FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: I have two letters framed in my office written to me by world famous authors. There’s a short note from Graham Greene who I contacted after I wrote my first book, Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring. I asked Greene if he would write me a letter of introduction to his former boss and friend, Kim Philby, who had defected to the Soviet Union and was one of Britian’s most notorious traitors. Greene and Philby had worked in British intelligence together. Greene politely declined but offered to read my spy book. The other letter is from William Styron who read my book, Circumstantial Evidence, and sent me a kind and thoughtful note about justice and race in the Deep South. I’d met Styron at a Virginia writer’s conference and exchanged other notes with him before his death. Oddly, none was about mental illness, even though I had an autographed copy of his book Darkness Visible. In the blog that I am reprinting today, I explain how I sought out Norman Mailer early in my career.
NORMAN MAILER, PRISONS AND ME, orginially posted April 21, 2010
I first read, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott when I was spending a year as a reporter inside a maximum security penitentiary doing research for my book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leaven worth Prison. If you are not familiar with the Beast book or Abbott’s story, here’s a brief review.
The son of an Irish-American solider and Chinese prostitute, Abbott had spent nearly all of his life in jails and prisons. In 1977, he learned that Normal Mailer was writing a book about Gary Gilmore, the first prisoner to be executed in 1977 after our nation re-started the death penalty ending its short constitutional hiatus.
Mailer’s book about Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song, won the Pulitzer Prize and helped revive his career.
Abbott had done time in Utah with Gilmore and he told Mailer that stories about Gilmore were being highly embellished. The convict and the famed author began corresponding and Mailer soon became enamored with the hardened criminal and his descriptions of prison life. Mailer not only helped Abbott find a publisher for his letters but also helped him win a parole.
What happened next is legendary in literary and prison circles. For a brief period Abbott was the toast of the New York literary world. Actress Susan Sarandon reportedly named one of her son’s after him. But only a few weeks into his freedom, Abbott got into an argument with the son of a restaurant owner about using the staff-only commode. He stabbed the man to death. He was caught and returned to prison.
Norman Mailer felt as if he had been conned by Abbott, saying in an interview that his relationship with the convict was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in’.”
When The Hot House was about to be published, my editor suggested that I write a personal letter to Mailer and ask him for a “blurb” for the book’s cover. The editor gave me Mailer’s home address and I explained in my letter how I had spent a year in prison with veteran convicts, much like Abbott and Gilmore.
On my own, I also wrote Jack Abbott.
Mailer never replied and I later learned that he disliked getting letters from unknown authors seeking endorsements. But Abbott wrote back and told me that he was impressed with my manuscript. When I mentioned that Abbott was willing to endorse my book, my publisher said no. The publisher did not want a blurb from a sensational murderer.
In 2002, Abbott committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.
While I found In the Belly of the Beast intriguing, Abbott is not my favorite ex-con writer nor do I believe he was the most talented.
For me, the best at capturing prison life was Edward Bunker, who not only wrote a series of tremendous books, but also a movie screenplay — Runaway Train — that captures the convict mentality better than most movies I have seen. His books, No Beast So Fierce and Animal Factory, are as good as you will get in describing prison life unless you want to go behind bars, which I don’t recommend. Unfortunately, Hollywood did a lousy job when it attempted to turn them into movies.
In addition to writing, Bunker also was an actor. One of his best roles was playing Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. He died in 2005 and was also an admirer of The Hot House.
I was thinking about Norman Mailer this week because a new book has been published entitled A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir. The author is Norris Church Mailer, who was Mailer’s sixth wife and mother of his eighth and ninth children.
The book got a favorable review in The Washington Post and also is being credited with revealing what has to be a classic Mailer story.
Norris Church was a young and popular teacher in an Arkansas college when the famed literary lion rolled through town on a book tour. She apparently ended up in his bed that night and their liaison eventually led to a proposal and marriage in 1980. A former model and much younger than her groom, Norris knew that she had just married an infamous womanizer and she was determined to put an end to his philandering.
Despite her efforts, Mailer did not remain faithful even after he passed the seventy year-old mark, according to his wife’s memoir.
She was heartbroken and frankly bewildered, especially when she discovered that some of his illicit escapades were with women his age or older, including one who wore “a gray wig, was about five feet tall, and must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds or more,” the book says.
When his wife confronted him and asked why he had cheated on her — especially with someone who was not nearly as attractive as her — Mailer explained that “sometimes he needed to be the good-looking one.”
Even in adultery, he had a way with words.