Norman Mailer, the macho prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country's literary conscience and provocateur with such books as "The Naked and the Dead," died Saturday, his literary executor said. He was 84.
Mailer died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital, said J. Michael Lennon, who is also the author's biographer.
From his classic debut novel to such masterworks of literary journalism as "The Armies of the Night," the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner always got credit for insight, passion and originality.
Some of his works were highly praised, some panned, but none was pronounced the Great American Novel that seemed to be his life quest from the time he soared to the top as a brash 25-year-old "enfant terrible."
Mailer built and nurtured an image over the years as pugnacious, streetwise and high-living. He drank, fought, smoked pot, married six times and stabbed his second wife, almost fatally, during a drunken party.
He had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan YWHA for reciting obscene poetry, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against women's lib.
But as Newsweek reviewer Raymond Sokolov said in 1968, "in the end it is the writing that will count."
Mailer, he wrote, possessed "a superb natural style that does not crack under the pressures he puts upon it, a talent for narrative and characters with real blood streams and nervous systems, a great openness and eagerness for experience, a sense of urgency about the need to test thought and character in the crucible of a difficult era."
Norman Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923 in Long Branch, N.J. His father, Isaac, a South Africa-born accountant, and mother, Fanny, who ran a housekeeping and nursing agency, soon moved to Brooklyn — later described by Mailer as "the most secure Jewish environment in America."
Literary star at 25
Mailer completed public schools, earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard, where he decided to become a writer, and was soon drafted into the Army. Sent to the Philippines as an infantryman, he saw enough of Army life and combat to provide a basis for his first book, "The Naked and the Dead," published in 1948 while he was a post-graduate student in Paris on the G.I. Bill.
The book — noteworthy for Mailer's invention of the word "fug" as a substitute for the then-unacceptable four-letter original — was a best-seller, and Mailer returned home to find himself anointed the new Hemingway, Dos Passos and Melville.
Buoyed by instant literary celebrity, Mailer embraced the early 1950s counterculture — defining "hip" in his essay "The White Negro," allying himself with Beat Generation gurus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and writing social and political commentary for the leftist Village Voice, which he helped found. He also churned out two more novels, "Barbary Shore" (1951) and "Deer Park" (1955), neither embraced kindly by readers or critics.
While Life magazine called his next book, "An American Dream" (1965), "the big comeback of Norman Mailer," the author-journalist was chronicling major events of the day: an anti-war march on Washington, the 1968 political conventions, the Ali-Patterson fight, an Apollo moon shot.
His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, "The Armies of the Night," won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was described as the only person over 40 trusted by the flower generation.
Covering the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for Harper's magazine, Mailer was torn between keeping to a tight deadline or joining the anti-war protests that led to a violent police crackdown. "I was in a moral quandary. I didn't know if I was being scared or being professional," he later testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
In 1999, "The Armies of the Night" was listed at No. 19 on a New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.
Symbol of the '60s
Mailer's personal life was as turbulent as the times. In 1960, at a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed, in her own book, how close she had come to dying.
In 1969, Mailer ran for mayor on a "left conservative" platform. He said New York City should become the 51st state, and urged a referendum for "black ghetto dwellers" on whether they should set up their own government.
Mailer had numerous minor run-ins with the law, usually for being drunk or disorderly, but was also jailed briefly during the Pentagon protests. While directing the film "Maidstone" in 1968, the self-described "old club fighter" punched actor Lane Smith, breaking his jaw, and bit actor Rip Torn's ear in another scuffle.
Years later, he championed the work of a convict-writer named Jack Abbott — and was subjected to ridicule and criticism when Abbott, released to a halfway house, promptly stabbed a man to death.
Mailer had views on almost everything.
The '70s: "the decade in which image became preeminent because nothing deeper was going on."
Poetry: A "natural activity ... a poem comes to one," whereas prose required making "an appointment with one's mind to write a few thousand words."
