Remembering Norman Mailer
I first met Norman Mailer in the spring of l948, when the United States, the ocean liner my mother and I were traveling on—it may have been its maiden voyage—docked in Cherbourg, the port still badly destroyed from bombings in the Second World War. It was my first glimpse of France, and I was dazzled. I was a school girl during the Second World War, and Europe had seemed further away than Mars. I was also dazzled by a young man with an infectious grin, who, with his wife Bea, had come to Cherbourg to meet his mother and sister Barbara, who were on the same ship. Norman Mailer was not yet Norman Mailer—his mother was bringing him an early copy of The Naked and the Dead, to be published in the United States the following fall.
My mother, a very intuitive artist, had met Mailer’s mother during the voyage, and had actually read the novel. (I had not—I had muttered to her that I didn’t want to meet the son of this Brooklyn mother who thought her son was a genius—I wanted to connect with the real Paris.) But when we met Norman and Bea on the dock, my mother immediately reached out toward him, saying: “congratulations. You have just written the great war novel.” (After she died in the l990s, Norman at a dinner party at Robert and BJ Lifton’s in Wellfleet suddenly got up and made a toast to her—he said she was the first person in the general public who had told him what he had done, who named him as a writer.) Her second sentence was: “My daughter insists on living in Paris—would you look after her after I leave?”
These days I am older than most people I meet. But in the beginning I was always the youngest, the kid, the brat—that was my original identity. My older brother Mark Probst, like Norman, had graduated Harvard, but I was considered too young to join him and his friends at their gatherings. Yet Norman and Bea invited me to their parties on Rue Bréa, near Raspail. This was a huge leap for me. I met the Trotskyist intellectual Jean Malaquais, and smart American literary critics like Mark Linenthal, Stanley Geist, and French and Spanish kids orphaned by the war—Norman never stuck with one clique. At one of those evenings I met Paco Benet (later we lived together in Paris), the brother of the future novelist Juan Benet… Norman had met Paco’s friend, Enrique Cruz Salido (his father, a Socialist Deputy from Jaen, had been in the group, along with Luis Campanys, handed over by the French to Franco to be executed), while attending the Salzburg Seminar. It was Paco and Enrique who hatched the plan of liberating Manolo Lamana and Nicolas Sanchez Albornoz from the Cuelgamuros slave labor camp employed in the building of the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid, and Norman (he was leaving for New York, for the publication of The Naked and the Dead) offered them his car, and two decoys. His sister Barbara and I—though Barbara later confessed to me when we became close friends that she had seen me then, as did my brother, as a mere high school kid graduate.
Norman thought it would be prudent to test my actual driving skills and we decided to take a short trip to Chartres to do so. What impressed me most was that he treated me like an adult. He was awestruck by Chartres yet at the same time wondered what my Spanish experience would be. There we were, two Americans suddenly stunned by the Rose Window. Architecture, when it’s amazing and has soul, affected Norman (he was enthralled by the visual) as profoundly as politics and literature, and in that magical golden spring afternoon he talked and talked, telling me tons of stuff about Chartres.
By early fall (the prison rescue was successful) Norman had become instantly world famous. Later, he would often ruefully remark that this early experience (he was 24) put him out of touch with the normal ups and downs in the transition between youth and true adulthood. Certainly the pressures of being so young, and constantly in the lime light, contributed to his stormy middle period as a writer. With me, with his sister Barbara (they were enormously attached to one another), his family and his Harvard friends, he maintained a stance of being a sort of well-mannered Harvard rebel. But I soon met very different types of people at his parties. He was fascinated by actors and Hollywood. I remember Marlon Brando standing with his back to the kitchen wall of Norman and his second wife Adele’s East Village apartment—Brando was quiet, he seemed to be bemusedly sizing up the rest of us. The next period was darker. Too much drinking and drugs. Suddenly the radio was blasting the news that Norman Mailer had stabbed Adele; Norman’s inner demons, nightmares, and pressures to be, at all times, America’s numero uno writer, ended in this horror.
But Norman was a fighter, he struggled with his inner demons, and the scorn heaped on him by the chic literary world. Eventually, he recovered his equilibrium and entered his best writing period. Norman’s true muse, the thread that connects his fiction, raportage and documentaries, was America itself. Unlike Bellow, Roth and Updike, whose work is more directly autobiographical, Norman was forever gazing outward: at Egyptian pharaohs, the Moon landing,
American elections, murderers, and—in his most recent novel—at Hitler’s childhood. And, as he aged, he developed a patriarchal persona. He had the great luck to be married to Norris Church, a southern beauty, a model, an artist and a writer, who brought order into the last 35 years of their life, and into the lives of their collective brood of nine children.
But I was worried. Perhaps it was the deaths of Saul Bellow and Larry Rivers, perhaps it was Norman’s increasing illnesses. In the back of my mind I knew time was running out. As a group these Jewish American artists and writers had emerged from World War II with an oddly split psyche. On one hand they had claimed their American identity, which made them the triumphant victors of the world, on the other, as Jews, their kind had been the victims of genocide and nearly wiped out in Europe, and out of these contradictions, they created a powerful new way of seeing things. Norman has been an essential part of the American landscape for sixty years, which put him, in terms of endurance in the public eye, in a class with Victor Hugo and Picasso, so we thought he would always be there. Now there is a feeling of lostness. As for me, Norman has been in my life since the beginning. And, well, I feel suddenly orphaned.