Literary Lion Gets French Salute


By Masha Leon

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Norman Mailer was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction, on March 3 in New York at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. I first met Mailer in Anaheim, Calif., in 1973 at the American Booksellers Association convention, where his book, “Marilyn” (about Marilyn Monroe, whom he’d never met), caused such a buzz that invitations to the book party were scalped. I told 83-year-old Mailer that when I was 17, my husband-to-be, Joseph, gave me a copy of his 1948 first novel, “The Naked and the Dead” — a best seller inspired by Mailer’s World War II experiences in the South Pacific. Mailer graciously autographed that book.

Addressing Mailer, Jean-David Levitte, France’s ambassador to the United States, declared: “We celebrate your outstanding contribution to the literature and thought of our time, as well as your powerful connection with France. We see in you the American hero — physical bravery coupled with a fierce love of freedom, such as you exhibited during World War II in the Pacific. We see the intellectual who takes a stand in all the great struggles of his times, from the liberation of Europe to the Gulf Wars — what we call un intellectuel engagé, a politically active public intellectual.” Levitte praised Mailer’s command of French and commended his literary clear-sightedness. “Everywhere you observed the ruins of Nazism and fascism, your eyes were opened to what many would later call the Marxist illusion. To the French, you became a true innovator of the great tradition of the American novel.”

“I was living three or four blocks from the Luxembourg, a walk to the Boulevard St. Michel and the Sorbonne. I was married then to a woman as nice as any other,” said the much-married, Brooklyn-born Mailer. Then, in potent prose, he impishly made pâte de foie gras of Levitte’s praise for his gallicisme. “The ambassador makes generous statements about my command of French. [It’s] a language where you are despised if you get one syllable wrong. When you get drunk, you can talk in French.” Mailer recalled being invited to Sweden in 1980 to speak about a local festival of which he knew nothing. “Wanting to impress my beautiful wife, not knowing Swedish, I spoke in French. What I said was, ‘I cannot lie in my own language, therefore I am speaking to you in French.’” As for France’s highest honor, Mailer recalled his late friend George Plimpton (who in November 2002, in this same room, offered his own “roast” — apropos France’s then outgoing ambassador to the United States, François Bujon de l’Estang) “You know, Norman,” Mailer recalled Plimpton saying, “one of the advantages of getting the Légion d’Honneur is that if you are on the Paris Metro and there are no seats, an old lady will get up and give you a seat.”

* * *

“In 1981, when I came to the museum, I could not imagine this evening,” said Joan Rosenbaum, Helen Goldsmith Menschel director of the Jewish Museum, at the museum’s March 1 Purim Ball at The Waldorf-Astoria. “Today we celebrate together what the museum has become: a star on [New York’s] Museum Mile.” Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, touted Rosenbaum as “a friend and mentor,” thanks to whose “clarity of vision” during her 25-year tenure “the museum’s [annual] budget grew from $1 million to $15 million.” Kaiser said, “I’ve learned more about running an arts institution by listening to and learning from Joan.”

This year, the ball’s traditional Purim shpiel was offered by comedy writer Patricia Marx (The New Yorker, “Saturday Night Live”; author, “How To Regain your Virginity”). Setting the stage with a reference to “English polymath Jonathan Miller, who, [when] asked if he was a Jew, replied, ‘Jew-ish,’” Marx amplified the ish as “We’re kosher, but in Maine we eat lobster. We keep the Sabbath holy, but not if the Yankees are playing the Red Sox.” Instead of the Book of Esther, she spun the Book of Vashti. In Marx’s version, when ordered to appear before her husband, King Ahasuerus, and his business cronies au naturel, Vashti RSVP’d no! As Vashti, Marx amplified: “‘Let’s go with the version where I trot off to the Red Sea for a salt wrap.’ The king places an ad for a ‘virgin who is not too virgin-y,’ [offering] best seats at the ritual slaughters and a house decorated with figurines and vases that will later be squabbled over by major museums — one of them in New York.” Esther’s uncle Mordecai is a guy who “wants a big-shot job in government.” He learns of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, and entreats Esther to save her people from death. “But uncle, we’re Jew-ish!” We know the story: Haman (groggers!!!) is hanged, Mordecai is rewarded and, as Marx tells it, she marries “Morty [né Mordecai],” whom she met at the Cirque de Soleil production of Hammurabi’s Code, and converts to Judaism. The more than 500 black-tie, gowned, masked guests who helped raise $1.3 million that night just roared.

* * *

Bravo to a trio of music-savvy Forward readers — Joel Schreiber of New York City, Sandor Shapiro of Haverford, Pa., and Stuart Kaback of Cranford, N.J. — who took the time to compose notes about my attributing “Full Moon and Empty Arms” to Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D Minor when it was performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on February 16 (March 10 column). Though “Full Moon and Empty Arms” is indeed derived from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, I “heard” a musical fragment in the third that “triggered” the association.

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