“Paranoia is the most useful or the most destructive faculty of the human spirit. One never knows when it’s devoted to you or your destruction.” — Norman Mailer
While most of us are still stumbling about in the euphoric dreck of the Senate Watergate hearings, I think it’s time we admit that Norman Mailer was right. As usual.
Some of you may remember the rather elegant bash at the Four Seasons restaurant last February 5 in celebration of Norman’s 50th birthday (which was January 31, but never mind). Many were drawn to the event by the enticement that Mailer would make “an announcement of national importance (major).” While Norman was up in Massachusetts writing his biography of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Campbell and I made the arrangements. Tickets were $50 per couple, and, outrageously, we made the press pay.
The stage set, the booze swilling, the crowd swelling, midnight approaching … Mailer blew it. In the grand and glorious manner. Or as he put it in the New York Times Book Review, the speech “was a disgrace. It had neither wit nor life — it was perhaps the worst speech on a real occasion that the orator had ever made.”
Nevertheless, the idea had been planted, however badly. Mailer said he wanted to establish something he called “the Fifth Estate,” essentially an organization to investigate whether the United States was slipping into totalitarianism through a series of carefully manipulated conspiracies. He said it was the best political idea he ever had.
The press, many of them stunned at having paid hard cash to attend the party, went for the jugular. After all, wasn’t Mailer one of the best targets around? And hadn’t he asked for it? Hadn’t he literally set himself up for a wipe-out?
Pete Hamill reported, somewhat sadly, that “the best writer in America was reduced to the role of a nightclub comic trying to squelch drunks.” In Saturday Review, Patricia Bosworth observed: “When he tried to elaborate on the proposition that our nation is veering toward totalitarianism, nobody was listening.” Shirley MacLaine was quoted in Women’s Wear Daily: “Nobody here could make a pimple on Norman’s ass, but nobody listened to him, and the thing is, he’s right.”
John Leonard, editor of the New York Times Book Review, disagreed: “As Mailer’s ideas go, this is not a good one. It is, as proposed, just another vigilante group.”
Tim Ferris of Rolling Stone picked up a bitter remark: “The guy’s a hell of a writer, but he’s just getting so grotesque, so silly. What a clumsy, awkward, cumbersome man he has become.”
Then, of course, there were those panic-stricken by the announcement, like Jack Lemmon, famous liberal movie star. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he stammered. “I don’t even know him!” And we heard shrill notes from a viper or two. Sally Quinn wrote her standard florid feature for the Washington Post (“The Rise and Fall of the Fifth Estate,” February 7), causing Mailer to dub her “Poison Quinn.” In his forthcoming book on Marilyn Monroe, Mailer characterizes this kind of writing as having “fewer facts than factoids (to join the hungry ranks of those who coin the word), that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper …” And Daphne Davis of Women’s Wear Daily, quoted in Newsweek by Linda Francke, denounced the whole affair as “a bummer — what can you say about a man whose time has gone?” (For Ms. Davis’s edification, it might be pointed out that Mr. Mailer this year, 25 years after “The Naked and the Dead” will publish his 22nd and 23rd books, not to mention the several volumes already published evaluating his life’s work. The first printing of “Marilyn,” by the way, is 300,000 copies. Not bad for a writer whose time has gone.)
Rosenbaum covered Mailer’s press conference, held the next afternoon (February 6) at the Hotel Algonquin. He played it fair and straight, noting Mailer’s combativeness (“I have the misfortune of being a talented writer who is in the position of being written about by less talented people”), and concluded that “the skeptics among the reporters remained unconvinced.”
Sarris, who said he wouldn’t have missed the party for the world, claimed that “Aquarius” was upstaged that evening by Bernardo Bertolucci (not true, save in the eyes of a film critic), then launched into a medium silly diversion about “Last Tango in Paris” and “Deep Throat,” in the process dropping a few asides about Mailer’s “ballsy literary swagger” and his “piddling penis joke.”
But it was Truscott who, in my view, went into a purple prose funk over the party. Mailer himself said of the article that “on balance, it was fair.” Fairness is not what threw me, the prose did. Listen to this: “At its center (a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort) was sure to be Norman Mailer, in the flesh, feet wide planted, drink in hand, finger jabbing chests or tits or air, sterling silver Brillo pad hair bobbing up and down tot he rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing him, making him quiet and still.”
Truscott later admitted this stuff was “blithering,” but excused himself thusly: “It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him.” That’s damn near a perfect example of what we might call the simultaneous reversible pat-on-the-back and kick-in-the-ass. A very neat trick, indeed. But one must note, like any good checker for the New Yorker, that the soap in Brillo pads is red; S.O.S. has the blue, and would have been the more appropriate metaphor, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.
