He was a character, on and off the page

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Norman Mailer, the pugnacious two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who jabbed and bobbed his way, sometimes literally, through an extraordinary career as one of the most original and audacious voices in postwar American letters, died Saturday. He was 84.

Beset by serious health problems that required heart bypass surgery in 2005 and hospitalizations for lung problems this fall, Mailer died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, according to J. Michael Lennon, his literary executor.

Mailer, called “a great and obsessed stylist” by Joan Didion, wrote nearly 50 books that zigzagged among genres, including fiction, biography, history, essays and highly personal journalism. He was a grand provocateur with an unapologetically macho sensibility who, in acts on and off the page, reaped more glory, failure and notoriety than any other major writer of his generation.


“There was no voice like his,” Didion said Saturday from her home in New York. “. . . The shape of the sentence, the way the words worked together, he understood that and it was very, very important to him.”

In his work, Mailer grappled with the salient events and personalities of his time -- whether writing about the Cold War and anti-Vietnam War protests or icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali. He refracted the gamut of contemporary culture -- existentialism, political conventions, Apollo moon shots, sex and relations between the sexes -- through what writer Camille Paglia called his “very complex consciousness.”

His fiction revealed the vastness of his aspirations. After rocketing to the top of the literary heap at 25 with a World War II novel, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), he went on to write an “autobiography” of Jesus (“The Gospel According to the Son,” 1997) and a saga that swept across two centuries of Egyptian history (“Ancient Evenings,” 1983). His last novel, “The Castle in the Forest,” published this year, imagines Adolf Hitler as a boy and is narrated by a devil.

Although novelist was the identity that Mailer cherished most, it was not his most celebrated role. He “has never been able to write convincing dialogue, a fact that has seriously limited him,” Tom Wolfe once wrote. Of Mailer’s four dozen books, only 10 were novels in the traditional sense, and the bad reviews outweighed the good.

Most critics would say Mailer never reached his goal of writing the Great American Novel, but Didion, the consummate prose stylist of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and other classics, quickly dismissed that notion.

“He wrote it about a dozen times,” she said. “Once he wrote it with ‘Executioner’s Song’ and didn’t call it a novel.”


She was alluding to Mailer’s command of the hybrid genre that became known as New Journalism, the novelistic rendering of factual stories. His “The Armies of the Night” (1968), about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979), about Utah double-murderer Gary Gilmore, proved he was a master of this demanding form, pioneered by Truman Capote, that blurred the lines between literature and reportage. The Pulitzer committee honored the former novel for nonfiction and the latter for fiction, validating the protean nature of Mailer’s talent.

Critics thought it notable that there was no Mailer character in “The Executioner’s Song.” It was the exception in an extensive body of nonfiction work in which Mailer featured himself as the often buffoonish participant-observer.

In “The Armies of the Night,” which also won a National Book Award, the author was ever present as the persona variously called “Mailer,” “the Beast,” “the Ruminant” and “the General.” He called himself “Aquarius” in “Of a Fire on the Moon,” “the Prisoner” in “The Prisoner of Sex” and “the reporter” in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” Sometimes, as in “The Fight,” a small classic about the 1974 bout pitting Ali against George Foreman, he was simply “Norman.”

“For a heady period, no major public event in U.S. life seemed quite complete until Mailer had observed himself observing it,” Paul Gray wrote in Time magazine in 1983.

An unruly image

The hubris that enabled such bold work also fueled the extra-literary exploits that burnished Mailer’s unruly image.

He divorced five wives and, in 1960, nearly stabbed one to death. In the 1970s, at the height of the women’s movement, he was reviled by feminists, in part because of the stabbing but also because of his impolitic characterizations of women as “low, sloppy beasts” who were made to bear children. In 1981 Mailer sponsored the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, a convict with literary ambitions, an experience that turned tragic when Abbott killed a man six weeks after his release.


Mailer was notorious for tussling with critics. Backstage at “The Dick Cavett Show” in the early 1970s, he head-butted Gore Vidal, who had written that Mailer’s violent streak put him in the same league as mass murderer Charles Manson. (After the head-butting, Vidal quipped, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”)

Another time, Mailer knocked heads with columnist Jimmy Breslin, who joked that the impact probably cost the wild man of American literature two chapters of his next book.

Mailer’s tough-guy approach also was reflected in a proposal offered during his quixotic 1969 run for New York mayor (with Breslin as his running mate) to ease urban tensions with armored jousts in Central Park. His unpredictable behavior prevented Mailer from being “filed away in any known literary category,” critic Morris Dickstein said in 2006.

Vidal once observed that Mailer was a public writer who “wants to influence those who are alive at this time, but they will not notice him even when he is good. So each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells.”

