Mailer's Final Gift
The inside story of how the legendary author’s friends and family kept his literary legacy alive with the creation of The Norman Mailer Writers Colony at his cherished home in Provincetown. By Lawrence Schiller.
The inside story of how the legendary author’s friends and family kept his literary legacy alive with the creation of The Norman Mailer Writers Colony at his cherished home in Provincetown.
“Writing is spooky. There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words.”
–Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003)
When I walked into the room, it was late in the day and Norman was sitting at one end of the dining-room table in the chair he always sat in, reviewing some page proofs and type samples from a still-untitled book. My wife, Kathy, was talking to Norris, Norman’s wife, in the living room of their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Norman looked up at me. I’d just returned from China. It was early August of 2007.
“So how is the Chinese art coming?” Norman said. His voice was weak and now lacked the boxer’s punch that he was known for.
“Larry, I had a dream about you. I was God and you were the Devil and we made a pact to fight technology. This is our last stand against technology.”
“Do you mean, have I started selling yet?” I replied with a little smile. I placed my 220 pounds down across from a now 96-pound Norman. I was to discover that Norman had lost most of his appetite.
“Read some of this. Mike [Lennon] and I have been talking about God and Random House loves it so much that they’re rushing it out,” Norman said with some satisfaction.
“What you mean is they want to get it into print before you die,” I replied. “What’s the title?
Norman named a few possibilities and I thought, So you want to let the world know what you think of God before you’re dead.
He looked up at me and, as if he were reading my mind, said, “I’m prepared to die, Larry. I won’t be alive by the end of this year.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“I can hardly take a breath. The scar tissue is all over my lungs.”
“So when are you going into the hospital?”
Norman continued editing his text. The ocean was just outside the large bay window to his right; a breeze blew in through an open door at the end of wooden bar a few yards behind us. He was 84. I was 70. Both of us had heart serious conditions and were living on pills. After eight hours on the surgeon’s table, Norman had lost too much weight. I needed to.
“Lots to deal with, little time left.” Norman said as Mike Lennon came into the room. Both of us had known Norman for 30 years. Mike was a professor emeritus of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, had edited several of Norman’s books, and was now writing Norman’s authorized biography.
“Do you think we should discuss having a chair endowed in Norman’s name?” Lennon asked me. It was the first I’d heard about the idea.
“While I’m still alive?” Norman interjected.
“Why not?” Lennon replied.
“At Harvard,” I suggested.
“Harvard,” Norman repeated. The way he said it, it was obvious he was thinking of another university, even though he’d been an editor of the Harvard Advocate when he was a student there.
“Is there a university in Brooklyn or Manhattan that we should speak to?” I said, “And how much money does one need?”
“A million or one and a half,” Lennon said. “That would give you $70,000 to $80,000 a year for a full professor.”
Norman seemed bored with the conversation and went back to editing the pages before him. After a while, without looking up, he said, “Let’s talk about something like this book or what’s going to happen to this house. I’m not interested in a chair.”
A rush of thoughts flooded over me: What would become of the house?
The three-story brick edifice had been built in the early 20th century by a doctor, and its overhanging eaves were now covered with ivy. The huge living room featured floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the harbor. Just outside was a long wooden deck with five steps leading down to the ocean. Inside, all over the house, Norris’s large, striking paintings hung on the walls. Everywhere you looked were photos of Norman and Norris’s family.
They had begun coming here together in 1983, and had spent the great majority of their time in Ptown since the early 1990s. In the summers, the house would fill up with their kids, his sister’s family, their grandchildren, in-laws, and many friends. It was in this house that Norman had written great chunks of his 30 books. The house had become part of the town’s cultural heritage. Norman often said that Provincetown had become for him what Key West and Cuba were for Hemingway.
In some ways, at that moment the Norman Mailer Writers Colony was conceived. There was no concrete thought yet of a writers’ colony. It just became clear that this house, which fronted the beach and tasted the waters of the Atlantic, would continue to have a life after Norman.
A week after our talk in the dining room, Norman was hospitalized at Mount Sinai, in New York City. A nurse, knowing who he was, said nervously to him, “I’d like to write, but I don’t know how.”
“Well, what are you doing this weekend?” he asked.
“Going sailing with my boyfriend.”
“So when you get home, write about your weekend,” Norman replied, “and bring it to me and I’ll take a look at it.”
I had overheard that conversation and the following week when I returned to visit Norman, he was in the ICU. And there he was, pencil in hand, editing some text. The same nurse was sitting there at his side, her back to the window, listening in awe to his every word as he went line by line through the typed pages she had given him. Finally, he handed her his corrections. She just sat there reading his notes, over and over and over. And Norman, tubes and IVs stuck all over his body, went back to reading the newspaper.
The two of them were framed almost in silhouette. I lifted my little Sony camera and took a picture. The groundwork for the Colony continued to be laid without anybody saying a word about it.
