Left: Gore Vidal / Photo David Shankbone 2009 / CC. Right: Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988
Norman Mailer was a literary figure like no other. He took home a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (The Executioner's Song) and one for nonfiction (The Armies of the Night). He dabbled in politics, running a failed mayoral campaign in 1969 and endorsing Ernest Hemingway for President in the Village Voice. His brilliance, range, temper, and talent knew no bounds.
Not only was he a titanic wordsmith, Mailer’s personality was larger than life, often aggressively so. His callous nature, peppered with frequent pugilistic interludes, landed him in more than a few spats and altercations, both on and off the literary scene.
Aside from stabbing his wife, one of his most visible -- and publicly violent -- clashes would be with Gore Vidal. Vidal himself was no easy personality, though his charm often couched his cutting words. The dispute between the two began, of course, with a bad review. Vidal skewered The Prisoner of Sex to which Mailer took exception. When both appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show," their argument devolved into a charged face-off between Mailer and literally everyone else. (See for yourself in the video below.)
As infamous as this TV showdown became, their most vicious barbs were meted out when the cameras weren't rolling. At least two physical altercations occurred between the writers: once when Norman Mailer headbutted Vidal offstage, another at a party that would lead to the now-legendary scene: Vidal, knocked to the ground by Mailer, rising and calmly retorting with the famous quip, "Words fail Norman Mailer yet again."
Now, thanks to a new compilation of Mailer’s extensive correspondence, Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, we can go even further behind the scenes. Below is a series of letters spanning fifteen years, giving unique context to the extent of their feud, colorfully told from Mailer's point of view.
Excerpted from Selected Letters of Norman Mailer edited by J. Michael Lennon
To Editors, Women’s Wear Daily
November 7, 1970
In your issue of November 2 you quote Gore Vidal as saying, “Norman Mailer often sounds like the deranged commander of an American Legion post, particularly about women, whom he doesn’t like very much.”
Vidal’s indictment may possibly be enriched by the following statistics: marriages, Vidal-0, Mailer-4; children, Vidal-0, Mailer-6; daughters, Vidal-0, Mailer-4.
This of course proves nothing. It is most likely that Gore neither wed nor bothered to sire because he put womankind in such high regard that he did not wish to injure their tender flesh with his sharp tongue.
To Mickey Knox
March 25, 1974
A lot of news here, and curiously good and bad at the same time. For months I’ve been working out an arrangement with Little Brown for a huge contract which would enable me to write my big novel which is going to run—and this is even stated in the contract—for 500,000 to 700,000 words, to be written over the next five, or six years: for which in turn Little Brown will pay me a sum, over the whole, of one million smackers. Not a bad contract, but ironically it actually comes in at less than my going word rate, which is probably up to about two dollars a word now, from publishers for a single book. At any rate, it was certainly nothing to complain about and I was happy with it because it would give me a little stability in my professional life, with a chance to really dig in and see if I can write this book that I’ve been talking about for all this period.
But lo and behold the word gets out. Not from Little Brown, not from me (I suspect the Meredith office wasn’t necessarily trying to keep it the biggest secret in the world, since they come off looking good in the deal) and it hit the Times. Now everybody thinks of me as a no-good rat-fuck millionaire who’s going, since the story was of course not quite precise in all its details, to pick up his cool million by sitting on his ass for half a year. And people I’ve owed money to for eighteen months were on the phone before dark. The thing I regret in it all is that we could each think of 10 or 15 good American writers (obligatorily I must include Mr. Vidal in this list) who earn considerably more than I do per word, per year, per decade, and their fucking finances are never anyone’s interest. God, it burns my ass. Now everybody is walking around saying there’s Mailer the radical who sold out. It isn’t that I mind what people say, it’s just that a general increase at this point in the average animosity toward me is something that the ether might not quite be able to bear up under, and I don’t want it to cave in on me, you know what I mean pal.
[. . . .]
As for you and Joan and the divorce, there’s nothing I can say. It’s just too unhappy and I know how you feel. It’s like passing blood through one’s orifices—one doesn’t have the certainty one’s necessarily going to get through it. The consolation is that the kids grow up, but there’s no kidding oneself, something always gets lost in them, some little numbness in their affect, some little pinching off of some of their higher possibilities, whatever it is, I don’t know. I think I’ve come to comprehend at last why my mother never broke up with my father. It was as if it would interfere with the largest particular work of her life, which happened to be her kids. So the only consolation I can offer you is one you know already. We learn to walk around with a few more pieces of death inside us, and discover that, given all the waste areas and the burned-out pits, surprisingly now and again some little piece of oneself does come to life for a while. Shit, man, another twenty years and you and me are going to be thinking about what’s back of the barn. I hope we never get to the point where we got to talk about specialists.
