Chasing the Ghost of Norman Mailer

Raising a Son in the Shadow of Literary Fame

Tough Guys Don’t Smile: Norman Mailer, seen here in 2007, is the subject of a new biography by J. Michael Lennon.
Getty Images
Tough Guys Don’t Smile: Norman Mailer, seen here in 2007, is the subject of a new biography by J. Michael Lennon.

By Joshua Furst

Published January 28, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● Norman Mailer, A Double Life
By J. Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960 pages, $40

While reading the first chapter of “Norman Mailer, A Double Life,” the exhaustive (and exhausting) new biography of the great man by J. Michael Lennon, I discovered that during his formative years, from the age of nine through his admittance to Harvard at 16, Mailer lived in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, seven blocks from where I reside now.

I couldn’t resist taking a look, so one rainy Saturday morning a few weeks ago, my very pregnant wife and I strolled over to the address on Crown Street and stared at the four-story brick apartment building where Mailer built his model airplanes, watched his mother run the oil service and delivery company that his father, an unrepentant gambler, couldn’t manage, and studied his Torah portion in preparation for the bar mitzvah at which he’d praise not only Moses and Maimonides, but also Baruch Spinoza and Karl Marx.

We took a few photos. The building looked remarkably similar to my own and I thrilled, briefly, at the thought that the footprints of Mailer and his generation of bold, scrappy, intellectually fearless Jews might linger in the sidewalks, their accents and attitudes cracking on the wind, unseen influences from the past that, by virtue of geography, might seep out of the streets and into my unborn son.

But the psychic distance from the Brooklyn (and by extension, the Judaism) of Mailer’s childhood to the Brooklyn of today is infinitely wider than Eastern Parkway. The building on Crown Street is now full of Lubavitchers, and after a while, their children began staring out of the windows at us, wondering who these strange people taking photos of their front courtyard were. Feeling like intruders, we left.

I am a creature of the messy, pluralistic postmodern America in which cultural affiliation is more fetishistic choice than identity and obligation. Neither the Lubavitcher children nor my own will have to face the questions of assimilation, or be burdened by the pressure and cultural confusion and need to prove themselves that the children of recent immigrants like Mailer did. None of them will see in themselves the now mildewed cliché of the New York Jew, one version of which Mailer, with his whip-crack voice and feisty, take-no-guff way of attacking existence, embodied. In that 1936 bar mitzvah speech, Mailer made a proclamation that in its precociousness and grandiosity, might be seen as a mission statement:

“Yes, my friends! From now on I become a Jew, but not a MAYOFIS JEW, with a bent back to receive innocently the inhuman Nazis. I become a Jew to uphold the ideals and strengths of Judaism, and the rights of my country.”

He abandoned the faith by the time he graduated from college, claiming in a letter to his mother that “neither Barbara [his first wife] nor I feel very strongly about being Jews — I am neither proud nor ashamed.” But looking at what he accomplished in his life and the sometimes incisive, sometimes foolhardy, always brave way he attacked the ideas of his day, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t defending his own ideal vision of America.

Not only did his back not bend to receive the Nazis, it didn’t bend to any authority other than his own ferocious intelligence and personal mythomania. He rushed headlong into the great issues of his time and wrote about them fiercely, often recklessly, with more intelligence than anyone of his era.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.