Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Is Dead
Norman Mailer, the combative, controversial and often outspoken novelist who loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation, died today in Manhattan. He was 84.
He died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital early this morning, his family said.Mr. Mailer burst on the scene in 1948 with “The Naked and the Dead,” a partly autobiographical novel about World War II, and for the next six decades he was rarely far from the center stage. He published more than 30 books, including novels, biographies and works of nonfiction, and twice won the Pulitzer Prize: for “The Armies of the Night” (1968), which also won the National Book Award, and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979).
He also wrote, directed, and acted in several low-budget movies, helped found The Village Voice and for many years was a regular guest on television talk shows, where he could reliably be counted on to make oracular pronouncements and deliver provocative opinions, sometimes coherently and sometimes not.
Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
He was also the least shy and risk-averse of writers. He eagerly sought public attention, and publicity inevitably followed him on the few occasions when he tried to avoid it. His big ears, barrel chest, striking blue eyes and helmet of seemingly electrified hair — jet black at first and ultimately snow white — made him instantly recognizable, a celebrity long before most authors were lured out into the limelight.
At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.
Gore Vidal, with whom he frequently wrangled, once wrote: “Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”
Mr. Mailer was a tireless worker who at his death was writing a sequel to his 2007 novel, “The Castle in the Forest.” If some of his books, written quickly and under financial pressure, were not as good as he had hoped, none of them were forgettable or without his distinctive stamp. And if he never quite succeeded in bringing off what he called “the big one” — the Great American Novel — it was not for want of trying.
Along the way, he transformed American journalism by introducing to nonfiction writing some of the techniques of the novelist and by placing at the center of his reporting a brilliant, flawed and larger-than-life character who was none other than Norman Mailer himself.
A Pampered Son
Norman Kingsley — or, in Hebrew, Nachem Malek — Mailer was born in Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31, 1923. His father, Isaac Barnett, known as Barney, was a South African émigré, a snappy dresser — he sometimes wore spats and carried a walking stick — and a largely ineffectual businessman.
The dominant figure in the family was Mr. Mailer’s mother, Fanny Schneider, who came from a vibrant clan in Long Branch, where her father ran a grocery store and was the town’s unofficial rabbi. Though another child, Barbara, was born in 1927, Norman remained his mother’s favorite; she declared him “perfect” — a judgment from which she never deviated, no matter how her son behaved in later life.
When Norman was 9, the family moved to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. Pampered and doted on, he excelled at both P.S. 161 and Boys High School, from which he graduated in 1939. The next fall he enrolled as a 16-year-old freshman at Harvard, where he showed up wearing a newly purchased outfit of gold-brown jacket, green-and-blue striped pants, and white saddle shoes. Classmates remembered him as brash and jug-eared and full of big talk about his sexual experience. (In fact he had had very little, a lack he quickly set about rectifying.)
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