Arrow-right Camera


Norman Mailer, Pulitzer-winning author, dies at 84

Mailer in 2006
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Mailer in 2006 (The Spokesman-Review)

Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote compellingly about sex and violence, conflict and politics, love and war, as the tempests of his personal life complemented the turbulence of his prose, died Saturday. He was 84.

Mailer, who died of kidney failure at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, achieved literary fame at the age of 25 with his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” which was based on his experiences in the Army in the Pacific during World War II. The book led the New York Times best-seller list for 19 weeks in 1948 and 1949 and was later made into a movie.

Its publication launched Mailer on a parallel career as a celebrity who became notorious in a variety of roles. He was widely known as a drinker and brawler, womanizer, political campaigner, social critic, talk-show guest, self-promoter and symbol of male chauvinism. He had six wives and nine children. In his career as a writer, Mailer produced novels, essays, social commentaries, movie scripts and nonfiction narratives about national events and public figures. His subjects included ancient Egypt, political conventions, Marilyn Monroe, the CIA, Adolf Hitler and the first landing on the moon. He won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes for “The Armies of the Night” (1968), based on his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam.

Mailer used fictional techniques in “Armies of the Night” to describe his arrest during the protest and address the philosophical underpinnings of the nation’s military involvement in Vietnam. The title of one of the book’s chapters – “Why Are We in Vietnam?” – became a popular slogan in the antiwar movement.

Mailer won his second Pulitzer Prize for “The Executioner’s Song” (1979), which he described as a “true life novel” about Gary Gilmore, who in Utah in 1977 became the first convict to be executed in the United States in more than a decade.

The author Sinclair Lewis once called Mailer the greatest writer of his generation. But critics were neither uniform nor consistent in their evaluations of his work. Orville Prescott of the New York Times praised “The Naked and the Dead” as “the most impressive novel about the second World War that I have ever read.” But Time magazine characterized Mailer’s second novel, “The Barbary Shore” (1951), as “paceless, graceless and tasteless.” When his 1983 novel, “Ancient Evenings,” received tepid reviews, Mailer responded with full-page newspaper ads juxtaposing the attacks on his book with similar criticism of such classics as “Moby-Dick,” “Anna Karenina” and “Leaves of Grass.” He considered “Ancient Evenings” to be his finest work.

He broke new ground in political commentary with his 1960 essay about John F. Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” which deftly described the aura of sexuality and romance surrounding the Massachusetts senator. Published in Esquire magazine three weeks before Kennedy’s election as president, the essay helped establish the Kennedy mystique.

“For a heady period, no major public event in the United States seemed complete until Mailer had observed himself observing it,” a Time critic wrote in 1983.

As a nationally known celebrity, Mailer made headlines by running for mayor of New York in 1969 on a ticket with columnist Jimmy Breslin. They finished fourth in a field of five.

There was a mystique of personal violence about Mailer, which he encouraged. He often wrote about boxing, and he liked to spar with boxer Jose Torres, who was among his friends.

Mailer’s reputation as a rowdy, unpredictable writer was confirmed during a bacchanal at his New York apartment in 1960, when he stabbed his second wife with a penknife. In 1970, while Mailer was directing the film “Maidstone,” actor Rip Torn attacked Mailer with a hammer. In a fight that lasted several minutes and was captured on film, Mailer bit off part of Torn’s ear.

Another time, Mailer punched author Gore Vidal in the mouth after tossing a drink in his face.

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J., and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, was a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant from South Africa who worked as an accountant.

As a schoolboy, the young Mailer managed to convince both his parents that he was a genius. His mother, Fanny, expected great things from him. When he received a low mark on a report card in the third grade, she marched into his school to protest.

In September 1939, the 16-year-old Mailer entered the freshman class at Harvard University. Partly at the urging of his family, who wanted him to acquire practical skills, and partly because he liked making model airplanes, he majored in engineering. He graduated cum laude, but it was also clear that literature and writing were his primary loves.

In his first year at Harvard, Mailer began writing short stories, one of which won a first prize award from Story magazine. After graduating in 1943, Mailer went back home to Brooklyn to work on a novel. In March 1944, one month after his first marriage, he was inducted into the Army and later shipped out to the Pacific, joining the 112th Armored Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines.

He was a rifleman in an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon that engaged in a few skirmishes but saw no heavy action.

After the war ended, he served with occupation forces in Japan, then returned to the United States in May of 1946. He spent the rest of the year in a bungalow near Provincetown, Mass., transmuting his military experiences into “The Naked and the Dead.”

It would be almost 10 years before he wrote his next novel, “An American Dream,” about a professor of existential psychology who murders his wife. During the intervening decade, Mailer wrote essays, short stories and commentaries, while becoming increasingly prominent as a public figure. In 1955, he helped found New York’s Village Voice weekly newspaper.

Among his most provocative work of this period was “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which caused a sensation when it was published in 1957 in Dissent magazine.

In November 1960, after stabbing his second wife, artist Adele Morales Mailer, during a drunken party, Mailer spent two weeks in a psychiatric unit of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. His wife, who was wounded in the abdomen and back, made a full recovery and declined to press criminal charges. They separated and were subsequently divorced.

Eleven years after the 1962 death of actress Marilyn Monroe, Mailer wrote “Marilyn,” in which he suggested that she was murdered by either the FBI, CIA or Mafia because she was “reputed to be having an affair” with Robert F. Kennedy. Writing in Parade magazine, Lloyd Shearer called the book “a shameful, rehashed potboiler.”

With the publication in 1979 of “The Executioner”s Song,” Mailer recorded his last major literary triumph.