Life lessons from a literary lion

If a man has been his mother’s undisputed darling he

retains throughout his life the triumphant feeling, the

confidence in success, which not seldom brings actual

success along with it.


A Childhood Recollection


Norman Mailer has been dead since 2008 but his life was an object lesson for all men, even those who have never read a word of his work.

As the above quotation indicates, Norman Mailer, born in 1923, was a precocious child who became his mother’s darling. Not only that, he had a coterie of aunts who stroked his ego. That environment, combined with his 165 I.Q. and his academic record at Boys’ High School in Brooklyn, resulted in admission to Harvard at age 16.

Mailer’s high school sex life was normal, in other words, lots of talk and limited experience. His first intercourse was with a prostitute and his first serious relationship occurred in college, resulting in his first marriage. So in the early going, his sex life was pretty much in keeping with the men of his generation.

Mailer’s service in the Philippines during World War II resulted in his first novel,  The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948 when he was just 25. This best-seller (62 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list) vaulted him to literary prominence at a time when other writers are just starting to accumulate rejection slips. Unlike aspiring writers who must come to grips with earning a living while writing, Mailer enjoyed a continuous income stream from his literary efforts. After finishing college, the only non-literary job he ever had was as a soldier.

Though Mailer brought a lot to the table and had been groomed for success, he must have been astonished at how quickly and easily it came to him. Absent this early success, his sex life likely would have been much less complicated.

Mailer was married six times (producing nine children), had various mistresses (some for decades) and assorted affairs and one-night stands. He seems to have moved almost seamlessly from woman to woman, never spending any time on his own. Oftentimes, he would take his new woman to bed as soon as he met her! One suspects that in cultures where polygamy is permitted, he would have been an ardent practitioner, and if he came of age today, he would be temperamentally unfit to be a MGTOW.

As a consequence of his sex life, his financial needs were enormous. His earnings were ample but never enough to keep up with the needs of his women and his brood.

One would think that such a solitary pursuit as writing would be better accomplished without so much domestic turmoil. His youthful experience of having his ego stroked by women might have hooked him for life. Enjoying success in his mid-20s only fueled the fire, as more and more women were drawn to his youthful celebrity status. Mailer was certainly not attracting women with his physical appearance, as he was short and stocky (increasingly so as he got older) with big ears.

In fact, the female response to Mailer’s alpha male status is highly instructive. The amoral nature of hypergamy was never more in evidence. Despite the number of times he had been married, his reputation as a womanizer, and the fact that he had stabbed (and almost murdered) his second wife, women continued to flock to him.  He was dead set against birth control, but women didn’t find that a deal-killer. In fact, they might have relished the idea of bearing the great man’s children. When an alpha male is involved, any moral or feminist considerations go out the window.

Consider what Mailer could offer a woman. He was not only a famous writer, he was also a well-known personality on the talk show circuit. He was a leading light in New York political and intellectual circles. Any woman who accompanied him would not only bask in reflected glory but would surely lead a more interesting life.

Mailer could be derided as a pathetic example of a man obsessed with female validation. But in his heyday, feminists (of the second wave) considered him public enemy number one. His macho lifestyle, well-documented in the media, was anathema to feminist sensibilities. His 1964 novel, An American Dream, was particularly offensive, as it involved a man who murdered his wife and anally raped her maid.

In June 1970, Mailer appeared with Orson Welles on The Mike Douglas Show, a popular syndicated talk show in the 1960s and 1970s. The topic turned to women, and Mailer thought Welles was overplaying the role of white knight (despite the fact that Welles was once quoted as saying, “There are three intolerable things in life – cold coffee, lukewarm champagne, and overexcited women”).

Mailer responded by asserting “Women are sloppy beasts that should be kept in cages.” When responding to the charge that he hated women, he responded, “No, I said they should be kept in cages. We respect the lions in the zoo, but we want them kept in cages, don’t we?”

Well, then as now, such remarks invite no end of rejoinders. This was at a time when feminist authors such as Kate Millett (Sexual Politics) and Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) were taking up residence in the zeitgeist.  In particular, Millett’s book had zeroed in on Mailer and other writers who supposedly promoted male dominance.

There was some doubt as to whether Mailer was joking or just stirring the pot.  Either way, his status as public enemy number one among the women’s libbers was assured.

On March 31, 1971, Mailer was the “moderator” at a panel discussion on women’s liberation at Town Hall in New York. Mailer, known for his confrontational attitude, reflected in his numerous fistfights, drunken brawls, and head-butting incidents, was not one to back down when his antagonists were female. He debated feminists without apologies and without kid gloves. The resulting circus was a big media event in New York.

Mailer was as much a publicity hound as a pussy hound, so no matter how the evening went, he couldn’t help but profit from it. The March 1971 issue of Harper’s magazine had devoted an entire issue to his lengthy essay, The Prisoner of Sex, which was later published as a stand-alone book. So the evening couldn’t help but promote his work, which makes for interesting reading even after 44 years. As Mailer observes, “No thought was so painful as the idea that sex had meaning: for give meaning to sex and one was the prisoner of sex.”

In his previous thoughts on sex, he seemed to acknowledge hypergamy and evolutionary psychology when he decreed, “The prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species.” In fact, Mailer had an almost biblical aversion to masturbation, and did not consider it an adequate substitute for sex.

In writing The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer found himself in a curious situation: One of the nation’s best known subversives, he was taking on a movement that had the potential to overthrow western civilization. While he appeared to have personally benefited from the sexual revolution, he does not wholeheartedly endorse it. In some ways, his thoughts could almost be those of Phyllis Schlafly:

It was the measure of the liberal technologist and the Left Totalitarian that they exhibited the social lust to make units of people.

Sex is the search for pleasure by any pit or hole, and love is your coffin when a family is founded on it.

The end game of the absurd is coitus-free conception monitored by the state.

Something of a Luddite in matters of sex, he did not like to see technology intrude on intimacy and reproduction. In this respect, he would not be like the numerous MGTOWs who look forward to a world of men hiring women for surrogate mothers and robots for sex.

Mailer had as much contempt for Planned Parenthood as any contemporary Republican legislator. As noted above, he did not believe in birth control, but his concerns were more cosmic than earthly: “When you make love, whatever is good in you or bad in you, goes out into someone else. I mean this literally.”

In more pithy language, he asserts, “Good fucks make good babies.” Going back to his statement about women’s need to “conceive children who will improve the species,” we can only conclude that good fucks speed up human evolution. Better living through fucking!

In so many words, Mailer pretty much endorses a yin-yang view of the universe. This split between active and passive cosmic principles is reflected in his observation that the human male must work to be a man, but the human female merely has to agree to be a woman. Not too far from Warren Farrell’s more recent observation that men are human doings and women are human beings.

So the life and work of Norman Mailer offer life lessons for all men. Maybe your mother never lavished you with praise, maybe you’re not a Harvard man with a genius-level I.Q., maybe you’re not world-famous, maybe you haven’t the right stuff to be an alpha male, maybe you’re not a babe magnet.

Maybe you should count your blessings.

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