Twenty Years of Correspondence with Norman Mailer
By R. B. STUART
By R. B. STUART
As a young girl in my early 20’s, I learned about Norman Mailer in 1980 from his controversial book, “The Executioner’s Song” chronicling the life and death of convicted Utah murderer Gary Gilmore. Mailer stirred something in me to write. My first attempts I penciled 85 pages about my own troubled childhood----but after dredging up so much emotional muck, I tucked the tablet in a manila envelope and scratched Norman Mailer’s name upon it….hoping one day as a Master writer, he’d guide me to finish the book. Six years later he’d come into my life by way of his novel, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.”
Mailer’s dabbling in film as screenwriter and director, connected our paths in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He frequently spent the summers vacationing at his home on the tiny hook of seaside land at the end of Cape Cod. In 1986 when the 63 year-old veteran writer was scouting for locations and background talent Labor Day weekend for the film adaptation of, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” starring Ryan O’Neal, Isabella Rossellini and Lawrence Tierney.
As a Bostonian, during a holiday the Cape was the place to be. My brother, and friends shimmied on the dance floor of a darkly lit local bar, The A House. Where the blaring and pounding rhythmic music replaced your heartbeat. On the cramped dance floor we gyrated in a frantic sweat---the bodyheat created a sauna. The shirtless male bodies thrusting against each other, passed around a miniature dark brown bottle of Popper’s that spilled between our hands. One sniff of the Amyl Nitrate sent heatwaves throughout your body, and your heart into a thumping overdrive. Casting a yellow haze over the Disco ball of lights, the short-lived euphoric laughter gave way to an aching jaw as the heaviness of reality reemerged.
It was then I noticed a man with an 8-millimeter camera on his shoulder shooting me while I danced. I figured they were with the Provincetown News taping the Labor Day festivities. He was standing on the perimeter of the dance floor panning the dancers and then focusing on me. There was another man with him, older, stalky with thick white wavy hair and protruding ears. He approached me to introduce himself. I strained to hear him over the music.
With a forceful voice thick with a Brooklyn accent announced, "Hello, I'm Norman Mailer. We're shooting some footage for a movie I'll be making. You have high energy. Is it alright if I shoot you for a party scene?" I was still trying to assimilate that he was Norman Mailer. In disbelief and wonderment, I thought is it really him? Or is this crackpot playing a hoax, but why? Apprehensively I responded, okay.
He walked away and the cameraman stepped forward and filmed me as I camped it up. The impostor returned with a white cocktail napkin and pen, handing it to me inquired, "What's your name?" I moved off the dance floor and replied. He added, "I like your energy. Would you sign your name on this napkin permitting me to use this footage?" I took the pen and napkin. I noticed there was something already scrawled on it. As I cocked my head tilting the napkin towards the light to read it, his voice barreled over the music informing me, "It states that you release to me what we taped. Your signature makes it a legal and binding document."
I listened, uncertain if he was truly Norman Mailer. I nodded then signed the cocktail napkin and handed it back to him. He thanked me, smiled and as a man on a mission---turned to make his way out of the thickening crowd. I went back to my brother who was still dancing and shouted in his ear, "Is that Norman Mailer?" He bobbed his head to look above the crowd and answered, "I think so. It looks like him. Why?"
I explained what occurred and as we moved off the dance floor he stepped on something. When he fished down for the object, he pulled up a strip of 8-millimeter film that was strewn across the floor. Cackling, "You're already on the cutting room floor!"
When the bar closed we walked up Commercial Street, Mailer was standing off the sidewalk observing the trickling by of partygoer's. I pointed him out to my brother and he affirmed yes indeed it was. Seeming somewhat vulnerable out on the street, I cautiously strutted over unaware if he was approachable.
I asked what the movie was and when he would be filming. He appeared open and replied in a husky tone from deep in his gut, "I'm making a movie from a novel I've written titled, "Tough Guys Don't Dance." Have you ever been in a movie?" he inquired. I replied no then sheepishly added, "I tried writing an autobiography once, but stopped after 85 pages. I didn't want to remember anymore." He listened curiously as I confessed the sins of my past life.
