Unprintable Facts About Norman Mailer, The Ne’er-Do-Well Novelist

October 16, 2023 | Brendan Da Costa

Unprintable Facts About Norman Mailer, The Ne’er-Do-Well Novelist

Norman Mailer was the two-time (and two-timing) Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who had more wives and bloody scandals than best-sellers.

1. He Had Fatal Attractions

Norman Mailer was largely responsible for the birth of New Journalism—along with eight children by six different women. He was not, however, a hopeless romantic. Quite the opposite. Mailer had an obsession with the carnal and cruel nature of mankind that proved to be nearly fatal for one of his wives—and resulted in a bloody ending for one of his readers.  

norman mailer

2. He Was Gifted

Nachem Malech Mailer (or Norman “King” Mailer) was born in Long Branch, New Jersey in January 1923. His upper-middle-class parents managed to send him to the prestigious Boys High School in Brooklyn, New York. He was clearly gifted, because he quickly went on to Harvard College at the age of 16. If only he had stayed innocent.

Norman Mailer in 1948  looking at the cameraCarl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons

3. He Was The Greatest

Norman Mailer learned engineering at Harvard College but his talents clearly lay in writing. He won Story magazine’s college contest at 18 with his first short story, The Greatest Thing in the World. We haven’t read it, but we can surmise that the title was semi-autobiographical. He clearly thought he was “the greatest thing in the world”.

Harvard University Sever Hall buildingDaderot., CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

4. He Had A Secret Marriage

While studying at Harvard, Mailer met his first (of many) loves, Beatrice Silverman. While the two young lovebirds had fallen head over heels for each other, they knew their families wouldn’t be as approving. Under the cloak of secrecy, Mailer and Silverman eloped. Fate and circumstance, however, contrived to keep them apart.

Norman Mailer as a young man looking at the cameraBettmann, Getty Images

5. He Tried To Dodge The Service

Shortly after getting married in 1943, fate threw Norman Mailer a curveball. Like thousands of other young men, Mailer was drafted into the US. Army to serve in WWII. He tried to explain that he was special, however, because he was working on an “important literary work”. Unlike his millions of future readers, the Army didn’t buy it.Men waiting to enlist December 1941John Collier, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Had The Worst Experience Of Life

The Army put Mailer’s writing talents to good use, employing him as a typist. Eventually, however, he got out from behind a desk and saw active combat, completing dozens of patrols in contested territory. He even engaged in firefights and skirmishes. He later described his WWII days as “the worst experience of my life, and also the most important”.

But he did find inspiration.

Portrait of American author Norman Mailer (1923 - 2007), 1962Fred Stein Archive, Getty Images

7. He Wrote Lovely Letters

During his service in WWII, Norman Mailer wrote hundreds of letters to his wife, Silverman. More than 400, to be exact. Despite not wanting to join the Army, it turned out to be exactly what he needed. Silverman had kept the letters that he wrote to her and, in 1948, Mailer turned them into his debut novel. 

Norman Mailer In 1965 looking at the cameraKeystone-France, Getty Images

8. His Marriage Went Out Of Print

Mailer’s debut novel catapulted him into the literary limelight. The novel became an instant best-seller and sold more than a million copies in its first year. It has never been out of print since. Sadly, his marriage to Silverman didn’t last nearly as long. 

He and Silverman divorced in 1952. Clearly, his success had gone to his head.  

Norman Mailer Giving Press Interview in 1960Bettmann, Getty Images

9. He Moved In With His Mistress

Mailer’s marriage to Silverman ended because of an ongoing affair with the painter Adele Morales. Even before he finalized his divorce from Silverman, Mailer had already moved into an East Village apartment with his mistress. 

His marriage to Morales, however, proved to be even more dramatic than his marriage to Silverman.Norman and Adele Mailer at Court During Stabbing ArraignmentBettmann, Getty Images

10. His Life Was More Dramatic Than His Books

Mailer’s love for Silverman had inspired his debut novel. But his love for Morales inspired far worse things. His follow-up novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park failed to live up to his initial success. More concerningly, publishers found their explicit content to be troublesome. Yet the content of his real life was even more concerning.Gettyimages-541519571 Norman Mailer portrait during a readingullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

11. He Had Issues Around His “Manhood”

During his marriage to Morales, Norman Mailer began to express what he dubbed “existentialist” political and social views. To everyone else, however, they just sounded wacky. At a seminar at Brown University, he rambled on about knives as “symbols of manhood”. The speech seemed odd at first, but a couple weeks later it took on a far more ominous tone.