And, sure enough, the Truscott “West Point trauma” surfaced as he wrote of the “dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche” and “the almost sexual excitement, about command and control.” The part I liked best, though, was how his grandmother had likened Mailer to General Patton. That was an interesting thought — a left conservative General Patton. You could go somewhere with that.
Before I report some afterthoughts of Watergate hindsight, and tell you how Norman sees all of this, it might be well to explain what he was trying to say that night, and in fact did say the next day at his press conference, and subsequently in the New York Times.
The time has come, Mailer wrote, “for some of us to think of founding a high, serious, and privately funded Committee of Inquiry, stocked with the best efforts of literary scholars, investigators, and journalists. It would be an inquiry into a fundamental question of government: is our history developing into a string of connected conspiracies, or is there less ground finally for our national paranoia than any have supposed?” This country, he said, “may be sliding toward a kind of totalitarianism of the most advanced, subtle, and civilized sort … are we in a society which encourages us to be paranoid, or is our paranoia merely our impotent reaction to a set of 20th century processes which are entirely beyond us?”
After the February 6 press conference (the day after the Senate passed a resolution creating the Watergate Committee, and the day John Dean says a strategy meeting was held by the Watergate Cover-up Crew), several of us, forming something of an ad hoc steering committee, retired to a suite in the Algonquin and talked about the Fifth Estate — what it should and should not be, how it might be formed and funded, what project or projects it might investigate. Nothing much was accomplished, but we decided to meet again on February 21.
The next meeting was more formal and businesslike (booze at the first, coffee at the second). After about two hours, we decided that, because we lacked time, staff, and money, the one project we should undertake immediately was, you guessed it, Watergate. We all felt Watergate had the smell of a filthy scandal that well might reach the highest levels of government.
Without going into what we accomplished, which was little more than clearing our throats and calling friends in Washington to assist the investigation, we all know what happened next, less than a month later.
Not only was Mailer right, he was prophetic. But, he was not alone. As Jimmy Breslin said the other day, “He was right and everybody laughed, and the asshole dilettantes who laughed didn’t know what they were talking about, as usual. The only two guys who should have been at the party were Woodward and Bernstein, but they couldn’t come because they were too busy.”
During John Dean Week, I called several reporters and some of the partygoers to get their feelings, in retrospect, about Mailer’s announcement. Following is a sampling:
John Leonard (New York Times Book Review Editor): “I’m still against any kind of Democratic Secret Police … but I do wish journalists had more time for extensive investigative journalism … I just wish (Mailer) would write a novel.”
Linda Francke (Newsweek): “I quite agree, he was ahead of his time, again … even as I wrote about it, I was a little nervous to dismiss it, and as soon as it broke I thought, shit, Mailer was right after all … then I was worried that Mailer might somehow be implicated … it followed so suddenly that I thought he might have been making notes on a new book and got caught with the surgical gloves on.”
Henry Grunwald (Managing Editor, Time): “I think it’s bad to start a conspiracy on the left, just as we had on the right with McCarthy and the others … but I felt we may have been remiss and wanted to go back to review the press conference and see what Mr. Mailer had to say.”
George Plimpton: “Well, you don’t fight an espionage agency with another espionage agency … I was afraid they’d have the first meeting at my house, with drawings by Larry Rivers and Abbie Hoffman hopping around, that sort of thing … Watergates makes me think that Secretariat is the only uncorrupted thing left.”
Warren Hoge (City Editor, the New York Post): “That night, you felt, yawn, another left embarrassment, but now I feel like Mel Laird, if there’s any more, I don’t want to know it … what can you be paranoid about anymore?”
Jack Newfield: “They’re a total bunch of paranoids, and incompetent — they had Joe Namath with the Giants.”
Tim Ferris (Rolling Stone): “I’ve been obsessed by the hearings … Hunter Thompson called from Colorado yesterday, said he’s been watching day and night, he has no other life … the only fault I found (with Mailer’s idea) was that it didn’t have muscle or money, and an idea like that depends entirely on substance … but all the oranges did come up on Mailer’s side, didn’t they?”
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “The whole thing was about 10 years too late … give Norman my condolences for failing to make the ‘political enemies’ list.”
Patricia Bosworth (Saturday Review): “When Watergate broke, I thought, Jesus Christ, it’s prophetic time!”
Pete Hamill: “I still think (the Fifth Estate) would become just another bureaucracy. Remember, it was two police reporters, supported by a courageous publisher (Kay Graham) and editor (Ben Bradlee), who broke this case. You always have to go back to the ball-busting, lonely reporter on the beat, digging and probing … I hope they take those bastards (the Watergaters) and lock every one of them up, and they can dust off Alger Hiss’s old cell for Chuck Colson, then we’ll have the Berrigan brothers say a farewell mass for the whole rotten bunch.”
