The Lion in Winter: Five Snapshots

1. St. Michael’s Academy, North Ayrshire, Scotland, 1983

My English teacher, Mr. Campbell, said he’d never read anything by Norman Mailer. Mr. Campbell felt the world was filled with quite enough decadence and horror, arguing that we 15-year-olds should better place our faith in the works of Robert Burns and what he called “the emotional poets.” But I was on to my third reading of The Armies of the Night by then, and felt very strongly that Robert Burns and Norman Mailer could be very friendly. I insisted to Mr. Campbell that I must forgo the mountain daisies for a term to work on a long essay on Norman Mailer and William Styron. Mr. Campbell knew a look of rebellion when he saw one. The Irish Sea was only two miles from the classroom, and he knew some of us were tempted by that sorry world beyond—the world of America. “Go your own way,” he said. “But don’t expect me to open a book by these guys. All they talk about is orgasms.”

2. Provincetown, Mass., 1997

We were sitting in a room filled with gym equipment, and Norman leaned toward me in his chair. “I may be the most successful example of a reformed criminal in American life,” he said. There was a sort of porthole above his desk, and as he pointed into the harbor, the light passing through the window made a halo of his gray hair. “And do you feel superior to your younger self, Norman?” I asked.

“I just look at him,” he said, “and I think what a fool he is. … You’ve got to remain a fool at all cost.”

On that trip I began to see how Mailer had a talent for friendship. He fell out with plenty of people, but he knew how to encourage, how to broaden, how to provoke, how to be loyal. Friendship, like most things, was a challenge to him, and I remember on that trip weighing the possible consequences of being liked by Norman. After a long conversation, he brought some malt whisky up to the room, and the rain was pelting down outside. He had just written his novel about Jesus Christ, and when I asked him he told me his favorite poem was “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats. “It gives me a feeling of the prodigious disruption that has lived at the heart of the 20th century,” he said. “There is something wrong, something unbalanced about this century; we all have a sense of unease about where the future is going.”

3. The American Bar, Savoy Hotel, London, 2002

It was always delightful watching Norman with his wife Norris. She could roll her eyes at all the right places, seeming all the while to love the business of Norman being himself. She’s an intelligent, delicate person and a good writer herself, and it was easy to feel that each brought out the best in the other. They once played Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald onstage together (with George Plimpton as F. Scott Fitzgerald), and I thought it something of a mercy that Norman was cast as the pugilistic one: He and Norris would have done less well as the Fitzgeralds; they didn’t know how to do that, how to reduce one another, which can be a fascination with couples like Scott and Zelda.

Whilst enjoying a late-night drink at the Savoy, Norman suddenly noticed a vase of flowers on a table beside us. “Who put them there?” asked Norman.

“They’ve been there all the time,” said Norris.

“So much for my powers as a novelist.”

Norman had a way of taking an interest in what you were writing that made you instantly wish to do it better. He said that Hemingway never took that kind of interest in him, much as Norman yearned for it. But in his turn Norman spoke about his younger colleagues as if they were rivals, to be taken seriously and handed a loudspeaker if their voice was small. It is hard to think of many American novelists in the front rank who would bother in that way. Many talented people behave as if they have no talent, which Norman never did, even when he did something ill-advised or brutal or mad. He seldom missed the humor in being himself and being alive. At the Savoy, I remember he told a story about bumping into Marlon Brando at a party. “Brando came up,” said Norman. “He was always digging me. But I got him this once. He came up at a party and I was standing in a group. He said, ‘What you all talking about?’ And I said, ‘Well, Marlon. We were all talking about me, but now that you’re here, I want to ask you, what have you got to say about me?’”

“Did he laugh?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” said Norman. “He wasn’t a small man.”

4. Michael Shay’s Restaurant, Provincetown, March 2007

Norman knew every person in the restaurant, and when we arrived he immediately ordered a vodka punch. He asked me about Scotland and then spoke very funnily about the father of his former wife, Jeanne Campbell. (I decided against asking him if he thought she might be related to my old teacher, Mr. Campbell, who didn’t like orgasms.) I ate a lobster and we talked about the Nobel Prize, which Norman said he knew he would never win after he stabbed Adele. We were doing an interview for The Paris Review and he said he was having a whale of a time. He kept saying wonderful things when the tape was off, and then we’d have to go over them, but some things just stuck with me, like when we were talking about Theodore Dreiser and he said Dreiser had no style but a great subject. It made me realize how good a critic Norman was, as well as everything. He stood up to visit the restroom and told a perfect short story as he gathered his canes. “You know, you have to pee a lot when you get to my age. And there is no distance at all between knowing you want to pee and then just peeing. I was at Plimpton’s funeral in St. John the Divine not long ago, and they sat me near the front, you know. Suddenly, I had to go. I knew I wasn’t gonna make it all the way down the aisle, so I spotted a little side door and I got the canes and nipped in there. Halfway down the corridor, I was looking for a john and who do I see but Philip Roth. ‘Hey, Philip, what you doin’ here?’

“‘Oh, I had to pee,’ said Roth. ‘Happens to me all the time,’ I said. ‘You just have to pee. The other week I went to see my daughter in Brooklyn, and I couldn’t make it up the hill and had to stop in a telephone booth to pee.’ ‘Oh, that’s happened to me,’ said Roth. ‘I’ve done the phone booth thing.’ ‘Well, Phil,’ I said. ‘You always were precocious.’”

At the end of the following day, when we had spoken for hours about everything from the devil to Marilyn Monroe to Norman Podhoretz (no distance at all), Mailer asked if I would make us a drink. We agreed we were both tired, so we went to our respective beds, and the house was dark—there was a storm on, out there in the waters of Captain Ahab—and I felt almost stranded on this spit of land that lies along the beckoning finger of Cape Cod. Before going to sleep I looked at a bookshelf next to the room. It had books of Norman’s going all the way back to a first edition of The Naked and the Dead. This is what a writer’s life comes to, I thought, as the windows rattled: a few rows of books, and the writer working and sleeping in a house of ghosts.

5. New York Public Library, 27 August 2007

Norman came along the corridor in his Ugg boots and his sleeveless windcheater. He told me in one breath that I was the cleanest-looking presenter he’d ever seen and that private car firms were the scourge of America. He had Norris on one side and his sister Barbara on the other, both of them angelic and ready for fun. “This will be the last public event I ever do,” Norman said onstage, before launching into a display of signature elegance and generosity, especially, in respect of the latter, to Günter Grass, with whom he shared the bill that night. As I went in for another angle, another salvo or another tease, Norman’s eyes would twinkle at the prospect. He loved more than anything the heat of combat and the chance to shine. At the end of the evening the audience took to their feet, and I feel that somewhere in that great Fifth Avenue of the mind, they must still be applauding Norman Mailer.

Andrew O’Hagan’s most recent novel is Be Near Me (Harcourt).