William Burroughs’ work has always been controversial. When Naked Lunch was first published it was denounced by critics as “obscene,” “repugnant” and “not unlike wading through the drains of a big city.” The poet and arbiter of highbrow taste, Edith Sitwell decried the book stating she did not want “to spend the rest of my life with my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories.” Its publication led to an infamous obscenity trial where Norman Mailer was called as a witness to defend the book and its writer. Mailer famously declared Burroughs as:
....the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.
However, Burroughs was generally unfazed by his detractors—after all he wasn’t writing for them.
When Burroughs decided to make a short film The Cut-Ups with B-movie smut-peddler Antony Balch it was perhaps inevitable that their collaboration caused similar outrage.
When The Cut-Ups was first screened at the Cinephone, Oxford Street, London in 1966:
Members of the audience rushed out saying, ‘It’s disgusting,’ to which the staff would reply, ‘It’s got a U certificate, nothing disgusting about it, nothing the censor objected to.’
Norman Mailer may have been a great writer, but he was no singer. Come to think of it, he was no film director either as anyone who has had the misfortune to see Tough Guys Don’t Dance or any of those dreadful “art house films” he made in the 1960s will know. Yes, Mailer was a great writer, but his singing—not so much.
Along with such other luminaries as Jessica Mitford and Maya Angelou, Mailer donated his talent, time and voice to the charity album Stranger Than Fiction in 1998 that raised money for the promotion of literature and literacy. A noble deed. While Angelou and Mitford sang “Right Said Fred,” Mailer offered up a song he had written on a subject close to his heart “Alimony Blues.” Asked when he had composed this little ditty, Mailer replied:
It was so many years ago that I can’t really tell you the date, sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. The lyrics are funny, and it is sung with the unmatchable authority of a man whose voice has never been known to hit a single note on pitch.
Apparently, Mailer’s singing career began and finished in school where “he was asked to become a listener.”
It’s not bad enough to make your ears bleed, but someone perhaps like George Melly should have sung it instead.
According to Amy Weiss-Meyer at The New Republic, Mailer would frequently take his two daughters to what he called “the Church of MOMA,” where they often would find themselves admiring this or that Picasso masterpiece. He also loved to draw, and he commonly sent friends cute little doodles, many of them of the human face. According to Mailer’s daughter Danielle, drawing was a respite from writing, which was a laborious and taxing undertaking. Drawing, on the other hand, was simply fun for him, an escape into pure delight. A new online platform called POBA is hosting a good many of Mailer’s doodles, many of which are reproduced below.
This passage from J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life mentions the doodles: “Most of his correspondents got Xerox copies of one of his drawings, doodles, and cartoons, and faces made of numbers, an idea he says he got from Picasso, who as a boy thought the number seven was an upside-down nose.”
As you can see, there’s a numerological facial portrait in the set, but Mailer opted to use a 1 for the nose, rather than a 7.
Norman Mailer walked like a boxer, strutting out of his corner and into the ring. It was probably done for affect, and sometimes it worked, though it often made him look like Benny the Ball from Top Cat.
Mailer did a lot of things for affect. His intonation and accent could change depending on situation, location, and who he was talking to. It probably all started when he was in the army during the Second World War, where Mailer learned to be tough after mixing with big guys who said “fuggin’’” a lot. It was a front he kept up most of his life.
I noticed Mailer’s ability to adapt when I was a kid living living in Scotland, and saw him interviewed on the BBC’s Parkinson chat show. New Jersey-born Mailer opened his mouth and spoke with an English-lilt that suggested possibly Boston, received pronunciation and what he had picked-up during his brief marriage to Lady Jeanne Campbell, daughter of the British press baron Lord Beaverbrook. Accent aside, he was still impressive.
I am a big fan of Norman Mailer, and think him one of the very few authors of the past fifty years who, even with his flaws and excesses, still demands to be read. There is always something to be learnt from Mailer, both good and bad, and that’s what makes him interesting. Here Mailer struts an entrance onto The Merv Griffin Show like he is a boxer, and goes on to talk about writing, presence, being middle-aged, America, communism and Russia.