Stay close to Vidal on this one if it isn’t too late. He is the one guy in the whole world that I wouldn’t ever want to count on for my own good fortune, since I’ve suspected for a long time that with everything else in him his happiest thing is to get a man who has more virile worth than himself and slowly torture that virility out of him. So I’m dubious that any property that he considers of any value whatsoever is going in any way to pass over to you unless he figures he can double the torture by putting a screw up your ass, and I mean a metal screw, over the next six months to a year. Watch yourself around him. Don’t ever trust in his good will. It may be there and if it is, I’ll be pleased for you. I really believe that, and I will admit that for once I was wrong about Vidal. But I think if you go in forewarned, the double-cross, if and when it comes, will be less painful.
Anyway, keep working, and I’ll give half a cheer to myself. I’ve finally written you a letter which is two-thirds decent.
To Mickey Knox
August 28, 1975
I’ve just been bashing though a whole bunch of letters, so this is going to be perfunctory because I’m all lettered out. It’s really just to tell you to hold on to the treatment and if some opportunity comes along we’ll talk about it then.
In the mail to you is a copy of The Fight, which I hope you’ll enjoy. I’ve gotten some of the very best and some of the very worst reviews I’ve ever received on anything with this book, and the irony to me is that it’s kind of a nice book and one I look upon as a relatively minor effort. You know, in the sense that there’s less of me invested there than in almost anything I’ve written. Still I guess it is as good as just about anything that’s been done on prize-fighting, which of course is not saying much at all.
In any case, it had damn well better sell because my finances have gotten unbelievable. I just finished selling off the Village Voice in order to pay off the back taxes on ‘72 and ‘73 for the IRS, and now they hit me with something that’s going to come up to a hundred thousand bucks, and I don’t know where it’s coming from, since I’m living on what comes in these days. Obviously I’ve come to the point after many years where I’m really going to have to change my life style from top to bottom, and don’t know where to begin. It’s depressing as hell because I have no habits for worrying about money, and am too old to learn new tricks. God Almighty! The early fifties are the time of life when you’re supposed to be getting ready to make a fool of yourself, not work hard. Well, the next six months are going to be financially interesting for your old pal Norm.
Of course I could always borrow the money from Gore Vidal! Incidentally, do me a boon. Just mention in passing to Gore that I happened to say to you recently that I am truly looking forward to when I run into him personally again. Between us, I can tell you that I have decided to take no more literary cracks at him, I’d rather have the anger stored in my muscle. Man, am I looking forward to making a few improvements in his physiognomy. Of course, he’s such a turd that it will probably end by his suing me. It may prove the only consolation I have in being broke!
All for now, and cheers,
To J. Michael Lennon
December 22, 1977
I think an apology is in order for taking so long to answer you. But as you may have gathered by now if you’ve been in touch with Molly, my secretarial bride and I have split after 6 years. I won’t go into the details but it was a bloody rupture, and Molly ain’t talking to me. So I didn’t receive any message that you called, if you did call her. At any rate I’m squared away now and in New York. You can reach me here 142 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201 [. . .].
As for the rest I’m so far behind in mail once again that I’m coming back with one liners to long letters but did want to tell you that I enjoyed your last, with its reference to the Vidal fight—I butted him, threw the gin and tonic in his face, and bounced the glass off his head. It was just enough to prime you or me for a half hour war but Vidal must have thought it was the second battle of Stalingrad for he never made a move when I invited him downstairs. 24 hours later he was telling everybody he had pushed me across the room. Mike, I’m beginning to think I’m innocent. I simply don’t understand whole-hearted liars who gain strength by the distance they put between themselves and the truth.
Now for other stuff. To my embarrassment I have not yet read “Mailer’s Sarcophagus” and may not get to it for quite awhile. I think I better confess to you that there are long periods particularly when I’m writing when I don’t like to read essays that have a great deal to do with myself. It’s as if I’m beware of the result which can often be an added self-consciousness in one’s writing. As I’m one of the most self-conscious writers I know, it may be I’m looking to avoid even more of that. All I can tell you is that I almost never go near essays about myself these days and now whisper to you that I never did read all of Poirier’s book when it finally came out. Not because I thought it was beneath attention, certainly not that, merely because I didn’t want to argue with someone else in my mind about my own idea of myself. It jams the reflexes somehow. It may be awhile therefore before we talk about that piece.
As for the interviews, I thought I’d send along one to you that’s new. It may do no more than cover all the old ground but I gave it in Corpus Christi to a kid* from the local paper. I was in an expansive mood that day and there might be a little of value. I have no particular love for it in preference to any other interview but thought that since you’re closer to the stuff than I am by now doubtless you ought to decide. Ergo it’s enclosed, the raw, unabridged, unedited interview that is, and if I can find the newspaper boil-down that Lloyd Graves did I’ll send it along as well.‡
I must say I feel better now that communication is reestablished. Here’s to a Merry Christmas to you and Donna and the kids.
