»

| Give a Gift |

  • Digital Edition

Mailer Remembered: Postcard From New York City

Postcard

Online Only, posted 4.23.08

Page 1 | Page 2

On Wednesday, April 9, five months after his death at age eighty-four from acute renal failure, hoards of literary aficionados, friends, colleagues, and readers of Norman Mailer attended a memorial for the author at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Among the scheduled speakers were authors Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, and William Kennedy, actor Sean Penn, and members of Mailer’s family.

I learned about Norman Mailer in 1980 when, as a young woman, I read his controversial book The Executioner’s Song, a chronicle of the life and death of convicted Utah murderer Gary Gilmore. Mailer stirred something in me to write. But my first attempt—I wrote eighty-five pages, in pencil, about my own troubled childhood—dredged up so much emotional muck that I tucked it into a manila envelope and scratched Mailer’s name on it, hoping one day he would guide me to finish the book.

Six years later, our paths crossed again, this time in person, as we met by chance in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Mailer was then dabbling in film as a screenwriter and director. He frequently spent the summers vacationing at his home on the tiny hook of seaside land at the end of Cape Cod. On Labor Day weekend, 1986, the sixty-three-year-old author was scouting for locations and background talent for the film adaptation of his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance, starring Ryan O’Neal, Isabella Rossellini, and Lawrence Tierney.

For Bostonians the Cape was the place to be during any holiday. My brother and his friends shimmied on the dance floor of The A House, a darkly lit local bar where the pounding rhythms of the blaring music replaced your heartbeat. On the cramped dance floor we gyrated in a frantic sweat and passed around a small, dark-brown bottle of Poppers that spilled between our hands. One sniff of the amyl nitrate sent heat waves through our bodies and our hearts into overdrive, casting a yellow haze over the disco ball lights. Our short-lived euphoric laughter gave way to an aching jaw as the heaviness of reality reemerged.

It was then I noticed a man with an eight-millimeter camera on his shoulder shooting me while I danced. I figured he was with the Provincetown News taping the Labor Day festivities. He stood on the perimeter of the dance floor panning the dancers before focusing on me. There was another man with him—older, with thick, white, wavy hair and protruding ears. He approached and introduced himself. I strained to hear him over the music. With a forceful voice thick with a Brooklyn accent he announced, "Hello, I'm Norman Mailer. We're shooting some footage for a movie I'll be making. You have high energy. Is it alright if I shoot you for a party scene?"

“Okay,” I responded apprehensively.

He walked away and the cameraman stepped forward and filmed me as I camped it up. The man who I thought could only be an impostor—certainly not my literary idol—returned with a white cocktail napkin and pen, handed it to me, and asked for my name. "Would you sign your name on this napkin permitting me to use this footage?" he asked. I took the pen and napkin. I noticed there was something already scrawled on it. As I cocked my head, tilting the napkin towards the light to read it, his voice barreled over the music: "It states that you release to me what we taped. Your signature makes it a legal and binding document."

I nodded and signed the napkin. He thanked me, smiled, and—like a man on a mission—turned to make his way out of the thickening crowd. I went back to my brother who was still dancing and shouted in his ear, "Is that Norman Mailer?" He bobbed his head to look above the crowd and answered, "I think so. It looks like him. Why?"

I described the strange scene to him, and as we moved off the dance floor, he stepped on something. When he reached down for the object, he pulled up a strip of eight-millimeter film that was strewn across the floor. "You're already on the cutting room floor!" he cackled.

When the bar closed we walked up Commercial Street. Mailer was standing off of the sidewalk observing the stream of partygoers. I pointed him out to my brother who confirmed that it was indeed the esteemed author. I strutted over.

I asked what the movie was and how much longer he would be filming. He appeared open and replied in a husky tone from deep in his gut, "I'm making a movie from a novel I've written titled Tough Guys Don't Dance. Have you ever been in a movie?" I replied that no, I hadn’t, and sheepishly added, "I tried writing an autobiography once, but stopped after eighty-five pages. I didn't want to remember anymore." He listened curiously as I told him more about myself.

