been about an ex-con's adjustment to life outside prison. The next they heard was what everyone heard: There had been a stabbing outside a Manhattan restaurant after a seemingly minor dispute over a men's room. Jack Abbott had been identified by a half-dozen witnesses as the person involved in the dispute, and he was being sought by the police for questioning.
Oddly, several people heard from him that same day. He kept a lunch date with Malaquais but did not mention anything unusual. He spoke to one or two other people before disappearing but mentioned nothing to them either. He had, according to two people, called Norman Mailer very early that morning, about an hour after the stabbing occurred, but why he called is unknown. Mailer was sleeping and reportedly asked him to call back later.
Now, three weeks after the crime, he is still being sought, with the New York City detective on the case, William Majeski, nonetheless still confident.
"He does not have the capability to survive as an individual in any free society, after spending that many years in jail," he says. "He will be captured -- unless he surrenders first."
Leonard Munker is less certain of the outcome, but he does seem to share with the detective a certain fatalism about the effects of a life spent in jail.
"There's a section in Jack's book where he describes a bullfight, and the honor and bravado of a bull and having once been in the arena you can't go back to the pasture . . . and if you sit down and take a look, you see he's talking about himself. That's how he views himself and if you take a look at Mailer, with his five wives, and numerous alimony payments and Hemingway macho situation, you've got the same thing . . . Macho is a very dangerous thing in an institution. You take it out and it doesn't become less dangerous . . . Mailer knows how to handle it. But does Jack?"