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Jewish World Review
Nov. 15, 2007
5 Kislev 5768
Recalling my Mailer crush
I nurtured a crush on Norman Mailer from the moment the great counterpuncher walked into my house for dinner. I was his hostess at what he called "The Liberal Party," in the opening pages in "The Armies of the Night," his book about the great Vietnam war protest in Washington in October of 1967.
Mailer, who died last week, was a demonic force, a man who was tough when it was tough to be tough, after the idea of manhood had been hijacked, softened, neutered and finally feminized. He believed it important that a man "earn manhood." He took the idea over the top, stabbing the second of his six wives and springing from prison a romanticized killer who would then kill another man. But in his best work he challenged both convention and himself. He liked playing the buffoon, making it hard sometimes to tell whether he was serious or merely making fun of himself and of whomever he was talking to.
He gave me my 15 minutes of elusive fame with the description of me in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book as "surprisingly adorable and childlike to be found in such a liberal academic coven." When he passed up my boeuf bourguignon to take his bourbon in a coffee mug up the street to the scruffy old Ambassador Theater for more rant against the war, he apologized and added the novelist's detail that he dared the look of rejection in my innocent eye, "which was almost balanced on a tear."
He was Don Quixote, the bombastic hero, and I was thrilled to be Desdemona, damsel-in-distress. But it was impossible to take offense because he had the intoxicating power to charm. Mailer was a notorious womanizer. "Mailer had not been married four times for nothing," he observed, referring to himself as usual in the third person. But I took as praise that I was "vivid, bright-eyed, suggestive of a fiery temper and a child-like glee." He never enjoyed parties unless there was a wicked lady present: "An evening without a wicked lady in the room was like an opera without a large voice." But I couldn't sing Aida.
Mailer was less than charming a little later when his inebriation upstaged his message at the theater and he delivered a scatological portrait of himself as Lyndon Johnson's alter ego. No one could understand him. He threw obscenities at his hecklers, but other guests from my party were drunk on stage, too.
When he recounted the conversations at my table in "The Armies of the Night," I marveled at his drunken recall. He had been the pitiful sycophant in his conversation with the poet Robert Lowell. In Mailer's eyes, Lowell, a New England WASP, was vastly superior to a merely good Jewish novelist from Brooklyn. He resented Lowell's regard for him as "the finest journalist in America." He thought of himself as "the best writer in America."
He deliberately ignored Dwight MacDonald, the pompous literary critic and social butterfly of the party. MacDonald wore a pin of Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist revolutionary murdered in Berlin in 1919, and was willing to talk only to those who knew who she was. Mailer, who knew very well, wouldn't speak to him because he was working on a review of Mailer's latest book, "Why Are We in Vietnam?" He thought that if he "endeared" himself to the critic, MacDonald would savage the book just to prove his ruthless objectivity. (The book, which had nothing to do with Vietnam, deserved savaging.)
The other "illustrious" ignored guest was Paul Goodman, who got a brief celebrity with his book called "Growing Up Absurd," about the emptiness of contemporary work and education. Mailer hated his prose and loathed his celebration of guiltless sexuality, both homo- and hetero-, even more. "Without guilt, sex was meaningless," Mailer wrote. He lost his chance for confrontation because, finding no one at the party to feel guiltless with, Paul Goodman lay down on the living room floor and spent the dinner hour alone, snoring at high decibel.
Shortly after "The Armies of the Night" was published I reminded him that he had taken my copy of "Why Are We in Vietnam?" to the theater with him, where he lost it. He had written off this minor theft with typical bravado: "If you cannot make a hostess happy, the next best charity is to be so evil that the hostess may dine out on tales of your misconduct."
A week later I received another copy of the book, carefully inscribed: "I guess you can't dine out on tales of my misconduct forever." Maybe not, but I can do it one more time.
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