They'd become each other's adjective,
And neither one of them could stand the thought.
They modified each other -- so they fought.
-- From an epic poem by Tim Mayer, in the Village Voice
When last they met in public -- at a fashionable Manhattan dinner party in October 1977 -- Norman Mailer butted Gore Vidal in the head. Then Mailer threw his Scotch in Vidal's face, blinding the author of "Myra Breckinridge" and more. Then Mailer socked him in the mouth.
"The Night of the Tiny Fist," Vidal later dubbed it, the climax of perhaps the most celebrated literary feud of the age.
Tonight, when they met again for the first time in eight years, it was set (more appropriately) on a Broadway stage. And tout New York, or very nearly, was in the audience, including Kurt Vonnegut, Morley Safer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Brooke Astor and Paul Newman.
Those who came for fisticuffs, however, may have been disappointed. The performance at the Royale Theatre seemed destined to be remembered as "The Night of the Long Words."
In one corner was Vidal, 60, six feet tall, with strawberry blond highlights in his hair and weighing in at 200 pounds, give or take a stone. In the other was the 5-foot-8 Mailer, 62, looking grandfatherly -- indeed, benevolent -- in a three-piece suit.
Murray Kempton, the reedy-voiced, reedy-looking newspaper columnist, had agreed to stand between the two as a "moderator" -- but it was hardly hazardous duty.
"We can never forgive each other. We can just walk away from it and put it aside," Mailer told the audience. "The intensity of the feud came from the fact that we were good friends."
Vidal blamed the media for hyping their antagonisms.
"One gets turned into a fool by the media," he complained. "It is terribly important that you think about Mailer and me as two vain people who are engaged in a literary feud. We're always caught in a circle of trivialization and personality."
Taped for later broadcast by PBS, it was all to "celebrate" PEN, the preeminent international writers' group of which Mailer is president, and raise money for PEN's 48th International Writers Congress in January. So far, the PEN Celebrations -- tonight's was the sixth in a series -- have brought in about $750,000, at $1,000 a seat.
After opening with a hoary joke concerning Ronald Reagan's library and coloring books, Vidal delivered a prepared speech, to be published in The New York Review of Books, about the past, present and future of what he called "the American Empire." Arguing that the American Empire had died, yielding to the economic primacy of Japan and China, he proposed that the United States join forces with the Soviet Union to reassert world dominance against, as he facetiously put it, "the yellow hordes."
"He's too good," Mailer said after he followed Vidal to the lectern. "I'm in absolute agreement with him."
Then Mailer, rocking back and forth, delivered himself of a rambling, brilliant and occasionally numbing peroration that touched on everything from President Reagan's cancer surgery to nuclear annihilation to free-market economics to modern architecture ("The prisons look like airports, the synagogues look like ski resorts and the ski resorts look like prisons").
"I feel hostility in the audience," Mailer said after his joke about Reagan's cancer didn't appear to go over -- nor his lengthy explanation as to why the joke was funny.
He even quoted from his own poem about a lady and a drunk, telling the audience to think of itself as the lady. " 'I don't mind a party/ That gets a little rough'/ Said the lady to the drunk/ 'But did you have to throw up in my foyer?'
"How many of you are bored and want a break?" he asked the audience at one point. Shouts of "Go on!" drowned out a scattering of applause.
"There's something to be said," Mailer observed, "for packing the house with friends."
At intermission, some in the audience seemed a tad baffled by it all. "I'm not ready to comment," Paul Newman said soberly as he headed for the door. "It's too soon yet to evaluate."
The second half of the evening was devoted in part to questions and answers, with Kempton reading from bits of paper deposited into a wastepaper basket. The dynamic duo sat on either side of him at the sort of desks one finds in grammar school.
Some in the audience seemed frustrated that the two were so convivial. "If neither has a criticism of each other, does either have a criticism of himself?" one question read.
"Whoever wrote that," Mailer replied, "I can't believe you ask that question of Gore Vidal."
"Without knowing that Norman will answer it," Vidal put in, to laughter.
The repartee continued.
When Vidal suggested that Americans not pay their taxes as a way of stopping U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and curtailing Pentagon spending, Mailer cut him off with, "Gore, you're in Italy, you can afford not to pay taxes."
"Norman, I pay full federal income tax," Vidal drawled back. "I believe I build more MX missiles than you do."
This got a laugh.
Mailer then proposed "taxing goods made of plastic more than goods made of wood," although he conceded, "I might be the only person in the world who hates plastic. I might be demented on this point."
And so the Godzilla-Meets-King Kong of literary battles -- which at one time or another has thrilled millions on television with the promise of talk show violence and thousands in the Village Voice with a poem in heroic couplets -- fizzled out.
