In NORMAN MAILER: A DOUBLE LIFE (Simon & Schuster; October 15, 2013; $40), author J. Michael Lennon presents the definitive portrait of one of the most important and controversial figures in American literary and cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century. The authorized biographer knew his subject for decades and had unfettered access to Mailer’s voluminous papers, unpublished letters, family members, and acquaintances.
Mailer, the writer
The most famous author and the leading public intellectual of his generation, Mailer is one of a handful of serious American writers who have become known to a broad public beyond the usual confines of the literary world. He became a national celebrity at the age of twenty-five with an enormous bestseller, his bold World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, and went on to write ten more bestsellers, both fiction and non-fiction. Two of them (The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song) won the Pulitzer Prize.
In landmark essays like “The White Negro” and “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer engaged passionately and vividly with the major cultural and political currents of the postwar era, from the rise of the hipster and the Beat Generation in the 1950s to the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, as well as the women’s movement (of which he became a vehement public antagonist) of the 1970s. Mailer obsessed about the assassination of JFK and the suicides of Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway (whom he regarded as his principal literary role model), writing frequently about all three of these iconic figures. A vastly influential journalist as well as a novelist, he was a pioneer of the “New Journalism” and a co-founder of the trend-setting New York weekly The Village Voice.
Upon Mailer’s death in 2007 at the age of 84, tributes and appraisals appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Lennon cites that of Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times – on occasion one of Mailer’s most withering critics – as one of the most thoughtful. Kakutani writes: “Mr. Mailer used his copious talents – quick skewering eye; a gift for the cameo portrait; bat-quality radar for atmosphere and mood; and blustering, bellicose prose – to capture the American spirit as it lurched from the civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the ‘60s into the Watergate era of the ‘70s. In his best work Mr. Mailer made America his subject, and in tackling everything from politics to boxing to Hollywood, from astronauts to actresses to art, he depicted – or tried to depict – the country’s contradictions: its moralistic prudery and grasping fascination with celebrity and sex and power; the outsize, outlaw past of its frontier, and its current descent into ‘corporation land,’ filled with cheap consumer blandishments and the siren call of fame.”
Mailer, the man
Mailer gained fame and sometimes infamy not only from his literary and political endeavors, but also from his often-unruly personal life, his fascination with sex and violence, and his vitriolic public feuds with other writers. Mailer was married six times (to a fellow Jewish intellectual, a Latina artist, the daughter of a Scottish duke, an actress, a jazz singer, and an art teacher), was the father of nine children, and had countless affairs throughout his life. He knew many of the most celebrated writers of his generation (including William Styron, James Jones, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Lillian Hellman, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Tom Wolfe), and quarreled with several of them, most notably with Gore Vidal, in a legendary confrontation on Dick Cavett’s television talk show.
Aspiring briefly to political rather than literary power, Mailer ran for mayor of New York City in 1969, in a campaign that was as entertaining as it was quixotic. In the first of the two most notorious and regrettable incidents of his life, Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife and narrowly missed killing her. As a result, he was committed to the psychiatric ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital for seventeen days, escaping prison only because Adele refused to press charges against him. In the second incident, Mailer championed convict writer Jack Henry Abbott, who after being released from prison stabbed an innocent young man to death.
Mailer’s “Double Life”
As Lennon’s title implies, his biography explores the many dualities in Mailer’s identity – journalist and activist, devoted family man and relentless philanderer, intellectual and boxer, novelist and politician, saint and psychopath – which all became fodder for his writing. One of the most enduring tensions in Mailer’s life and work was between his craving for the spotlight and his yearning to remain the inconspicuous observer. As Lennon writes, “Mailer’s desire for fame, and his distaste for it, never abated over his long career. Nor did his ability to determine how he might write about his current situation, whatever it might be. It became a reflex.” Mailer himself once said, “There are two sides to me, and the side that is the observer is paramount,” although readers of Lennon’s biography may find this assertion debatable.
