Saturday, November 10. 2007
As you have all probably heard by now, Norman Mailer has died.
Some of you may remember that Mr Mailer very kindly supplied a foreword to my Unholy Alliance; that foreword became part of his chapter on the occult in his book about writing, The Spooky Art.
What you may not realize, however, is that I had known Mr Mailer over a period of almost thirty years, since the time he began writing The Executioner’s Song. That was because a friend of mine – the late Judith McNally – became his assistant then (the mid-1970s). We all lived in Brooklyn Heights in those days, and Mr Mailer’s brownstone was across the street from where Judith lived and about a block from my apartment.
This was not a relationship I deliberately cultivated, largely because I was certain that a lot of would-be writers were always trying to get him to read their manuscripts or open doors for them in the publishing world, or maybe they just wanted his autograph. Instead, I maintained a kind of professional distance from a man I admired greatly (hey, I’m a New Yorker and that’s pretty much what we do!) but helped out from time to time: when his printer wasn’t working, or by locating some research materials he needed to which I had access. I would meet him and his wife Norris Church on those too rare occasions and they were always gracious and charming.
When Unholy Alliance was first published in 1994, however – as a rack-sized paperback – I found I had attracted a fan. Although my friend Judith would opportune him occasionally by pushing one manuscript or another of mine in front of him – those of my (still) unpublished novels – and he would always react favorably, I was still very shy of actually seeking his advice on anything I was working on. After all, the gulf between his craft and mine was considerable. I knew I still had a lot of work to do. And,as one of the most prolific authors I had ever known, he was always very busy.
But Unholy Alliance got his attention. He has stated publicly that he read the book three times, and I can assure you that is so. Mailer was not the sort to hand out praise where it wasn’t due, or to suffer fools gladly (as anyone who has read his work will realize at once). I am not putting all this down to brag; far from it. What I want to emphasize is the nobility of a writer of his stature in dealing with a relative unknown. Because what is not discussed in the obituaries you will read this weekend is his kindness and generosity towards other writers. And I am not the only one, not by far.
I admired his political position on the Vietnam War and, later, on the Iraq War. I admired his approach to culture and the politics of culture. I admired his lack of fear in approaching everything he thought worthwhile, whether it was running for political office or directing films or making his contribution to the JFK assassination literature. If you doubt he was a great writer – probably the greatest American author of our generation – you need only pick up An American Dream, Of A Fire on the Moon, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago … or just read the first page of The Gospel According to the Son. Only Mailer would dare to write in the first person as Jesus one day, and as the Devil the next (The Castle in the Forest). Questions of life and death, God and the Devil, good and evil, and the war between the sexes occupied him for most of his life but especially in the last twenty years or so. He became almost a Gnostic in the way he dealt with these issues. He could cut through a theological argument with a mind sharpened on first-hand experience of war, marriage, politics, and of course literature. His novel of the CIA – Harlot’s Ghost – is truly one of his best works and very probably the best novelization in existence of the CIA and its history up to the Kennedy election and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Again, I ask you to suspend any disbelief for a moment and go back and read some of Mailer. You will be struck by a kind of weird nostalgia for a time when values were being earnestly discussed – not from a tediously dogmatic religious position, but – from the perspective of a cultured, literate, author who wrote as easily in fiction as in non-fiction and for whom fiction was just another way of writing non-fiction. The noise that passes for debate in the dawn of the 21st century is all form and no substance – cotton candy and Wonder bread – when set against the red meat of Mailer’s journalism. He takes no prisoners; not even as a Prisoner of Sex, a book that caught the most flack from the feminist movement even as he believed himself to be a defender and apologist for women and women’s rights.
