Susan Mailer by the Forward

That time my father Norman Mailer introduced me to Norman Mailer the celebrity

At the end of the summer of 1970, I got back from Europe and went over to see Dad. While I was there, with a sheepish grin he informed me Carol, his fifth wife, was pregnant. I would soon have another sibling, a seventh Mailer child.

I was stunned.

Not that I didn’t like Carol. She was calm and soft-spoken, a nice change from Beverly, whose temper could rattle the china. And, as with previous wives, so far Carol had been on her best behavior. She had tried to get to know us, to maybe even like us. Obviously, she wanted to be accepted by Norman’s children.

I assumed Carol would slip into the role of Dad’s wife, and this time, we would have a quiet stepmother instead of an angry one. Now that he and Beverly had split up, Dad was definitely more available. Relaxed and easier to approach. He seemed contented.

Now I can have some quality time with him, I thought.

I should’ve known better.

At 20, I was about to begin my last year of college. I had an adult life of my own now, but still desired my father’s attention. When he and Beverly broke up, of course I knew there would be more women. There always were. But I hadn’t imagined I would have to share him with even more siblings.

I had been anticipating going on walks with my father. Having interesting conversations. I’d also assumed that Carol, who had a teenage son from a previous marriage, would not be interested in more childbearing, so there wouldn’t be any sudden post-partum personality changes. She would remain the friendly stepmother.

When Maggie’s impending arrival was announced, I sizzled. I’d learned to hide my feelings so well over the years, by now I almost didn’t feel them. Once in a while I had gotten a twinge of anger, or felt competitive, but I’d squash these emotions as soon as they appeared. And on the rare occasions I’d expressed jealousy towards one of my sisters, Dad would say, “Rise above it.”

But this time I simply couldn’t. I’d had it with the Mailer Baby Parade. “What! Are you kidding me?” I shouted. “You must be totally nuts!” And with that, I stormed out of the room.

After that blow-up I didn’t call my father or see him and Carol for three months. Once in a while he’d phone me, but I was never very communicative. Finally, I calmed down enough to go out to lunch with him. Alone.

I’m sure Carol must’ve been surprised and hurt, but for the first time I didn’t care how a stepmother might feel. In earlier years, I had always made my best effort to be pleasant; it was expected of me. Now I was old enough and enraged enough to let it all hang out. Later Aunt Barbara told me Dad had privately been tickled by my reaction because, he had told her, “It shows how much she loves me.”

I’d had to express a jilted lover’s reaction for my father to feel loved by me! At the same time, what he’d said opened a window. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that he might feel insecure about my feelings towards him. Yes, there had always been a faint undercurrent of anger which made me sometimes act detached or indifferent. But wasn’t it obvious I loved him? I realized now, for him, maybe not.

But my outburst created a rip in my relationship with Carol. I don’t think we ever repaired what was torn that day. When Maggie arrived in March of 1971, I went to the hospital to get a look at my new baby sister. Carol and I exchanged pleasantries, and I congratulated her on the beautiful baby, but not much more was said between us.

The following spring, on April 30 of 1971, five of us went to Town Hall to view an important event, “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” hosted by New York University and the Theatre for Ideas. The four women panelists were Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos, and Jill Johnston.

My father had been asked to be the moderator.

Danielle, Betsy, Aunt Barbara, Grandma, and I sat together near the stage, expectant and excited. Everything indicated it would be a memorable evening. Dad had already been flagged as the male chauvinist who had recently said on “The Mike Douglas Show,” “I don’t hate women, but I think they should be kept in cages.” An unfortunate choice of words, in an even worse attempt at humor. The Women’s Movement was gaining momentum, and now his face was on their dartboard. With the considerable media coverage, we already knew this Town Hall would be a charged evening. But we certainly were not prepared for the pummeling Norman received that night.

A year before the Town Hall event, Kate Millett’s book “Sexual Politics” had been published. It was an analysis of the novels and ideas of D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer, in which she argued that the literary trio’s treatment of female characters was blatantly sexist. Though my father probably enjoyed being placed in the company of those writers, he was incensed by Millett’s analysis. His response was to write a long essay, “The Prisoner of Sex,” published first in Harper’s Magazine. Before the Town Hall event took place, it had also come out as a book with the same title. By the time of this public dialogue, the Women´s Liberation Movement had declared overt war on Norman Mailer.

