Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso

Whether you admire him or abhor him, it's awfully hard not to be awed by him -- Norman Mailer.  He may have been a megalomaniacal legend in his own mind, but his both brilliant and obnoxious life, if not all his novels and new journalism, will probably remain legendary for all time.

Peter Manso encyclopedically captures that life, from his childhood in Brooklyn; through Harvard; the army; the crafting and enormous sensation of The Naked and the Dead; Hollywood; politics; Marilyn Monroe; Vietnam and anti-war protests; failed marriages and spousal abuse; boxing; failed collaborations and embarrassing interviews; the out-of-nowhere success of The Executioner's Song (only to find out later that Mailer may have taken too much authorial -- and definitely, research -- credit for it!); to the desultory, poor-selling novels of the '90s (Harlot's Ghost, which I actually liked, and that Oswald disaster that was a second-rate Libra); and finally, to the bitter, cash-strapped, "Crap in the Forest"* end.

Thank goodness for Peter Manso that Mailer: His Life and Times was an oral biography, impeccably sourced and cited by family, friends, and heavyweight literary and cinematic luminaries, when Mailer, after its publication, decided, even though he'd approved the final drafts, nevertheless to launch a smear campaign against Peter Manso and the accuracy of his Mailer-biography's claims.

Never mind that Manso and Mailer had been friends for decades; that Manso and his wife even lived with Mailer and his family for parts of two years during the biography's composition, and even took on a mortgage together for the construction of a new house that would be theirs, together; that rabies-ridden-rottweiler-of-a-man, amidst graceful greyhounds -- the chronically disloyal and myopic Mailer -- still badmouthed and lied and, lied so well about his good 'ol pal Manso, that crucial sources for Manso's next biography (that he was then entrenched in) on Marlon Brando, opted out and refused to be interviewed for it.  Mailer had effectively blacklisted Manso through word-of-mouth and the press in an attempt to derail both the Brando biography and, more detestably, his career.

Manso reveals the complete drama -- and how he regained his good reputation as a truthful biographer -- in the latest edition of Mailer: His Life and Times' afterword, "Alas, Poor Norman (1985 - 2007)".

Even if you're not a Norman Mailer fan; even if you, for understandable and righteous reasons, hate the guy, I don't see how you can't love this book.  It's fascinating to hear what people like E.L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and others, thought of him.

*The real name for the novel is The Castle in the Forest.


  1. Well I, for one, have always adored Mailer, egomaniacal self-aggrandizing misogynistic bantam that he may have been. I adore his prose, the purpler (and naughtier) the better.

  2. You'd definitely love Harlot's Ghost then, assuming you've yet read it. He won an award for being so bad at writing "naughty". I loved it. But it's always been hit and miss for me with him.


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