The Norman Mailer Fan Who Became Norman Mailer's Editor

J. Michael Lennon wrote to his hero in 1972 and became his pen pal, friend, and collaborator before writing the revealing new biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life.
Norman Mailer in 1982. (AP / Paul Burnett)

Author fan mail most often invites one of two results: 1) a generic note from the author (or publicist) accompanied by a bookmark or other promotional item; or, 2) no response. So it may seem unusual that when J. Michael Lennon wrote to his literary hero, Norman Mailer, a lifelong friendship and business partnership arose from the simple letter. Yet this is precisely what happened and, over the years, has kept Lennon busy writing and editing works about—and with—Mailer.

Lennon’s authorized biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, out today, may be the pinnacle of their relationship. At 947 pages, the biography takes a microscope to Mailer’s complete life, inclusive of his politics, lovers, family, and writing—which he referred to as “the spooky art.” At age 25, Mailer stepped into the national spotlight with his World War II novel The Naked and the Dead. He wrote 10 more bestsellers and won the Pulitzer Prize for The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song. He died in 2007.

J. Michael Lennon became Mailer’s authorized biographer in 2006. He is Emeritus Vice President for Academic Affairs and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, where he is also on the advisory board of the MFA program co-founded by Mailer. Lennon is the past president of the Norman Mailer Society, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. He corresponded with me via email.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Your relationship with Mailer began in 1972, when he was the subject of your doctoral thesis at University of Rhode Island. You wrote a letter to Mailer after seeing him argue with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show; Mailer wrote back. How did you introduce yourself, and how did Mailer respond to you?

I was among many people who wrote letters of support to Mailer after the disaster of the Cavett Show. I also sent him ideas about his books, especially his turn to nonfiction. He remembered what I had written to him when we met just before the 1972 elections. We had a memorable night at Ski’s Grin-and-Beer-It Bar in Macomb, Illinois. Closed it up. He invited me to visit him in the summer when I was back in New England, and my wife and I did. That started a series of summer visits. At the time, I was amazed by how approachable he was, how candid and generous.

It seems you approached Mailer first as an interested writer, a curious student. But you very soon developed a collegial relationship and, really, a friendship. Apart from the writing, what kept your relationship going? At what point did you feel like a peer and friend?

Not for a long time. I was a junior acolyte for 10 years. But over time, he saw that I was a serious student of Norman Mailer. I edited his 1982 collection, Pieces and Pontifications, and in 1986, put together a collection of essays on his work. I gave him a copy in Elaine’s restaurant in New York City that fall. He leafed through the introduction, and asked me to be one of his executors.

Did your friendship ever get in the way of your projects and, specifically, in the telling of this biography? What personal challenges or conflicts arose?

Being a friend was an advantage. Being a friend who lived in the same town—Provincetown, Massachusetts—and seeing him several times a week, as I did for several years, was a larger advantage.

I had Boswellian aspirations, and kept track of what he said at the dinner table, the poker table, and sitting on his deck overlooking Provincetown Harbor. He enjoined me to “put everything in,” not to glide over his misdeeds. He was pretty hard on himself about some of them—the stabbing of his second wife, and the Jack Abbott affair, and wanted those stories told in full.

One problem I faced was how to present myself as a minor character in the last quarter of the biography. Finally, I just described myself in the third person, just as he had done in several of his books—The Armies of the Night, most notably.

Of the many literary friendships Mailer had over the years, one was with Gay Talese who, upon reading an advanced copy of your manuscript, said:

I knew Mailer for more than a half-century; he was the most prolific and wide-ranging literary intellect of my lifetime. Thanks to Lennon’s biography, I am learning a lot that I never knew.

Is this part of Mailer’s double life? That he was ambitious in his role as a public figure, but also very much a private man?

Mailer believed that we all have two complete personalities in our psyche, and this was manifested in his own oppositions: family man-philanderer, activist-observer, leftist-conservative, rationalist-transcendentalist—the list goes on.

But I wouldn’t describe Mailer as a private man. He was always mining his experience for his books, and always seeking more. His curiosity was huge. He did keep certain early experiences secret, but not many. He said he used them as “crystals,” and shined a light through them to illumine later experiences. Most of these were from his childhood and adolescence. He called experience “the church of one’s acquired knowledge.” For him, the best experiences were unforeseen, experiences that hit you like a brick tossed over a fence.

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Lori A. May is a writer based in Michigan. Her forthcoming fifth book is titled Square Feet.

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