Town Hall was packed. Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan and other well-known feminists were in the audience. From the moment the evening began most women in the audience seemed ready to pounce on Norman. They hissed whenever he spoke, they booed and heckled. The men were notably silent. It was not a dialogue; they were out to draw blood and I felt overwhelmed by the energy they put into it.

At times, exasperated by the treatment he was getting, Norman deliberately provoked the audience. At others he tried to initiate what he considered an interesting discussion.

It was simply not possible.

Recently on YouTube I watched Pennebaker’s film “Town Bloody Hall,” which documents that night. At the outset, Mailer turns to the audience and says, “Good evening, I’d like to welcome you to what might turn out to be an extraordinary evening.” He then introduces Jill Johnston as “the master of free associational prose from the Village Voice.”

Cheering erupts from the audience. Jill rambles through a range of topics, most of them dealing with gender and sexuality, for more than 15 minutes. Norman says her time has run out, but she replies she wants to read a poem. Mailer insists she must respect the other speakers on the panel. Instead, she begins to recite her poem.

Norman says, “C’mon, Jill. Be a lady.” Jill keeps reading. Norman looks irritated, and adds, “Jill you wrote your letter, now mail it.”

Loud booing erupts from the crowd. A voice from the audience yells, “Hey, Norman! Feeling threatened ‘cause you can’t fuck her?”

He answers, “Hey cunty, I’ve been threatened all my life. If you don’t believe me you can come up and try to take my mic.” Jill looks unsure then; she smiles, her expression a question mark. Then a woman jumps onstage and starts making out with her. Another soon joins them, to cheering and laughter from the audience.

Norman says, “Hey, Jill. Either play with the team or take your marbles.” Jill ignores him and continues making out with the two women. He proposes a vote. “Those who are in favor of letting Jill finish her poem, say Yea.” A loud yea echoes through the hall. “Those not in favor, say Nay.” A slightly louder nay is the result. “Jill, you lost by a squeak. Now I will introduce Diana Trilling from the podium.”

Norman stands and with shoulders swaying, swaggers past Jill and the two women, who are still locked in a passionate, semi-comic embrace.

Finally, she and her entourage leave the stage, and Norman says, “I am pleased to introduce my good friend Diana Trilling, one of the best lady literary critics of our time.”

Germaine Greer is quick to ridicule Diana and Norman, or anyone else who dares to disagree or question her ideas. She gets lots of laughs and cheers and is the audience’s pretty baby. But Diana is having none of it. She turns to Germaine and says, “Eight times you referred to the Oedipal family, saying that the family that rejects a child is the Oedipal family. If you are going to read Freud like that it treats him like a fool.”

Germaine denies she said that, to which Diana answers, “I have the actual quotes.” Germaine shoots back, “I do the same as you, I quote him where it suits me and don’t where it doesn’t.” Diana replies, “No, I said that I take from him what suits me. I don’t misquote him.”

Laughter from the audience.

Looking unhappy with Diana’s rebuttal, Germaine leans into the microphone and says, “One of the characteristics of the oppressed is that they fight among themselves.”

“I don’t feel that I am oppressed, and I can’t let other women speak for me,” Diana replies in a calm, self-possessed voice.

During the question-and-answer period, Susan Sontag is the first to raise her hand. The question is for Norman and Diana. “I don’t know about you, Diana, but I find the way Norman speaks to women patronizing. I don’t like being called a lady writer. Norman, you would never introduce James Baldwin as our foremost Negro writer.”

The audience erupts in loud applause at that.

Norman says, “Susan, I will never use the word ‘lady’ in public again. What I meant was that she was the best in kind.”

Now the booing is very loud. Diana says she would like to answer as well, since the question was addressed to both of them. “I don’t like it either, Susan, and I recognize the point. But it has a quality. It’s like saying a lady jumper, or a lady runner.”

Then Cynthia Ozick asks a question. “Mr. Mailer, I’ve always wanted to ask you something. In ‘Advertisements for Myself,’ you say a good novelist can do without anything but the remnant of his balls. I´ve been wondering, Mr. Mailer, what color ink do you dip your balls in?”

After peals of laughter die down, Norman replies, with an impish smile, “I would have to think about it, but my first guess would be yellow. Hey, I don’t pretend to have never written an idiotic remark, and that’s one of them.”

A roar of laughter comes from the audience on my computer screen. His now 60-year-old daughter smiles as she watches, a nod to his witty sense of self-deprecation, and to his courage.