This clip offers a critique as to what is wrong with most of today’s chat-shows, where there appears to be a dearth of great writers and thinkers sharing their knowledge and yes, plugging their wares. Instead we have the inarticulate pop stars, the reality show nobodies and the actors selling their latest movie, you just know you won’t bother to see. At least with Mailer, you could always pick up some original thought, or observation which might encourage further investigation.
Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream was originally serialized in Esquire magazine during 1964. The story concerned Steven Richards Rojack, a 44-year-old Harvard graduate, war hero, left-wing intellectual, former politician and alcoholic TV host, who kills his wife in a fit of rage. There were obvious parallels between the author and his fictional creation, as 42-year-old Norman Kingsley Mailer was also a Harvard graduate, had served in the Second World War, was a left-wing intellectual, and had dabbled in politics. He had also stabbed his wife, Adele, in a fit of rage. Mailer commented on these similarities in 1965:
“Rojack is still considerably different from me—he’s more elegant, more witty, more heroic, his physical strength is considerable, and at the same time he is more corrupt than me.”
Mailer’s tale was a brilliantly told existentialist thriller that examined American obsessions in the second-half of the twentieth century. It was brave work to undertake, and its sensational story-line, mixing elements of biography, and real-life characters (Miles Davis was the inspiration for the jazz singer Shago Martin) together with explicit murder, sex and violence, shocked critics and readers alike. It guaranteed success for Esquire, whose sales jumped to a record 900,000 sales.
Mailer created a “City of the Future” (his plan for a possible New York) out of LEGO, so he may have enjoyed this short adaptation of his classic novel by Dan Finnen, that offers up the book’s choice moments.
The verdict on Norman Mailer is swayed too easily by a revulsion to his private behavior, rather than by any examination in the quality of his writing. The problem stems from Mailer himself, whose need to impose his personality and his opinions, on anyone who would listen, placed his private life on center stage. This he did without thought to the damage it would cause his literary reputation.
While his opinions were sometimes daft and offensive, it did not mean Mailer couldn’t be original and vital.
This is all well and good, but Mailer considered himself a novelist first, with ambitions to write “The Great American Novel.” This never happened. Indeed, his fiction never achieved the critical and popular success of his first novel, The Naked and The Dead, which says much.
There’s a truth in John Updike’s observation that Mailer had once the potential to be the greatest American writer of the twentieth century—if only he hadn’t squandered his talent on a desire to being a respected public figure. Writers write, they don’t run for office, or make unwatchable movies, or compensate for their own insecurity by turning everything into a fistfight.
With all this in mind, it is perhaps time for Mailer’s reputation to be reassessed. This week sees a new volume of his essays, Mind of an Outlaw (with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem) and a new biography, Norman Mailer: A Double LIfe by Peter Lennon. Both will be published on October 15th. A book dealing with the infamous Norman Mailer/Gore Vidal spat, will be published in December. Sales of these books should give a good idea of Mailer’s current standing and relevance.
In 1966, Norman Mailer was interviewed in a documentary for Swedish television. It contains what was good and bad about Mailer—an overweening need to push his ordinary ideas (today’s word Norman is “totalitarianism”), with those occasional sparks of brilliance. It can be summed up by the know-it-all-booze-in-one-hand-Mailer versus Norman-being-a-father-and-husband, who is willing to admit he sometimes doesn’t know the answer.
(As a footnote: Nice juxtaposition to all of the above with the freeze frame below…)
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.”
It’s difficult to write an actual “book review” of someone’s collected letters, in this case, Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 (edited by Bill Morgan) but trust me when I tell you that if you’re a Burroughs buff there is much to love between the covers of this thick volume. Some real revelations and some of it’s just flat-out hilarious. If you are considering buying it, you should.
In 1959, the year Naked Lunch was published, Burroughs, then 45 years old, was living in Paris and avidly exploring the occult implications of Brion Gysin’s cut-ups technique. A page of text would be sliced with a razor or else folded in from something else so that the “real” meaning could sort of, mediumistically speaking, “leak through.” Things changed quickly for the author by the end of that year. Via a Life magazine article, Burroughs’ rising notoriety as part of the Beat movement, his drug habit and his homosexuality was becoming known to his wealthy Palm Beach socialite parents. One letter to his mother begins, in reference to her reaction to the Life article.
