Murder, Sex, and the Writing Life: Norman Mailer’s Biography

How do you tell the story of one of the 20th century’s larger-than-life literary figures? Norman Mailer’s latest biographer J. Michael Lennon talks literary reputation, omens, women, and the never written.

Marty Lederhandler/AP

It took J. Michael Lennon seven years to write Norman Mailer: A Double Life, the 900- page authorized biography of Lennon’s longtime friend. But when you think about it, that’s pretty fast.M

ailer’s very public life was as rich in incident as a 19th-century novel, fueled by what his longtime rival and friend Gore Vidal called “an extremely radical imagination.” Besides the familiar litany of Mailer’s triumphs and humiliations, Lennon read Mailer’s almost 50,000 letters and the more than 7,000 interviews that Mailer gave in his lifetime. And, of course, there’s Mailer’s 40 books, ranging from the brilliant (The Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night, and The Executioner’s Song) to the unfortunate (Death for the Ladies, Marilyn, and The Faith of Graffiti).

Any definitive biography must also treat what Lennon calls the three crises of Mailer’s life: his near-fatal stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales; his championing of the convict criminal Jack Abbott who killed an innocent man shortly after Mailer helped Abbott get out of prison; and the near-break-up of Mailer’s sixth—and most enduring—marriage when Mailer’s ongoing infidelities were revealed. Throw in the four feature films Mailer directed, his six wives and nine children, plus innumerable feuds, friendships, and mistresses, and it’s clear that any attempt at writing a definitive life of Mailer is a prodigious—maybe impossible—undertaking.

But Lennon, an emeritus professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and president of the Norman Mailer Society, has spent almost a lifetime preparing for the job. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Mailer and went on to edit several collections of Mailer’s work, as well as a book of conversations with Mailer. Lennon interviewed Mailer at great length, was granted exclusive access to the letters and diaries, and had the cooperation of Mailer’s family.

The result is a sympathetic but impressively objective narrative which treats Mailer’s actions and scandals, his ideas and literary accomplishments with equal seriousness.

RKF: Do you think that Mailer’s celebrity has colored his literary reputation and how your book will be perceived?

JML: I’ve met dozens, scores, hundreds of people in my life, young and old, who have a received opinion of Mailer based on an article that they read in the New York Post or based on seeing him on television, when he was not at his best. As far as the book is concerned, I am sure that there have been reviews and there will be more reviews that are going to be based on a conclusion about Mailer that was reached a long time ago. My hope is the book will be able to get beyond that, that people will be able to reconfigure, reperceive Mailer based on the evidence I am bringing up.

RKF: What would you like your book to make people see about Mailer that they don’t usually?

JML: I guess his generosity of spirit, his compassion, his interest in people who were not famous. He was interested in people who were famous, absolutely and he had ideas and opinions and theories about fame and identity and ambition and so forth. But he was also terrifically interested in his neighbors in Provincetown, the people he met in bars in Provincetown and in Brooklyn, people who just knocked on his door. It was Gay Talese who said that Norman Mailer may be the most accessible famous American writer in the 20th century, because he was never too busy or too high and mighty to talk to anyone.

Literary Reputation

RKF: Do you think Mailer’s literary legacy suffers because he never wrote a short book that can be assigned to college students?

JML: I think it’s a big problem for understanding Mailer. Colleges do not like to teach thousand-page novels. I mean every sophomore who goes to college in this country reads The Great Gatsby, or they’ll read The Scarlet Letter. Mailer is taught more in journalism, history, American studies, and sociology courses, than he is in English classes.

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RKF: How would you assess Mailer’s strengths and weaknesses as a novelist?

JML: He’s got a great sense of character. Character is his strength. Plot is his weakness. His dialogue is a little soupy sometimes. But his settings are fantastic. His sensitivity to the resonances of nature and place, cityscapes and landscapes is terrific. His characters are people you remember. His plots are a disaster. He could never figure out how to do them. He always wanted the story to rise out of the character and the plot would take care of itself. Well, it doesn’t. It doesn’t take care of itself.

RKF: Later in his career, he turned to history with novels about ancient Egypt, the CIA, and Hitler. Do you think that was a way to compensate for the fact that he wasn’t that great with plot?

JML: Yes, I do. He wrote a letter to me that said it is impossible to escape and transcend the power of historical events. But I think he felt very at home with the historical novel, very at home with biography, too.