Brown University Pembroke campusKenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Was A Fan Of Jousting

Shortly after his weird speech at Brown University, Norman Mailer announced a campaign for the mayoralty of New York City. He believed that his “existentialist” views could remedy the problems plaguing the city. He proposed radical ideas such as “jousting tournaments (to be held in Central Park) for young offenders”. He just needed the right campaign backers to promote his ideas.

New York Skyline 1960Harold Egeberg , CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

13. He Hosted Wild Dinner Parties

On November 16, 1960 Mailer and Morales hosted a party at their Upper West Side apartment. He framed the dinner party as the launch of his mayoral campaign and invited the likes of David Rockefeller, the Aga Khan, and Allen Ginsberg, along with approximately 200 other guests. They had no idea they were in for a wild (and potentially fatal) night.

David Rockefeller circa 1953National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons

14. His Dinner Was Dangerous

Apart from his prominent guests, Mailer’s party consisted of “derelicts, cut-throats and bohemians”. The mix of New York’s upper-crust along with people that Mailer essentially plucked off the street led to a tense atmosphere. Guests described it as “legendarily tetchy” and “the most dangerous evening”. It was dangerous, alright. For one attendee in particular.

Norman Mailer  circa 1957CBS Photo Archive, Getty Images

15. He Picked Fights

As the night progressed, Norman Mailer became increasingly inebriated. His behavior grew erratic and unpredictable as he seemingly tried to pick fights with random guests whom he believed didn’t support him for mayor. At one point, late in the evening, he simply abandoned the party altogether. As Morales put it, “he was down in the street punching people”.Author Norman Mailer (R), campaigningBob Peterson, Getty Images

16. His Guests Left His Party

When Mailer finally returned to his dinner party—with a ripped shirt and black eye, no less—he found that all but a handful of guests had departed for the evening. Even Morales, his mistress-turned-wife, was getting ready for bed. Irate, Mailer burst into their bedroom and confronted Morales. Then things turned bloody.

Author Norman Mailer, during his campaignBob Peterson, Getty Images

17. His Wife Insulted Him

Clearly tired and upset with Mailer’s behavior, Morales was in no mood for more of his antics. So, when Mailer burst into their bedroom, she hurled insults his way, questioning his manhood—and it pushed Mailer over the edge.

Muhammad  Ali  and Norman Mailer looking at the cameraWolf Gang, Flickr

18. He Broke His Wife’s Heart

Being short, Norman Mailer had always struggled with his masculinity, so when Morales insulted him, he lost control. In a fit of rage, he rushed at his wife with a rusty penknife. He plunged the blade deep into her back before inflicting another wound in her abdomen, piercing her cardiac sac and only barely missing her heart.Norman Mailer Scratching His HeadBettmann, Getty Images

19. He Wanted His Wife To Bleed Out

The few guests who remained looked on in shock and disbelief at the savage domestic attack. Norman Mailer, however, lorded over his handiwork. He wouldn’t let any of them touch her, instead telling them to let her die. Thankfully, the guests did not listen and rushed Morales down to Doc Humes’ apartment before sending her off to the hospital.Norman Mailer during Ron Galella, Getty Images

20. His Behavior Spiraled

Mailer’s aberrant (and abhorrent) behavior continued long after that dreadful incident. Later that night, he appeared in the hospital to inform the doctors that Morales had “fallen on some glass”. He then proceeded to “lecture [Morales’] surgeon on the likely dimensions of her wound”. Seeing as though he had inflicted them, he should have known.American author Norman Mailer smiling during a press conferenceBarton Silverman, Getty Images

21. He Bragged About Knives And Manhood

The very next day, Norman Mailer (likely still reeling from his night of boozing and brawling) made a scheduled appearance on The Mike Wallace Show. While speaking about “the juvenile delinquent” that he believed was wreaking havoc on New York City, Mailer again ominously equated knives to a form of expression of manhood. 

The audience had no idea what he had just done the night before.

William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, Firing Line, 1986Levan Ramishvili, Flickr

22. He Went To The Loony Bin

Two days after the incident, Morales finally confessed to the authorities what Mailer had done to her. Officers then had Mailer involuntarily committed to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric care when a judge found that he was both a risk to himself and others. Mailer’s delicate ego and sense of masculinity, however, couldn't deal with the setback.

Norman Mailer Behind Bars In NY Jail '60Bettmann, Getty Images

23. He Finally Showed Some Remorse

Norman Mailer maintained that he was perfectly sane. Speaking about his involuntary commitment, he said, “If this happens, for the rest of my life, my work will be considered as the work of a man with a disordered mind”. It wasn’t until 40 years later that Mailer finally expressed some remorse, calling the events of that night “the one act I can look back on and regret for the rest of my life”.

In our opinion, he had many other regrettable acts.

Norman Mailer, writer at PEN CongressLibrary of Congress, Picryl

24. His Wife Forgave Him

Mailer and Morales finally got divorced in 1962, nearly two years after that one bloody night. Funny enough, that nearly fatal incident likely wasn’t even the cause of their divorce. The final nail in the coffin (or sharp object in the back, if you prefer) was Mailer’s constant womanizing. And we really do mean constant.Norman Mailer Greeting ReportersBettmann, Getty Images

25. He Found His Female Equivalent

In the lead-up to his divorce from Morales, Mailer had been carrying on an affair with the British heiress and journalist, Lady Jeanne Campbell. Despite her title, however, there was nothing ladylike about her. Mailer described her as “a remarkable girl” who was “almost as interesting, complex and Machiavellian” as he was.

That was an understatement.

British socialite Lady Jeanne Campbell , a foreign correspondent for the 'Evening Standard', UK, 12th March 1964Evening Standard, Getty Images

26. His Wife Had More Affairs Than He Did

Throughout his long career, Mailer developed a reputation as much for womanizing as he did for writing. But he could barely hold a candle to Campbell. His mistress and soon-to-be third wife was rumored to have slept with John F Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro all in the same year. She just wanted to complete the full set.  Portrait of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States in suitKheel Center, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

27. He Was Just A Box To Tick

Mailer’s fellow writer Gore Vidal (who also happened to be his frequent critic and frenemy, but more on that later) asked Campbell why she married the misanthropic writer. Bemused, Campbell responded, “Because I never slept with a Jew before”. 

Is it any surprise Mailer and Campbell divorced after just one year of marriage? 

Gore Vidal, Vice-Presidential candidate, People's Party convention, ArizonaSusmart, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

28. He Bought A Bentley

The reason for Mailer and Campbell's brief marriage (and ugly divorce) was, predictably, Mailer’s womanizing. Throughout his marriage to Campbell, he’d been carrying on an affair with the model-turned-actress, Beverly Bentley. When Bentley became pregnant with Mailer’s child, he had no choice but to make her wife number four.

She may even have saved his life.

Norman Mailer With Wife Beverly Bentley At Truman Capote BW BallSanti Visalli, Getty Images

29. He Was A “Ruthless” Critic

During this latest marriage, Norman Mailer had taken to screenwriting. He wrote and directed the largely experimental films Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone, frequently casting Bentley as the leading lady. Even as her husband, however, he wasn’t her biggest fan and was “ruthlessly critical” of her on-screen appearances. Not that he was any great shakes behind the camera.Norman Mailer in Wild 90Supreme Mix Productions, Wild 90 (1968)

30. He Made It Up On The Fly

In making Maidstone, Mailer adopted an unorthodox directorial style inspired by his existentialist philosophy. Instead of a script, he simply prepared a bunch of character biographies, developed a loose plotline, and then got the cameras rolling. The idea, he thought, was to capture raw human behavior. He got more than he bargained for. 

Maidstone 1970 Norman Mailer sitting on a benchSupreme Mix Productions, Maidstone (1970)

31. He Had A Hard Head

Mailer’s unique directorial style ratcheted up tensions on the small film set—until it all boiled over. In a semi-rehearsed fight scene between Mailer and co-star Rip Torn, things turned bloody. Frustrated and tired, Torn charged Mailer with a hammer, striking him over the head and drawing gushes of blood. Mailer returned the favor.

Maidstone 1970 Norman Mailer looking at someone in a parkSupreme Mix Productions, Maidstone (1970)

32. He Tore Torn

The unscripted fight scene drew real blood. After Torn struck Mailer in the head with the hammer, Mailer lunged at his co-star. In a savage, Mike Tyson-like rage, Mailer sunk his teeth into Torn’s ear. Thankfully, Bentley managed to intervene before the two men caused any more damage to each other. Mailer didn’t exactly thank her for saving his life.