I counted to ten before answering your letter and I hope you have done the same since nothing could be more unworthy than a quarrel between us at this point.
Yep, William Burroughs having a fight with his mom… and you can eavesdrop. Burroughs goes on to try to mollify his mother (who still sent him a small monetary stipend each month that he very much depended on) by telling her that risque publicity sold books and hey, weren’t Poe, Byron and Baudelaire considered bad boys of literature in their time before gaining charter memberships in the Shakespeare squad? (I only wish that her letter that preceded his was in the book, too.)
His parents were raising his young child, William “Billy” Burroughs, Jr. (Burroughs had, of course, killed his son’s mother). In a letter to Billy, who was then 13, his wayward father mentions how traveling would be easier now without his “monkey” travelling companion (i.e his heroin addiction) but how his mother had forbidden him from stepping foot in Palm Beach under threat of “financial excommunication.”
Brion Gysin’s deep influence on Burroughs was a topic frequently mentioned in his correspondence during this time period—with Gysin the recipient of the bulk of the letters, along with Allen Ginsberg—and they are also filled with references to other WSB obsessions like Hassan-i Sabbāh, the apomorphine cure for heroin addiction, Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, Count Alfred Korzybski, tape recorders, the Mayan calendar, the then-burgeoning underground press and Scientology. In fact, there is far more information about Burroughs’ interest in Scientology in these letters than I’ve encountered in any other source. So many Burroughs scholars seem to have a difficult time believing that a literary genius like William S. Burroughs could have been conned by a second-rate flim-flam man like L. Ron Hubbard, but he was in fact a very enthusiastic adherent to Scientology for about eight years, and that’s all here in his own words (along with plenty about his vicious post-fallout with the cult as well).
One short note politely abstains from joining Norman Mailer in his tax withholding protest against the Vietnam War:
November 20, 1967
8 Duke Street
As regards the War Tax Protest if I started protesting and refusing to contribute to all the uses of tax money of which I disapprove: Narcotics Department, FBI, CIA, any and all expenditures for nuclear weapons, in fact any expenditures to keep the antiquated idea of a nation on its dying legs, I would wind up refusing to pay one cent of taxes, which would lead to more trouble than I am prepared to cope with or to put it another way I feel my first duty is to keep myself in an operating condition. In short I sympathize but must abstain.
all the best,
Burroughs already had enough problems, obviously. Lack of money and yet always being generously and sweetly concerned about the welfare of friends less well-off is another theme that runs throughout the collection. Unsurprisingly the letters also frequently mention Burroughs’ lifelong misogyny and distrust of females. A proposed Naked Lunch film to be made in conjunction with Terry Southern and produced by Chuck Barris is discussed. There is one letter that I thought was especially funny, Burroughs writing to Gysin about seeing gay porn on Times Square for the first time and how it’s going to put a novelist like himself out of business. There is even some correspondence from Burroughs to Fred Halsted (an early pioneer of extremely hardcore gay pornography) about a potential Wild Boys porn film(!), but WSB pulled the plug, he wrote the S&M auteur, for both of their sake’s, knowing that it was never, ever going to be funded or made.
Writers need stability to nurture their talent and unfetter their imagination. Too much chaos dilutes the talent and diminishes the productivity. Writers like Norman Mailer squandered too much time and effort on making his life the story - when in fact he should have been writing it. J. G. Ballard was well aware of this, and he had the quiet certainty of a 3-bed, des res, with shaded garden and off-street parking at front. Yet, Ballard’s seeming conformity to a middle class idyll appeared to astound so many critics, commentators, journalists, whatevers, who all failed to appreciate a true writer’s life is one of lonely, unrelenting sedentary toil, working at a desk 9-5, or however long - otherwise the imagination can not fly.
That’s why I have always found suburbs far more interesting places than those anonymous urban centers. Cities are about mass events - demonstrations, revolution, massacre, war, shared public experience. Suburbia is about the repressed forces of individual action. It’s where the murders are planned, the orgies enjoyed, the drugs devoured, the imagination inspired. Suburbia is where dysfunction is normalized.
