Norman Mailer Biography Reveals Author's Musings On Love And War

The following is an excerpt from "Norman Mailer: A Double Life" by J. Michael Lennon [Simon & Schuster, $40.00]:

On December 7 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the next day the United States declared war. [Harvard] President Conant called a mass meeting at Sanders Theatre. Mailer probably attended, but if not he certainly heard the gist of Conant’s message: the time of uncertainty about the U.S. war role is over and Harvard men will be called on to serve. The campus was transformed within weeks and graduation was accelerated for many students. Mailer’s response was to begin a new journal of observations, plans, and sketches. Sy Breslow said that Mailer felt the war “would feed the novel he wanted to write afterward. He was desperately searching for experience,” an observation confirmed by what Mailer later wrote about the moment his generation would never forget:

I may as well confess that by December 8th or 9th of 1941, in the 48 hours after Pearl Harbor, while worthy young man were wondering where they could be of aid to the war effort, and practical young men were deciding which branch of the service was the surest for landing a safe commission, I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific.

Mailer’s journal was also used for a running commentary on his relationship with Beatrice Silverman, a Boston University student from nearby Chelsea whom he met just after the Pearl Harbor attack, and with whom he had his first mature sexual relationship. Larry Weiss, now one of his closest friends, introduced him to Bea, as everyone called her. The plan was for the two Harvard men to meet Bea and another BU woman at a Boston Symphony concert. While waiting to see if tickets were available, they talked and Bea saw that Mailer “didn’t know his ass from his elbow about music.” He suggested that they return to his room at Dunster for a drink. Necking followed and when the others left, they went to bed. Bea was not a sexual novice. “She was very helpful, put it that way,” Mailer recalled, “and it worked.”

And so we were off to the races for a year and a half. We were together all the time. But I had to be the best she’d ever had, which started a crazy theme in my head, which I didn’t get rid of for many, many, many years, because I always had a fear that I wasn’t the best lover with any woman I was with, that I was serious about, and if it didn’t take, that was the end of it. And if it did take, then I had to be the best. And if I couldn’t be, that was probably the end of it, too. So, you know, you can get a woman to tell you anything.

Physically, they were an odd couple. Bea was five foot two, and slightly zaftig. She had long brown hair and an attractive heart-shaped face. Mailer was a few pounds lighter than Bea and six or seven inches taller. He described himself in his journal as having a “triangular face, oily, too much hair, glasses too big, chin too small.” No matter, they were in love and were soon a well-known couple at Harvard, where Bea spent a lot of time. Women were not allowed in the houses in the eve- ning, but she flouted the rules and stayed overnight on many a weekend and their adventures in the sack became notorious; they were “setting records,” he said, and were proud of it.

Bea used profanity regularly and this offended some of their friends, but Mailer admired Bea’s use of crude language, which surpassed his own. Her favorite expression, meant to convey tempus fugit, was “Meanwhile, the foetus is growing.” But she was also kind and maternal, he said. They were both leftist in their politics but Bea was a step ahead, having read a lot of left-wing literature as well as Havelock Ellis and some Freud. In a psychological profile of her, written as a term paper his senior year, Mailer noted that “to her any concept of absolutes or static custom is absurd.” She was a feminist thirty years ahead of the wave, he said later, and was both intellectually honest and candid. He believed that he was brighter than she was and liked that because it gave him a “comfort zone,” but he admitted that she was more knowledgeable and was a better student. A musicology major, she also took courses in social psychology. Lacking much financial support from her parents, she paid for her final two years of college by waitressing and giving lessons on the piano, an instrument she had played from an early age. Her relations with her parents were sour and she looked forward to being out of the house and independent. Within a few months, they were talking about marriage.

At the start of the spring semester Mailer’s Advocate friend Pete Barton invited Mailer for dinner at Lowell House, where they discussed Mailer’s writing, specifically, “The Schedule Breaker,” which Barton liked. This story of seduction led Barton, in a halting manner, to ask Mailer how many times he had had sex. Mailer told him everything and they went on to speak of Barton’s fears of disease and pregnancy. The contrast between the reserved Barton and the uninhibited Mailer can be
seen in another entry in his journal. At first titled “Exit Blues,” but later known (by its chorus line) as “The Bodily Function Blues,” it was to be sung to the tune of “St. Louis Blues.” The fact that Mailer was classed as a “listener” or “monotone” in grade school music classes did not deter him from delivering it with gusto from his college days until well into his eighties. A sample:

Ah can’t piss, Ah can’t urinate

Ah can’t bleed, Ah can’t even menstruate

Ah can’t talk, Ah can’t elucidate

Ah can’t shit, Ah can’t defecate

Ah can’t gargle, Ah can’t salivate

But worst of all, the worst of all

Ah can’t fuck, Ah just can’t copulate

Ah got those bodily function blues.

In addition to the exaggerated carnality of the lyrics, the contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and Latinate synonyms is worth noting. The juxtaposition of the two lexical streams, which would become one of the hallmarks of his prose, came in great measure from what he termed a “triangle” of influence—Hemingway, Faulkner, and Farrell. From Hemingway there was “the power of restraint” deriving in part from the sparing use of Latinate words; from Faulkner, “the power of excess” that came from the expansive use of multisyllabic words.

From NORMAN MAILER by J. Michael Lennon. Copyright © 2013 by J. Michael Lennon. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved