On this day: Norman Mailer is born

January 31 1923: A giant of literature

By Jennifer Lipman, January 31, 2011

In the canon of influential Jewish writers of the last century, Normal Mailer is up there with the likes of Phillip Roth.

The author of The Armies of the Night, The Executioner's Song and The Castle in the Forest, a man who managed to infuriate feminists in almost everything he did, feuded with Gore Vidal and once ran for the job of mayor of New York, Mailer will certainly go down as one of the greats of literary history.

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, he went to Harvard at just 16, then fought in the Philippines during the Second World War. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948. Critically acclaimed, it brought him instant fame.

He wrote more than 40 books – fiction and non-fiction - as well as magazine essays and screenplays. Twice he was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, in 1968 he won the National Book Award.

He married six times, finally settling down with artist Norris Church Mailer. They were together for some 30 years. In 1960, he stabbed his then wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife and nearly killed her, but received only a suspended sentence after she refused to press charges.

He considered his Judaism to be “immensely important” and towards the end of his life emphasized his belief in God. A passionate critic of the Iraq war – he once said he couldn’t mention it “without frothing at the mouth and becoming obscene”, he was known throughout his life for his radical politics and counter-cultural outlook and was even arrested in the late 1960s during an anti-Vietnam war demonstration.

In November 2007 he died after being hospitalised for lung surgery. In one of his last interviews he told the JC that writing a novel was “like falling in love”.

He said: You don’t say, ‘I’m going to fall in love next Tuesday,’ or ‘I’m going to begin my novel.’ The novel has to come to you.” For Norman Mailer, the novels certainly did.

What the JC said: The welcoming figure at his home in Cape Cod is not the intimidating sexist of legend. This Mailer, with his charismatic blue eyes and white hair, is gracious and funny. It is hard to reconcile this hate figure for feminists of the ’60s and ’70s with the man comfortably sitting at home in Provincetown, surrounded by photographs of his 11 grandchildren as well as paintings by his artist wife, Norris Church Mailer, and by two of his daughters.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 11:27am, January 31 2011