40 years earlier, in the audience of that Town Hall, I’d been devastated by the way my father was treated. I was also unable to fathom why he had put himself in the eye of that storm. Powerful, conflicting emotions washed through me; my loyalty to him clashing with my feminist sympathies. Even though he had invited the audience and the panelists to an open, civil discussion, his tone was provocative; it ended up sounding more like an invitation to a skirmish. His voice was tight, his shoulders tensed and ready for a swing, his demeanor on high alert. The audience was belligerent, too. They interrupted, hissed, and booed. It was a battle, and he stepped into it without hesitation.

He’d already explained his willingness to throw himself into the fray in “The Prisoner of Sex,” but I had not yet read it, back then. Speaking of himself he had written: “To be the center of any situation was … the real marrow of his bone—better to expire as a devil in the fire than an angel in the wings.”

More than at any other time I could remember, at Town Hall there was no protective shield between the public and private personas of Norman Mailer. During most of my life I had tried to erect and maintain a barrier that kept those two aspects of my father’s life separate. I had often seen him slip from one persona to another, and he had many. But it always left me uneasy. I much preferred the father of our family dinners; the sage counselor of our one-on-one talks. I needed the father. I tolerated the writer/character/provocateur.

In the past when I’d seen him speak in public it was usually in a more protected environment: a university, a lecture hall, a talk show on TV. I could sit in the audience, feel detached from the character Norman Mailer and just listen. But that night my private father merged with the very public Norman Mailer, the celebrity. He belonged to the audience. Yet he was also still my dad. I knew him, recognized him, and at the same time he was a stranger. I wanted to protect him from the rage whirling in the room, even while hating him for the demeaning and provocative comments he made about women.

That night in Town Hall, I too was swept into the storm. The one raging in the Town Hall venue, and the one taking place inside me.

When he said, “We must face the simple fact that maybe there’s a profound reservoir of cowardliness in women that had them welcome this miserable slavish life,” I thought, Norman, stop! How can you say these things! Do you really believe what you’re saying??”

I was furious then, and felt he deserved all the heckling he got.

But next he’d say something I thought was well tempered, and I could agree with him. Yes, Dad! This should be a dialogue. Do we think biology is destiny? Let’s discuss this. And then again, when the audience heckled, trying to drown out his voice, I’d feel protective. Oh, God! I wish these women would just stop booing at Dad. A few minutes later I’d feel an affinity with one of the women’s positions; for example, Diana Trilling’s calm critique of Norman’s depiction of female characters. I also thought Germaine Greer made a few good points, even though to me she felt like a female Norman Mailer.

By the time the evening ended, I realized I didn’t like my father much. I had also felt no kinship with those angry, aggressive women.

Even over 40 years later, as I watched “Town Bloody Hall on YouTube,” I felt the sting again. But it was less stressful now. I knew now which Norman Mailer I was watching. I could relax and observe the way he slipped their punches, then gave back some good jabs. Most important of all, I realized he was enjoying the fight. Not only that, he was both villain and the star of the evening! All the booing and the applause had made him the center of everyone’s attention, “the devil in the fire.”

Dad always said a boxer loves taking a good punch.

A year before he died, my 19-year-old daughter Antonia and I spent a pleasant afternoon with him in Brooklyn Heights. By then the old fighter was thin and frail. He drew each breath with effort. Laboring up the four flights to his apartment was an ordeal. Once he got there, he usually didn’t venture out again until it was time to go back to Provincetown, where he lived most of the time from the mid-1990s on.

Antonia was studying at Hampshire, a left-wing college that prides itself on supporting freedom of sexual expression. As we chatted in the living room, looking out at the beautiful view of the East River and the New York Skyline, she asked, “Grandpa, is it true you once said that women were obedient little bitches?”

He smiled. “I was in Berkeley giving a lecture, back in the early 70s, and said a few things that riled up the women in the audience. They hissed at me. I said, ‘Louder!’ And they hissed louder. Then I looked over at the moderator and said, ‘Obedient little bitches, aren’t they?’ ”

The three of us cracked up.

Antonia knew she had a good story to take back to her friends. And for a few minutes, the old twinkle in Dad’s eye returned.

This story has been excerpted from “In Another Place” by Susan Mailer, reprinted by permission of Susan Mailer and Northampton Press.

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Norman Mailer — the celebrity and the father

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