San Diego Literary Hub Hosted Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer died on Saturday morning at the age of 84. He has been on my mind recently, and just 6 days ago
I posted a video of him from the
Charlie Rose show. I've been following the coverage of his death throughout the weekend and the commentary has been all over the place, referring to him as a great man of letters, combative, volatile, controversial, difficult, a brilliant critic, and an egomaniac. My favorite description comes from Charles McGrath in
The New York Times :
At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women's liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing.
Now that's a life.
I suspected Mailer had made an appearance at D.G. Wills in La Jolla at some point -- only because I know Dennis Wills, the owner, to have impeccable taste in choosing writers and tireless in his pursuit of the best of them. I emailed Dennis and, sure enough, Mailer was there in 1995. I asked Dennis to share his memories of Norman Mailer - here is our email exchange...
Norman Mailer at D.G.Wills in La Jolla
What was the occasion for Mailer's appearance at D.G. Wills?
I cannot remember whether he appeared here just before or after a Los Angeles or San Francisco appearance, the usual sequence for many authors coming to this part of the country. I did write him a letter, and so did my good friend, colleague and Mailer expert Ted Burke. This is before I had a computer. One day Mailer's incomparable assistant, the late Judith McNally who died a few years ago, telephoned the bookstore. I had offered Mailer a thousand dollars honorarium and told him we could, say, charge admission to help defray our costs. Judith related to us that Mr. Mailer would waive the fee if we would waive the admission charge. Apparently Mr. Mailer was delighted with our letters; his inscription to me in "Oswald's Tale" reads "To Dennis Wills for his fabulous letter. Salutations, Norman Mailer, May '95." So it was May l995 when he was here.
I've been to readings at your store where the audience spills out onto the sidewalk and street - was it that kind of night?
Mr. Mailer and his charming gracious wife, Norris Church, arrived in a black limo. I put them up at La Valencia Hotel. There were perhaps 350 people at the event, including two Nobel Laureates, Francis Crick and Kary Mullis, and Jonas Salk in attendance. We had our big sound system set up outside so that you could hear him from across the street. Before the event, Mailer and I went into the back room to go over last minute details: for example, no flash bulbs while he was speaking as he had a detached retina; he didn't mind photos during the signing phase. He had somewhat of a sore throat that night. Thus we had a pot of herbal tea out front ready for him, and a bar set up in back with three or four different kinds of whiskey. When I asked him if he wanted some whisky in his tea, he grabbed a coffee cup and said he would have a little whiskey right now straight; and he continued in that manner throughout the event, didn't bother with the tea.
Do you remember any particular story Mailer told that night?
He was here to discuss "Oswald's Tale," his account of Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk, although during the question and answer phase he touched upon many topics, the deleterious effects of advertising, excessive control of some aspects of the media on society, etc. He took many questions on many topics and handled them with insight and charm.
Which work of Mailer's has impressed you most?
I've always preferred his political reporting, especially Armies of the Night, for his insightful, first person singular perspective on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in l968.
CORRECTION: Mailer's book about the 1968 Democratic National Convention was actually Miami and the Siege of Chicago . Wills likes it for the reasons stated above, but is equally as fond of Armies of the Night , which is about the 1967 March on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for the latter.