I had already seen the famous footage of a drunk, clumsy and obnoxious Norman Mailer feuding with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show (see below), registering it as a glimpse of a great character at their worst, but have just been enjoying Mailer’s own account, both of the occurrence itself, and the preceding controversy, in the essay “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy” (which can be found in his Pieces and Pontifications).
Shortly before their appearance on the show, Vidal had written a piece attacking Mailer for misogyny and equating him with Henry Miller and Charles Manson (the three male attendees of my ideal dinner party scenario, as it happens), referring throughout to these three personalities with the moniker “M3.” Mailer had already retaliated with the following tacitly spiteful letter:
It has come to my attention that Gore Vidal has been speaking in your pages of my hatred if women. Let me present the following items.
Number of times married: Mailer 5 Vidal 0
Number of children: Mailer 7 Vidal 0
Number of daughters: Mailer 5 Vidal 0
Of course, Mailer arguably omits the most significant scoreline: “Women stabbed: Mailer 1 Vidal 0.”
Regardless, after including this letter in his essay, Mailer goes on to detail the following tête à tête with Vidal in the Dick Cavett dressing room shortly before filming began.
At this moment, alone in the Green Room, he [Mailer himself, who tended to write such accounts in the third person] felt a tender and caressing hand on the back of his neck. It was Vidal. Vidal had never touched him before, but now had the tender smile of a man who would claim, “It doesn’t matter, old sport, what we say about each other – it’s just pleasant to see an old friend.” Mailer answered with an open-handed tap across the cheek. It was not a slap, neither was it a punch, just a stiff tap. To his amazement, Vidal slapped him back. Norman smiled. He leaned forward and looked pleasantly at Gore. He put his hand to the back of Gore’s neck. Then he butted him hard on the head.
Stormin’ Norman goes on to watch Vidal manage his solo interview with Cavett with begrudging admiration – the only sign Vidal betrays of having been very recently head-butted being his hand occasionally drifting up to the point of contact. As such, Mailer (who had been drinking cocktails earlier that evening, somewhat unsurprisingly), enters the fray feeling he still had a point to prove. Which hardly ends up working in his favor.
Vidal’s pained and slightly nervous expression, meanwhile, makes especial sense when you keep in mind the swift and unexpected head-butt he’d only quite recently received…