The authorized biography
After knowing Mailer and his work intimately for many years, Lennon became his authorized biographer in 2006, with complete access to all his papers, library, and massive correspondence – about 45,000 letters over sixty-eight years. In Mailer’s final years, Lennon conducted more than twenty extensive interviews with him, and over the last thirty months of Mailer’s life, Lennon visited him daily in his longtime home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “While always his own best lawyer,” Lennon writes, “Mailer never hinted at how he wished to be portrayed, nor did he ask my intentions. He answered all my questions candidly and with much good humor, enjoining me to ‘put everything in.’” In addition, Lennon had the full cooperation of Mailer’s last wife of twenty-seven years, the late Norris Church Mailer, as well as his sister and lifelong confidante, Barbara Mailer Wasserman, and the rest of the Mailer family.
Drawing on this epic research, Lennon reveals Mailer’s sources and influences for each of his major works, as well as his state of mind at every critical point in his life and career. From early on, Mailer was blunt in his ambition to be “a really great writer,” an artist whose role is “to be as disturbing, as adventurous, as penetrating as his energy and courage make possible.” Lennon traces the development of that fierce ambition from his Brooklyn boyhood as the intellectually gifted scion of two immigrant Jewish families through his highly disciplined and promising literary efforts as an undergraduate at Harvard, his stunning early success as a novelist, his disappointing flirtations with Hollywood and Broadway, his stumbles as a fiction writer, and his decision to pursue multiple genres of writing at once. Lennon also chronicles Mailer’s self-conscious, constantly evolving attempt to forge an intellectual and psychological identity for himself, based on an idiosyncratic amalgam of Marx, Freud, Hemingway and Wilhelm Reich, as well as gleanings from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence, and Stendhal, among others.
Few people have ever tried on as many personas as Norman Mailer – novelist, journalist, filmmaker, biographer, lover, husband, father, fighter, philosopher, politician, Jew, American – or achieved such remarkable success in so many different arenas. As during his lifetime, Mailer continues to inspire both admiration and loathing, yet his status as one of the preeminent and most provocative chroniclers of the latter half of the twentieth century is undeniable. J. Michael Lennon’s gripping, monumental, and authoritative biography offers the most comprehensive and balanced look yet at this seminal figure, as well as an enthralling panorama of America’s literary and cultural life over the past six decades.
“In this meticulous authorized biography, Lennon offers a comprehensive and unflinching look at the life of the controversial American novelist, journalist, and filmmaker… Lennon’s almost clinical perspective shows the author’s restless innovation, which was indispensable for understanding the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.” — Publishers Weekly
“A must-read for students and admirers of Mailer’s work.” — Kirkus Reviews
“In the hands of this superb biographer, Norman Mailer comes vividly to life—irresistible, brilliant, formidable, hungry for fame, and endlessly fascinating. Lennon’s great achievement lies in matching Mailer’s energy and talent with his own. This is surely one of the best biographies ever written of an American writer.” — Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of The Bully Pulpit and Team of Rivals
“Lennon captures Mailer brilliantly—in all his guises and disguises. At the heart of Mailer’s writing was a selfishness to live as many lives as possible, coupled with a deep and elusive empathy. He kept slipping into new times, and geographies, losing himself there. The only things worth doing were the things that might break a heart—and indeed he broke many. Lennon looks at a literary life with great compassion and comprehensive accuracy. A biography for scholars and readers alike.” — Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin
“Mailer comes alive on every page, often in his own words, compulsive in his self-overcoming, in his ‘Napoleonic’ battling with peers and critics to become America’s number-one writer, and in his often self-destructive dealings with the world he wanted to analyze (and did) and conquer (not quite). This biography is brisk and electric, a vigorous panorama of the ‘singular, unprecedented and irreplaceable’ life that Norman Mailer lived.” — William Kennedy, author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes and Ironweed
“I knew Mailer for more than a half-century; he was the most prolific and wide-ranging literary intellect of my lifetime. Thanks to Lennon’s biography, I am learning a lot that I never knew.” — Gay Talese, author of A Writer’s Life and Thy Neighbor’s Wife
“Norman Mailer lived a big, brash, bawdy, belligerent life, and J. Michael Lennon has captured every moment of it.” — Deirdre Bair, author of Saul Steinberg and Samuel Beckett