Westport biographer portrays Norman Mailer's 'double life'
“Norman Mailer lived a big, brash, bawdy, belligerent life, and J. Michael Lennon has captured every moment of it.”
So says author Gay Talese about Norman Mailer: A Double Life, written by Forsythia Lane, Westport, resident Lennon and published this month by Simon & Schuster.
A writer and college professor, Mr. Lennon immersed himself in the life of Mailer, one of the twentieth century's most important and controversial authors. Mailer became a national celebrity at the age of 25 with his bold bestselling World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, and went on to write ten more bestsellers, both fiction and non-fiction. Two of them (The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song) won the Pulitzer Prize.
Mr. Lennon first met Mailer in 1972 and came to know him well. He is past president of the Norman Mailer Society, and, as his authorized biographer, had complete access to Mailer's 45,000 letters and papers and interviewed him many times before Mailer's death at age 84 in 2007. He also interviewed children, former wives, mistresses, friends and rivals.
"He was quite candid in his correspondence," Mr. Lennon said. "It took me several years to read them all, and I guess I am the only one, besides him, to have done so. I also did a score of long interviews with him in his last decade,
and during his final 30 months I visited him nearly every day. My wife and I lived nearby in the same town, Provincetown."
Though an admitted admirer of Mailer and his works, Mr. Lennon set out to present an accurate portrait of the man, flaws and all.
"While always his own best lawyer,” Mr. Lennon wrote, “Mailer never hinted at how he wished to be portrayed, nor did he ask my intentions. He answered all my questions candidly and with much good humor, enjoining me to ‘put everything in.’”
That 'everything' covers considerable ground in the 900-page biography.
"Mailer gained fame and sometimes infamy not only from his literary and political endeavors, but also from his often-unruly personal life, his fascination with sex and violence, and his vitriolic public feuds with other writers," says Simon & Schuster. " Mailer was married six times (to a fellow Jewish intellectual, a Latina artist, the daughter of a Scottish duke, an actress, a jazz singer, and an art teacher), was the father of nine children, and had countless affairs throughout his life. He knew many of the most celebrated writers of his generation and quarreled with several of them, most notably with Gore Vidal, in a legendary confrontation on Dick Cavett’s television talk show." Mr.Lennon said that Dick Cavett attended the publication party "and we relived the show."
Asked about Mailer's legacy on American literature, Mr. Lennon listed three things:
"1) He was the key innovator in the New Journalism movement, the wave of participatory journalism that took place from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The Armies of the Night, his 1968 Pulitzer-Prize winning account of the anti-Vietnam War movement is one of the finest achievements of this movement; 2) Along with Gore Vidal and William Buckley, Mailer was the most important public intellectual in the American literary world for over 30 years. There is no one like him these days; 3) Mailer was the most important chronicler and commentator on major events and figures in American Life: Marilyn Monroe, Hemingway, JFK, Nixon, Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, many more. He also created some wonderful fictional characters, Elena in The Deer Park, and Rojack in An American Dream, for example."
As the 'Double Life' title implies, his biography explores the sometimes conflicted sides of Mailer’s identity – "journalist and activist, devoted family man and relentless philanderer, intellectual and boxer, novelist and politician … Mailer once said, 'There are two sides to me, and the side that is the observer is paramount,' although readers of Lennon’s biography may find this assertion debatable," the publisher says.
Out of the limelight, Mr. Lennon said, "Like the rest of us, he had a variety of moods, but he was usually quite lively, full of beans. He relished a good debate on the issues of the day, loved jokes, anecdotes, banter. And he was curious … Sitting around his dinner table was never dull; everyone was required to get in the conversation, perform a bit. Always fun, lots of laughter. He generally had a twinkle in his eye."
Reviewers have praised Mr. Lennon's work.
Publishers Weekly wrote, “In this meticulous authorized biography, Lennon offers a comprehensive and unflinching look at the life of the controversial American novelist, journalist, and filmmaker… Lennon’s almost clinical perspective shows the author’s restless innovation, which was indispensable for understanding the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.”
Adds author Doris Kearns, "In the hands of this superb biographer, Norman Mailer comes vividly to life—irresistible, brilliant, formidable, hungry for fame, and endlessly fascinating. Lennon’s great achievement lies in matching Mailer’s energy and talent with his own. This is surely one of the best biographies ever written of an American writer.”
About the biographer
Mr. Lennon is emeritus vice president for academic afairs and emeritus professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. In addition to being chair of the editorial board of The Mailer Review, he has written or edited several books about and with Mailer, including Norman Mailer’s Letters on An American Dream, 1963-69; Norman Mailer: Works and Days; Conversations with Norman Mailer; and Critical Essays on Norman Mailer. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Playboy, Provincetown Arts, New York, Modern Language Studies, Chicago Tribune, and New England Review, among other publications.
He was born in Fall River, and grew up in Somerset, and "spent my youth at Horseneck Beach. My wife is from Newport, and so when I retired from the university in 2005, we moved first to Provincetown, and then in 2007 to Westport to write the Mailer biography. We settled on Westport as a great place to live, and within striking distance of friends and relatives. Plus, we love the quiet, the charm, the proximity to Providence and Boston … I used to fish for tautog years ago, and drank at the Andy Farrisey's bar when in college (Stonehill), but now I grow potatoes and squash and onions behind our house in the Trout Pond Subdivision off 177, just down the road from Lincoln Park where I used to dance on Saturday nights."
For more, visit www.jmichaellennon.com
Meet the author
Mr. Lennon will read from and sign copies of Norman Mailer: A Double Life at the Dartmouth Barnes & Noble, 392 State Road (Route 6) on Friday, Nov. 1 , at 7 p.m.