A pugilistic literary lion remembered

Author Norman Mailer is shown in this photo dated June 17, 1969 in New York City. (Ap Photo/ Ray Howard
AP Photo/Ray Howard

Norman Mailer died yesterday morning at the age of 84. For almost 60 years the life and writings of Mailer provoked and shocked and entertained. Summing up such life is a daunting task, but that's what we've asked of Martha Teichner.

He was a helluva big man for a short guy. Scrappy, brilliant, controversial ... slugging away at life and letters 'til the very end.

He was married six times, fathered eight children, dabbled in politics, drugs, alcohol, counterculture, TV and the movies, but managed along the way to write close to 40 books. He won the National Book Award plus two Pulitzer Prizes, and was one of America's most outspoken literary voices.

In recent years, Norman Mailer lived mainly in Provincetown, Mass., where we met him in 2001.

"I've been coming to this town for 60 years," he told us then. "First came here back in 1942. I love the place, it's my favorite town in America.

"This town has just had everything. It's had pirates; it's had motorcycle drivers. It's had mad artists, crazy parties, a lot of pot smoking, and now that I'm old, I still like it because the echo is there."

He could have been talking about his own life. Mailer was famous by the age of 25 for his first book, "The Naked and the Dead," an autobiographical World War II novel.

But it was for "The Armies of the Night," his personalized account of the 1967 peace march on the Pentagon, that he won the National Book Award and his first Pulitzer.

His second was for "The Executioner's Song," about Gary Gilmore, the first American to be executed after the death penalty was re-instated in the United States.

Mailer was unapologetically liberal, anti-war, anti-Nixon, anti-establishment, and he didn't just write about his politics. When push came to shove at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was there - and later took delight in throwing a few verbal punches of his own, in testimony at the Chicago Seven trial.

"What shocked me about Chicago in 1968, I'd always given the establishment more credit," he said. "I always felt it ran things better than it actually did run them. I was amazed at how quickly the establishment cracked up under that pressure."

Norman Mailer loved playing the political provocateur. In 1968, he ran for mayor of New York, proposing that the city secede and become the 51st state. He really did!

"I've become a politician," he mused. "I mean, I'm dull enough to be elected to high office."

His personal life was anything but dull. He was a pugnacious, celebrity bad boy, as demonstrated in this verbal combat with Gore Vidal on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971:

MAILER: You're a liar and a hypocrite. ... Are you ready to apologize?

VIDAL: I would apologize if it hurts your feelings, of course, I would.

MAILER: It hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.

VIDAL: As an expert you should know about that.

MAILER: Yes, well, I've had to smell your work from time to time. That has helped me to become an expert on intellectual pollution.

Mailer got into real trouble when he got drunk at a party and stabbed his second wife with a penknife. She didn't press charges, but the incident left him shaken.

"It was as if some huge switch was thrown in my nature, which is that no matter what else happens after this, that will never happen again. And you know, because I really couldn't believe it when it happened, I couldn't believe that I had done it, and so it was a huge shock."

In 1975, he met Barbara Norris of Russellville, Ark., a divorced high school art teacher with a small son. She was 26. Mailer was 52.

They were married happily for more than 25 years, and had one son together. Norris Mailer set out to unite all the various children and stepchildren into a family.

"She's given me a certain dignity to my life that I've never had before. Well, in that I'm now not a madman; now I'm an established family man."

But Mailer had one more big public controversy in him: the Jack Abbott case. Abbott was a convicted killer who wrote a highly-acclaimed prison memoir, "In the Belly of the Beast." Norman Mailer campaigned for his parole.

"I'm willing to gamble with the safety of certain elements of society to save this man's talent," he said.

In 1981, six weeks after Abbott was freed, he attacked and killed a man. Mailer was vilified and acknowledged his mistake.

But he was never afraid to try something new. He made films, among them "Tough Guys Don't Dance."

He even tried acting, most recently in 2005, appearing with his son Stephen in the television show "Gilmore Girls."

As he aged though, "Stormin' Norman," as he was once known, calmed down.

He began his days doing a crossword puzzle, to get himself in the mood for writing, and then he would struggle to climb the stairs to his 3rd floor study to work.

In the evening, after not talking to each other all day, he and Norris would meet.

"Do you flirt with each other?"

"As much as I can," she said.

"Yeah, she's a flirt," Norman said.

To anybody on the outside looking in, it appeared that Norman Mailer lived a happily-ever-after story. But to admit to anything that conventional would have been anathema to him.

He published his last book 3 1/2 weeks before his death. It was called "On God: An Uncommon Conversation." In it he wrote, "I think that piety is oppressive. It takes all the air out of thought."

Pious, he was not.