“It was the event of his lifetime, and yet it had been a dull event. The language which now would sing of this extraordinary vault promised to be as flat as an unstrung harp.” In such terms did Norman Mailer, 50 years ago, frame the first landing of men on the moon. And in such terms did he also frame himself, the shaky, earthbound Homer who had to write about it. Mailer was in a funk. Low-grade depression had unstrung his harp. His marriage was going down the tubes; his just-concluded campaign for mayor of New York City (he came in fourth in a five-man race) had left him with “a huge boredom about himself”; he felt fat. Now Life magazine had given him a heavyweight assignment: Go to Houston and then Cape Kennedy to cover the Apollo 11 mission. Mailer on the moonshot: loads of words, loads of money. A big deal for Life magazine. And for Mailer? Grim opportunism. Out of tune, bardically bereft, plucking (as it were) flaccid strands of sheep’s gut, he was ripe for anticlimax. But he needed the cash.
And so the character he devised, stepping into this gig, was a new one. No longer “Norman Mailer,” the raving, ballooning subjectivity at the center of 1968’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Armies of the Night, he was now “Aquarius” (his astrological sign): gentle Water Bearer, “detached this season from the imperial demands of his ego.” He would not swagger; he would not orate. He would not drizzle bourbon onto the flames of self. He would move about mildly, discreetly, in the pomp of his modesty, sympathies softened by melancholy, sniffing out the story and doing his homework.