Mailer explained himself this way: “I shared with [Ernest Hemingway] the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one’s talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve.”

His early years

Mailer’s abundance of nerve could be traced to beginnings in Long Branch, N.J., where the son of Jewish immigrants was born Jan. 31, 1923. “He was our king,” his mother, Fanny Schneider Mailer, told biographer Peter Manso.


He was an exceptional student at P.S. 161 in Brooklyn, where his family moved when he was 4; at graduation, the principal announced that Norman had an IQ of 165, a school record. He entered Harvard University at 16 and earned a degree in engineering in 1943.

The young Mailer stuck with engineering even though as a freshman he discovered a love of modern American literature -- John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell. He revered Hemingway for his virility as much as for his literary style. In his sophomore year Mailer began to write Hemingway-esque short stories for the Harvard Advocate. One of those stories, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” won Story magazine’s college competition in 1941.

The following year Mailer spent the summer working at a mental hospital, accruing material that inspired his first novel, “A Transit to Narcissus.” Written in a style that Mailer later described as “heavily tortured,” it was rejected by more than 20 publishers, but the budding author was unshaken. When World War II commenced, he regarded it as an opportunity to be mined. While other young men contemplated which branch of the military to join, “I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific,” Mailer wrote, “and the longer I thought, the less doubt there was in my mind. Europe was the place.”

The Army, however, had other plans. Mailer was drafted and sent to the Pacific as the Philippines campaign was winding up. Initially assigned to intelligence in the 112th Armored Cavalry Regiment from San Antonio (where he absorbed the Texas drawl he often would affect in later years), he won a transfer to front-line duty as a rifleman but saw little combat. He served with the U.S. occupation army in Japan as a cook, was demoted for insubordination and left the military as a private.

When he returned home in 1946, he gathered the letters he had written to his wife of two years, Beatrice Silverman, a Boston University music major, and used them as notes for his war novel.

Set on a fictional Pacific island held by the Japanese during the war, “The Naked and the Dead” explored the theme that would run through much of his later work: the clash between a willful individual and established authority. The language was shocking for the 1940s, full of “fugs” and “fugging,” the closest approximation of an obscenity his publisher would allow.


The book, written in 15 months in an unsentimental yet conventional style, was hailed by critics as a supremely accomplished debut, with Orville Prescott of the New York Times calling it “the most impressive novel about the Second World War that I have ever read.” It remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for a year, holding the No. 1 spot for 11 straight weeks, and turned the 25-year-old first-time author into a sensation. Nearly 60 years later, it is still considered one of the best American war novels and Mailer’s finest effort as a novelist.

His next novel, “Barbary Shore” (1951), was an agonized exploration of Cold War ideologies as seen through the characters of a liberal war veteran, an FBI agent and a former Soviet party official. It was savagely panned.

Mailer thought his third effort, “The Deer Park,” would redeem him. Conceived as the first of several novels in a series, it offered a satiric view of Hollywood, but six publishers rejected the manuscript outright because of its graphic sexual content. It was finally published in 1955 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons to mixed notices. In one of the more charitable reviews, Brendan Gill of the New Yorker called it “a big, vigorous, rowdy, ill-shaped, and repellent book, so strong and so weak, so adroit and so fumbling, that only a writer of the greatest and most reckless talent could have flung it between covers.”

After the drubbing of “Deer Park,” Mailer turned to writing essays and cultural criticism for magazines such as Esquire and Partisan Review. He also co-founded and named the nation’s first alternative weekly newspaper, the Village Voice, in 1955.

Along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Mailer became one of the Eisenhower era’s premier avatars of hip. He earned the distinction in 1957 when Dissent magazine published “The White Negro,” his most celebrated essay.

An explication of “American existentialism,” it laid out Mailer’s definition of the “hipster” as a man who responds to the possibility of atomic annihilation by deciding to “live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.” This new breed of urban adventurer “absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes,” Mailer wrote, “could be considered a White Negro.”


The essay seemed to glorify hoodlum violence with its blurring of machismo and criminality. Among the critics who were repelled by it was writer James Baldwin, who objected to Mailer’s portrayal of the black man as “a kind of walking phallic symbol.” The essay’s preoccupation with violence and masculinity previewed a theme that critic Dickstein said, “would haunt Mailer’s life and work for the next 30 years.”

“White Negro” formed the heart of “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), a collection of stories, essays and other writings, including some that Mailer acknowledged were quite flawed. Nonetheless, it was an influential volume that declared his intention to lead a public life of importance, to “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.”

Among its admirers was critic Alfred Kazin, who said that it was “full of more penetrating comment on the America of Eisenhower, television, suburbia, and J.D. Salinger than anything I have seen in years.” He concluded that Mailer was “one of the most variable, unstable, and on the whole unpredictable writers I have ever read.”

