An exchange between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal

In This Corner, Norman Mailer



It was at a vividly bad time in Norman Mailer’s life that I met him, and a sort of water-treading time in mine. He had stabbed his wife, and I was a copy boy at Time magazine.

Norman Mailer (Illustration: Thomas Libetti)

Time had just done a rough piece on Mailer, even publishing a ghastly, wild-eyed picture of him being arraigned at the station house. The magazine’s treatment of Mailer had been been much protested, as I knew from working at the copy desk and seeing the mail.

One night after work, I emerged wearily from the subway on Central Park West. There was Mailer. My pulse accelerated. He was with three tough-looking guys and he, too, was tough-looking. But I was a big fan and I just had to be able to say to the guys back at the copy desk, “Guess who I met last night.”

“Hi, Mr. Mailer. I’d just like to say hello. I can’t very well apologize for Time magazine, where I work, but…”

He came toward me, exuding the well-known Mailer menace, hands held pugilistically.

“What do they pay you there?” he said, still coming.

“Sixty dollars a week. I’m only a copy boy! But I’m a big fan of yours!”

I’m sure I overstated how bad I really felt about what they had “done” to him. He looked at me with a stare like a drill, said “Get a more respectable job,” shook my hand and walked away.

I was to see the Mailer pugilist-walk once more in my life, about a decade later and in a then-unimaginable setting: my late-night show on ABC. It was in 1971, and it was without doubt the damnedest show I ever did. Or ever heard of.

I thought the guest list looked quite respectable. Three literary figures, and by no means boring ones. All colorful personalities. I thought it would be a nice, pleasant evening. So much for my instincts.

It was not a show to appeal to Joe Six-Pack, perhaps, although had he watched it he would have liked it for the action. There were those who later said we should have known what was coming but, perhaps a bit stupidly, we thought it would be a good show with a mix of fascinating people. That proved to be the least of it.

It all began nicely enough. My monologue went so well that I was able to enjoy the feeling the host gets when he scores: the knowledge that your illustrious guests are watching you on the monitor in the green room, seeing you succeed. (This joy is balanced by its opposite, when you bomb: not only is the audience out front watching, seeing you fail, but so are the illustrious guests backstage.)

Gore Vidal came out first and was his usual articulate and witty and trenchant self, always giving a sort of lesson in the elegant use of language. He told about surprising Eleanor Roosevelt standing at her toilet with her back to him. (She was arranging gladioluses in it.)

Janet Flanner, who had written The New Yorker’s “Letter from Paris” for as long as anyone could remember, under the pen name Genet, came on second and won over the audience instantly by telling of her annoyance at finding Ernest Hemingway in her bathtub in Paris, “using all my hot water.” (Bathrooms seemed to be the developing theme.)

Mailer’s entrance was the tip-off. He came on from stage left doing that pugilist walk: his hands were fists and carried high, and he had the tousled look of having visited a favorite bar or two en route. His suit was disheveled, his bow to Miss Flanner courtly, and his refusal to shake Vidal’s extended hand caused a murmuring in the audience.

When I said I couldn’t help noticing what had just happened, I was told by Mailer that he did not approve of Vidal and found him intellectually shameless. Seeming to sense quickly that Flanner might well be on Vidal’s side if discord ensued, Mailer then quoted himself on something he had written about Vidal in “The Prisoner of Sex.”

Mailer: I said that the need of the magazine reader for a remark he could repeat at dinner was best satisfied by writers with names like Gore Vidal.

Flanner: All those writers called Gore Vidal.

Vidal: I know. There are thousands of them, yeah.

Mailer: There are two or three.

Cavett: Who are some of the others?

Mailer [with a dark look]: I don’t know.

Cavett: Who wants to host the rest of this show?

Mailer, years later, told me that it was at this point that “in the face of the Cavett wit and Flanner’s deft interruption” — adored by the audience — and in consideration of his alcohol content, he realized that he was not being skillful at mounting a sustained argument. About here, the crowd started to disapprove audibly of some of Mailer’s offerings. When he maintained that Vidal’s writing was “no more interesting than the contents of the stomach of an intellectual cow,” they booed heartily.

Mailer’s mission, it became rapidly clear, was to eviscerate Vidal for what Vidal had written about him in The New York Review of Books. (In brief, he’d said that Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Charles Manson — “3M for short” — represented “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women.”)

This was tossed about a bit and Mailer told Vidal that if he — Vidal — could teach him something about writing, then he would look up to him. When Vidal denied being the Famous Writers School, he got a laugh, displeasing Mailer thereby.

Mailer: Why don’t you try to talk just once, Gore, without yuks? Why not just talk to me instead of talking to the audience?

Vidal: Well, by a curious thing we have not found ourselves in a friendly neighborhood bar, but both, by election, are sitting here with an audience, so therefore it would be dishonest of us to pretend otherwise. [applause]

I wasn’t sure whether it was the stately grace of Vidal’s sentence or the applause that made Mailer look even madder. He had passed me the review to hand to Vidal and was now trying to get him to “read what you wrote,” when he noticed Janet Flanner whispering to Vidal.

Mailer: Hey, Miss Flanner, are you workin’ as the referee or as Mr. Vidal’s manager? [laughter] I’m perfectly willing to accept you in either role … my mind is fragile, and I find it very hard to think, and if you’re muttering in the background, it’s difficult.

