Norman Mailer Biography

Journalist, Author (1923–2007)
Author Norman Mailer used a style combining fiction and journalism to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Executioner's Song.


Author Norman Mailer was born on January 31, 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey. He studied at Harvard and served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. Mailer's first book, The Naked and the Dead, won immediate acclaim. His writing style, New Journalism, combined the imagination of fiction with qualities of reporting. His works included the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Executioner's Song. He died in 2007, at the age of 84.

Early Years

Often described as controversial, combative and egotistical, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer—his Jewish name is Nachem Malek—was born on January 31, 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey. His father, Isaac Barnett Mailer, known as Barney, was a South-African Jewish émigré, and his mother, Fanny, was a Long Branch native whose family ran a local grocery store. His sister, Barbara, was born in 1927.

When Mailer was 9 years old, he moved with his family to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. An excellent student, he was just 16 when he enrolled at Harvard University, intending to major in aeronautical engineering. By his sophomore year, however, Mailer had found his niche in literature. After graduating from Harvard in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Shortly after marrying Bea Silverman, in 1944, he was sent to the Philippines, where he saw very little combat. He finished his military career as a cook in occupied Japan. His experiences in the military gave him the inspiration he needed to write his first book, the semi-autobiographical The Naked and the Dead, while he was enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. The book instantly propelled him to fame at the tender age of 25.

Personal Life

In addition to his writing, Mailer was known for his alcohol-fueled fistfights, problems with alcohol and drugs, fascination with boxers and sometimes very public issues with the opposite sex. In 1960, after a night of drinking and partying, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife, seriously wounding her. Mailer was arrested, but his wife declined to press charges, and he was eventually released after being sent to Bellevue Hospital for observation. The marriage did not last the incident.

Mailer's attitude toward women did not sit well with the up-and-coming feminist writers of the day or the emerging crop of women's liberation movement supporters. Furthering these sentiments, in a famous 1971 debate with Germaine Greer in Manhattan, Mailer stated that he was an "enemy of birth control."

Mailer had six wives, including Carol Stevens, to whom he was married for just a few days in 1980 to give legitimacy to their daughter, Maggie. His other wives, in addition to Silverman and Morales, were Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Rentz Bentley and Norris Church. At the time of his death, he had nine children; an adopted son, Matthew, by an earlier marriage of Norris's; and 10 grandchildren.

Literary Career

After writing The Naked and the Dead, Mailer was never far from the limelight for the next six decades. He published more than 30 books, including novels, biographies and works of non-fiction, and won two the Pulitzer Prizes—for The Armies of the Night (1968), which also won the National Book Award, and The Executioner's Song (1979).

In 1955, Mailer and friends Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher founded The Village Voice newspaper, where he honed his trademark style of hip, bold and controversial writing. In 1959, he proved himself once again with Advertisements for Myself, a collection of unfinished stories, parts of novels, essays, reviews and notebook jottings. He soon won over a new, younger generation with his subsequent novels, An American Dream (1965) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). The Armies of the Night (1968) was based on the Washington peace demonstrations of October 1967, during which Mailer was jailed and fined for civil disobedience.

Mailer's 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn, sold more copies than any other of his books except The Naked and the Dead. Highly controversial, he claimed in the work that Monroe had been murdered by the FBI and CIA due to her affair with Robert Kennedy.

In 1969, Mailer ran an unsuccessfully Democratic bid for the New York City mayorship. With Jimmy Breslin as his running mate, even his three-word campaign slogan of "No More Bullshit" was unprintable in news reports and magazines. His left-conservative ideas included a ban on cars in Manhattan and the idea that the city should secede and become the 51st state. John Lindsay eventually won re-election.

Among Mailer's other works are his essay collections The Presidential Papers (1963) and Cannibals and Christians (1966); Ancient Evenings (1983), set in ancient Egypt; Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), a mystery thriller; and the 1,400-page Harlot's Ghost (1991), a novel focusing on the CIA. In 1995, he published Oswald's Tale, a portrayal of President John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Mailer's last novel, The Castle in the Forest, about Adolf Hitler's childhood, met with strong, positive reviews and landed at No. 5 on The New York Times' best-seller list. The work was published in 2007. Mailer was working on a sequel when he died later that year, on November 10 in New York City.

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