Extended Biography

Lennon, Irish-American on both sides, grew up in SE Massachusetts, and after graduating from Stonehill College (’63), a Catholic school south of Boston, became a U.S.N. officer during the Vietnam War. He married Donna Pedro of Newport in 1966, whom he met while he was at O.C.S. After sea duty on the USS Uvalde for 30 months, he taught military law and history at Naval O.C.S. Newport in the late 1960s. They have three sons, Stephen (1967), Joseph (1968) and James (1969), all born in Newport Naval Hospital. He served five years on active duty (64-68). He earned his M.A. (’69) and Ph.D. (’75) in English at the University of R.I., where he first became interested in Norman Mailer in the classes of Dr. Nancy Potter, who directed his thesis on Mailer. He wrote a letter of encouragement to Mailer after watching Gore Vidal and Mailer get into a raucous debate on the Dick Cavett Show in January 1971. Mailer answered his letter and a long correspondence began. Lennon got a teaching job at Univ. of Illinois-Springfield in 1972 and met Mailer in Illinois when he was on a college speaking tour for his new book, ST. GEORGE AND THE GODFATHER (1972). For the next few years, Lennon and his family visited Mailer in Provincetown and Maine during summer vacations. He proposed a collection of Mailer’s essays and interviews to Mailer, and the idea grew into Mailer’s 1982 collection, PIECES AND PONTIFICATIONS, which Lennon edited. Lennon moved into academic administration in the late 1970s, and became publisher of ILLINOIS ISSUES magazine, and the director of what is now WUIS-FM. These and other units (a public TV station and small press later on) were eventually combined into the University’s Institute of Public Affairs, and he became its first executive director in 1988. He continued to teach and write about Mailer part-time, and in 1986 edited a collection, CRITICAL ESSAYS ON NORMAN MAILER, published by G.K. Hall. Lennon also assisted Univ. of Pennsylvania professor, Robert F. Lucid, then Mailer’s authorized biographer and archivist, and Lucid became Lennon’s mentor. When Lennon gave Mailer a copy of the new collection at a fall 1986 dinner at Elaine’s in NYC, Mailer asked him to serve as one of his literary executors. Mailer was comfortable with those of Irish extraction, and they hit it off.

In 1988, Lennon edited CONVERSATIONS WITH NORMAN MAILER, a collection of 34 of his interviews (Univ. Press of Mississippi). It became a key source for those writing about Mailer, and remains in print. By this time, Mailer had begun sharing drafts of his books with Lennon, who began assembling a collection of his books, his uncollected reviews, essays, poems and letters to the editor, and everything in print he could find about Mailer.  Lennon and his wife Donna and their sons became friendly with Mailer’s family, including all nine children, and his sister Barbara Wasserman and her son Peter Alson, and enjoyed regular visits in the summers. Lennon also wrote about James Jones, helped found the Jones Society, and edited (with James Giles) a collection of Jones’ war writings, THE JAMES JONES READER in 1991. He also co-produced (with Jeffrey Davis) a 1985 PBS documentary on Jones, JAMES JONES: FROM REVEILLE TO TAPS, in which Mailer gave a key interview. With George Plimpton, Lennon assembled a 1987 piece on Jones for the PARIS REVIEW titled “Glimpses: James Jones, 1921-1977,” drawn from the documentary.

In 1992, Lennon was appointed Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, a medium-sized private school of about 5,000. At his suggestion, in 1994 the Mailer papers, previously housed in Manhattan, were moved to a large professional storage facility in NE Pennsylvania, making it more convenient for Lennon and Lucid to have access. Lennon and his wife began to re-organize the papers, sifting and sorting through 500 cubic feet of paper. This led to work on a comprehensive annotated listing of Mailer’s writings, and those about him. NORMAN MAILER: WORKS AND DAYS, compiled by the Lennons, was published by Sligo Press in 2000, with a preface from Mailer. It won a CHOICE MAGAZINE award for “outstanding scholarly title” in 2001, and is the standard Mailer bibliography. Three years earlier, Lennon and Lucid assisted Mailer in putting together a mammoth collection of his writings, THE TIME OF OUR TIME.

In 2000 after nine years on the job, Lennon stepped down from the V.P. position. He moved to the English Dept. (which he chaired for two years), and began work the task of reading and selecting Mailer’s letters. It took him almost three years to read all 50,000 letters (25 million words), and he remains the only person, save Mailer, who has read them all. Lucid continued work on the authorized biography at the same time (he had retired from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Wilkes-Barre in 1997 to be closer to the Mailer archive). Mailer approved the idea of the biography and an edition of the selected letters appearing one after the other, a year apart, depending on which was completed first. In 1997, the Lennons purchased a condo in Provincetown a short walk from the Mailer house, and spent weekends and summers there. Lennon began to interview Mailer regularly. In 2003, a collection of Mailer’s essays and insights on writing, THE SPOOKY ART, was published by Random House, edited by Lennon.

When Lucid died unexpectedly in December 2006, Mailer asked Lennon to take over the writing of the authorized biography. A year later Mailer died. Lennon, Lawrence Schiller and Mailer’s widow, Norris Church Mailer, produced the memorial to Mailer at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 2008. It was decided to postpone the letters edition until after the biography was published. Because their styles and approaches were significantly different, Lennon concluded it would be a mistake to finish Lucid’s draft (which took Mailer to 1951), but start a new one. In 2008, he signed with the literary agency, Kneerin, Willioams & Bloom, and in early 2009, he signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for the biography. He also entered into an agreement with the Mailer Estate granting him full access to the Mailer letters and unpublished manuscripts (Mailer’s papers were sold to the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center in 2005, and Lennon served as a consultant during the cataloging process). Lennon retired from Wilkes University in the fall of 2005 (although he still teaches part-time in the graduate creative writing program there). He and his wife moved full-time to their condo in Provincetown, where Mailer had begun writing his final novel, A CASTLE IN THE FOREST (2007), in the Lennon condo in fall of 2000.

Lennon had kept extended notes on Mailer’s table talk, and also interviewed him on many aspects of his public and private life. Lennon’s unpublished “Mailer Log,” his record of Mailer’s last three years, runs to 150,000 words. The summer before Mailer died, he and Lennon completed work on a series of interviews on Mailer’s theological ideas and theories. The ten long discussions were published as ON GOD: AN UNCOMMON CONVERSATION just days before Mailer died. Over the next four years Lennon interviewed 86 people (Donna transcribed them), including his ex-wives, children, cousins, sister, nephew, and many close personal and literary friends, including Don DeLillo, Gay Talese, Robert Silvers, Barbara Probst Solomon, David Ebershoff, Ivan Fisher, Eileen Fredrikson, Lois Wilson, Carol Holmes, Tina Brown, Harry Evans, James Toback, Nan Talese, Dotson Rader, Doris and Dick Goodwin, William Kennedy, Richard Stratton, Mickey Knox and Lawrence Schiller, Mailer’s most important collaborator. Schiller gave Lennon access to all of his interviews with Lawrence Grobel dealing with Mailer, and assisted in many ways. Schiller also enlisted Lennon to abridge and edit four new editions of Mailer books, including THE FIGHT, MARILYN, and OF A FIRE ON THE MOON for Taschen books (as of April 2013, the last two have been published). The Lennons made several month-long visits to the Mailer archives in Texas, in 2008 and 2009, and in the fall of 2009, he began writing, breaking his daily routine only to conduct interviews. At the end of October 2012, after three years of steady work, he completed and submitted to his Simon and Schuster editor, Robert Bender, a first draft (340,000 words) of the manuscript.

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