Although Mailer did express discomfort with fame after his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, climbed to number one on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, remaining there for months, with subsequent sales bringing not only renown but wealth to Mailer, readers of this remarkable biography will quickly discover that Mailer, even in his childhood, enjoyed being in the limelight. His “avidity,” as Lennon calls it, for public attention led him into more than 700 interviews throughout his lifetime, and this strong sense of self often meant placing himself at the center of his writing, particularly in books like The Armies of the Night. His “distaste” for fame is not evident in his life or in this book.
In many ways, Mailer lived his life as a romantic in the fashion of Byron or Hemingway. In the words of Lennon, he was a “serial philanderer,” engaging in scores of affairs over his lifetime. He drank and smoked heavily at times, and sometimes abused drugs, yet also became an amateur boxer. He gained notoriety when he stabbed and wounded one of his wives during a drunken argument. He received enormous criticism when he helped Jack Abbot get out of prison, only to have this criminal-writer kill a waiter outside a New York City restaurant.
He frequently wrote for money, but also helped lead the way in creating the “New Journalism.” He became renowned, particularly in his non-fiction, for exploring the American psyche, though some might question whether he wasn’t conducting that exploration at a personal rather than a national level. He engaged in politics, marching on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam, running for mayor of New York, and supporting various liberal causes, yet he was frequently attacked by feminists for his male chauvinism. (One of the more humorous scenes in Norman Mailer: A Double Life occurs when Mailer publicly debates several feminists).
Despite his penchant for publicity, despite the egotism, his need to surround himself with celebrities — 600 people, including senators, actors, writers and artists, attended his fiftieth birthday party, and paid to do so — Mailer comes across in this biography as a man who would make an enjoyable dinner companion. He was gregarious, he clearly enjoyed people, and he was a good storyteller. His wide range of interests would certainly make for some fine conversation. The Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, boxing, poker, military tactics, art, the death penalty, ancient Egypt, religion, spirituality, film: these were just some of the topics Mailer delved into during his long life.
Those of us familiar with Mailer’s writing might be surprised to learn how much movies appealed to him and how for a good number of years he was involved in writing and producing independent films. Though none of these achieved the success of his books, they indicate again a man of wide interests and tastes. He also displayed some talent as an actor. Particularly fascinating is Lennon’s account of Mailer, his wife Norris, and George Plimpton doing a reader’s theater play, “Zelda, Scott, & Ernest,” in 2001 and 2002. Mailer played Hemingway, and the performances, used to raise money for charity, drew sellout crowds in the United States and in Europe.
Near the end of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, Lennon reports in-depth on a 1994 exchange between Mailer and Jean Malaquais on a French-German television network. Malaquais, a writer and long-time friend of Mailer, accused him of selling out in his work and said: “Being a celebrity is your infantile malady.” Though the rift between the two men caused by this interview was eventually repaired — Mailer seems a man who angered quickly, but forgave easily — readers are left wondering about Mailer’s legacy. Certainly The Naked and the Dead will forever belong to the canon of World War II literature and some of his writings on politics, sexuality, and the underside of American life during the last half of the twentieth century may continue to find readers, particularly scholars of that period of tremendous cultural change. Some of his other work — his writings on ancient Egypt, his tales of Marilyn Monroe, his novels like Barbary Shore — have, one suspects, already begun to accumulate dust on library bookshelves.
J. Michael Lennon knew Norman Mailer for more than three decades. He has written extensively on Mailer, and for this book conducted scores of interviews and had access to thousands of Mailer’s letters and manuscripts. He was a close friend of Mailer and of his family, and personally knew many of his friends. As a result of his research and his own talent for writing, in this biography Lennon gives us a remarkable picture of a twentieth century writer and celebrity, a man who was both a creature of his time and a shaper of that time.
Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon. Simon & Schuster, 2013. 960 pages.