And J. G. Ballard was very aware of this.
Future Now is a documentary interview with J G Ballard, made in 1986 not long after he had achieved international success with his faux-biographical novel Empire of the Sun. Opening with a brief tour of his Shepperton home, Ballard gives an excellent and incisive interview, which only reminds what we have lost.
There are few things sexier in this life than seeing a young, virile Rip Torn go medieval on acclaimed writer, wife-beater and underground filmmaker, Norman Mailer. This may sound like some wondrous fever dream but sometimes magic happens in real life and such an incident not only occurred but was documented in Mailer’s 1970 film, Maidstone. This event was so monumental that already half-whispered legends are born from this moment, including some speculation that Torn was tripping to the gills on acid for two days beforehand, but that’s just the tip.
Artists are mere flesh and blood, too, but with more passion, madness and imagination than the average person, so when they fight, it can quickly turn into a dark, more violent version of Destroy All Monsters. This is exactly what happened behind the scenes on the set of Maidstone, one of three underground films that Mailer directed in the late 60’s. (The other two being Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, with Torn also starring in the latter and the former being written by D.A. Pennebaker) The essential back story is that Mailer changed some key elements from the original script, including an alluded-to brothel sequence. Add in Torn, being the passionate artist that he was (and undoubtedly still is, even if his underground film days are long behind him), some potential chemical and physical exhaustion, all adding up to method acting going one step further.
In the film, Torn’s character, Raoul, the half-brother of famed director and presidential candidate, Norman Kingsley (Mailer), plots an assassination of his politically ambitious and arrogant kin. Torn begins the scene, letting Mailer know only when he clubs him on the head with a hammer. This is no stage magic, though, as they wrestle to the ground, both bleeding for real, with Torn’s coming from a vicious bite on the ear courtesy of Mailer. The tussle is something to behold, with Mailer grunting like an enraged caveman and Torn remaining cool as a cucumber, even saying, “No baby. You trust me?” Mailer pulls a chump move by acting like all is forgiven, only to attack Torn when his defenses are briefly down. But Torn, despite being smaller in size, deftly pins back him down and starts to choke him, when Mailer’s on-screen and real life wife, former-model and actress Beverly Bentley, realizing that the bloodshed was real, starts to scream and freak out, making the Mailer-children brood scream and freak out too.
From there, the battle continues, but with words instead of hammers and fists. Torn is clearly hurt and using words like “fraud” repeatedly, while Mailer tries to he-man it up, coming across like an Ivy League brat playing Hemingway. What’s amazing is, despite all the drama, Torn still manages to one-up Mailer, with one of the highlights being when, off screen, one of the Mailer children says, “don’t fight any more.” It is Rip, not Mailer, who responds, saying “That’s right baby, no fighting. It was just a scene in a Hollywood whorehouse movie. Okay baby? You know it’s okay and your Dad knows it’s okay.” Then he whispers under his breath, looking right at Norman and smiling maniacally, “Up yours.” What’s the best Mailer can come up with? “Adios.”
It would be easier to feel bad for Mailer if he didn’t reek of ego and macho bravado, all in stark contrast to the very earthy and naturally masculine Torn. On top of that, the man was a notorious blowhard with a history of violence against women, including stabbing his second wife Adele Morales. That’s not to say he wasn’t a talented writer and to his credit, the whole reason we are blessed to have this phenomenal fight to enjoy is that he actually included it in the film. Rare moments of slack aside, seeing the young, wild-eyed Torn best Norman Mailer is a borderline-harrowing gift of wonder.
Thankfully, Criterion, as part of their Eclipse series, has recently released not only Maidstone, but also Wild 90 and Beyond the Law as a two-disc set. So now a new generation of fringe film viewers can get a peak into late 60’s underground cinema and see the evolution of one of the greatest working character actors today.
In 1970, Fontana Books published the first of 7 paperback books in a series on what they termed Modern Masters - culturally important writers, philosophers and thinkers, whose work had shaped and changed modern life. It was a bold and original move, and the series launched on January 12th with books on Camus, Chomsky, Fanon, Guevara, Levi-Strauss, Lukacs, and Marcuse.
