Remembering Norman Mailer

When Norman Mailer wrote his first novel,, he used a euphemism--"fug"--for fuck. The first time I encountered Mailer, I asked him about it.
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When Norman Mailer wrote his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, he used a euphemism--"fug"--for fuck. The first time I encountered Mailer, I asked him if it was true that when he met actress Tallulah Bankhead, she said, "So you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell fuck." With a twinkle in his eye, Mailer told me that he replied, "Yes, and you're the young woman who doesn't know how to."

I saw Mailer again at City Hall Park in New York at the height of the Cold War. We were both among a thousand citizens committing civil disobedience against the law that required us to seek shelter during an air raid drill. Umbrellas bearing the legend "Portable Fallout Shelter" were held up while the crowd sang "America the Beautiful."

As soon as the air raid siren sounded, the chief of police announced, "Officers, arrest those persons who do not seek shelter!" The cops seized those persons who were nearest to them, including Mailer. Then the all-clear siren sounded, and the rest of the protesters began to disperse.

When I originally launched The Realist in 1958, I had requested an interview with Mailer. He declined, but in 1962, after I published an interview with Joseph Heller when Catch 22 was released, Mailer called me. He was finally ready. We met at his home in Brooklyn Heights. Mailer sat in a chair, poised like a prizefighter. And I was his sparring partner.

In 1963, I performed stand-up at Town Hall. When I introduced Joseph Heller, somebody else stood up, but since the audience didn't know what Heller looked like, they applauded. "That's not Joseph Heller," I said from the stage. "This is right out of Catch 22."

Then I introduced Norman Mailer, and again somebody else stood up. This time it was a young woman. "I'm a friend of Norman's," she called out. "He couldn't come tonight."

"That's the story of his life," I responded. It was a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist. "He's writing another book about it," I added.

In my interview with Mailer, we had been talking about the mating process of two individuals. "It's mutually selective," he said. "You fall in together or go in together." Little did I dream that I would end up "falling in together" with that young woman in the audience, Jeanne Johnson. We got married at his home, and had a daughter, Holly.

At one point in the interview, Mailer stated that "a native village is bombed, and the bombs happen to be beautiful when they land; in fact, it would be odd if all that sudden destruction did not liberate some beauty. The form a bomb takes in its explosion may be in part a picture of the potentialities it destroyed. So let us accept the idea that the bomb is beautiful. If so, any liberal who decries the act of bombing is totalitarian if he doesn't admit as well that the bombs were indeed beautiful."

Q. "Aren't you implying that this beauty is an absolute?"

A. "Well, you don't know. How do you know beauty is not an absolute?"

Later, a whole segment of our interview had to do with masturbation.

Q. "Is it possible that you have a totalitarian attitude toward masturbation?"

A. "I wouldn't say all people who masturbate are evil, probably I would even say that some of the best people in the world masturbate. But I am saying it's a miserable activity."

Q. "Well, we're getting right back now to this notion of absolutes. You know--to somebody, masturbation can be a thing of beauty--"

A. "To what end? Who is going to benefit from it?"

Q. "It's a better end than the beauty of a bombing."

A. "Masturbation is bombing. It's bombing oneself."

Q. "I see nothing wrong if the only person hurt from masturbation is the one who practices it. But it can also benefit--look, Wilhelm Stekel wrote a book on auto-eroticism, and one of the points he made was that at least it saved some people who might otherwise go out and commit rape."

A. "It's better to commit rape than masturbate. Maybe, maybe. The whole thing becomes difficult."

Q. "But rape involves somebody else."

A. "Just talking about it on the basis of violence: one is violence toward oneself; one is violence toward others. Let's follow your argument and be speculative for a moment--if everyone becomes violent toward themselves, then past a certain point the entire race commits suicide. But if everyone becomes violent toward everyone else, you would probably have one wounded hero-monster left."

Q. "And he'd have to masturbate."

A. "That's true....But--you use that to point out how tragic was my solution, which is that he wins and still has to masturbate. I reply that at least it was more valuable than masturbating in the first place. Besides, he might have no desire to masturbate. He might lie down and send his thoughts back to the root of his being...."

Last night, I had a dream that Mailer died. Now that Holly is getting married, when I woke up, I decided to send a note to him. But then I heard on NPR that he had died. And I received this e-mail from an old friend:

"I just read that Norman Mailer died. I know you knew him. When my son was about 10 years old, I took him to see Mailer at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle for a reading. We went after to have him sign his new book. He was very nice. He talked with us both and asked my son how things were, and asked if he could do anything for him. My son said, 'You could help me with my term paper.' Mailer laughed and said, 'Oh, no, my son already asked me, and I told him no too.' I will light a candle for him."