I don't know why I confided in him. It never crossed my mind if he was interested or just being polite. It was significant for me to come forth with my truths to him. Partly because I wanted him to accept me for who I was, but expected to be shunned. An aspect of me was still searching for the father I lost as a child. The unconditional understanding Mailer had for a strange, young creature, was representative of the kindness an older, wiser man possessed. Maybe his maturity and welcoming ear nurtured that wayward child within. And through him, I could glimpse what it would be like talking to my own father. Needing him to say, "It's alright my child."
In a sense he did. After I bared my soul he inquired with a half lit smile, "Would you like to be in my movie?" He stood solidly planted in the earth, his face pondered awaiting my response. Without hesitation I gleefully answered yes. He must have seen the excitement in my eyes---my face glowing with hope….
His letters, notes and doodles, encouragement and advice from over the last 21 years hang above my desk---as I am now the writer I wanted to become. I sit encased by the wall of Mailer---his strength, fearlessness, and words edge me into the abyss of the literary world. His wisdom echoes in my every step, “Don’t level off. The worse thing about leveling off in writing is when it begins to sink after a while. It could end up being tougher than anything you’ve ever done. But also, it could be the most enjoyable thing you’ve ever done.”
My paternal affection for him never waned, even after he asked me not to lipstick kiss the backs of the envelopes when I write, "Since that just causes trouble with my wife," he begged.
Norman filled the void as an elder, male figure with wisdom, authority and unconditional support, that any young fatherless girl would seek. I grew up in those letters. I emptied my longings into those pages to him....and asked for guidance as a young writer. In turn he advised me of my writing career, and reluctantly critiqued works in progress. “As understood I don’t go in for critiquing pieces---I save all that for my own stuff like the greedy bastard I am,” he quipped.
Whilst he was a literary icon.….he was also an approachable, caring, non-judgmental man. For that he will truly be missed. So on Wednesday, April 9th five months after Norman Mailer’s death at 84. Hoards of literary aficionado’s, family, friends, colleagues and readers of the controversial pen man---attended the Carnegie Hall, Random House farewell, “The Time of His Time” A Celebration of the Life of Norman Mailer.
The quiet auditorium laden with gold baroque and burgundy velvet, awaited the trail of mourners that would converge in honor of the literary giants life. Tucked neatly alone in the third row was a mysterious woman donning a wide brimmed black felt hat stuck with a gold pin. Her willowy body dressed in black from the neck, wrist and ankle---cloaked her pale skin. In an attempt to shield her from the masses who would share their condolences, his sixth wife, of 33 years, was the beautiful former model, Norris Church Mailer.
I hadn’t seen her in a decade, the once statuesque freckled-faced, red headed Texan girl, was replaced by an older frail woman. Battling not only her own illness, rumored to be colon cancer, compounded by the loss of her greatest love---seemed to have knocked the wind out of her. She sat like Greta Garbo….just wanting to be left alone.
Her contemplative solitude would be interrupted as a haze of confused reading bees parted the sea of red seats looking for their own. The lovers of Mailer stumbled upon each other as they ignored the backdrop of silent images from Mailer’s life scanning the stage wall.
As the patron dust began to settle, glimpses of the literary elite could be seen through the maze of heads; Joan Didion, Tina Brown, Don DeLillo, William Kennedy and Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House who’s published Mailer’s books for the past 23 years, as well as actor/director Sean Penn who said about Mailers acclaimed novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” “It influenced a generation of writers.”
A trombone softly echoed “Requiem for a Boxer” throughout the hall as over 2,000 attendees took their seats, for what would be a three-hour tribute. The Master of Ceremony, Charlie Rose, who had interviewed the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner a dozen times for his PBS show, forcefully took the reigns when he greeted the audience, “We are in Carnegie Hall celebrating a great man---so please make sure your cell phones are OFF. Get rid of them,” he instructed with parental authority.
