Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Executioner's Sort-of Song

Norman Mailer, two-fisted, ornery, and prodigiously talented, is dead at 84. I knew him, Horatio, not well, but colorfully, as he was truly a colorful man, and, more often than not, a really good writer.
I met him during the course of my flagrant and flighty success with The Pretenders, when he was running for Mayor of New York, and there was a fund raiser in the mansion of a Bryn Mawr friend of mine, a jillionaireness who was a character in the novel but too spacey to read it, so had no idea. Her husband, though, to whom I had introduced her, had been my doctor when I lived in NY, and although not too sharp medically, could read, so had read it, and said "You're a very naughty girl." But he wasn't angry, I don't think, just pleased he had seemed memorable, if somewhat silly and impotent.
I was standing on the second story of her marblelized manse, with an actual balustrade carved from the same, looking down at the party in the-- well, it wasn't quite a ballroom, but could've passed for one, certainly can in memory. Mailer was a few steps away from me, very short and thick and sputtering with bombast, in a sort of endearing way. I was being followed around town and interviewed by Marlene Nadel, a bright woman with the Village Voice, who was marking down my words and actions, thrilling to me at the time, of course, because I knew I was not just the mindless author of a sexy bestseller, but nobody else outside my immediate family which included my classmates seemed aware of that, but Marlene apparently did. It was at this point that I engaged in a verbal wrestling match with Mailer, who was having an affair with a writer friend's wife who was at the same time also having an affair with the wife of Mailer, material, rich as it was, unthinkable for me to use at the time, innocent that I really was beneath the sequins and high-level soft core, which Dr. Nahm, the philosophy professor at Bryn Mawr pronounced my work. I considered the writer whose wife it was a true friend, so put out of my mind the sexual proclivities behind their smart facades which apparently went pretty deep.
Anyway, there stood Mailer, and I engaged him. I don't remember what I said, but Marlene noted it and put it in the article-- Village Voice, 1969, I wonder if those records exist?-- but whatever it was pricked him. It was then I noted I was standing but a few feet away from the rather low balustrade, remembered that he had stabbed his wife, and that it would take but a quick swat of his muscular arm, and splat! There would go the rest of the books. So I shut up. But my feeling about him was rather tender, as I sensed a good soul beneath the bluster.
When an actual good novel I'd written, Touching, became the landmark libel case in fiction-- a very long story I have told elsewhere-- and Doubleday, having defended me all the way to the Supreme Court arguing the decision against me would have a chilling effect on fiction, once the Supremes declined to hear the case(except for Justices Brennan, Stewart and Marshall, the pro-1st amendmenters on the bench at the time)turned and sued me on the basis of the indemnification clause all writers sign holding the publisher blameless, it became necessary for me to try and get important writers to line up with me, asking Doubleday to withdraw the suit. I had to call writers I didn't know to ask for their help-- plead, really. Those calls
were made very early in the morning, as most of the writers were in the east. Besides, I didn't want my children to hear, as they were already in a state of fear and confusion that had fallen like a termiter's blue bag over our house, which we had to homestead so Doubleday couldn't take it away from us. Robert was delivering Herald-Examiners on his bicycle when I was on the front page, and thought I had committed a crime-- if you couldn't explain the First Amendment and Fiction to a jury in Santa Monica, how explain it to a ten-year-old boy? My daughter, seeing her floor being waxed, asked "Are you selling the house? Will I still be able to go to my school?"(In those ancient days, remember, people moved to the flats just so their children could be part of the Beverly Hills school system.)
So there I was, at six in the morning, calling those I admired and was intimidated by but had never even met(Truman Capote: "THat's TERRIBLE!" he mewed. "I shall call Nelson this very morning!" "Mr. Capote," I said, "thank you. But Nelson Doubleday doesn't own it anymore.") Then I called the fierce Mr. Mailer. His secretary got back to me. "You can add his name to the list, but he said for you not to do that anymore. He was a character in somebody's novel and he didn't like it."
Warm-spot-in-my-heartedly, I stepped up to see him decades later, when he and George Plimpton(another Helas!) were doing their Fitzgerald-Hemingway thing at the 92nd Street Y. By then Mailer was on two canes. I introduced myself, and did a quick summary, cutting to my gratitude at his having supported me.
"I SUPPORTED YOU!" he actually shouted, planting himself somewhat uncertainly on his feet, and lifting both canes in the air, waved them like the capricious little boy he still was, even old.
So there goes another one who was just the man you'd hoped he'd be. I am happy he got to write his last piece declaring God creative, and probably a writer, maybe not unlike Mailer himself. I hope Mailer welcomes Mailer.