West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 24 | November 14 - 20, 2007
Norman Mailer, 84, the typo, temper and the talent
By JERRY TALLMER
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
And the greatest sport for the gods is when they can knock off two for the price of one. That happened this past week. On Sunday’s obit pages in The Times there is a photograph taken in 1969 by Fred McDarrah, the longtime Village Voice picture editor who died at 81, in his bed in Greenwich Village, sometime during his Monday/Tuesday birthday night of November 5 and 6. The photo is of Daniel Wolf, the first (and best) editor of The Village Voice, at his desk in Sheridan Square, listening with amusement to a dramatic arm-waving harangue by Voice founding partner and sometime columnist Norman Mailer, who is now himself dead, in Manhattan, at 84, of acute renal failure, early Saturday morning, November 10.
These two men, McDarrah and Mailer, together and separately, mostly separately, endure in the photo gallery more properly, the timeless, spaceless, dimensionless, ceaseless, motion-picture screening room in my own head. On the opposite page are some of the things I remember about Fred McDarrah. Here, what I remember first is the early morning in 1956 when, with one more issue of the struggling young Village Voice put to bed at the printers, I came into the office there was no one else there as the telephone was ringing.
I picked it up. A raging voice Mailer’s voice said: “Tallmer, you schmuck, why don’t you take your thumb out of your asshole? It’s ‘nuance … nuance,’ not ‘nuisance.’ ”
I said: “Norman, don’t talk to me like that,” and hung up, still body-weary and half-asleep, not having the least idea what the hell he was talking about.
And thus began the great Village Voice battle of the typo, an internal war that almost strangled that infant newspaper in its cradle.
Brief explanation. Norman Mailer, the silent partner (“I’m only in this for the money”), waited about 15 minutes after Volume I, No. 1 of The Voice, to launch himself as a weekly columnist, beginning with a great quote from Gide: “Please do not understand me too quickly.”
He wrote the columns an exploration of hipness intermingled with sneering put-downs of Village intelligentsia by hand, in pen or pencil, in a sort of looping, grade-school script, and brought or sent them in, always too late, much beyond deadline, and always, always, far exceeding the allotted space.
Our two secretaries, Susan Ryan and Flo Ettenberg, the only paid staffers ($50 each a week), would decipher them, type them, and off we’d all go at 6 in the morning, having had little or no sleep whatever the past 72 hours, all the way across New Jersey, myself or publisher Ed Fancher at the wheel, to the printers in Washington, New Jersey.
Somewhere along in there, the three words “nuances of youth” in Norman’s column that issue, had come out
“nuisances of youth.” Nobody had caught it. We were lucky, in our blinding exhaustion, to have caught “t-h-e.” And when you come to think of it (as I did, much later), “nuances of youth” and “nuisances of youth” aren’t all that far apart and make almost equal sense.
But not to Norman. Dan Wolf was one of Norman’s oldest friends. To Norman Mailer, Socialist, who prided himself on “trying to throw a ladder from Marx to Freud,” Dan now acidly declared: “Norman, you’re acting like the worst caricature of a capitalist in The Daily Worker.”
Long story short: Ed and Dan stood by me. Norman and a rich boy named Howard Bennett tried to grab the paper from them. The war raged, legally and otherwise, for I think almost a year, complicated by the fact that Norman’s father, I.B. Mailer, had been the Voice’s first bookkeeper. In the end, Ed and Dan held onto the paper by the skin of their teeth.
Norman to me, at a party, sometime during all that, as his eyes (which never missed anything) took in my battered saddle shoes: “When are you going to stop being a college boy?”
When Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” arrived on these shores, and I was among its earliest admirers, Norman took pains to write a full-page put-down of the masterpiece he had never yet either seen or read, terming it a hymn to impotence. Later, after he had seen it, and his then wife, Adele Morales, said, as they were leaving the theater, “Baby, on this one you fucked up,” he took out and paid for a full page in The Voice his own newspaper, so to speak in tiny type so as to get it all in, an apologia of sorts.
Which is to his credit and Adele’s.