“Advertisements” closed a decade full of personal tumult. His marriage to Silverman ended in 1951, and three years later he married artist Adele Morales. After an all-night party at their Manhattan apartment in 1960, he stabbed her, was arrested and spent two weeks at Bellevue Hospital Center’s psychiatric ward in New York City. He was released after Morales declined to press charges. Mailer emerged somewhat chastened but unable to focus on the big novel he felt he had inside him.

After tumult, a comeback

The ‘60s provided the material for a triumphant comeback.

Particularly noteworthy was his political journalism for Esquire, which included “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” a keenly observed essay on the 1960 Democratic National Convention and the invigorating candidacy of John F. Kennedy. It was collected in “The Presidential Papers” (1963), which Mailer framed as advice for Kennedy, whose wartime heroics and marriage to a beautiful woman embodied the manly ideals the author prized.

Years before the term New Journalism was coined, Mailer described “Superman” as “enormously personalized journalism” that marked the beginning of his realization that conventional reporting, with its claims of objectivity, “was one of the great lies of all time.” The piece influenced a younger generation of writers, including Pete Hamill, then a reporter at the New York Post, who told Marc Weingarten in “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight” (2006) that Mailer “took the form and exploded it, and showed writers that there were other possibilities.”


Next came “An American Dream” (1965), a best-selling novel despite mixed reviews that often cited the vulgarity of Mailer’s language. It features a war hero-turned-politician named Stephen Rojack, who regards violence as self-affirming and kills his wife in the first chapter. Some critics thought they recognized Mailer in Rojack. In “Sexual Politics,” a classic 1970 analysis of misogyny in literature that skewered Mailer along with Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence, feminist theorist Kate Millett derided “American Dream” as “an exercise in how to kill your wife and live happily ever after.”

Mailer continued his exploration of violence and madness in “Why Are We in Vietnam?” (1967), his fifth novel. Vietnam is not mentioned until the last page, as the main character, a hipster named D.J. who hunts bears with helicopters and overwhelming firepower, prepares for his tour of duty. Though it received poor reviews (the New York Times’ Anatole Broyard called it “a third-rate work of art”), the novel earned Mailer the first of the five National Book Award nominations he would receive during his career.

Mailer’s next book, initially published in Harper’s and Commentary magazines, dazzled the literary world as much as Capote’s nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood” had two years earlier. It not only revived Mailer’s reputation but raised it, Wolfe later observed, “to a point higher than it had ever been in his life.”

“The Armies of the Night” recounts Mailer’s participation in the anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in October 1967, when he was arrested for crossing a police line. It interlaced shrewd social and political commentary with a comic self-portrait of the celebrity author who insults cocktail party hosts, is so drunk that he relieves himself on the men’s room floor, and hurls insults as emcee of a pre-march rally attended by thousands.

“Armies” became a bestseller and won not only the Pulitzer and a National Book Award but journalism’s prestigious George Polk Award. Considered more perceptive than his other writings on the era -- including the nonfiction narrative “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” (1968) -- it analyzed the personalities and political forces that underlay America’s turmoil over Vietnam.

At the same time, the book, which bore the subtitles “The Novel as History” and “History as a Novel,” was recognized as an innovation in literary form.


“Mailer’s intuition in the book is that the times demand a new form. He has found it,” Kazin wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

“Armies” ushered in Mailer’s most prolific and brilliant decade. During the 1970s he wrote nine books, including “Of a Fire on the Moon,” an account of the 1969 flight to the moon that first appeared in Life magazine. His essay “The Prisoner of Sex,” a reply to the feminist cant of Millett, first appeared in Harper’s magazine and sold more copies than any single issue in that publication’s history. For Esquire he wrote “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” a long essay about the extremely brief 1962 Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson fight that some critics consider Mailer’s best short prose.

Driven by personal needs

His frenetic output was driven in part by high overhead. By 1970 the self-described “prisoner of wedlock” had six children, a wife and three former wives. After Silverman and Morales came a short union with Lady Jeanne Campbell in 1962 and a much longer one (17 years) to Beverly Bentley in 1963. (In 1980, he divorced Bentley, married and divorced Carol Stevens, then married Norris Church, a novelist, painter and former model. Church survives him, along with a sister, Barbara Mailer Wasserman, nine children and 10 grandchildren.)

Alimony, child support and upkeep on homes in Brooklyn and Provincetown, Mass., combined with declining book royalties and ventures in experimental filmmaking (“Wild 90,” “Beyond the Law” and “Maidstone”), pushed him into debt. In 1978, Mailer told reporters he owed $300,000.

