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Mailer Remembered: Postcard From New York City

Postcard

Online Only, posted 4.23.08

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Although he was a literary icon, Mailer was also an approachable, caring, nonjudgmental man. And he will truly be missed, as was evident on April 9 when two thousand people attended his memorial at Carnegie Hall. The quiet auditorium laden with gold baroque and burgundy velvet awaited the trail of mourners that converged in honor of the literary giant’s life. Tucked neatly alone in the third row was Norris Church Mailer, the author’s sixth wife—they were married for thirty-three years—and former model. I hadn’t seen her in a decade. The once statuesque, freckle-faced, redhead Texan girl is now an older woman. Battling not only her own illness—she has lived with cancer since 1999—but also the loss of her greatest love, seemed to have knocked the wind out of her. She sat like Greta Garbo, just wanting to be left alone.

Her contemplative solitude was interrupted by the mad dash for free seats as the crowd scrambled in, seemingly ignoring the backdrop of silent images from Mailer’s life projected on the stage wall. As the audience took their seats, glimpses of the literary elite could be seen through the crowd: Joan Didion, Tina Brown, Don DeLillo, William Kennedy, and Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House who has published Mailer’s books for the past twenty-three years, as well as actor-director Sean Penn, who noted that Mailer’s acclaimed novel The Naked and the Dead “influenced a generation of writers.”

A trombone softly echoed “Requiem for a Boxer” through the hall as we settled in for what would be a three-hour tribute. The master of ceremony, Charlie Rose, who had interviewed the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner a dozen times for his PBS show, forcefully took the reigns when he greeted the audience: “We are in Carnegie Hall celebrating a great man—so please make sure your cell phones are off. Get rid of them.”

Over the last six decades, Mailer wrote forty books. His last two were published in 2007—The Castle in the Forest, the first of an anticipated trilogy, and On God: An Uncommon Conversation. Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, took the stage and recalled that she met Mailer in 1984 when he was working on his thirty-fourth book, the novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

Barbara Wasserman described what it was like to be Mailer’s sister: “He was loving, supportive, and wonderful to be with. But over time I wondered where did he come from? Being someone who believed in reincarnation, I thought Ancient Evenings was an autobiographical book,” she mused, referring to the author’s 1983 novel set in Egypt before the birth of Christ.

A similar thread ran through each speaker’s remembrances, but it was his nine children who eloquently read speeches as if pages from a novel, each having inherited the articulate wordsmith’s traits. The wildly humorous but tender recollections from his family were captivating vignettes mostly of Provincetown. The colorful and humorous memories left no time for tears or sadness.

His nephew Peter Alson recounted the last days in the hospital with Mailer, his health failing in the month after undergoing lung surgery. Mailer’s last cocktail was delivered by his son Michael, who’d called his father and asked if he had a final request. It was rum and orange juice. Michael arrived at the hospital with the spirits and found a glass at the nurse’s station. His father instructed him to mix two ounces of water, two ounces of juice, and six ounces of rum. Because of his breathing tube, Mailer had difficulty swallowing, so Michael dipped a lollipop sponge into the glass and wet his father's tongue. After several unsatisfying attempts, Mailer grabbed the glass and began swigging it, then passed it around the bed for each to savor.

“Most people think of Dad as a great writer. I like to call him a weaver,” said his daughter Susan Mailer. “Weaving the family like a tapestry.”

Stephen Mailer, the self-proclaimed wild card, was the most dramatic of the brood. “I’m going to channel my father for your viewing pleasure,” he said and, like an evangelist, stretched his arms up to the ceiling to invoke his father’s spirit and called out to his father to possess him. He then fell face-first to the stage floor only to rise in Norman’s stance, clear his throat just like his father had done, and bellow in his father’s voice and diction, “Carnegie Hall—Carnegie Hall—why the fuck not!”

Stephen-as-Norman went on to criticize his son’s song choice, “Candle in the Wind,” for his memorial. “I was a forest fire in a hurricane,” he scoffed. Stephen rested his fist on his chin, just as his father, the avid boxer, had done when sparring in the ring with his son. And in his father’s voice he grumbled, “Goodbye. I love you.” Instantly Stephen hurled his body back to the floor; his father disappeared and the son reemerged.

Don DeLillo honored Mailer by taking stock of his work. “He wrote novels, plays, poems, essays, and advertisements for himself. He was not just a voice, but a novelist of sweeping range. A great novelist thinking about the world sentence by sentence.”

Sam Radin, Mailer’s cousin and executor, and Lawrence Schiller, a Mailer collaborator, announced that a charitable foundation had been established in honor of the author. The Norman Mailer Writers Colony will set anchor in Provincetown, and fellowships will be given to aspiring writers. Board members include Joan Didion, Nobel laureate Günter Grass, and Pulitzer Prize winners William Kennedy and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Watching the video of Mailer in his earlier years on black-and-white newsreels was like watching a gangster film with Edward G. Robinson. Mailer, salted with bravado, was larger than life, a distinct voice rich with thunder and strength. The boxer, the tough guy obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, the activist, the nonconformist, the lover of Picasso, the poet, the writer, the author—the beloved father, the adored husband, and the dedicated friend—we said goodbye. Congressman Neil Ambercrombie choked back, “Norman, beloved outlaw and friend…fly away.”

Ivan Fisher, a prominent criminal defense attorney and friend for over twenty-five years, remembered an afternoon with Norman and Norris. “His blue eyes gleamed as he looked at her and said, ‘Baby, I love you.’”

A photo-montage of their three decades of marriage was then projected on the wall, accompanied by a smoky prerecorded rendition of a sentimental song Mailer wrote for the film version of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, “You’ll Come Back (You Always Do),” sung by Norris Church Mailer.

“His last cocktail was delivered by his son Michael, who’d called his father and asked if he had a final request. It was rum and orange juice.”

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.

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