I don't know why I confided in him. I don’t know if he was interested or just being polite. I expected to be shunned, but for some reason it was important for me to bare my soul. I guess part of me was still searching for the father I lost as a child. The unconditional understanding Mailer had for a strange, young creature like myself had a profound impact on me. After I finished my story he inquired with a half-lit smile, "Would you like to be in my movie?" Without hesitation I gleefully answered yes. He must have seen the excitement in my eyes—my face aglow with hope.

His letters, notes, and doodles—the encouragement and advice that he sent to me over the last twenty-one years—still hang above my desk. His words helped me to become the writer I always wanted to be. “Don’t level off,” he once wrote to me, “The worse thing about leveling off in writing is when it begins to sink after a while. It could end up being tougher than anything you’ve ever done. But also, it could be the most enjoyable thing you’ve ever done.”

My paternal affection for him never waned, even after he begged me not to lipstick kiss the backs of the envelopes when I wrote—“since that just causes trouble with my wife," he said. As a wise, elder, male figure, Norman provided what I, as a young, fatherless woman, sought. I grew up in his letters. I emptied my longings into the messages I wrote to him and asked for guidance as a young writer. In turn he advised me in my writing career and reluctantly critiqued works in progress. “As understood I don’t go in for critiquing pieces—I save all that for my own stuff like the greedy bastard I am,” he quipped.

Norman Mailer's thirty-fourth book, the novel Tough
Guys Don't Dance
, was published by Random House
in 1984 and released as a film, directed by the author,
three years later.

Reader Comments

  • Sir James says...

    A nice read and some nice memories, well-told. Yes. A well-told story to honor your friend. I am a better man for knowing this. Thank you for sharing.

close
Article Permissions
Mailer Remembered: Postcard From New York City
http://www.pw.org/content/mailer_remembered_postcard_new_york_city

In the details box below, please include information about the reprint permissions you'd like granted.

Thank you for your permissions request. We do our best to respond immediately, but it may take up to three business days.

City Guide

by T Cooper

nyc_purple_small.jpg

From newly established bookstores such as McNally Jackson Books in SoHo to long-time forums such as the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on the Lower East Side, T Cooper, author, most recently, of The Beaufort Diaries, visits his favorite places to research, revise, and read in New York City.

Upcoming Events
Poetry
Reading/Panel
The New School's Orozco Room
October 21, 2014 - 6:30pm
Poetry/Fiction
Reading/Talk
Donaghy Theatre
October 21, 2014 - 7:30pm
Poetry
Reading/Performance
Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop
October 22, 2014 - 7:00pm
Poetry
Reading/Panel/Performance
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
October 23, 2014 - 9:00am
Poetry
Reading/Panel/Performance
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
October 24, 2014 - 9:00am
Conferences & Residencies
Conference
New York, New York United States
Conference
New York City, New York United States
Residency
New York, New York United States
Writing Contests
Poetry Society of America
Bronx Council on the Arts
Magazine Articles

by Rebecca Bates

November/December 2014

The Center for Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City is making the ephemeral more tangible through its Lost & Found chapbook series.

by Cat Richardson

November/December 2014

The New York City–based art and politics magazine rings in its second decade with its first paid staff position and the launch of a print anthology.

by Julia Fierro

September/October 2014

Founder of the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop in Brooklyn, New York, Julia Fierro discusses how creating her own workshop program—and in doing so, building her own community of writers—allowed her to rediscover her own voice.

Directory of Writers
Poet
New York, NY
Poet
New Hyde Park, NY
Fiction Writer
Brooklyn, NY

Subscribe to P&W Magazine | Donate Now | Advertise | Sign up for E-Newsletter | Help | About Us | Contact Us | View Mobile Site

© Copyright Poets & Writers 2014. All Rights Reserved