A $50,000 contract to write a 25,000-word essay attracted him to an assignment on Marilyn Monroe that was brokered by Lawrence Schiller, who had shot some of the last nude photos of the screen goddess. It was the first of several collaborations between Schiller and Mailer, which included two television miniseries based on Schiller’s books about Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent who passed secrets to the Soviet Union, and the “dream team” lawyers who successfully defended O.J. Simpson against murder charges in the 1990s.

For the Monroe book, Mailer wound up writing a 100,000-word “novelistic biography.” “Marilyn: A Biography” (1973) became a controversial bestseller, in part because of Mailer’s allegation that Monroe, whose death had been ruled a suicide, had been murdered to cover up an affair with Robert F. Kennedy. After TV journalist Mike Wallace raised questions about Mailer’s sources on the CBS show “60 Minutes,” the author conceded that he might have written the book too fast. Wallace described the book as “Aphrodite as observed by King Kong,” and critics were no more charitable, panning it as derivative and exploitative.


A few years later, Schiller would be the agent of Mailer’s last major triumph. In 1977 he sent the author thousands of pages of interviews and correspondence he had collected on Gilmore, the Utah murderer whose death by firing squad in January 1977 was the first execution in the U.S. in more than a decade. Mailer was moved by the material and signed a book contract with Little, Brown.

“The Executioner’s Song” opened with Gilmore’s release from prison at 36 after spending more than two decades behind bars. It chronicled his romance with Nicole Baker, a sharp-looking teenage mother; his murders of a gas station owner and a motel attendant; and his incarceration and the events leading to his execution. Mailer told the story in language that was uncharacteristically spare and subdued.

“I realized that it was what I’d been looking to do ever since I wrote ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “I wanted to do an immense panoramic novel with a strong narrative thread to it, a sort of collective novel of America.”

Although some reviewers complained about its length -- more than 1,000 pages -- it earned lavish praise. Didion called it “an absolutely astonishing book” that offered a flawless rendition of the Western voice. Esquire commented that Mailer had finally used his narrative powers “the way they are meant to be used: to tell a story that is not about himself.”

Less praise for his works

He was not to see reviews so lush for most of the rest of his career. Critics found “Ancient Evenings” (1983), a 700-page epic set in early Egypt, daring but self-indulgent. “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1984), a hard-boiled thriller made into a 1987 movie, received a milder response but was a less ambitious work. “Harlot’s Ghost” (1991), a 1,200-page novel about the CIA, ended with the words “To be continued,” which Newsweek said was “enough to send a reader in search of a drink.” Critics also said Mailer brought little insight to “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography” and “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery,” about assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, both published in 1995.

Such attacks did not deter Mailer from rewriting the Bible in “The Gospel According to the Son” (1997), in which the narrator is Jesus. Among the most merciless commentaries on the book was a cartoon on the cover of the New Republic that showed Mailer in a crown of thorns with the caption “He Is Finished.” When Mailer ran into the publisher on the street, he punched him in the face.


Though badly hobbled by arthritis, Mailer at 80 still found battles worthy of his ire. He launched tirades against the Iraq war, criticizing President Bush in college lectures and a slim 2003 book, “Why Are We at War?”

In 2005, Mailer told Rolling Stone magazine that he was “no longer trying to write the Great American Novel,” but his 10th novel, published two years later, showed that his goals remained huge.

Described as “a work of fiction closely based on history,” “The Castle in the Forest” is a metaphysical adventure based on Mailer’s theory that the devil was present at the moment of Hitler’s conception. It became a bestseller, despite a mixed critical reception.

Reviews ranged from raves (“Mailer’s most perfect apprehension of the absolutely alien,” wrote Lee Siegel in the New York Times) to outright pans (“Nearly five hundred of the most revolting pages in recent American fiction,” wrote Ruth Franklin in the New Republic).

Fittingly for Mailer, he followed the novel about the devil with a book about God: “On God: An Uncommon Conversation,” a dialogue with his literary executor Lennon in which he explains his notions of an artistic deity who often succeeds but also can fail.

The same was also said of Mailer during his tireless career. But Mailer, according to Yale scholar and critic Harold Bloom, belongs in the pantheon of literature’s giants.


“He may be remembered more as prose prophet than as a novelist,” Bloom wrote some years ago, “more as Carlyle than as Hemingway. There are worse literary fates. Carlyle, long neglected, doubtless will return. Mailer, now celebrated, doubtless will vanish into neglect, and yet always will return, as a historian of the moral consciousness of his era, and as the representative writer of his generation.”

By his own account, Mailer was, even at his lowest moments, “still worthy of being a character in a novel by Balzac, win one day, lose the next, and do it with boom!”

Private funeral arrangements will be announced this week. The time and date of a public memorial in New York City will be announced in the coming months.