But it is the man I knew in the past few years that I memorialize here. Visiting him in Provincetown during the annual Norman Mailer Conference, reacquainting myself with his accomplished wife and children, I was able to have some long conversations with him on a wide range of issues. The first year I attended the conference, Judith McNally – who was still working for him all these years, more than 25 as I recall – was there and in fine form. We sat and listened to him discuss the ancient Egyptian concept of the soul, talking about all of this in detail, off-the-cuff and without notes, in the Provincetown Theatre before an audience of his close friends and admirers before reading some pages of Ancient Evenings, his sprawling novel of death and reincarnation. It was an event that still resonates with me, several years after the fact: Norman Mailer, in person, talking about Egyptian religion, mummification, and the ka.
By the same time next year Judith had died, tragically young. Preceding him in death by only eighteen months, I like to think that she has been making arrangements for Norman’s reception in the Afterlife (a suggestion for which I am sure my ears will be boxed when it is my turn to ascend the Chariot!).
There is really too much to say and I am rambling, I know. My condolences go out to Norris, Norman’s wife for twenty-seven years, and to the rest of his family, his friends, to Mike Lennon his archivist and biographer, to Dwayne who was Judith’s opposite number in Provincetown and a writer himself, to the members of the Norman Mailer Society, and to all those readers and fans who recognize that a giant has passed among them, and disappeared … only to leave his writing as testimony to his genius.
During my last conversation with him, he expressed a desire to know how many more years he had to live. He had just finished writing The Castle in the Forest – a novelized biography of Adolf Hitler, told from the point of view of a Demon – and it was designed to be the first volume of a proposed four-volume work. He said that if he knew he had five or six more good years, he would take that time to finish the other three volumes. If he knew he did not, then he would do other things.
He did other things.
Good-bye, Norman. Thank you for everything. It has been a privilege to know you. And a great loss to lose you. Say "Hi" to Judith for me.
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thanks, peter. i've been readin too many obits and articles that seem to spring from jealousy or at least misundertanding of mr mailer and/or his work.
New York, February 2, 2008
Holocaust in Dresden, 1945: Bodies are piles up for mass cremation after the British and American air raid of February 1945 killed over one hundred thousand in one night
Kurt Vonnegut's Last Roar
February 2, 2008 -- KURT Vonnegut is gone - but he left behind a final book that's sure to cause a stir. In "Armageddon in Retrospect," out this April, the former Army man gives a jolting account of the relentless bombing of Dresden during World War II and how US forces passed out pamphlets to survivors justifying it as the "unintentional, unavoidable fortunes of war."
He writes: "The leaflet should have read: We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theater, your university, the zoo and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren't trying hard to do it . . . So sorry. Saturation bombing is all the rage these days."
Would be nice to hear your thoughts about some of the amazing events happening these days. The comets, the rash of UFO sightings, the fumigation of NYC, etc. Check out newyorkskywatch.com and let us know what you think...
"I admired his approach to culture and the politics of culture."
Including his virulent misogyny, which he acted out in real life in such ways as stabbing his wife Adele nearly to death?
I agree with Johann Hari:
If Mailer had been a vicious racist, nobody would have given him a pass. Hating women, though? Just a mere pecadillo, right?
I can understand your reaction, of course, but I should respond.
I knew his personal assistant, Judith McNally, for all the time she worked for him. Had Mr Mailer been a "virulent misogynist", as you say, Judith would not have lasted one week, much less the over 20 years she did (until the day she died). I knew Judith well; she was a feminist in the 1960s mold as well as an activist for various causes, from animal rights to Palestinian issues. She was not the type to suffer fools gladly, or at all.
Further, I know his wife, Norris, who also would not have stood for the kind of person you describe but instead remained married to him for decades.
As per his stand on feminism, Mailer was not a doctrinaire anything. He did not believe in slogans, jingoism, or easy answers to complex questions. I don't believe one could call him either a feminist or an anti-feminist. He took issue with feminism as it was known and understood in the 1960s, and in the past few years there has been a re-evaluation of Mailer's stand vis-a-vis feminism and his reputation in that regard has been salvaged a bit. Learned papers on this topic have been presented at various symposia on Mailer's work, papers -- I might add -- written by women scholars.
