In the years that followed the event, Norman Mailer seemed distinctly proud of having stabbed and nearly killed his second wife, Adele Morales, in 1960.
According to Mailer’s worldview of the late fifties and onward—most famously articulated in his 1959 essay “The White Negro”—the artificial had gained excessive ascendancy over the real in contemporary Western Civilization, the word over the deed, the feminine over the masculine and so on. Mailer offered the world his macho existentialism as a means of redress.
So long as Mailer advocated psychopathy, violence, and courage on the page alone, however—speaking daggers but using none—he would be tormented by the suspicion (and pursued by the insinuation) that he was the most laughable kind of hypocrite…
In the troubled weeks leading up to the stabbing the writer attended a seminar at Brown University, were he rambled on about about knives being “symbols of manhood.” He was also preparing his first attempt to become mayor of New York City, a candidacy that was to be pitched at the city’s criminalized and impoverished, along with its artists and radicals, on a platform of “existential” approaches to social problems—such as jousting tournaments (to be held in Central Park) for young offenders.
As part of this prospective campaign, Mailer was composing an open letter to Fidel Castro, in which he offered one of his more succinct formulations of his critique of US society: “in Cuba, hatred runs over into the love of blood; in America, all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.”
Just as Mailer’s eccentric but perfectly sincere lurch for political power conceivably betrayed his contempt for being a purveyor of “psychic bullets” himself (a mere “man of letters”), his second marriage to Adele Morales was similarly entwined in this same conceptual web. Morales reportedly possessed an impressively sharp tongue, and was known to score freely in the course of their drunken bust-ups: interestingly, Mailer would later define this period of their relationship as “a series of psychic stabbings,” echoing, unconsciously or not, the language employed in his letter to Castro.
The actual stabbing occurred in the course of a party meant as a campaign launch for the mayoral bid. The writer and journalist George Plimpton, Mailer’s perennial wingman and de facto campaign manager, was told to contact various representatives from New York’s “power structure” and ensure their attendance. Predictably, none of them showed, leaving just the derelicts, cutthroats and bohemians the candidate could anyway call his own.
In a legendarily tetchy atmosphere, Mailer would take it upon himself to be his own least manageable guest, starting fights and at one point dividing everyone up on opposite sides of the room according to whether he considered them “for” or “against” him. Eventually he disappeared to look for real trouble, which he evidently succeeded in discovering, returning around four in the morning with a ripped shirt and a black eye.
According to Morales’ subsequent recollection, she greeted this reappearance in the following fashion:
“Aja toro, aja! Come on, you little faggot, where’s your cojones – did your ugly whore of a mistress cut them off, you son of a bitch?”
Although there are differing reports of what Morales said, her own version certainly “pricks” the ears, courtesy of the (literally) cutting metaphor (“psychic stabbings,” again). Mailer, matching word and deed, un-prised his pen knife, approached his wife, and stabbed her in the back and upper abdomen, one of which, a thrust “near the heart” was three inches deep.
Morales was rushed downstairs to the neighboring apartment of novelist Doc Hume, where a doctor was called but no police, while she lay soaking a mattress in blood.
Initially claiming to have “fallen on some glass,” she spent the following days in hospital, during which time her husband’s antics were quintessentially kooky. After being left to “sleep it off,” Mailer disappeared into the city, bobbing up to grandiosely lecture Adele’s surgeon on the likely dimensions of her wound, and then for an appearance on The Mike Wallace Show, where he continued to meditate on what was indubitably turning into his week’s big theme. “You see,” he informed the audience, back on his beloved topic the juvenile delinquent, “the knife’s his word, his manhood.”
I would hazard a guess that the rest of Mailer’s week resembled that of the protagonist of his next novel (1965’s An American Dream), an existentialist, TV personality, and budding politician called Rojak who strangles his wife and then hits the town, fucking, fighting, boozing, and generally reaping the huge existential dividends supposedly sprung by his act of ultraviolence.
Morales, though, finally admitted the obvious to police, and Mailer was arrested and charged.
During the trial, Mailer showed especial concern that he not be sent to a mental hospital, since then future readers might feel entitled to consider him insane. “My pride,” he told the court, “is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of. I insist I am sane.” The stabbing, it seems, was primarily a literary act, a bizarre precursor to the great works of New Journalism Mailer would pen, and in the third person, later that decade—Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
Legally, incidentally, the consequences would prove mind-bogglingly mild. After being indicted by a grand jury in January 30, 1961, Mailer pleaded guilty, was put on probation, and received a suspended sentence in November—his lawyer arguing successfully that his client was working on a new book (An American Dream!) and so “could make a contribution to society.”
The presiding Judge Schweitzer also took account not only of Adele’s request for leniency—which she later attributed to what she considered her children’s best interests—but also Mailer’s impressive avowal to his probation officer that he had reduced his drinking “to a minimum”...
Below, in a clip from Norman Mailer: The American, Adele Morales tells the completely insane story of what happened that fateful night… “He was down in the street punching people. He didn’t know who he was. He didn’t know what his name was, he was so out of it. And it wasn’t just on booze, it was on drugs.”