This was soon followed in 1971 with the next set of books on McLuhan, Orwell, Wittgenstein, Joyce, Freud, Reich and Yeats. And in 1972-73 with volumes on Gandhi, Lenin, Mailer, Russell, Jung, Lawrence, Beckett, Einstein, Laing, and Popper.
Fontana Modern Masters was a highly collectible series of books - not just for their opinionated content on the likes of Marx or Proust, Mailer or McLuhan, but because of Oliver Bevan’s fabulous cover designs.
This eye-catching concept for the covers came from Fontana’s art director, John Constable, who had been experimenting with a Cut-Up technique, inspired by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and based on The Mud Bath, a key work of British geometric abstraction by the painter David Bomberg. It was only after Constable saw Oliver Bevan’s geometric, Op Art at the Grabowski Gallery in London, did Constable decide to commission Bevan to design the covers.
The first full set of books consisted of 9 titles. Each cover had a section of a Bevan painting, which consisted of rectilinear arrangements of tesselating block, the scale of which was only fully revealed when all 10 covers were placed together. Bevan designed the first ‘3 sets of 10’ from 1970-74. He was then replaced by James Lowe (1975-79) who brought his own triangular designs for books on Marx, Eliot, Pound, Sartre, Artaud and Gramsci. In 1980, Patrick Mortimer took over, with his designs based on circles.
The original Fontana Modern Masters regularly pop-up in secondhand bookshops, and are still much sought after. Over the years, I have collected about 20 different volumes, but have yet to create one complete painting. Here are a few samples, culled from my own collection and from the the web.
A small selection of Fontana Modern Master covers, after the jump…
Over at Facsimile Dust Jackets you can find (and purchase) an incredible selection of scans of dust jackets from classic novels by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Christopher Isherwood, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Agatha Christie, Aleister Crowley, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bloch, Len Deighton and many, many more. Have a look for yourself here.
Irascible literary figure Martin Amis interviews legendarily irascible literary figure Norman Mailer on the BBC in 1991. I have a love/hate relationship with both writers, so I enjoyed watching this on a number of levels. It’s not often that you see a conversation like this on television, sadly…
Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer’s CIA novel, had just come out. American politics, advanced capitalism, communism, why Christians side with the rich against the poor, writing, the Cold War and homosexuality are topics that get covered. (It gets really good in part two, which is what I am going to link to here, but you can find the other segments on YouTube).
His first assignment for Esquire was to interview Frank Sinatra - no easy task, as Old Blue Eyes had knocked back such requests from the magazine over several years. But Gay Talese wasn’t so quickly put off. He spent 3 months following Sinatra and his entourage, racking up $5,000 in expenses. Not common then and unthinkable now in these days of Google and Wikipedia.
The result of Talese’s hard work was “Frank Sinatra has a cold”, possibly the best profile written on the singer and certainly one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism written at that time. As writer and broadcaster Michael Kinsley has since said, “It’s hard to imagine a magazine article today having the kind of impact that [this] article and others had in those days in terms of everyone talking about it purely on the basis of the writing and the style.”
What’s great about “Frank Sinatra has a cold” is what’s best about Talese as a writer - his ability to make the reader feel centered in the story by reconstructing the reported events using the techniques of fiction. You can see this technique in another of his essays, “Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-aged Man”, which begins:
“ ‘Hi, sweetheart!’ Joe Louis called to his wife, spotting her waiting for him at the Los Angeles airport.
She smiled, walked toward him, and was about to stretch up on her toes and kiss him, but suddenly stopped.
‘Joe,’ she said, ‘where’s your tie?’
‘Aw, sweetie,’ he said, shrugging, ‘I stayed out all night in New York and didn’t have time.’
‘All night!’ she cut in. ‘When you’re out here all you do is sleep, sleep, sleep.’
‘Sweetie,’ Joe Louis said, with a tired grin, ‘I’m an ole man.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘but when you go to New York you try to be young again.’”
The article has its own symmetry and ended with one of the boxer’s ex-wives, Rose, watching home footage of Louis’s fight against Billy Conn:
“Rose seemed excited at seeing Joe at the top of his form, and every time a Louis punch would jolt Conn, she’d go ‘Mummmm’ (sock). ‘Mummmm’ (sock). ‘Mummmm.’
