Saturday, November 10, 2007


He wanted to write The Great American Novel but changed the face of journalism instead. He died today at 84, leaving behind a torrent of words and an outsized public persona.

Norman Mailer was the opposite of shy. At a cocktail party, drink in hand, in front of a TV camera and, above all, on the printed page, he poured out opinions and indelible impressions for half a century. An early collection of essays was aptly titled, "Advertisements for Myself."

His World War II novel, "The Naked and the Dead," made him famous but he will be remembered, along with Tom Wolfe, for the New Journalism of the 1960s. Coming to it from opposite directions, Wolfe, a reporter by trade, and Mailer the novelist created something as different from traditional journalism as "Moby Dick" is from a tract on whaling.

In 1968, Harper's turned over a full issue to Mailer's account of the Vietnam protest march on the Pentagon, which later as a book titled "Armies of the Dead" won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

The next year, after a beery lunch and boozy dinner with a few New Journalist friends, Mailer decided to run for Mayor of New York and, in a put-on campaign, drew over 40,000 votes.

A decade later, he won another Pulitzer for "The Executioner's Song," about the last year in the life of Gary Gilmore, a remorseless killer. In between and afterward, he wrote ambitious novels, feuded with Feminists, stabbed one of his wives and fathered nine children.

A contemporary of mine, he was the ultimate opposite in temperament. A year ago, on a documentary about Marilyn Monroe, I was interviewed about my experiences in working with and getting to know her in the 1950s, but much more of PBS' time was devoted to Mailer who never met her but whose fantasies had filled a book and were vividly fascinating.

He never wrote The Great American Novel, but he did change the way several generations of us see the world.

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