Norman Mailer . . .Wonder Boy Novelist
Norman Mailer is five feet, eight and one half inches tall, weighs 140 pounds, is twenty-five years old and has $40,000. He ran up this bank account writing a book called “The Naked and the Dead” which is expected to sell over 100,000 copies this year, and nobody knows how many more in the years to come. The book, Mr. Mailer’s first, is a big, tough, cynical, startling novel about the war which has been acclaimed, not only as a tremendous first novel and a startling product for a twenty-five-year old, but as one of the best books to come out of World War II — comparable to Dos Passos’, Hemingway’s and Remarque’s World War I novels.
Of his sudden success, small, dark, earnest Norman Mailer who was born in Brooklyn, has been a soda jerk, a Harvard student, and a soldier, says with some bewilderment, “It gives you a fantastic security. If I keep on living in the manner to which I’ve been accustomed, the money would probably last for fifteen or twenty years. If I live according to my present scale, it would last a day and a half.” Besides the book rights, Mr. Mailer will also profit from an adaptation which Lillian Hellman (distinguished author of such titans of the theatre as “The Children’s Hour,” “The Little Foxes,” “Watch On the Rhine,” “Another Part of the Forest”) is preparing for the stage. It is scheduled to appear in February.
It was Miss Hellman’s interest in his book that brought Mailer and his twenty-six-year-old wife, Bea, home from Paris a few days ago. Norman was studying on the GI bill and writing a new novel. Working at what he calls “a dirty gray heat,” Mailer loved Paris but found it a difficult place to work. “It was like a Chekhov comedy,” he says, “Everyone stood around doing nothing and said ‘Gee! I have to do some work this afternoon!’ ”
Although criticisms and reviews affect Mailer deeply, reviewers in the flesh fail to faze him. At a cocktail party given him by his publishers, to which the New York press was invited, Mailer arrived coatless and tieless, wearing a faded tan sports shirt, baggy pants, and scuffed shoes. He looked as if he had just run over from a stickball game on Avenue A. But speaking in educated tones he quickly took up Lewis Gannett of the Herald Tribune for a discrepancy in the critic’s review. He was sick, he said, over the piece written by Robert Ruark about the book. The novel carries a strong anti-war message which the author believes should be obvious to any intelligent reader but Ruark wrote that after reading “The Naked and the Dead” all the young men of draft age could march happily into the Army. “My first reaction,” Mailer said, “was that I never wanted to write again, it seemed so futile, so silly. I might as well spend my time doodling.”
Mailer graduated from Harvard, class of ’43. He majored in engineering science because “if you wanted to write and you majored in English lit, you majored in English lit instead of writing.”
If he had a couple of hundred thousand dollars instead of forty thousand, Mailer might like to try making his own movie. On the other hand, he isn’t particularly interested in selling his first book to the movies, because that would just bring him more money and he doesn’t know how to spend what he’s got. He thinks he and Bea will just take a place up in New England where they can write and ski. “Her idea is to go out and buy a new dress. Me? Damned, if I know. I might go and buy a camera.” But it’s much more apt to be a typewriter. —Horace Sutton