Billy Conn was impressive through the middle rounds, but as the screen flashed Round 13, somebody said, ‘Here’s where Conn’s gonna make his mistake: he’s gonna try to slug it out with Joe Louis.’ Rose’s husband remained silent, sipping his Scotch.
When the Louis combinations began to land, Rose went ‘Mummmm, mummmm,’ and then the pale body of Conn began to collapse against the canvas.
Billy Conn slowly began to rise. The referee counted over him. Conn had one leg up, then two, then was standing - but the referee forced him back. It was too late.
But Rose’s husband in the back of the room disagreed.
‘I thought Conn got up in time,’ he said, ‘but that referee wouldn’t let him go on.’
Rose Morgan said nothing - just swallowed the rest of her drink.”
It’s a clever and poignant ending, revealing as much about Rose and her relationship with her husbands, as it does about Talese’s talent as a writer. It also signals his need to record everything, which is all the more impressive when you know Talese never used a tape recorder when working on these profiles.
Gay Talese was born into a Catholic, Italian-American family in Ocean City, New Jersey in 1932. It was an upbringing he would later claim made him “not unfamiliar with the condition of being an outsider”:
“Indeed it was a role for which his background had most naturally prepared him: an Italo-American parishioner in an Irish-American church, a minority Catholic in a predominantly Protestant hometown, a northerner attending a southern college, a conservative young man of the fifties who invariably wore a suit and a tie, a driven man who chose as his calling one of the few possessions that was open to mental masqueraders: he became a journalist, and thus gained a licence to circumvent his inherent shyness, to indulge his rampant curiosity, and to explore the lives of individuals he considered more interesting than himself.”
His father was a tailor and his mother ran a dress boutique, it was here the young Talese learned his first journalistic skills:
“The shop was a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother; and as a boy not much taller than the counters behind which I used to pause and eavesdrop, I learned much that would be useful to me years later when I began interviewing people for articles and books.
I learned to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments (as the listening skills of my patient mother taught me) people are very revealing - what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them.”
In his brilliant “Frank Sinatra has a cold” Talese created a portrait of the singer that captured his over-bearing “mood of sullen silence”, his capricious nature, which made him at times both cruel and aggressive; or kind and overly generous. Talese revealed the background of Sinatra, the only child from Hoboken, who was scarred at birth by forceps, considered a weakling, reared mainly by his grandmother, his father a Sicilian who boxed under the name of Marty O’Brien, his mother worked at a chocolate factory, was strict and ambitious, who originally wanted her son to become an aviation engineer.
“When she discovered Bing Crosby pictures hanging on his bedroom walls one evening, and learned that her son wished to become a singer too, she became infuriated and threw a shoe at him. Later, finding she could not talk him out of it - ‘he takes after me’ - she encouraged his singing.”
Unlike other members of the New Journalism group (Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson), Talese didn’t put himself at the heart of his essays, rather he saw himself as a non-judgmental writer, who allowed each subject to speak for him / her self. Nowhere was this more true than in “The Loser”, his incredible profile of boxer Floyd Paterson, which included a shocking admission by the former World Champion:
“Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, ‘You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don’t know…but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word - myself - is because…is because…I am a coward.’”
Non-judgmental, perhaps. But somewhere down the line, Talese makes the decision of what to keep and what to cut out, and by nuance and omission, he shapes our impressions, and gives the reader an intimacy mere facts could not supply.
Norris Church Mailer (1949-2010), the sixth and final wife of the late novelist, Norman Mailer, has died today after a long battle with cancer, it has been announced.
It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer, who died November 21, 2010, after a long and valiant struggle with cancer. Norris was many things to many people. She was an unusually gifted and talented writer, an insightful observer of the human condition, both as novelist and memoirist.
She was an acclaimed professional painter and illustrator, as well as a teacher in her native Arkansas and then a beautiful fashion model in New York. She was the pilgrim soul who captured and won Norman’s heart and mind and who shared with him the last three decades of his life. She was a loving mother and adored stepmother, the glue that held together the eclectic Mailer clan. And she was a good, passionate and generous friend for so many of us who came to know, admire and love her.