P.S. I can’t find it! The paper is called something like the Corpus Christi Times so a letter to him ought to produce a copy or two. First see if you like the unedited transcript for anything. If not, let’s forget it. Graves did a good job on smoothing it for publication, but I think you’ll get an idea of the basic stuff in what I give you now.
‡ The boil-down is what I read, and it’s not bad.
To Mickey Knox
October 23, 1984
[. . . .]
If I haven’t written, it’s because I’m gravely overextended, indeed, I’m worried about it. I accepted the presidency of the American chapter of P.E.N. for reasons I don’t quite understand, and it involves a prodigious amount of work since we’re trying to have the International Congress in New York in 1985 and for that we’ve got to raise tons of money, which is not my first talent, as you can well suppose. That plus the constant pressure to get out more work and a real sense, which I get from my body, that I am turning older, has me nervous within these days. I race around a great deal inside—not the inner state for contemplation. Anyway, this is not to complain, but to tell you I’d love to see you. If you come to New York, for God’s sakes, don’t feel there’s any coolness on my part or that any long silence from me has added significance.
One last thought: now that I’m working so hard for P.E.N., I’d like to get Gore in on it too rather than feud with him. You know, we now have the same editor, Jason Epstein, who’s a great friend of his, and I think Jason, for his own self-interest, if nothing other, would like the feud to end. I would too. There’s enough right-wing madness going on in the world without Gore and me satisfying all the people who sit on the benches. I don’t know if you’re still speaking to him, or still see him, but if you do—I certainly don’t want you to approach him; I’ll do that myself when the time comes—but I would be serious on your opinion as to whether he’s cooling down or whether his hatred for me is still essentially one of his first passions.
PS: I’m going to do a reading of my play on Marilyn, Strawhead, at the studio November 26. If you’re here for that date and would be available for a couple of rehearsals the week before, I’m sure I could find a cameo for you. How about Lee Strasberg?
To Gore Vidal
November 20, 1984
I was talking about you to Nina [Auchincloss] last night at a party and decided it was time to write a letter. Our feud, whatever its roots for each of us, has become a luxury. It’s possible in years to come that we’ll both have to be manning the same sinking boat at the same time. Apart from that, I’d still like to make up. An element in me, absolutely immune to weather and tides, runs independently fond of you.
In addition to this: I’d like you to speak at one of the evenings we’re going to have in preparation for the PEN World Congress at the end of 1985, or the beginning of 1986. To raise funds for such a Congress, PEN will present a subscription series ($1000 per patron for the full ten evenings). One or two writers on each given evening, will do whatever they wish. Altogether we’ll have a total of 15 novelists. So far, it’s Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Bill Styron, John Updike, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Irving, Tom Wolfe, William Buckley, Arthur Miller, and myself. The assumption is that some writers will want a full evening to themselves, and other will wish to share it. I know Jason has already issued this invitation to you, but I repeat, if you like the idea, I’d be happy to introduce you for your evening or half-evening—whichever you choose. Please consider this. We won’t have a full roster without you.
If you decide in the negative, that will be disappointing, but has no effect on the first paragraph of this letter.
To Gore Vidal
January 17, 1985
Yes, we must do our best to outlive one another. The Egyptians think the dead man only retains 1/7 of the strength he knew when alive. Fearful for each of us to contemplate the other seven times stronger.
Let me tell you of one reluctant change P.E.N. has made. We were going to have fifteen authors for ten evenings, five nights in the spring, five in the fall. Now, owing to theatre costs and a late start, we’re down to eight evenings, all in the fall. The dates are September 22, October 6, 20, 27; November 10, 17; December 1, 15. Also, we are up to 16 authors, final. Of necessity, we must all share an evening. The likeliest and simplest form is an hour more or less to do whatever one wishes, then an intermission, then another author for the second hour. I hope this is to your taste. Frankly, it’s not to mine—I would have enjoyed an evening to myself. There is, however, no choice, just logistics.
The next problem is to avoid egregious maneuvering. I’d like to draw the authors by lot, but given our tenuous truce, would rather offer you a perk. Do you have someone you’d like to go on with? Here, in alphabetical order, is the complete list of the others: Woody Allen, William F. Buckley, Joan Didion, John Irving, Norman Mailer, James Michener, Arthur Miller, I.B. Singer, Susan Sontag, William Styron, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, and Tom Wolfe.
Also, you suggest, “I’m not sure anyone will like the result” (of what you, G.V., will say). Fine. Be lugubrious, be scalding and appalling, be larger than Jeremiah. I will doubtless feel wistful at my pulled fangs.
Anyway, let me know if you have a preference for a stable mate, and for a particular date. (As I have always feared, I am now reduced to doggerel.)