Douglas Brinkley reports on the sale of the extensive archive of Norman Mailer to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas: “Mailer’s miscellany.” Brinkley mulls over the rationale for Mailer’s choice of the University of Texas as the depository of his archives, weighing 20,000 pounds in total. Showing the same inquiring spirit that he brought to his authorized hagiography of John Kerry, Brinkley does not inquire about competing bidders or consider the possibility that the archives went to the highest bidder; the center paid $2.5 million for them.
The Mailer archive are not confined to manuscripts, letter, and other traditional evidence of the literary life. Putting his own literary flair on display, Brinkley dubs the contents of the archives “Mailerbalia” and notes some of the contents:
Stored in nearly 500 boxes weighing more than 20,000 pounds, the trove includes all manner of Mailerabilia dating back to his childhood and especially his early years at Harvard (class of ’43), where he majored in aeronautical engineering and wrote an unpublished novel, “No Percentage.”
Brinkley omits any word on whether the archives include the penknife with which Mailer famously stabbed his then-wife Adele Morales n 1960, although he does note that the archives include “mail Mr. Mailer received during his stay at the Bellevue Hospital Center, where he had been committed for stabbing his second wife.”
Brinkley also notes that the archives include “a dozen finished screenplays, including one about the Civil War general Dan Sickles[.]” In the late 1940s Mailer worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood (click here), and attempted a return to the trade years later at the invitation of Sergio Leone:
When the Italian director Sergio Leone started to work on his gangster film Once Upon a Time in America (1984), he asked Mailer to help with the screenplay. The film was based on the 1953 novel The Hoods by Harry Grey. Mailer barricaded himself in a Rome hotel room with several bottles of whisky, and spent there some three weeks, writing the script. “We could hear him singing, cursing and shouting for ice cubes from about ten blocks away!” Leone said later. Grey, a former Sing-Sing prisoner, met the author in New York, and was not happy with his adaptation of the book. “Mailer, at least to my eyes, the eyes of an old fan, is not a writer for the cinema,” concluded Leone.
I vaguely recall seeing one of Mailer’s films in the early 1970’s, and I can confirm Leone’s expert judgment.
A final note: Norman Podhoretz devotes a memorable chapter (“A Foul-Weather Friend to Norman Mailer”) of his memoir Ex-Friends to Mailer. Podhoretz recounts that Mailer rushed up to Podhoretz’s apartment after Mailer had stabbed Morales in 1960; Podhoretz wonders in retrospect whether he did the right thing in agreeing to help Mailer avoid institutionalization and psychiatric help afterwards. In recounting his friendship with Mailer, Podhoretz mixes personal, political and literary considerations. He notes that Mailer was good not only with Mailer’s own children, but with Podhoretz’s, who refused to believe that Mailer had in fact stabbed his wife.
UPDATE: Reader Bob Day writes:
Seeing your piece today on Norman Mailer reminded me of the time in the early 1970’s when I saw him deliver a most memorable performance while speaking at the University of Colorado.
After an overlong and fawning introduction, Mr. Mailer waited offstage (obviously prolonging the applause), then strutted out, his shoulders pulled back, dressed all in black. At the time he was quite well known for antagonizing women’s libbers, so there was quite a contingent of sign waving female protestors, and some males as well.
As he began to speak in his rapid fire and theatrical style, he was often heckled from the large audience. Most of this had to do with his supposedly misogynistic leanings. After 10 minutes or so, he decided to respond, telling the audience he would be happy to deal with the shouters directly. He then challenged them to “hiss me resoundingly,” which they did with some gusto. He then derided their effort and commitment, telling them how puny was their voice, and implored them to do better. The response was much bigger the next time, with lots of profanity and vile name calling. Mailer stood there stoically receiving their rage.
When the din had mostly died down and people were waiting for his response, Mailer simply looked out over the audience and said, “Thank you, obedient bitches.”
The tension had gotten just high enough, and the anticipation was certainly high enough, so that this perfect piece of theatrical verbal judo caused the room to absolutely explode with screams, hoots, laughter and sustained applause. I have never seen before or
since such a wonderful performance.
Of course, though the protesters were afraid to open their mouths thereafter, that didn’t stop one of them from going back to their dorm room and calling in a bomb threat. It was the perfect end piece to a perfect evening.