Flanner: I made only the slightest mutter. [laughter] You must be very easily put off center.

Mailer: It’s true, you made only the slightest mutter.

Flanner: A tiny mutter.

Mailer: Yes, yes, but I listen to you spellbound.

Flanner: I won’t bother you anymore. [laughter]

Mailer reported later that it was at this point that he began to wonder whether anything he did was going to work, and that he made a small vow never to drink again before going on TV.

It was here that Vidal made some nice remarks about Mailer’s writing and how like the Phoenix he re-bears himself in ever fresh manifestations.

What happened next should play out for you uninterrupted.

Mailer: You seem to have figured out that the next reincarnation for me is going to be Charles Manson.

Vidal: Well, you left yourself —

Mailer: Why don’t you read what you wrote?

Vidal: You let yourself in for it, and I will tell you — I’ll give you a little background here — that Mailer has —

Mailer: We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago, we do know that, Gore. You were playing on that.

Vidal: Let’s just forget about it.

Mailer: You don’t want to forget about it. You’re a liar and a hypocrite. You were playing on it.

Vidal: But that wasn’t a lie or a hypocrisy.

Mailer: People who read The New York Review of Books know perfectly well — they know all about it, and it’s your subtle little way of doing it…

Vidal: Oh, I’m beginning to see what bothers you now. I’m getting the point.

Mailer: Are you ready to apologize?

Vidal: I would apologize if — if it hurts your feelings, of course I would.

Mailer: No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.

Vidal: Well, I must say as an expert, you should know about such things. [laughter]

Mailer: Yes, well, I’ve had to smell your works from time to time, and that has helped me to become an expert on intellectual pollution, yes.

Vidal: Yeah, well…I was going to say, I —

Flanner: Not only do you insult each other, not only in public, but as if you were in private. That’s the odd way —

Mailer: It’s the art of television, isn’t it?

Flanner: It’s very odd that you act so — you act as if you were the only people here.

Mailer: Aren’t we?

Flanner: They’re here, he’s here, I’m here . . . and I’m growing very, very bored. [Throws kiss to Mailer with her white-gloved hand, getting big laugh.]

Mailer: You still haven’t told me whether you’re Gore’s manager or the referee.

Cavett: If you make history here by punching a lady. [laughter]

Flanner: I won’t have it! I won’t have it!

Mailer: Now, look, you see the sort of thing that goes on. Now you say I make history by punching a lady. You know perfectly well…you know perfectly well that I’m the gentlest of the four people here. [laughter]

Cavett: I just hope it lasts through the next whatever we have left.

Mailer: I guarantee you I wouldn’t hit any of the people here, because they’re smaller.

Cavett [beginning to steam]: In what ways smaller?

Mailer: Intellectually smaller.

Cavett: Let me turn my chair and join these people. [I do.] Perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect. [applause]

Mailer: I’ll take the two chairs if you will all accept finger bowls.

(Mailer wrote later about this moment: “This remark was sufficiently gnomic for Cavett to chew and get to no witty place.”)

Cavett [mystified]: Who wants to grab this on our team? [pause] I nearly have it. It means something to me. Finger bowls. Things you dip your fingers in after you’ve gotten them filthy from eating. Am I on the right track? Am I warm?

Mailer: Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask a question?

Cavett: Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.

[Following this exchange, wild, sustained laughter. Mailer, eager to reply, can only stab the air with his finger until it subsides.]

Mailer: Mr. Cavett, on your word of honor, did you just make that up, or have you had it canned for years, and you were waiting for the best moment to use it?

Cavett: I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?

[Mailer turns his chair away from us and to the audience.]

Mailer: Are you all really, truly idiots or is it me?

[A chorus replies, “You!” Then, applause.]

Cavett: Oh, that was the easy answer.

[Bobby Rosengarden’s band plays us off into the commercial break after with the Gillette fight song (“To look sharp…”)]

I think we all agreed without ever saying so that of our little quartet of alleged luminaries, Janet Flanner came off best.

TV critics writing about the show — and it seemed like every single one did — mostly agreed with Mailer’s appraisal of himself as “a lout and a slob.” A much smaller number felt sorry for him. “Pitting Norman in a battle of wits, particularly these three wits — Vidal, Flanner, and Cavett — was like putting him in a boxing ring with Ali and adding Frazier and Forman for good measure,” wrote one. (I still want to know which of the three boxers I was.)

All of us still spoke and both men were — singly — on later shows of mine. Not together, but on. Vidal said his relationship with Mailer finally resolved itself into pretty much what it had been for decades: “We pass, and like two old whores on the street, say ‘Still at it, Norm?’ ‘Yep. Still at it, Gore?’ ”

What with Norman dead, in going over that transcript I feel twinges of guilt about not having treated him nicer, but what the hell? He wasn’t dead then. And he certainly asked for it and gave as good as he got.

My affection for him has never faded and I saw him many times after that. And God knows, the man who could write a book called “Advertisements for Myself” got huge delight out of the evening’s notoriety. He claimed that after that show he got more mail than in the rest of his career put together, adding, laughingly, “and some of it was even on my side.”

I know someone who sure as hell hates being dead.

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