Omens, Portents, and a Succubus

RKF: In The Spooky Art, a wonderful book that you edited, Mailer said that whatever else it does, a novel reveals the character of the novelist. So what do Norman Mailer’s novels reveal about his character?

JML: Well, they reveal that he lived in a numinous world where there were forces all around him. Let’s say that not everyone shares that belief today. But he would walk in the room, and the way the furniture was set up would give him a shiver, and he would say, “Something bad is going to happen.” He was very open to all sorts of omens, portents, and forces. He was sometimes afraid to go out of the house on the full moon. So he lived in what you almost might say was a medieval world. He had a medieval world view in which there were angels and devils and demons and forces all around him all the time. You know he told me once that he had been attacked by a succubus [female demon]. I didn’t put it in the book because I didn’t have enough to thread it out. It was just a kind of passing remark. He told me that it happened in Provincetown. He pointed to the house. But I could never get him to talk about it in any detail. He said it was a very unpleasant experience. So he lived in that world, and yet he was raised and educated as a rational, thinking Jewish intellectual, Marx and Freud, and Spengler and so forth.

And so he had that rational side to him, and then he had the transcendental side. I think his books reveal that everything about Mailer is doubled. There are dueling personalities, there are dueling points of view all the time jostling within of all his books and certainly within his own character. He could be the most rational, thoughtful person you ever met, and then he could also sound like you were dealing with a medium sometimes.

RKF: In his books, he’s always talking about all these portents and signs and I can never tell if they’re intended metaphorically or literally.

JML: Mailer, if he were here, would say, “Well that’s the interesting thing about life, isn’t it?”

Mailer and Women

RKF: How do you explain Mailer’s astonishing number of mistresses?

JML: Attractive celebrities are usually followed by a hoard of women. He loved women. He was so terrifically attracted to them. He felt that he needed to learn about himself by being in intimate relations with women. So here’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and another person, another way of being. Part of it was just selfish, sensual, sex. The normal drives.

RKF: But wasn’t part of it being dishonest to the person he loved most, his sixth wife Norris Church?

JML: Yes, yes, and of course that was a great lesson for him because finally when push came to shove he wanted his marriage to Norris to survive more than he wanted to have more affairs with women. The door was shut. He might have fallen off the monogamy wagon a couple of times after that, but I have to tell you, not very much.

RKF: I remember a prominent New York literary woman years ago saying to me, “Norman Mailer is not a father, he is a procreator.”

JML: I wouldn’t agree with that at all. He was a very good father. He cared about all his kids. They will all tell you that when they had a personal situation, he was there. He was understanding, he was helpful, he listened to them, and he encouraged them mightily in all their pursuits.

RKF: Do you think that Mailer’s beef with feminism has had an enduring negative impact on how he is seen?

JML: I think it had a strong impact on how he was seen in the ‘70s. He said some remarkably stupid things that you know were intended to be incendiary and to get a debate going and start an argument. I don’t think he was a misogynist. He made some terrible tactical errors in dealing with women. But a lot of what he was saying—and there is a long discussion of it in the book—was because he was worried that everything was going to become unisex. That procreation would become assembly line. Heterosexual romance would die. That’s what he was afraid of more than anything. But in the short run, all the things that women wanted, Equal Rights Amendment, equal pay, he was never opposed to any of those. So in a way he got a bum deal, but he certainly pushed himself into that position with the stupid things he said.

Mailer and Violence

RKF: Let’s talk about violence. Why did he write so much about murderers? If you sit down and read a dozen of his books in a row, you are spending a lot of time with murderers: Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, Hitler.

JML: Yeah, sure. And Tough Guys Don’t Dance is all about a murder and it’s based on an actual murder case.

RKF: And there’s a murder in An American Dream.

JML: He was trying to write about the enclaves of goodness and virtue that you will find even in the most horrible people. He went to a women’s prisoner some time in the ‘50s with a psychologist friend, and he watched interviews with 15 inmate women. Most of them were in there for violent crime, stabbing their husbands and things like that, and Mailer was stunned by the beauty of these women’s lives. How candid they were. And how, as he said, “crime is just another arrow in their quiver. It’s just a very natural thing.” He said, “I realized then and there that you should never write a person off just because they have committed a crime, even a violent crime. You should try to understand and contextualize. Look to understand the motivation. Look for the hidden virtues in even people like that.”

RKF: But I think that there’s a perception that he somehow enjoyed violence.