Before the show, both men of letters were admirably above the fray.
"You don't catch me on these things -- I'm awfully impersonal, you know," Vidal said coolly. "I don't bring much emotion to my relations with people I hardly know. I've known Norman for a long time but not well. I have other things on my mind."
"I think there are more important things than a feud between Gore Vidal and myself," said Mailer, who had invited Vidal to fly in from Rome for the evening's festivities. "It's an existential experience, at the least."
Tonight's encounter received a buildup worthy of the price, evoking such great literary title bouts as Lewis versus Dreiser, Eastman versus Hemingway, McCarthy versus Hellman and Vidal (a seasoned heavyweight) versus Capote.
"Not with my arthritis," Vidal said when asked if he and Mailer would mix it up. Mailer, an aficionado of boxing (and the boxing metaphor) declined to divulge his strategy.
"People are hoping that Norman and Gore will start in all over again," said restaurateur Elaine Kauffman, proprietor of Elaine's, where the literati are chatty. "Not the literary people, but the people on the periphery -- the social types who can afford the bucks and have a lot of time on their hands."
"That's the American public, don't you think?" said Vidal's longtime companion, Howard Austin. "They love vulgarity and undignified behavior."
But at least one member of the American public was having none of it.
"I have no appetite whatever to renew an unpleasant memory," said no-show William F. Buckley Jr., who has fought and made up with Mailer but still detests Gore -- but that's another story from long ago.
The present Mailer/Vidal feud dates back to 1971, when Vidal wrote in an essay in The New York Review of Books: "There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man (or M3 for short) has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed."
The article provoked Mailer into a white-hot fury. He accused Vidal of slyly resurrecting Mailer's 1960 stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales Mailer, with a penknife. (She attended last night's performance, sitting in a box with other members of Mailer's family.)
"He had not been writing for thirty years to be called M3," Mailer wrote in a third-person account for Esquire. "Mailer could hardly wait to catch up with Gore Vidal."
That opportunity came a few months later on ABC's "Dick Cavett Show," in truly one of television's memorable moments, as Cavett, Vidal and the late New Yorker writer Janet Flanner went at Mailer three-on-one.
"I remember that on Mailer's entrance, he looked like trouble," said the talk show host, who was also in tonight's audience. (Indeed, Mailer had already butted Vidal in the greenroom.) "He was doing something you learn about in acting class -- he was 'walking significantly.' "
MAILER: We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago, we do know that, Gore. You were playing on that.
VIDAL: Let's just forget about it.
MAILER: You don't want to forget about it. You're a liar and a hypocrite. You were playing on it . . . Are you ready to apologize?
VIDAL: I would apologize if -- if it hurts your feelings, of course I would.
MAILER: No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.
VIDAL: Well, I must say, as an expert, you should know about those things. Laughter . . .
FLANNER: Not only do you insult each other, not only in public, but you act as if you were in private. That's the odd way --
MAILER: You still haven't told me whether you're Gore's manager or the referee.
CAVETT: If you make history here by punching a lady . . . Laughter
Six years later history of a sort was made at a dinner party thrown by journalist Lally Weymouth and attended by such as Susan Sontag, Jacqueline Onassis, John Kenneth Galbraith and then-editor of Esquire Clay Felker.
"Shut up," Felker told the hostess when she beseeched dinner guests to pull the novelists apart. "This fight is making your party."
"Once again words failed Norman," was how Vidal summed up the evening.
"Gore doesn't take words seriously," Mailer said a few weeks later. "The only thing Gore understands is being treated without words . . .
"I mean, Gore has said things to me that no man who ever used his hands would ever dream of saying about another man unless he was prepared to fight to the death. I mean, I'm not gonna fight Gore Vidal to the death. He's not worth killin'.
"But I made a vow years ago that no one was gonna ever talk to me that way and get away with it. I mean, it's inexcusable. He's said atrocious things, over and over and over, systematically.
"So I said, well, whenever I run into him, wherever it is -- it could be the White House, I don't care where -- I'm gonna trash him."
Tonight, nobody trashed anybody. After the Q&A, Vidal read from a letter he received from the late novelist Italo Calvino, and Mailer, perhaps not wanting to disappoint too much, read from his book "The Fight," about the Muhammad Ali-George Forman bout in Zaire.
And then, after the show, they all went to a supper party given by author Jean Stein.
As Tim Mayer wrote in his epic poem:
It's only right
That dogs who've had their day should claim a night
To recollect the glory of their noon,
And bow and wow a little at the moon.