In the days before the Internet, before e-mails, before cell phones, before fax machines—at least before the cheap accessibility to fax machines—when you wanted to send something quick and urgent you sent a telegram. Just remembering this makes me feel old. But I do remember because it was a telegram I sent to Norman Mailer that convinced him to honor an interview request he had agreed to but then wanted to cancel.
The year was 1983 and I was doing cable television interviews for the Playboy Channel. Mailer was one of my literary heroes. I had been reading him since I was a kid, and I devoured his books (The Naked and the Dead, The DeerPark, An American Dream, Why Are We In Vietnam? The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Executioner’s Song) and his magazine pieces whenever he appeared in Esquire, Harpers or Playboy. Mailer could write about shit (literally), sex, superstition, marijuana, race, and angst better than anyone else—at least more entertainingly than any other writer I was aware of. His huge ego put a smile on my face, the way Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali would do some years later. Mailer often liked to compare himself to a heavyweight fighter, and he liked to think that he could go the distance with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, and could knock out his contemporaries, including Philip Roth, William Styron, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. He called one collection of his Advertisements for Myself. And the thing about him was, like Ali, who called himself “The Greatest of All Time,” Mailer’s work was often that good. He pissed off feminists, rankled gay writers, and got Saul Bellow to say that he’d gladly give Mailer his Nobel Prize, if only Mailer had anything to trade.
When he was young Mailer liked to challenge other writers to fight, arm wrestle, or debate. He once got into a fight with actor Rip Torn during the making of Mailer’s Maidstone and bit off a piece of Torn’s ear. He headbutted Gore Vidal at a party. He stabbed his second wife and wound up in a mental hospital for 17 days. (When I asked him about the doctor’s diagnosis, that he thought Mailer was having an acute paranoid breakdown with delusional thinking, and that he was both homicidal and suicidal, Mailer answered: “Well, since I didn’t kill anybody after that and I didn’t commit suicide or have a mental breakdown, my guess is that he wasn’t too accurate.”)
He also ran for mayor of New York, helped get John F. Kennedy elected with a superb 10,000 word essay (“Superman Comes to the Supermarket”) in Esquire, and was one of the leaders in the March on Washington protesting the Vietnam War. His books won many of the major prizes (the National Book Award and two Pulitzers) and his work took on the big themes like war, terrorism, the battle of the sexes, religion, art, politics, ancient history and the CIA.
As recently as May, 2007, he pinpointed why terrorists are so hated (“because they destroy the idea that you are going to have a meaningful ending to your life”) and took a jab at President Bush, calling him “a spiritual terrorist…creating fear where fear may not necessarily need to reside.” He summed up the lunacy of the current conflict in Iraq with the sharp observation we came to expect from him: The terrorists “can’t destroy us. We can destroy them, but not through war. We can destroy them through endless careful police work for decades. But instead we go to war, because the war has served so many purposes for people whose motives are neither clean nor illumined. But profit-oriented.” And in his last book, ON GOD: An Uncommon Conversation published in October, 2007, he rejected both organized religion and atheism, and took issue with one of the Ten Commandments–believing adultery a lesser evil than others suffered in a bad marriage. Technology, he professed, was the Devil’s most brilliant creation.
By the time I had the opportunity to interview him, Mailer had mellowed enough to be considered an elder statesman (he was 60 then, he’s 84 now). He had complained somewhere that he wasn’t enjoying being interviewed very much any longer because journalists were giving him too much respect, and he even offered one reporter five dollars for every challenging question. That was reason enough to want to go head-to-head with him. If I was going to make my living interviewing people, then I should challenge myself as well. And getting a rise out of Norman Mailer seemed like a sufficient challenge.
So I got in touch with his publisher and made the request. Mailer had a new novel coming out about ancient Egypt (Ancient Evenings) and he was coming to Los Angeles to promote it. He agreed to meet with me. I read an advanced copy of his long novel and did my research about his life. But a few weeks before our interview I got a call from his secretary saying that Mr. Mailer had decided to cancel. There was no explanation. I had put in a lot of time preparing for this and I didn’t want to let him off the hook easily. So I thought about writing him a letter, and then decided that a telegram would be more immediate, and more impressive, since it wasn’t cheap. In fact, the two-page telegram I composed citing reasons why he should honor his agreement wound up costing $90 to send. But it was worth it, because Mailer reconsidered and in April, 1983, I met with him at a hotel in L.A. and though nervous to interrogate a favorite writer of mine I knew one thing for sure: I wasn’t going to toss him any softballs for him to hit out of the park. I was going to be tough, and if he was up for it, it would be an interesting meeting.