The Riptides of Fame: June 1948

British Edition

Prologue to Norman Mailer: A Double Life. Published by Simon and Schuster, 2013.

After delivering the manuscript of his war novel, The Naked and the Dead to his publisher, Norman Mailer sailed to Europe with his wife Beatrice on October 1, 1947. Having for most of his life known only the Depression and the War, he was still in thrall to the writers of the Lost Generation—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Henry Miller—and viewed his trip to Europe on the GI Bill as a miraculous opportunity. Paris was the bulls-eye destination for aspiring writers, including Stanley Karnow, a Harvard graduate and veteran who arrived there a few months before Norman Mailer. His memoir, Paris in the Fifties, opens with the question: “Porquoi Paris? Its name alone was magic. The city, the legendary, Ville Lumiѐre, promised something for everyone—beauty, sophistication, culture, cuisine, sex, escape and that indefinable called ambiance.” Mailer partook of all of these pleasures during his ten-month stay in Paris. He differed from most of his countrymen, however, in one respect: he was a writer when he arrived: besides Naked, he had written two unpublished novels in college. While enjoying himself in Paris and taking trips to other countries, he was trying to get a new novel going. It was one of the happiest seasons of his life, shadowed only by his anxiety about the future.

In the spring of 1948 he drove to Italy in a small Peugeot, accompanied by his wife, sister and mother—Beatrice, Barbara and Fanny. They left Paris on June 1, drove east to Switzerland and then south to Italy. It began to rain as they drove through the foothills of the Alps, and turned to snow when they reached higher elevations. Mailer had to keep downshifting on the hairpin turns because the Peugeot didn’t have much horsepower. By the time they reached the St. Gotthard Pass, they were in a blizzard. At the peak they had to back up to let another car pass, coming perilously close to the edge. Mailer relished the experience. They spent a few days in the villages and resorts of the northern lake country, and then moved on to Florence and Venice. In mid-June they arrived in Rome where they hoped to pick up their mail, forwarded by Mailer’s father Barney, an accountant working for a post-war relief organization in Paris.

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