Norman Mailer Biography

Home > Notables > M > Mailer, Norman > Biography

Birth Name: Norman Mailer
Born: 01/31/1923
Birth Place: Long Branch, New Jersey, USA
Death Place: New York City, New York, USA
Died: 11/10/2007

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born on Jan. 31, 1923 in Long Branch, NJ from a well-known, working class Jewish family. His father, Isaac Barnett, was an accountant of South African descent, while his mother, Fanny Schneider, ran a nursing and housekeeping business. He had one younger sister named Barbara. The family moved to Brooklyn, NY where the budding writer attended and graduated from Boys' High School. In 1939, the future award-winning author attended Harvard University to study aeronautical engineering, but it was writing and publishing that really piqued his collegiate interest. Inspired by the works of iconic writer Ernest Hemingway, Mailer got his first story published when he was 18, just before his graduation in 1943. What came next changed the American cultural, social, and political landscape - to say nothing of the young man's life - forever. The country was in the midst of World War II when the Harvard graduate was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after college, serving with the 112th Cavalry in the Philippines. His experiences as a soldier - while not in combat but serving as a cook for most of his time in the Army - Mailer still had seen enough to write about for his first novel The Naked and the Dead, penned while attending school at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. He wrote the anti-war piece and instantly became a leading figure in post-war literature, while The Naked and the Dead earned a place in the Modern Library's 100 best novels in the English language.

Some argued that The Naked and the Dead was the last time the writer was equally loved by both fans and critics. What followed was a lifelong literary career that was powerful and provocative, to say the least. Mailer was brash and unapologetic, desiring nothing but to write his next great novel. What followed was equally controversial and thought-provoking literature, including Barbary Shore (1955), The Deer Park (1955), and the essay In Advertisements for Myself (1955). His counterculture views were represented in the latter, a remarkable piece that appeared in The Village Voice, which he co-founded around the same time that New Journalism was revolutionizing the written word and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg were gaining literary momentum. It was impressive as well that Mailer was not a fan of technology, preferring to handwrite all his work, even penning up to 1,500 words a day.

Hollywood took notice of Mailer around the late 1940s, although his foray into film was moderately successful, compared to his literary career. Producer Samuel Goldwyn put the curly haired author under contract, where he was able to produce, edit and even act in the movies "Beyond the Law" (1968), "Wild 90" (1969), and "Maidstone" (1970). Mailer's movies dealt with everything from politics to the underworld, but the common thread was that they always contained some sort of social commentary, much like his written work. Acting also became a part of the author's long list of accomplishments, when he began appearing in works of avant-garde directors Kenneth Anger and Jonas Mekas, as well as mainstream auteurs Milos Forman and Jean-Luc Godard. Mailer's published material like 1987's Tough Guys Don't Dance were eventually made into films in the 1980s, reminding the baby boomers of a time when activism and taking a stand against the establishment was more important than monetary gain. "The Executioner's Song," one of Mailer's greatest works, was released as a two-part NBC movie in 1987 and starred Tommy Lee Jones and Christine Lahti. In 2004, the man who was regarded as a bit of a literary rock star, made his TV acting debut, playing himself in an episode titled "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant," in the long-running drama series "Gilmore Girls" (The WB, 2000-07).

Less enthusiastic about Mailer's work and persona was the feminist movement of the 1960s. Women's liberation was not high on the writer's list of priorities, and those who fought on behalf of equal rights in turn regarded him - with his Alpha Male point of view and brawny physique - as an egotistical, antagonist and literary bully. In a 1971 magazine article, Mailer even wrote that technology's dehumanizing aspect is highly similar to the feminist movement's strides to abolish "blind, goat-kicking lust" from sex. Mailer's personal life was discussed just as much, if not more, than his professional one. He had a larger-than-life personality like many gifted but tormented writers - one who drank heavily, smoked pot, fought and got arrested often. The New Jersey native was also married six times, boasted several mistresses, fathered eight children, and adopted one child. He was first married in 1944 to Beatrice Silverman; last married to former model-turned-writer Norris Church in 1980. Between those two were British heiress and journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell, model-turned- actress Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens, and Adele Morales, perhaps his most talked about spouse. In 1960, Mailer stabbed Morales repeatedly, almost fatally in fact, during a drunken party. The incident resulted in the author's temporary confinement in New York's Bellevue Mental Hospital, and getting indicted for felonious assault. Mailer pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence six months later. Eventually - and not surprisingly - the couple divorced in 1962.

For someone who had such a violent spousal history yet still managed to wed four more women after, displayed how Mailer's life was chock full of contradictions. His political life was not much different. After years of making a name for himself as an anti-war activist - getting arrested in Vietnam War demonstrations, questioning the credibility of his government while covering several Republican and Democratic National Conventions between 1960 and 1996 for publications from Harpers Bazaar to Esquire - Mailer himself decided to run for mayor of New York City in 1969 under the Democratic party. He was unsuccessful, however, and failed to become the party's candidate, with his radical proposal to have the city secede and become the 51st state of the union. Mailer's attempts to free convicted writer Jack Abbott through The Belly of the Beast, a book that revealed the truth about the prison system, proved more successful than his political run, yet it ended in tragedy. Abbott was eventually released on parole in 1980 and went on to murder 22-year-old Richard Adan in New York six weeks later. During a 1992 interview, Mailer described his involvement in the Abbott incident as yet "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."

Mailer's pride always revolved around his work. Sixty years after The Naked and the Dead turned him into an overnight sensation, the provocateur wrote what would be his final novel The Castle in the Forest. Released in January 2008, the book explored the story of Adolf Hitler as a child, wickedly narrated by one of the devil's helpers. Mailer knew his writing still got people to talk. It was said to be the author's best work since his first novel and a suitable final chapter by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. When Mailer died of renal failure in 2007, renowned author Gay Talese described the perfect way to remember one of the greatest post-World War II writers: "[Mailer] could do anything he wanted to - the movie business, writing, theater, politics," Talese said. "He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything."