Norman Mailer has been called brash, bawdy, controversial and a relentless philanderer. But the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author also was an intellectual, polite and a devoted family man.
And that is the essence of a new authorized biography of the novelist, journalist and filmmaker by one who knew him well, former Wilkes University administrator and English professor J. Michael Lennon.
Lennon’s book, “Norman Mailer: A Double Life,” was released Oct. 15, and Lennon, a co-founder of Wilkes’ graduate creative writing program, has been on a book tour to promote his latest work. He spoke Wednesday by telephone from Florida and was heading to Texas next. He’ll be back in Wilkes-Barre on Nov. 5 to read from his Mailer biography, beginning at 7 p.m. in the ballroom of the Henry Student Center at Wilkes University.
Lennon, who had known the late author since 1972, spent three years researching and four years writing the book. He spoke with Mailer, his family members, friends and other writers and pored through copious volumes of writing by and about Mailer, as well as nearly 48,000 letters Mailer wrote.
As the book title implies, Mailer was a man of contrasts. Lennon knew him as a polite, courtly man who was curious about others.
“He was like that for real,” Lennon said. “He would say good morning; he’d offer me a cup of coffee. He was very courtly, always made sure you were comfortable.”
Lennon also said Mailer, who was married six times, was a tremendous flirt and had many amorous affairs. His extramarital activities nearly wrecked his last marriage, to Norris Church Mailer, but Mailer basically got down on one knee and begged his wife to give him another chance, Lennon said.
“He was a very impetuous person,” Lennon said. “He was fiery; he loved to debate. He could be a quiet, family man, yet he was a philanderer. He believed all human beings had two people inside of them … two separate people. He saw it in Marilyn Monroe; he saw it in Muhammad Ali; he saw it in Jesus.”
Lennon first met Mailer in 1972 in Illinois, where Lennon was teaching at the time. Lennon had written to the author in late 1971 after Mailer got into a confrontation with Gore Vidal on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Lennon wrote to voice his support and to share some of his ideas about Mailer’s nonfiction books, which were groundbreaking as part of the New Journalism, a genre that combines fictional storytelling with reporting and in which the writer is immersed into the story.
“He found a new way to write about politics,” Lennon said. “You could be a character on the stage of the story.”
Mailer wrote back to Lennon in early 1972.
“He wrote me a long letter,” Lennon recalled. “I sent some ideas about the development of some of his writing. He responded, and we exchanged a few letters.”
Lennon, who was teaching a Norman Mailer seminar at the time, took some students to see Mailer at another university campus, where Mailer was reading from his “St. George and the Godfather,” about the 1972 presidential campaign. He introduced himself to Mailer, and they went to a local bar, where they talked late into the night. In the summers that followed, Lennon and his family visited Mailer in Maine or Provincetown, Mass. Lennon began editing books Mailer wrote or books about Mailer. After Mailer read Lennon’s book “Critical Essays on Norman Mailer” in 1986, Mailer asked him to serve as one of his literary executors.
Lennon said that of Mailer’s 44 books, Mailer was most proud of “The Armies of the Night” and “The Executioner’s Song,” for which he won his Pulitzers, and “Harlot’s Ghost,” which is about the CIA. Mailer’s first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” was a big bestseller, one of 11 bestsellers he would have.
When Lennon and Bonnie Culver began talking about starting the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes, they agreed they needed to start it with a big conference.
“I called Norman,” Lennon said. “I had just finished editing ‘The Spooky Art,’ (Mailer’s book about writing); he came down. He had been at Wilkes a couple of times before.”
Mailer talked to a class about some of the dangers and opportunities of writing.
“We asked if he would chair the (writing program’s) advisory board.”
Lennon said he started the biography in 2006 and everyone was cooperative, though some of his children were hesitant, at first. But he taped the interviews, and Lennon’s wife, Donna Pedro Lennon, transcribed them and sent the transcripts for their perusal. He said he probably did about 150 interviews, in all.
Lennon came to Wilkes in 1991 as vice president for academic affairs, then in 2000 began teaching in the English Department. He retired from full-time teaching in 2005. Now a resident of Westport, Mass., he comes back to Wilkes for eight days in January and June for the writing program, then teaches online the rest of the year.
Mailer died in 2007 at the age of 84, and Lennon, who had gotten very close to him, still misses him. He also misses working on the biography after spending so many years on it.
“I miss it now that it’s done,” he said. “Writing the last chapter was hard. It was like seeing Norman die all over again.”