Over the last six decades---Mailer wrote 40 books and crates of essays. His last two published in 2007, “The Castle in the Forest” was the first of an anticipated trilogy, and “On God: An Uncommon Conversation.” Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker took stage and recalled when she met Mailer in 1984 when he was working on his 34th book, novel, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.” Written 36 years after his first novel was published, “The Naked and The Dead.”
No depiction of his life would be as poignant then the legacy of his nine children. Barbara Wasserman announced what it was like to be Norman’s sister, “He was loving, supportive and wonderful to be with. But over time I wondered where did he come from? Being someone who believed in reincarnation, I thought “Ancient Evenings” was an autobiographical book,” she mused.
There was a similar thread with each speaker---as they detailed Mailer’s piercing or searing blue eyes….blending with the blue skies. But it was his nine children bore by six wives, who eloquently read speeches as if pages from a novel. Each inheriting their own vibrant, identifiable Mailer trait of an articulate wordsmith---weaving memories of their father into a Bi-Opic novel of his private life. The wildly humorous but tender recollections from his family were captivating vignettes mostly of Provincetown. Their colorful memory reels of laughter---left no time for tears or sadness.
His nephew Peter Alson recounted the last days in the hospital with Mailer, his health failing one month after undergoing lung surgery. His final cocktail would be from his son Michael, who’d called asking his father if he wanted one last drink. His request was rum and orange juice. Michael arrived to the hospital with the spirits and found a glass at the nurse’s station. His father instructed him to mix two ounces of water, two ounces of OJ and four ounces of rum. Because of the breathing tube an inability to swallow, Michael dipped a lollipop sponge into the glass and wet his fathers tongue. After several unsatisfying attempts….Mailer grabbed the glass and began swigging it, then passed it around the bed for each to savor his life.
“Most people think of Dad as a great writer. I like to call him a weaver,” said his daughter Susan Mailer. “Weaving the family like a tapestry.”
Stephen Mailer, the self-anointed “wild card” was the most dramatic of the brood. Spouting, “I’m going to channel my father for your viewing pleasure.” Akin to an evangelist he stretched his grey suited arms up to the ceiling to invoke his fathers spirit. Calling out to his father to possess him. He smacked face flat to the stage floor only to arise in Norman’s stance, clearing his throat Normanesque style, bellowed in his fathers voice and diction, “Carnegie Hall—Carnegie Hall—why the fuck not!”
He went on to criticize his son Stephens song choice, “Candle in the Wind” for his memorial. “I was a forest fire in a hurricane,” he scoffed. Stephen rested his fist upon his chin, just as his father an avid boxer had done when sparring in the ring with his son. And in his fathers voice grumbled, “Goodbye. I love you.” Instantly Stephen hurled back to the floor, his father disappeared…. and the son reemerged.
Author Don DeLillo honored Mailer by accounting his work. “He wrote novels,plays, poems, essays and advertisements for himself. He was not just a voice, but a novelist of sweeping range. A great novelist thinking about the world sentence by sentence.”
Watching the video of Mailer in his earlier years on black and white newsreels, was like watching a gangster film with Edward G. Robinson. As Mailer salted with bravado was larger than life, a distinct voice rich with thunder and strength. The boxer, the tough guy, Marilyn Monroe obsessed, the activist, the non-conformist, a lover of Picasso, the poet, the writer, the author---the beloved father, the adored husband and the dedicated friend---we say goodbye. Congressman Neil Ambercrombie choked back, “Norman beloved outlaw and friend…fly away.”
Prominent criminal defense attorney and friend for over 25 years, Ivan Fisher remembered an afternoon with Norman and Norris. “His blue eyes gleamed as he looked at her and said, ‘Baby, I love you.’ ” It spawned a photo montage of their three decades of marriage. A smoky pre-recorded rendition of a sentimental song Mailer wrote for “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” wafted through the air, “You’ll Come Back (You Always Do),” sung by Norris Church Mailer.
She may have been a red head, but in the end….he found his Marilyn.
Copyright April 2008, R. B. STUART. All rights reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.