Norman survived a six-hour operation in early October 2007 to remove the scar tissue on his lungs. When he awoke, he looked up at Norris, Mike Lennon, and me and said, “Larry, I had a dream about you. I was God and you were the Devil and we made a pact to fight technology. This is our last stand against technology.” That was vintage Norman, never giving up on his battles against technology and plastics.
One week later, Norman went under the knife again. This time when he woke up, he had a hole in his windpipe, could not speak, and could barely write. After another four weeks in Mount Sinai, during which his condition continued to decline, the doctors told his family and close friends that the computer printout of Norman’s condition made it clear: It was time. And Norman had already said, while he was still able to speak, that he was ready to die. Less than six hours later, Norman died.
Norman was buried at the tip of Cape Cod, in the Provincetown cemetery. Mike Lennon and I were two of a dozen speakers who stood next to the mahogany casket. Off to the side were photographs depicting Norman’s life.
That evening as the sun began to set, there was a reception at Norman and Norris’s house. Some 60 people gathered. At one point, I was talking to Hans Janitschek and his wife, Friedl.
“So what will happen to the house?” Hans asked me.
“I know one thing: Norman didn’t want it to be lost to history.”
“So will the family keep it?”
As we continued to talk, one of us—I don’t remember who—first used the words “writers’ colony.” And they stayed there in the air, hovering, as our conversation moved on to other topics.
The next morning I mentioned the idea to Norris and a few of Norman’s kids. Norris noted that Norman had helped hundreds of writers over the years, reading and commenting on manuscripts, sending many to his agents and publishers, and answering questions in letters and giving advice on a writer’s life. I asked Norris if I could give the Colony a try and she replied, I think without giving it much thought, that she loved the idea and had no objections. Later that morning, Mike Lennon told me that he thought the house was the right place for students, writers, and scholars from all over the world to congregate. We agreed that the vision of the Colony would have to be as wide and as varied as Norman’s vision as a writer.
A few minutes later, I found myself standing in Norman’s third-floor writing room, which faced west. He would never again climb the 30 steps I had just climbed and sit down at his desk at the end of the room. He’d never again look out the big window, from which he could see the full sweep of the shore of Provincetown Harbor. I surveyed the room: exercise equipment, rarely used; three closets under the eaves stacked with books, not much floor space; a small bed under another eave; more bookshelves crammed with what looked like 2,000 books; folders with labels— Himmler, Goering, Hitler’s Bunker, Rasputin; a fax machine, a small box with dictionaries in various languages, some almost clawed apart from use. I lifted my camera and photographed his study. I felt so alone at that moment. But that feeling reinforced my will to preserve Norman’s legacy.
When I was 21 and working as a photojournalist covering the making of Anatomy of a Murder, the film director Otto Preminger said to me: “If you want to succeed, don’t be afraid to surround yourself with talented people.” To build a nonprofit, I knew I would need professional help.
Within a month I would be on the phone forming a committee of writers: Günter Grass, Joan Didion, William Kennedy, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“Mike,” I said to Lennon on the phone, “can you help me out? I need to understand a lot more about the education establishment.” “Sam,” I said on the phone to Radin, the co-trustee of the Mailer estate, “I need to consult with you about forming a writers colony in Norman’s name.”
“Tom,” I said to Staley, the director of Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas where Norman’s archives resided, “can I come to Austin? I’d like to talk about your center’s involvement in the Colony.”
“Spas,” I said to Roussev, my friend, “I need some help in providing a good financial foundation for the Colony.”
“Tina,” I said to Brown, the former editor of The New Yorker, whom I had written for, “I need a lot of advice; for me, these are uncharted waters.”
It all started to come together. The vision of the Colony was to keep alive the endangered serious writer; it would bring writers together for workshops, seminars, lectures, readings, and conferences; provide a space for individual growth; offer fellowships, stipends, and scholarships for those in need; reach out to the community and make visiting writers available to schools and organizations; and offer residencies for visiting professionals. I invited educators and noted writers to be on the faculty, and everyone stepped up to the plate. Norman had left his mark on the literary world, and now, in an outpouring, many of its members were there for him.
In the following months, the Colony, in partnership with the National Council of Teachers of English, established a series of national writing awards open to all high-school, college, and university students to encourage the passion, skill, and commitment that Norman exhibited during his 60-year writing career.
Last year, Norris held a reception at the house to introduce me to those of her and Norman’s friends whom I didn’t know. More than 100 people attended. We talked about Norman and his work. We talked about the coming election and how the country might change if Barack Obama, another literary man, was elected president.
The next step for me is to present The Norman Mailer Writers Colony to students and writers of all ages and call for applications. I know that if the first step was hard, every subsequent step might get gradually harder.
For more information about The Norman Mailer Writers Colony, visit www.nmwcolony.org.
Lawrence Schiller began his career as a photojournalist for Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published numerous books, including W. Eugene Smith's Minamata and Norman Mailer's Marilyn . He collaborated with Albert Goldman on Ladies and Gentleman , Lenny Bruce , and with Norman Mailer on The Executioner's Song and Oswald's Tale . He has also directed seven motion pictures and miniseries for television; The Executioner's Song and Peter the Great won five Emmys.