Rip Torn and Norman Mailer in Maidstone (1970) fightingSupreme Mix Productions, Maidstone (1970)

33. His Affair Bore Fruit

Despite being married to Bentley, Mailer had actually been living with his mistress, the sultry jazz singer Carol Stevens, since 1969. It didn’t take long for their carnal relationship to bear fruit—and scandal. In 1971, Stevens gave birth to Mailer’s daughter, Maggie, sparking a years-long controversy that ended with a marriage so brief you could blink and miss it. Norman Mailer during Democratic Rally - January 1, 1970 in New York CityRon Galella, Ltd., Getty Images

34. His Love Life Needed Some Editing

By 1975, Mailer’s love life was every bit as messy as the first draft of one of his novels. He was still, technically, married to Bentley, had a child with Stevens, and was “in love” with the writer Norris Church who was herself in the middle of a divorce AND potentially having an affair with president-to-be Bill Clinton.

He did manage to “edit” the mess of his love life into something resembling normalcy, however.

Norman Mailer At A Demonstration Supporting Pete HamillAllan Tannenbaum, Getty Images

35. He Had (Yet Another) Illegitimate Child

Fast forward some years and Mailer had done what he did best. No, not write another best-seller—he got another woman pregnant. In 1978, Church gave birth to Mailer’s eighth child, John Buffalo Mailer.

Mailer quickly developed a plan to marry her, but Carol Stevens, mother of his illegitimate daughter Maggie, wasn’t having it.John Buffalo Mailer at the 2023 Santa Barbara International Film Festival looking at cameraJoe Seer, Shutterstock

36. He Had A One-Day Marriage

Mailer was trying to finalize his divorce from Bentley so that he could marry Church, but Stevens wouldn’t let him go without a fight. She insisted that he marry her first, so that they could legitimize their daughter. Surprisingly, Mailer obliged and married Stevens—for a day. They said their “I dos” on November 8th and by November 9th were saying, “I definitely do not”.

Mailer was finally free to pursue his heart.The American novelist and journalist Norman Mailer looking at the cameraHulton Deutsch, Getty Images

37. He Did Not Live Happily Ever After

Later that same month, in November 1980, Mailer married Church, making her his sixth (and, mercifully) final wife. They formally adopted each other's children from their previous marriages and, by all accounts, seemed to live happily ever after. Although, not exactly. Happy endings weren’t really Mailer’s forte, in fiction or in real life.Norman Mailer (right) and Norris Church Mailer at formal eventRon Galella, Getty Images

38. He Did Not Support His Wife

Thanks to his history of womanizing (and bloody parties), Mailer’s critics often called him a misogynist. Church frequently defended her husband, saying that he was the “Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle”. Mailer, however, rarely returned the favor. When Church asked for feedback on her own writing, Mailer often gave her “negative” reviews.

He was certainly no stranger to criticism.Artist Norris Church Mailer sitting on a chairWWD, Getty Images

39. He Butted Heads With Vidal

Even as a literary titan, Mailer still had his share of critics. At a 1971 taping of The Cavett Show, Mailer infamously butted heads (quite literally) with fellow literary giant, Gore Vidal. A short while before, Vidal had written a negative review of Mailer’s latest novel and a possibly inebriated Mailer confronted Vidal by head-butting him backstage.

Then the fireworks really started. 

Vidal VS Mailer at The Dick Cavett ShowABC, The Cavett Show (1975–1982)

40. He Met His Match

Mailer and Vidal took their feud on stage during the live taping, much to the chagrin of host Cavett. Exasperated, Cavett joined in the feud on Vidal’s side, trading pointed barbs with Mailer. Out-witted and out-worded by Vidal and Cavett, Mailer mumbled at Cavett, “Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?”

However, the show host didn’t need cue cards to take Mailer down a peg.novelist Norman Mailer at  The Dick Cavett ShowABC, The Cavett Show (1975–1982)

41. He Was A Laughing Stock

Cavett responded to Mailer’s insult by asking him, “Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?” Even when Mailer fired back asking if Cavett had written that line himself, the Pulitzer winner was still on the back foot. “I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?” Cavett retorted, sending the audience into a roar of laughter.