Dotson Rader: “The point I knew Mailer was on to something was when he said a nation can tolerate any crime except the theft of its history, and that’s what was going on, that was the great crime … suddenly, I felt he saw things differently … but after the party there was a general feeling around New York that Norman Mailer was nuts, and getting nuttier, poor old Norman, he shouldn’t drink so much … the journalists I talked to put Mailer down, some of them I viciously, and most of them said Watergate was nothing, it would blow away.”
For most of his professional life, Mailer has had an adversary relationship with the press, and I guess that’s as it should be. It doesn’t bother him, it more stimulates and amuses him. About a year and a half ago, I did an interview with Norman which was bought by Penthouse but, for reasons unknown, never published. One question and answer we eventually cut out, because it didn’t fit into the final theme of the interview has always fascinated me, and I think it may apply here.
Interviewer: “Stephen Rojack (‘An American Dream’) says: ‘God’s engaged in a war with the Devil, and God may lose.’ Throughout your work is the theme of the struggle between God and the Devil, and you once said, ‘I have some obsession with how God exists. Is He an essential god or an existential god; is he all-powerful or is He, too, an embattled existential creature who may succeed or fail in His visions?’ This remains a pervasive theme in our work.”
Mailer: “It may even go all the way back to ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ sometimes I think it does, at that point pretty much unbeknownst to the young author. Critics for years felt I was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who could eat a sandwich (rye bread) in a delicatessen with no more pain than any of them, with as much gusto, and I might even give the same look of annoyance to the waiter if he frailed to bring the second helping of pickles. I’ve sat around and had love fests with these critics over pastrami — Rahv, Podhoretz, all of them. It’s a most real part of myself. It’s not everybody that can say they come from Brooklyn. There are areas of the world that are blessed a little, and areas that are cursed a little. The Brooklyn I knew in my childhood was blessed, just a bit, it wasn’t a bad place. Most of the people I grew up with in that middle-class environment have gone on to various kinds of professional and commercial and technological jobs that allow not that much romance and certainly not that much religious feeling in their life. And they know that I’m one of them. They’re comfortable with me, and I’m comfortable with them — not altogether comfortable, because I think they’re people who insisted on being a little emptier, sillier, and smaller than they had to be. They really think it’s some kind of outrageous put-on I’m engaging in when I talk about God and the Devil. You know, ‘What’s old Normie talking about God and the Devil for? Fun’s fun, but pass the pickles!'”
As with his friends and the critics, so with the press. The adversary relationship he continues to nourish. As others will not forgive him his concern “with the romantic and mysterious all” (as Norman puts it), so the press attacks him for his conspiratorial view of American history.
But Norman maintains his perspective. I talked with him on June 30 as he was passing through New York after having spent the week in Washington at the Watergate hearings.
“I wasn’t too upset,” he said about the press coverage last February. “Listen, I was so down on myself that night that they could have said anything. I knew the height of the hurdle, and I missed. I gave them a free ride.”
I reminded him that he had been much more coherent at the press conference, but nobody seemed to be listening.
“I was annoyed, not surprised,” he said. “Whether you’re good or bad, that’s the place to shine. But you can talk at your best for an hour, and they’ll wait for the one line that will damage you. I went on at some length, and thought I was even eloquent at one point, but look at what happened.”
What about the future of the Fifth Estate?
“From the beginning, I knew the Fifth Estate would never succeed if it was going to be a big balloon I had to inflate with a bicycle pump. It just wouldn’t work. But I still think there’s a function for it, when Watergate is over, when we’ve digested it. Look at what Woodward and Bernstein accomplished. A continuing investigation can break a powerful governmental institution, with extraordinary results. There’s a function for the Fifth Estate, but we’ll have to wait, now.”
Mailer hasn’t decided what he may or may not write about Watergate. “Sitting through it was an ordeal. In person, the hearings were dull, boring. I haven’t made up my mind what I want to do about them. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know how I feel yet.”
When I first thought about writing this piece, I kept searching through Mailer’s writing for something that would most appropriately apply to Watergate. Then I found it, that nerve-shattering epigraph in “The Deer Park,” taken from Mouffle D’Angerville’s “Vie Privee de Louis XV”:
“… the Deer Park, that gorge of innocence and virtue in which were engulfed so many victims who when they returned to society brought with them depravity, debauchery, and all the vices they naturally acquired from the infamous officials of such a place. Apart from the evil which this dreadful place did to the morals of the people, it is horrible to calculate the immense sums of money it cost the state… To this must be added the gratuities presented to those who were not successful in arousing the jaded passions of the sultan but had nonetheless to be paid for their submissions, for their discretion, and still more for their being eventually despised.”
Caesar may be alive and well, biding his time. We have been warned. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 8, 2020