Three months before the Americans committed their greatest foreign policy blunder ever, I had gone up to Cape Cod to interview Norman Mailer. Towards the end of his life, Norman called himself a left-conservative, and went as far as to agree that losing one’s culture through immigration was not a good thing. But he remained adamant about the evils of American corporations. He blamed them for making America an uglier place to live in since the second world war, a country full of ‘50-storey high-rise architecture as inspired in form as a Kleenex box, shopping malls encircled by low-level condominiums, superhighways that homogenise our landscapes, and plastic, ubiquitous plastic, there to numb an infant’s tactile senses’. He told me he was opposed to the notion of an American empire because of the all-pervasive aesthetic emptiness of the most powerful Americans corporations. ‘There are no cathedrals left for the poor â” only 16-storey urban-renewal housing projects that sit on the soul like jail. Sometimes I am tempted to think that I am not so much a left-conservative as a left-medievalist.’
Being a left-conservative, he told me, is an oxymoron, ‘but there are elements in the remains of left-wing philosophy that are worth maintaining’. Such as? I asked him. ‘Such as the idea that a very rich man should not make 4,000 times as much in a year as a poor man.’ I remember sitting outdoors in the brilliant sunshine with him, and, after he said that, I told him that my father, who employed some 5,000 to 10,000 workers, made sure the disparity was never enormous because that is what breeds not only communism but also hatred for the haves. ‘Try telling that to Henry Kravis,’ he snorted. We then discussed God. ‘If you start to talk about God with the average good liberal, he looks at you as if you are more than a little off. But I do believe there is a Creator who is active in human affairs and is endangered. I also believe there is a Devil who is equally active in our existence and is all too often successful.’
This was back in 2002. In the five years he had left, Mailer wrote The Spooky Art, on writing, The Castle in the Forest, a novel about Hitler (or the Devil), The Gospel According to the Son, a novel about how Jesus discovers his divinity, and the painful and powerful journey that ensues, and finally a book on God which made mincemeat of all those atheists and publicity-seekers whose names will never appear in this column. His ability to write both fiction and non-fiction, essays and journalism, plays and films singled him out as a very brave writer who was not afraid of risk. He wrote about all things important, such as space, politics, war and peace, and sex and feminism.
He was not as good a boxer as his son Michael, but he was very brave inside the ring. He was not afraid of getting hit, and it never entered his mind that Michael might be holding back. In 1998 a great party was given for him at Rockefeller Center to celebrate his 50 years of writing. Muhammad Ali was there and the whole Mailer brood lined up with the champ for a picture. ‘Wait a minute, I need a fascist in here,’ announced Norman. ‘Taki, get your arse up here.’ So up I went on the stage and had my picture taken standing between Norman and Ali, aka Cassius Clay, and I suppose it was my greatest moment ever. ‘Are you really a fascist?’ asked the champ.
I spent the day of Norman’s death with his first-born son. Michael is probably my closest friend in the Bagel and he confides in me. His dad recently told him, ‘I couldn’t have been the writer I am today and also have been a good father.’ Michael understood. When GÃ¼nter Grass admitted he had volunteered for the SS when very young, Mailer defended him while the rest jeered. ‘It was a writer’s romantic conceit, seeking experience,’ said Norman. He once gave a dinner party for about 20 in honour of Abbie Hoffman, then the number one fugitive from the FBI. He told Michael to sit on the steps outside his house, and if he saw any fuzz to yell ‘Geronimo!’.
A few hours after his death we had a boys’ lunch with Michael, Chuck Pfeiffer, double silver-star winner in Vietnam, Nick Simunek, Coldstream Guards and producing a movie with Michael (one in which I play a grand master in karate) and yours truly. We got very, very drunk, just Michael and I, as the other two have given it up. Next to us was Liz Smith, the best-known gossip columnist in America. Liz came over and told us a Norman story. During Arianna Stassinopoulos’s wedding to oil-billionaire Michael Huffington, Norman got bored with the glitzy people who had packed the church to the rafters. He turned to Liz and asked why the two of them had never gone to bed together. ‘Well,’ said Liz. ‘first of all, we were born the same day of the same year. And, second, I’d rather go to bed with Norris [Mrs Mailer].’ Norman shrieked out loud, said Liz, and people turned, wondering what had happened.
I knew both James Jones and Irwin Shaw, tough-guy writers, and Norman now completes the trio up in Heaven.