Norman Mailer was born on 31 January 1923, and as his 100th birthday approaches there is a major revival of interest among those who can still read. Norman died in 2007, aged 84, and his first-born son Michael, a talented film director who has since become my closest friend, came over to my house in a slightly shocked state. I was his father’s friend and admirer, so we sat down and drank the day and night away.
A review of the most recent Mailer biography – a hatchet job by a Brit, Richard Bradford – states that Norman could not walk his dog without getting into a fight. Funny what people not in the know will say or write. I was close to Norman for 30-odd years and never once saw him start something or do anything aggressive. Having said that, he never let anyone step on his toes, a quality I admired. Let’s put it this way: Norman did not put his trust in princes, but in himself, like Papa Hemingway before him.
I remember discussing two of his contemporaries, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, in a round-table format at Elaine’s, the late-night bistro frequented by celebrities and writers and run like a reform school by the formidable Elaine Kaufman. The greatest Greek writer since Homer observed that Mailer, though also of the Jewish faith, doesn’t write from a Jewish-American perspective, unlike Bellow and Roth.
The negative portrait by this Bradford bore is water off the proverbial duck’s back for us Mailer-Hemingway fans. Both Norman and Papa had experienced combat, something I very much doubt any of their critics ever did, and experiencing combat is akin to losing one’s virginity to a real goer. It marks you and stays with you.