JML: I don’t think he enjoyed violence at all. I don’t think he liked violence at all.

RKF: We have to talk about Jack Abbott, the convicted murderer Mailer helped get out of jail.

JML: He did not lead the charge to get Abbott out of prison. He was asked to write a letter attesting to Abbott’s literary ability. That’s all he did. The reason that Abbott got out of jail, was that Abbott snitched on fellow prisoners. That’s a fact. The pardon board said, “We examined him and he’s passed a psychological test for letting him out.” So Mailer was a very small part of it. But people wanted so much for Mailer to lead the charge. They desired it devoutly. But it’s not true. Did he help? Yes. Did he then do a lot for Abbott when he got out? Yes. More than anybody? Yes. Did he bring him home for dinner two or three times a week? Yes. Norris was helping at every turn. Norris spent more time with Abbott than Mailer did. Mailer accused himself. He said, “I didn’t spend enough time with the guy. I could have done more. I should have seen this. I should have anticipated this. I’m supposed to be good at these things. I should have seen that this guy was falling apart.” And he never stopped blaming himself for it. He said, “I am not trying to get out of this. I am responsible. I have blood on my hands.”

RKF: Norris’ comment, which was in her memoir, was: “You wrote that book about Gary Gilmore, and you didn’t learn anything?” Do you think that’s fair?

JML: Absolutely. It’s a brilliant remark. She understood Norman as well as anybody who ever lived. And she was absolutely right. He didn’t heed the lesson of his own book.

Mailer’s Legacy

RKF: Do you think his literary style is underappreciated? To me that’s what makes him great—his prose style.

JML: I think his prose is the most remarkable thing about him. It’s so characteristic of him. I say somewhere in the book that he had two composition modalities, fast and slow. The fast style is the one where he wrote in a white heat. Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Advertisements for Myself, were written in a white heat, and they’re funny, they’re self-reflective.

RKF: Ironic.

JML: Ironic, sardonic and yet he has those beautiful long Melvillian sentences that roll out, those beautiful long periodic sentences. He had a great ear. He sounded out every sentence. Even in his letters, dictating his letters, he would say everything twice. I said he would mutter it, then he would utter it. Even in his letters he didn’t miss a beat.

RKF: Did he find the nonfiction easier to write that fiction?

JML: I think that you could make a strong case, not an iron-clad case, but a strong case, that the books he wrote under pressure with a time limit and a deadline are his best work. An American Dream, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner’s Song. Arguably his three best books. All written under tremendous pressure. I mean Executioner’s Song took eighteen months. You could make the case that when he had to do it, he was just following his instincts, that he wrote his best stuff. When he took his time and he tried to figure out his plot and he didn’t have a plot because he didn’t have real events he was writing about, in those cases, the books were flawed.

RKF: Do you think that his legacy will be mostly as a novelist or as a writer of nonfiction?

JML: Well, I think we might call him ambidextrous. He could write fiction and nonfiction with facility, but I guess I have to come down on the side of the nonfiction.

RKF: Now how much did he listen to his editors?

JML: He didn’t listen to them at all on strategy at all. He didn’t listen to them on the big picture, on structural elements. He’d listen to anyone on tactical matters. I mean I corrected mistakes, I pointed out errors. Well, any good writer is going to get tactical advice and take it. But on the big things like, “You got 260 pages on Uruguay in Harlot’s Ghost Norman, cut it back,” he ignored everybody.

RKF: Might he have been better served if he had listened?

JML: Absolutely. You know I edited a couple of Mailer’s books for Taschen, and I cut them. And it was kind of with a heavy heart when I started, but as I got into it, I said, this seems pretty obvious that this needs to be cut back. You can cut this back and you can really reveal the great stuff that’s inside. I did it for Marilyn and Of A Fire on the Moon and I think they read better. Other people can judge whether I am right or wrong. And it’s easy for me to say now that Norman isn’t alive. But you know, I kept looking over my shoulder.

RKF: Why did he leave so many projects unfinished? The sequel to Harlot’s Ghost is one example.

JML: It was the biggest regret of his life that he made so many promises that he could not fulfill. I think he had set the bar so high, he couldn’t jump over it. And he was always hearing that train whistle. He wanted to go to new places, do new things. And therefore was just unable to finish projects. So he was at his best when he was on the balls of his feet, starting a new project. He said, “A man in motion always has a chance.”