Here’s another story to his credit, a counterbalance you might say:
In its earliest days and months, The Voice had huge distribution problems. Most of the distributors were thugs of one sort or another. Finally, Norman volunteered to do the distribution to newsstands by hand, himself, by car, taking along Flo Ettenberg (see above) for assistance.
One night during this process, Florence said to him with a laugh: “Someday I’m going to tell my grandchildren how I helped Norman Mailer hand-deliver The Village Voice.” Norman with his own burst of laughter said: “Yes, and they’re going to ask you: ‘Was that before or after he wrote ‘The Naked and the Dead’?”
My own basic problem with Norman was, in truth, that well before I met him I had not much liked “The Naked and the Dead.” It did not, I thought, represent my war that same war and was too full of mournful Jewishness and Jewish fears in one or two of the infantrymen. The WW II writers I went for, and still go for, are Irwin Shaw, James Jones, J.D. Salinger et al., with Hemingway of course in the background of the whole thing.
And Mailer, likewise, of course, had a bad case of Hemingwayitis from first to last throughout his life and in everything he, Norman, ever wrote.
The writing of Norman’s that I think is great, and well-deserved of all honors, is in fact his nonfiction reportage, i.e. “The Armies of the Night,” which (heroically) tells you more or less everything about the ’60s you’ll ever need to know, and his nonfiction reconstruction, i.e. “The Executioner’s Song,” which tells Gary Gilmore’s death-wish story in clear, clean, American prose. Which reminds me that it was in The Voice that Norman put the finger on Lyndon Johnson’s “totalitarian prose,” and also in The Voice that we front-paged Norman’s Bay of Pigs open letter to John F. Kennedy, which started off “Dear Jack” and went on to ask the president how he could so blindly trust the C.I.A. “spooks,” who are still at it but much more horrifyingly to this day.
And it was Norman, productive all his life of brilliant insights, half of them right on the nail head, half of them loony, who after the assassination of John F. Kennedy diagnosed this country as being on the verge of a national nervous breakdown a condition that also, following 9/11, exists in spades to this day.
The movie in my head includes so many other things too many to count including Norman’s put-down of other writers of his generation, his generosity toward struggling young writers, his swinging at Gore Vidal on live television, his obsession with fisticuffs generally, his crazy-wonderful candidacy for mayor of New York City (51st state-to-be), his half-absurd, half-on-target ideas on blacks, whites, drugs, cancer, women, sex, feminism.
(I wish he’d been at hand in the Eighth Street Bookstore the night I moronically asked Ingrid Thulin why a beautiful Swedish movie star would be interested in Mailer’s “The White Negro,” to which she sweetly replied: “But women are the Negro problem of the whole world, no?”)
He and I would, long after the war of the typo, maintain over the years a civil acquaintanceship I interviewed him on other matters more than once but I do not think he ever, to the end, fully trusted me, especially not after the arrival Off-Broadway of Jean Genet’s racial and ideological blockbuster, “The Blacks.”
He rather loftily told me he would do his treatment of it in The Voice, “and you can as usual fill in the plot and all that.” Shades of Rip Torn, trying to kill Norman with a hammer during the shooting of Norman’s movie “Maidstone” because that’s what actors do isn’t it? try to re-create reality. Ha! I wrote a hot-under-the-collar symbolistic-poetic interpretation of “The Blacks” with not one word of plot “and all that.”
The unkindest thing we ever did to Norman was, on the Letters to the Editor page of The Voice, run as often as they came in a series of short, satiric jabs at “Normal Failure” from a correspondent named Kenneth J. Schmidt, who lived just down the block on Greenwich Avenue. His barbs used to drive Norman wild to the delight, I’m afraid, of Ed Fancher. And I never gave Norman the praise he would have loved of Mailer the Playwright (“The Deer Park”) because I couldn’t: the stuff wasn’t there.
But oh my God, there was, with Norman Mailer, so much stuff that was there, and so badly needed by this spiritually starving country.
He was a man, take him for all in all,
We shall not look upon his like again.