GOAT?

Was Norman Mailer an Overrated Bully?

Mailer was certainly not shy when it came to praising his own literary and fighting talents.

10.03.15 4:01 AM ET

When it was all said and done, Norman Mailer didn’t make much of a dent. This is not a metaphor.

You may remember Mailer—at one time America’s most famous living writer—a man fascinated by violence who stabbed one of his wives and bragged about sparring with former light-heavyweight champion José Torres. Who directed a movie called “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and once used his considerable literary standing to convince a parole board to release a violent killer named Jack Abbott, whose undeveloped literary talent in Mailer’s judgment made his release from prison worth the risk to society. Mailer could make this call because he was the most talented novelist of his generation, or so said Norman Mailer.

Thus Abbott got out and for six weeks, mostly on Mailer’s say-so, was New York’s newest hot literary property, and then stabbed a 22-year-old kid named Richard Adan to death outside the diner where Adan worked, this in an argument over insurance regulations that prohibited customers from walking through the kitchen to the bathroom.

Abbott went back to prison and eventually hung himself in his cell. A good idea but too late to do anybody any good. Mailer never admitted to second thoughts, if any existed. Literature, he said, was worth the risk. The fact that Adan was trying to make something of himself on the stage—both as a playwright and an actor—didn’t matter. Novels, Mailer famously said, could change the world. 

Torres was another literary find. Mailer taught him to write and Torres taught Mailer to box. Torres said Mailer could have been a contender, Mailer said Torres might be a great writer.

All this switching jobs was flattering to everybody, of course, and probably useful. At the very least it changed the subject, and just in time. The critics had by now made some unflattering judgments regarding Torres’ heart in the ring, and noticed that all of Mailer’s best work was journalism. And in the end, in spite of all the promises and bragging, neither of Mailer’s books with a chance to last—“Armies of the Night” and “The Executioner’s Song,”—was the fiction that he had predicted might change the world. They were good story-telling and good reporting but together not remotely in the class of Truman Capote’s masterpiece of personal journalism, “In Cold Blood.”

***

The night this happened was a rainy night in New York and there was a party. Mailer and one of his wives were among the guests—not the wife he stabbed, that romance was over. Also in attendance was a newspaperman from Philadelphia, a distinguished boxing writer named Jack McKinney, who told me this story.

McKinney was in many ways the tough guy that Mailer pretended to be, and his stories were always true.

In any case it was still early in the evening and McKinney had wandered through an unfamiliar apartment looking for a bathroom and instead walked into a guest bedroom where he found himself alone with Norman Mailer’s wife. Norman’s wife had spread a tablecloth over an ironing board and plugged in an iron. McKinney started to back out, but she stopped him and asked if he would give her a hand ironing her hair. She had gotten soaked in the rain and was fuzzing up at the ends.

A few minutes passed and the door opened again, this time the enraged husband. The self-proclaimed most talented writer of his generation, the would-be middleweight contender, the man who might change the world with his fiction—although by this time even Mailer had to know that there were fresh absurdities hatching in his head but no great novels in the bunch—in blew Norman Mailer only to find a sportswriter ironing his wife’s hair.

A sportswriter.

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His manhood on the line, Mailer attacked, and even as McKinney was evening out fuzzy ends with the iron, Norman bounced two soft punches off McKinney’s face. 

Now it gets stranger. McKinney, as it happens, was a fighter himself, a very good amateur middleweight boxer in Philadelphia, which is about ten rungs up the ladder from a make-believe sparring partner for a good professional fighter who, mindful of celebrity friendship and in the interests of American literature, is careful not to tap too hard on the headgear and scramble the talent’s brains. It was a quandary, all right. Here is Jack McKinney, who in spite of having been around boxing all his adult life, in spite of street fights and bar fights and one unforgettable afternoon when a female journalist of our acquaintance walked into the office McKinney and I shared on the 14th Floor of the Philadelphia Inquirer Building and blind-sided him with a thunderous hooking right hand, leaving him a bruised eye that lasted all week—in spite of a lifetime of experience, Jack did not have a clue if what was happening there in front of him in the guest bedroom was assault or play. 

“Norman, stop it,” he said. “What are you doing?”

Still, the could-have-been-contender-if-you-believe-José-Torres pressed the action while McKinney pressed his wife’s hair, continued to straighten out the fuzzy ends and continued to try to get a straight answer out of Norman regarding what was going on. In the end, noise from the guest bedroom caught the attention of another guest, who led Norman to a neutral corner.

And that is really all there is to it. Later in the night Jack noticed Norman sulking by himself in the living room and sat down to cheer him up. Mailer was moody, and seeing he did not want to talk, McKinney, who did not get to New York much and thought he might go the rest of his life never knowing what had happened in the guest bedroom, asked. Purely out of curiosity: had Norman been hitting him or just fooling around?

Jack would never know. Mailer collected his wife and disappeared into the night.