Journalism: irresponsible. "You can't be too certain about what happened."
Technology: "insidious, debilitating and depressing," and nobody in politics had an answer to "its impact on our spiritual well-being."
"He had such a compendious vision of what it meant to be alive. He had serious opinions on everything there was to have an opinion on, and everything he had was so original," said friend William Kennedy, author of "Ironweed."
No friend of technology
Mailer's suspicion of technology was so deep that while most writers used typewriters or computers, he wrote with a pen, some 1,500 words a day, in what Newsweek's Sokolov called "an illegible and curving hand." When a stranger asked him on a Brooklyn street if he wrote on a computer, he replied, "No, I never learned that," then added, in a mischievous aside, "but my girl does."
In a 1971 magazine piece about the new women's liberation movement, Mailer equated the dehumanizing effect of technology with what he said was feminists' need to abolish the mystery, romance and "blind, goat-kicking lust" from sex.
Time magazine said the broadside should "earn him a permanent niche in their pantheon of male chauvinist pigs." Mailer later told an interviewer that his being called sexist was "the greatest injustice in American life."
Two years later, he wrote "Marilyn" and was accused of plagiarism by other Marilyn Monroe biographers. One, Maurice Zolotow, called it "one of the literary heists of the century." Mailer shot back, "nobody calls me a plagiarist and gets away with it," adding that if he was going to steal, it would be from Shakespeare or Melville.
"He could do anything he wanted to do — the movie business, writing, theater, politics," author Gay Talese said Saturday. "He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything. He was a courageous person, a great person, fully confident, with a great sense of optimism."
In "Advertisements for Myself" (1959), Mailer promised to write the greatest novel yet, but later conceded he had not.
Among other notable works: "Cannibals and Christians" (1966); "Why Are We in Vietnam?" (1967); and "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" (1968), an account of the two political conventions that year.
"The Executioner's Song" (1979), an epic account of the life and death of petty criminal Gary Gilmore, whom Mailer never met, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. "Ancient Evenings" (1983), a novel of ancient Egypt that took 11 years to complete, was critically panned.
"Tough Guys Don't Dance" (1984) became a 1987 film. Some critics found "Harlot's Ghost" (1991), a novel about the CIA, surprisingly sympathetic to the cold warriors, considering Mailer's left-leaning past. In 1997, he came out with "The Gospel According to the Son," a novel told from Jesus Christ's point of view. The following year, he marked his 75th birthday with the epic-length anthology "The Time of Our Time."
Mailer's wives, besides Morales, were Beatrice Silverman; Lady Jeanne Campbell; Beverly Bentley; actress Carol Stevens and painter Norris Church. He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.
Mailer lived for decades in the Brooklyn Heights townhouse with a view of New York harbor and lower Manhattan from the rooftop "crow's nest," and kept a beachside home in Provincetown, Mass., where he spent increasing time in his later years.
To Mailer, ‘fiction was everything’
Despite heart surgery, hearing loss and arthritic knees that forced him to walk with canes, Mailer retained his enthusiasm for writing and in early 2007 released "The Castle in the Forest," a novel about Hitler's early years, narrated by an underling of Satan. A book of conversations about the cosmos, "On God: An Uncommon Conversation," came out in the fall.
In 2005, Mailer received a gold medal for lifetime achievement at the National Book Awards, where he deplored what he called the "withering" of general interest in the "serious novel."
Authors like himself, he said more than once, had become anachronisms as people focused on television and young writers aspired to screenwriting or journalism.
When he was young, Mailer said, "fiction was everything. The novel, the big novel, the driving force. We all wanted to be Hemingway ... I don't think the same thing can be said anymore. I don't think my work has inspired any writer, not the way Hemingway inspired me."
"Obviously, he was a great American voice," said a tearful Joan Didion, struggling for words upon learning of Mailer's death.
Lennon said arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends would be announced next week, and a memorial service would be held in New York in the coming months.