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Norman Mailer, Literary Giant

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Andrea Seabrook is away.

We begin our show today by marking the loss of a giant of American letters. Writer Norman Mailer died Saturday morning in New York City at the age of 84.

Mailer lived pugnaciously and fiercely in outsized ways that left the public quaking. He married six times. He cut a wide swath, not just through women, but the literary world, politics, and the wars of the 20th century. He wrote a lot: 53 books, novels, non-fiction plays and collections. The talent came early. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, he served in World War II. And in 1948, he published his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead."

Mr. NORMAN MAILER (Writer): I gained a great deal through that fame and I lost a great deal. The key thing is that I had a crisis of identity because when I wrote "The Naked and the Dead," I was just one more young man who was a soldier. Naturally, I considered myself different from all the others, but then so did every other ordinary, young man who was a soldier. But after the success of "The Naked and the Dead," I knew that people would look at me in a different way than they had before.

LYDEN: In January of this year, I interviewed Norman Mailer on the occasion of his last novel. He hadn't published one in a decade. It's called "The Castle in the Forest" and it imagines the childhood life of Adolf Hitler. God and the Devil fight for Hitler's soul in the book, and I asked Mailer if he believed in a creator.

Mr. MAILER: I happen to believe that there is a god - very much there's a god who's a creative god. I don't believe in God as a lawgiver because God does not sit in total control of us. God learns from us as well as enriching us and as well as occasionally perhaps punishing us. But the whole notion of heaven and hell I find absolutely wasteful. The thought that we go through every last thing we go through in order to sit forever in Club Med or a fiery furnace makes no sense to me whatsoever.

LYDEN: In 1969, Norman Mailer ran as a candidate for New York City mayor in a Democratic Party primary. His running mate was Jimmy Breslin, the almost equally famous and equally hard-drinking New York Post columnist. I spoke with Jimmy Breslin today about their campaign.

Mr. JIMMY BRESLIN (Columnist, New York Post): I remember during the political year of 1969, we were - went to Brooklyn College where there was a crowd which could only be called massive. It was huge. And he got up and was speaking about very lofty things including the need for white pupils to be in school with black pupils and vice versa in order for both their minds to benefit and someone stood up in the audience and said, Mr. Mailer, last year, in Queens, we had a lot of snow and it didn't get removed by the sanitation. What would you do if there was a big snow storm in Queens this year? And Mailer looked at him, yanked down from his lofty thoughts, and he said, sir, I'd piss on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: If not as a candidate, Norman Mailer lived a politically charged life. He wrote about the March on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War in "Armies of the Night," one of two works what won him the Pulitzer Prize. His book, "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," looked at the party conventions of 1968 when police and protesters clashed in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Mailer helped found The Village Voice in New York and was a regular and vituperative guest on numerous television talk shows. Though his image is one of a bad boy of letters - women, drink, drugs, fights - his friend Jimmy Breslin remembered him differently.

Mr. BRESLIN: This was a massive worker. I mean, in honest, essentially, he never stopped working. Now and then, we'd drift out into the night and there'd be something that happened, got busted and you'd wind up with headlines and the shrieks. But essentially, he was a working man. When you mention Mailer to me, I think of Von Gogh's work boots. That is…

LYDEN: Von Gogh's work boots?

Mr. BRESLIN: Yes. That's all. I just think of a working man. And he left a massive amount of things to read for his country. And on many of the pages were ideas came out at you. like sparks spitting from a fire. Whether they took it or not, he never worried. It was out there. He had an ego that was - half of it was a show. And so I never introduced him to anybody that didn't think he was a classic gentleman.

LYDEN: Can you tell me a story about a particular moment in which that gentlemanliness really shown through?

Mr. BRESLIN: I don't know. There's so many of them. Once, my friend Joe Quaretrio went to the drug store on Queens Boulevard and we went out the summer fair, I don't know, and I told him, come on, we'll have a drink there. And Mailer was there and he met him and first he said, how you do, Joe Quaretrio, I said. He stopped and he said that means happy death.

LYDEN: Aha.

Mr. BRESLIN: And Quaretrio looked at him. He's the only one he ever meant that knew what his last name meant. Just a little touch; we were just laughing, so…

LYDEN: We wish the same for Mr. Mailer and, I think, for all of us. That would be a good ending.

Mr. BRESLIN: Yes. Yes. Yes. The ending is on the library shelves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRESLIN: And that means it's endless.

LYDEN: Just one last thought. During my interview with Norman Mailer, the famous braggadocio late Norman Mailer, he stopped the interview. I couldn't see him. We were in two separate studios. Hey, he said. Are we alone? Well, I said, kind of. You can tell me whatever you want. He said, how do I sound? Great, I said. Oh, good, he said. I forgot my upper plate this morning and I wasn't sure. Then there was a pause. You can dine out on that, he said, but not too many times.

There's lots more about Norman Mailer on our Web site, npr.org, including the story of his desire to steal Marilyn Monroe from Arthur Miller. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.