I met Norman Mailer years ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at a small barbecue outside my friend's home. Over a feast of ribs and baked beans is not how I envisioned meeting this American icon. Prior to leaving my house I took a Valium, hoping it would calm me enough to avoid stammering my way through a conversation with Mr. Mailer. Upon arrival, I searched the grounds quickly, but Mailer had not yet come. "What's wrong?" asked my friends, noticing my restless composure. It was obvious; I should have taken a second Valium.
Soon enough, Norman arrived with his wife, Norris Church Mailer. I watched in awe as he navigated effortlessly through a field of friends and fans. He could work a crowd like no other. Norman was anyone and everyone; he could fit into any part of society he so desired. He could share a drink and bullshit in a dive bar, or have dinner with the president. An amazing conversationalist, he made us all comfortable in minutes.
Norman kindly introduced himself to me. I got him his drink of choice, Johnnie Walker 'neat.' No ice, no mixers, just straight up booze. No one else knew the proper term, but I did and I was quite proud. Somehow, my nerves faded away under our conversation and laughter. I liked him immediately.
I asked Norman if he liked photography. He replied promptly, stating that he didn't see it as an art form, but merely a tool for journalists. I knew that he had been widely photographed by some important photographers like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz. As a dedicated fan of photography, I was startled. I asked him if he was familiar with the work of my favorite photographer, Diane Arbus. Norman¹s temperature began to rise -- I had hit a hot button.
Faking half a smile, Norman says, "Giving Diane Arbus a camera is like giving a live hand grenade to a child." The hosts were shooting dirty stares at me, as if I were singlehandedly destroying their BBQ. I pushed a little farther, "why?" I asked. He launched into a gentle tirade about how he thought it was the worst photograph of him ever taken. He believed the photo was obscene and portrayed him in a grotesque fashion.
I knew I had to switch topics fast, so I jumped to Muhammad Ali, a man I knew he greatly admired. Finally back in safe waters, for now. On the subject of celebrity, our host, originally from Texas, asked Norman what he thought of George W. Bush. Norman did a hilarious twenty minutes on W., declaring him to be the dumbest president this country has ever known. Finally, the spotlight was off me.
It was a great evening, one I will never forget. I left exhilarated that night. As soon as I got home, I jumped on the internet and read every word I could find on Norman. Inevitably, I stumbled upon the Arbus photograph that Norman so despised. Staring at the photograph, I wondered "why?" In a moment of clarity, it hit me. Arbus had broken the barrier and exposed the real Norman Mailer. The photograph shows Norman comfortably sitting in a stuffed high back armchair, with his leg riding over the arm, looking at us, probably unaware that she was snapping away, exposing a bit of his soul.
I decided then that I wanted to do a documentary on his life. Behind those eyes were the lives of many men. Arbus' photograph was the rare exception that revealed Norman Mailer. So I set out to find the real Norman Mailer, not the showmen, the magician, or the shaman. I didn't know that I was jumping into a hurricane of life. The man I discovered was incredibly complex; filled with lies, contradictions, and betrayals; yet, also truth and love. Mailer lived and breathed through his writing, and produced a body of work that is unparalleled in its power and influence.
Norman lived his life out loud for all to see. He was human and made a lot of mistakes in his time, some of them life altering. And he was also a generous, kind man with a heart filled with love, and compassion. He is undeniably one of the most important writers of his generation. Our first literary Rock Star!
In 2009 after Norman had passed away, I went to the official Norman Mailer website, and there it was, the infamous Arbus photo being featured prominently in the masthead. I asked about it and the powers that be said it was the greatest picture of Norman ever taken.
Norman Mailer: The American will screen Thursday, February 17th at 6:30pm at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street). To see more information on the screening, or buy tickets, please go here.