It wasn’t the first time that Mailer became a laughingstock.Norman Mailer at  The Dick Cavett Show and host Dick CavettABC, The Cavett Show (1975–1982)

42. He Did Not Dance—Or Direct

Mailer’s already questionable film career took another weird turn with the 1987 adaptation of his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Another Mailer-directed film, this one attracted the jeers of audience members in a way that Mailer had never expected. As any good novelist knows, however, there’s no such thing as bad press.

Ryan O'Neal as  Tim Madden looking at the cameraGolan-Globus Productions, Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

43. He Made The “Worst Movie Ever”

Screen test audiences loathed Mailer’s film so much that the best-selling author decided to turn their jeers into cheers. He marketed the film as a parody and appeared in a trailer reading the screen test audience’s reviews aloud. "Stinks", "The Devil made this picture" and "One of the worst ever, my grandmother could do better," were some of the kinder things Mailer read aloud.

Norman Mailer reading intro about his movieGolan-Globus Productions, Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

44. He Was An Interesting Guest

Mailer never really lost his love for, shall we say, interesting dinner parties. After a jury acquitted the socialite Claus von Bülow of the charge of offing his wife (something Mailer could relate to), he held a dinner party and invited a few “interesting friends”. Few people, of course, were more interesting—or interested—than Mailer.Norman Mailer, writer, glidingLibrary of Congress, Picryl

45. He Was Bored With Innocent People

Famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz also attended von Bülow’s dinner party. He later recounted Mailer’s particularly odd behavior. After Derschowitz laid out the evidence, proving that von Bülow was, in fact, innocent, Mailer lost interest. “Let's get out of here,” Mailer said to his wife, “I think this guy is innocent. I thought we were going to be having dinner with a man who actually tried to [off] his wife. This is boring”.

His obsession with murderous people, however, did not end there.Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz looking left from the cameraa katz, Shutterstock

46. He Received An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse

In 1979, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Executioner’s Song. He had based the story on the execution of Gary Gilmore in the state of Utah. But some people took issue with the work. From his cell in the slammer, convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott reached out to Mailer, saying that Gilmore had embellished his story.

He offered to give Mailer access to what life in the lockup really looked like. But not for free.Author Norman Mailer Leaving Jack Henry Abbott TrialBettmann, Getty Images

47. He Helped A Man Escape From The Lockup

In exchange for his insights, Abbott wanted Mailer to help him write and publish his own book, In the Belly of the Beast. Much to Mailer’s surprise, Abbott displayed an obvious talent for writing. In fact, Mailer was so surprised with Abbott that he championed Abbott’s successful bid for parole. But not even Mailer could have written the next plot twist. 

Author Norman Mailer talks about his new bookBettmann, Getty Images

48. His Protege Did A Bad, Bloody Thing

With Mailer’s help, In the Belly of the Beast became a massive success with readers and critics alike. Even The New York Times wrote some rave reviews, promoting the book. Just one day prior to the Times reviews, however, Abbott had written a very different kind of story. Instead of ink on a page, he told this story with blood on the walls.

Writer Norman Mailer holds a press conferenceBettmann, Getty Images

49. He Was Responsible For His Reader’s Demise

Abbott had only been back out on the streets for six weeks when he reoffended, ending the life of 22-year-old Richard Adan. Many in the media and upper echelons of the literary world blamed Mailer for Adan’s demise. They asserted that Mailer had been too eager for a story and impressed with Abbott’s writing to see his violent nature.

American writer Norman Mailer during TV show held on November 20, 1980 in Paris, FranceUlf Andersen, Getty Images

50. He Had No Pride

Mailer didn’t immediately respond to the criticism of his involvement in the bloody affair of Adan’s demise. More than a decade later, however, in a rare moment of self-reflection and humility, Mailer expressed some regret. He called the incident “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in”.

He certainly had a lot of those episodes.

American writer Norman Mailer, 1984Michael Ward, Getty Images

51. He Was Deeply Ashamed

Mailer lost his life at the ripe old age of 84, having won two Pulitzer Prizes and one National Book Award. His real legacy, however, was his enormous ego and tireless libido. His obituary in The Independent made mention of his “relentless machismo” and called him “quite small”. In his own famous words, however, “Every writer has something to be ashamed of”.

He simply had more than most.Norman Mailer looking at the camera with hand lifted next to his faceBoston Globe, Getty Images

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