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Meeting the Mailers

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Sue Fox remembers author Norman Mailer and members of his family.

Sakari Määttänen (1938–1992), Finnish journalist, here with Norman Mailer (right) in New York City, 1969

I last interviewed writer Norman Mailer, at home in Cape Cod, in 2007. I had interviewed him the previous year for Relative Values, with his son, John. They had written a novel – The Big Empty – together.  John, was 29, film-star handsome – the only child of Mailer’s long marriage to writer and artist, Norris Church Mailer, his sixth and last wife. Mailer’s ninth child, John had written a stage play – Crazy Eyes –  about a character who was possibly a terrorist. We exchanged emails in a combined effort for John to give a public reading in London. John’s emails were headed Crazy Eyes. Our older son, helping with some computer glitch, saw my raft of Crazy Eyes emails. Thinking they were a term of endearment from someone other than his father, he asked what was going on. Nothing was going on. Neither of us could get the funding together.

John and Norman were extremely close. “As a father of nine, I’ve tried not to have a favourite, but John endangers that proposition. The two of us are extra-close. In a way, he has been like an only child. On the other hand, he’s part of a large family, though the others are much older. He has that odd advantage of the insularity of the single child, as well as the social sophistication of having grown up in a big family. His mother, Norris, is incapable of being strict. She has an extraordinary gift for children. A remarkable woman who comes from an Arkansas sharecropper family and is full of blissful self-confidence. John has that. Norris is a world-class stepmother. We met at a party when I was invited to lecture in Arkansas. Back then, I had seven kids. Norris, who had a young son, was teaching high school.”

Norris, became a friend after I met her in Brooklyn for the Times Magazine. She had published her memoir, A Ticket To the Circus. Stick thin, beautiful, feisty. Norris was also very sick when we talked in the spacious brownstone apartment so filled with memories.  She had cancer but gave no indication that she was recovering from surgery.  Norris simply sat me down to look at the stunning view across the East River to Manhattan.  When I was next in New York we went out to dinner. Walking to a local restaurant, Norris, in full make-up, with her stunning red hair, was noticeably breathless. She took me into a neighbourhood thrift shop raising money for a homeless charity. It was one of her favourite haunts. I bought a wide leather belt.

Mailer-Breslin Campaign for Mayor of New York City, 1969

In June 2007, I went to  Norman Mailer’s beloved Provincetown where unable to manage the stairs in Brooklyn, he was pretty much housebound. Dwayne Raymond, Norman’s assistant who would go on to write a beautiful memoir, Mornings with Mailer, arranged for me to visit the house, in Commercial Street.  I had a commission from The Times. Flying to the Cape on a tiny plane from Boston was magical. The pilot spotted some whales, swooping right down so I could have a good look.

Norman Mailer was sipping hot tea when I walked into the living room. He was sitting with his back to the huge windows. Macular degeneration meant that he could no longer look out on the spectacular view of the sea, sparkling just beyond his living room. Happily, he had lost none of his fire and strong opinions. I know I would have been absolutely terrified of his younger self. Now there was something deeply unsettling about seeing this one-time hell-raiser wearing his heartbreakingly sad old man’s slippers. Mailer was an ailing grandpa with cloudy but still extraordinarily penetrating eyes. His leathery, weather-beaten face told a thousand stories. Vocally he was in good form. I suspected that much of the time he was monumentally bored and frustrated by incapacity. Anyone – not especially me – would have been a welcome distraction for him. He drew me a cartoonish self-portrait which he autographed. When my couple of hours were up, I walked along Commercial Street to look for my ride back to the airport.

Norman Mailer, writer, gliding in the 70s

I  thought of all the things John had told me about Norman Mailer – his father.  “I received an obscene amount of love. By the time I came around, I think Pop was more ready than he’d ever been to enjoy being a father.  I had a totally different family dynamic from my brothers and sisters. It was such a secure base. I didn’t have the same kind of physical experience of playing ball with him as the others had, but I guess they’d agree that in many ways I got the best of my father. Wild as he still is — and he is getting a little wilder by the day — he has mellowed too. When I was 21, I had a wake-up call from that idyllic childhood. My mom had cancer/ Then Dad had to have surgery.  These past few years have been filled with extreme highs and lows.  I was suddenly thrown into the role of taking care of our folks and realising what it means to be an adult. It’s hard to see Pop becoming more frail. But despite his deafness, he’s still a masterful speaker who can invite an audience in. His mind is probably sharper than it’s ever been. But his knees aren’t great.  He’s much happier in Provincetown than in his fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn. New York is a tough city for an octogenarian to get around.”

Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller at the conference of the Norman Mailer Society, 2006, Provincetown, MA.

Norman Mailer died on 10th November 2007.  My husband and I were invited, the following year, to his memorial service at Carnegie Hall.  The lady behind the window of the box office said, “Well! you have some of the best seats in the house.” We were with the family and close friends. Sean Penn and Mrs Mohammed Ali, both of whom paid tribute to Mailer on stage, sat next to my husband. Harold Evans, my first editor on the Sunday Times, sat behind me. His wife, Tina Brown, was a brilliant MC. Norris, wearing a huge black hat and elegant suit, sat quietly, commanding and dignified. All of the Mailer children spoke about their dad, weaving a tapestry of anecdotes which added up to an incredible personal portrait of Norman Mailer, their father – not  one of America’s towering writers who had a reputation for “having an ego to match.” A framed programme from Carnegie Hall, “April 9, 2008, 4.0pm” with a photograph of Mailer when he was handsome and terrifying, hangs by my desk. Under the glass is the little autographed self-portrait he gave me on that sunny day in Provincetown.

John Buffalo Mailer is now 50, married and a father. Norris Church Mailer died on November 21, 2010, in Brooklyn. She was 61. In an email to me after my interview with her was published in The Times she wrote. “I enjoyed the words very much. The photo showed me as a little old lady. That’s fine.” It didn’t. Norris Church Mailer was beautiful. My thrift shop belt is now much too tight.

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Sue Fox is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing famous people for the Sunday Times, Times Magazine, and many magazines since she was 18.  She has also been associate producer on TV documentaries and a film archive.
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