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In 1969, Norman Mailer – already a successful novelist and somewhat notorious character – decided to run for Mayor of New York with the already legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin as his running mate.
The brilliant Joe Flaherty wrote a marvelous memoir of the campaign called “Managing Mailer.”
While the title is technically correct since Flaherty was the campaign manager, reading the sadly out of print book (excerpts can be read here), it quickly becomes clear that there really was no managing Mailer.
When I interviewed him in 2007, he said of that campaign:
“Looking back on it, there was something highly comic about the whole thing,” he said. “Not at the time, of course. Breslin and I worked as hard as we ever worked. One of my favorite remarks at the time was that my mother didn’t raise me to work this hard. The press thought it was a lark, but it wasn’t a lark. It was a bone-depleting journey.”
“What is comic about it, what I find comic about it, was how little political sense I had compared to how much political sense I thought I had. What I didn’t understand was that a freshman doesn’t run for president of the fraternity.”
I bring this up because there are two books out that deal with managing Mailer later in life. One by Norris Church Mailer, his sixth and, as she likes to point out, last wife. She was with him for about 32 years, pretty much longer than he was with his other five wives, combined.
Her book, A Ticket to the Circus, is a loving though very honest memoir of those times. It’s not always pretty but even when she writes of Mailer — or her — having an affair, there is no question that the bond that held them together was love (though, as she makes clear, sex was also a part of it (“No matter the circumstances of our passions and rages, our boredoms, angers and betrayals large and small, sex was the cord that bound us together”).
It was a relationship apparently few thought would succeed. After all, when they met, he was a 52-year-old literary giant and she was a 26-year-old single mother from Russellville, Arkansas.
“Bella Abzug gave me her phone number and told me to call her, at any hour of the night, if I needed to get away from him, and she would come get me,” she writes of an encounter soon after moving to New York.
“His clear blue eyes lit up when he saw me,” she writes of their first encounter. And she was leaning toward smitten as well. “He had broad shoulders, a rather large head (presumably to hold all those brains) with ears that stuck out like Clark Gable’s, and he was chesty, but not fat, like a sturdy small horse.”
It was clearly a complicated relationship.
During the publicity swing for his novel Harlot’s Ghost — a time when she figured out Mailer had been having an affiar — Sam Donaldson was doing a story about Mailer and he asked her what it was like to live with him:
“Well, Sam, it’s kind of like living in a zoo, One day, Norman is a lion; the next he’s a monkey. Occasionally he’s a lamb and a large part of the time he’s a jackass.”
She tells of their trips, their love letters, their children, their grandchildren, their tender moments and their fights, which could be just awful.
As The New York Times put it, “A Ticket to the Circus is not a tell-all memoir; it’s a tell-enough memoir.”
Meanwhile, the other book about Mailer, Mornings with Mailer: A Recollection of a Friendship by Dwayne Raymond who worked for him the last four years of his life, helping as he wrote his last books, is surprising.
Picking it up, it’s hard to escape a first impression of someone who worked for Mailer, probably didn’t know him so well and is trying to cash in.
But then you start reading it and you quickly see how much Raymond not only cared about Mailer but was involved in his life the last few years (a point of view, I later discovered, is fully supported by Norris in her book).
Raymond had been a waiter in Provincetown when the Mailers convinced him to come work for them, helping Norman as an assistant but also doing the cooking and shopping and helping Norris who was battling cancer.
While Raymond had had the writing bug and was a reader, his knowledge of Mailer at the time was thin.
“I had no basis for what to think about Norman Mailer. I knew he lived in town, but I’d never seen him and knew nothing about how he lived. I figured if hew as crazy enough to stay here all winter long, he was probably a fairly regular guy.”
And, if you only knew Mailer from Raymond’s book, that’s probably the Mailer you would know: a fairly regular guy who, while maybe having some eccentricities, loved his family and cared about those around him.
“To look back on my time with Norman now is like peering through a kaleidoscope: vibrant images churn in imprecise order. What emerges as I shadow more than a thousand days with him should be clear but that is not the case. The memories that do rise to the surface are often as inexplicable as the fog that gathers over the harbor of our town.”
Okay, maybe a little purple but it’s hard not to see it — and the whole book — as a heartfelt, loving portrait of Mailer. And while Norris’s book gives us Mailer the Man, Raymond’s book really is about Mailer the Writer, taking us into his office as he crafted his final work.
Spending time with either book is time well spent. Spending time with both gives you a a deep portrait of a man, a writer, who while not always loved, was clearly a giant who was not always so well managed.