W henever Norman Mailer puts out a new book—his latest, The Castle in the Forest, about Hitler, comes out next week—eager profilists find it compulsory to mention that the famous pugilist has “mellowed.” It’s hard to dispute, given his two canes and near blindness, but if the reviews for Castle are bad (and the buzz ain’t good), don’t be surprised if the old lion roars yet again. After all, it was only last month in Esquire that he took on one longtime foe, Times critic Michiko Kakutani, saying, “What put the hair up her immortal Japanese ass is beyond me.” Below, a necessarily much-abbreviated dossier, Mailer’s All-Time Enemies List.
(Photo: Bernard Gofryd/Getty Images) William Styron Crime: Allegedly bad-mouthing Mailer’s wife Adele. Action taken: Wrote a critical piece in Esquire and a letter to Styron in 1958 that said, “I will invite you to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.” Blowback: Styron sniped at him in print for 25 years, and one of his villainous characters bore a certain resemblance to Mailer. They finally reconciled in 1985.
(Photo: Fred R. Congrad/New York Times Co./Getty Images) Truman Capote Crime: Saying of Mailer, “He has no talent. None, none, none!” Action taken: Mailer sat on him. Blowback: In 1980, Capote told an interviewer that while Mailer called In Cold Blood a “failure of the imagination … now I see that the only prizes Norman wins are for that very same kind of writing. I’m glad I was of some small service to him.”
Adele Morales Mailer Crime: Calling her husband a “faggot” when he was drunk and stoned at 4 a.m. at the tail end of a party to launch his mayoral campaign. Action taken: Stabbed her twice with a penknife, nearly killing her. Blowback: Though she refused to testify against him, he did spend seventeen days in Bellevue’s psych ward. They finally divorced two years later. She wrote a book about it in 1997.
McGeorge Bundy Crime: Being Lyndon Johnson’s national-security adviser during the Vietnam War. Action taken: At Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966, he invited the official to step outside to settle their foreign-policy differences in a street fight. Blowback: Not much, after Norman Podhoretz and Lillian Hellman calmed them down.
Peter Manso Crime: Writing a biography of Mailer in 1985 that, despite being authorized, was not to Mailer’s liking. Action taken: Cut off relations when the bio was published and thereafter referred to him as a confirmed enemy. Blowback: In a 2002 book about Provincetown, Manso wrote—among many unflattering things—that Mailer had a doctor’s wife procure psychedelic drugs for him. Mailer fired off a letter to a local paper asserting that “P. D. Manso is looking for gold in the desert of his arid inner life, where lies and distortion are the only cactus juice to keep him going.”
Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, et al. Crime: Being feminists—and in the case of Millett, coining the phrase “male chauvinist pig” to describe him. Action taken: Attacked them all in a retrograde essay titled “The Prisoner of Sex” and in a vicious debate at Town Hall with Greer and other women, immortalized in the 1971 D. A. Pennebaker documentary Town Bloody Hall. Blowback: At Town Hall, Mailer was practically booed off the stage (with help from audience members Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag). Greer denounced the “masculine artist in our society” as a “killer,” but only after saying she wanted to sleep with Mailer. The two went for drinks afterward, but nothing reportedly came of it.
(Photo: Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images) Gore Vidal Crime: Comparing “The Prisoner of Sex” to “three days of menstrual flow” and Mailer to Charles Manson. Action taken: Head-butting him in the green room of The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, then telling him, on-air, that he ruined Kerouac by sleeping with him. Six years later, he threw a drink at Vidal—and punched him—at a Lally Weymouth soirée. Blowback: Still on the floor, Vidal said, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.” Days later, Vidal went on Cavett’s show to assert that Mailer had—literally—stabbed his second wife in the back. They, too, reconciled in 1985.
Michiko Kakutani Crime: Reviewing his books negatively. Action taken: In 2005, he told Rolling Stone, “Kakutani is a one-woman kamikaze. She disdains white male authors, and I’m her number-one favorite target … But the Times editors can’t fire her. They’re terrified of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, she’s a threefer … Asiatic, feminist, and ah, what’s the third? Well … let’s just call her a twofer … She is a token. And deep down, she probably knows it.” Blowback: Stay tuned. Someone at the Times has to review The Castle in the Forest, and we can be reasonably certain critics won’t like it. Kakutani hasn’t recused herself, and the takedown is her stock-in-trade.