Yes, Mailer stabbed Adele. And William Burroughs shot his wife in the head. In obituaries for both men, these events are duly noted. They have not been glossed over. In fact, the stabbing of Adele usually makes the first paragraph in any article about Norman Mailer, as Burrough's killing of his wife makes the first paragraph in any article about him. But to say that Mailer hated women ignores the basic facts of the rest of his life and work.
I don't know: he may have hated Adele (which is not to say that the stabbing was justified!). But he didn't hate his daughters, and he certainly didn't hate Judith or Norris Church, as I was able to observe first hand.
Thus, I have to disagree with Johann Hari's article.
Just because a man is a misogynist doesn't mean he doesn't occasionally befriend or otherwise become fond of a woman...usually because "she's not like all those other, shallow, gossipy, deceitful, [insert pejoratives here] women." Meaning, quite often, that she never challenges him. Since McNally was his personal assistant, and therefore in a subordinate position, perhaps that was true of her.
Plenty of men who are steadfastly opposed to women's rights love their daughters, and wives, or at least claim to. Somehow, this "love" and viewing the gender of said daughters/wives as fully human are mutually exclusive.
Finally, I can't precisely get too excited at the fact that "women scholars" have tried to salvage Mailer's reputation. Women can be misogynists. In fact, some of them are viciously so. It's called internalized misogyny.
These is all pretty basic feminist truisms. It's disappointing, but not surprising, to see "progressive" men out there who don't get it, all these years later.
Oh, and on a side note: I'm pro-Israel and anti-animal rights, so count me as unimpressed with McNally's activism.
You see, that's the problem. If a woman scholar defends Mailer's position on feminism, then she is an "internalized misogynist". In other words, there is no winning this argument. One has to be either for you (personally) or against you. (personally) in order to become identified as a misogynist or not. You have not read the work being done by these scholars, but you have already characterized their position.
As for McNally ... challenging Mailer was what she did, on a virtually daily basis. She was not a "subordinate" in any normal sense of the word, aside from the fact that she was paid a salary. She was nobody's fool, and had a reputation of being tough and uncompromising. Of course, according to your idee fixe, she was part of the problem and not the solution.
We are arguing at cross-purposes since I knew the people in question and you did not. All I can do is report what I observed, over the course of many, many years. It's easy to throw stones from a comfortable distance, and to quote sources that bolster your opinion while ignoring those that disagree. For instance, you are unimpressed with McNally's activism because you don't share her political views: this makes her feminism suspect in your eyes, while the mere fact that she was such an activist for unpopular causes should make you question whether your characterization of her is fair. I don't mean that her causes automatically give her feminist credentials, but that one is forced to examine the case more closely. She was not a cypher but an active participant in many ways.
But if you start with the premise that Mailer was a "virulent misogynist" then you can argue backwards from there to find proof of your position.
And, of course, just because he treated his family well does not mean that he was not a misogynist; I offered those examples as evidence, not as ultimate proof. If a man mistreats his family -- particularly the women in his family -- we might be justified in claiming his misogyny; but if he treats his family well, with love and affection and deep concern, then we have to look elsewhere for proof of misogyny.
Of course, there are those who characterize all "old white men" as the enemy: a stereotype as useless as any other. There is no information, no data, in the stereotype ... or in your response to my posting on Mailer's death. I don't expect everyone (or even most people, or even many people) to agree with the things that I write. I simply offer the data that I have collected, and others can make up their minds. You have made up yours.
Maybe that means I "don't get it." We're going to have to let history decide on that one.
I spent enough time in enough "situations" in the Sixties to realize that there were usually two (or more) sides to any political or cultural question. You have your side, and I respect it. But it is not consistent with the facts as I know them, so I can't share them.
As I have done over the last several years, I ran an internet search for Judith McNally tonight, and found your message above. I am saddened to learn of her passing, but find it somehow appropriate that she may well still be "taking care of Norman."
regards, one who knew her, though not well.
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