Norman Mailer Didn’t Reply, But Literary Killer Wrote Me Back: A Sad Prison Tale

Norris Church and Norman Mailer 1981 Photo By Adam Scull/Alamy

This is NOT about mental health. 

(6-25-21) From My Files Friday. I spent a year as a reporter in the 1980s roaming around a maximum security prison doing research for my New York Times Bestseller, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison. Now forty years later, I am working on another prison related book.  As part of my research those many years ago, I read Jack Abbott’s book,  In the Belly of the Beast, which describes his experiences in prison. Sadly, not much has changed. In April 2010, I posted a blog about Abbott and his relationship with Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer, Jack Abbott and Me. 

The son of an Irish-American solider and Chinese prostitute, Jack 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 Knew Gilmore and Contacted Mailer

Abbott had done time in Utah with Gilmore and he told Mailer that stories about Gilmore were being highly embellished. Mailer wrote back and soon became enamored with the hardened criminal. He encouraged Abbott to write his life story and helped him find a publisher. Then he helped Abbott win a parole.

Because of Mailer, Abbott were the toast of New York. 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 and was sent back to prison.

Mailer felt as if he had been duped by Abbott. It 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 urged me to send a 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 the federal Bureau of Prisons had allowed me extraordinary access at Leavenworth where I met 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 told me that he was impressed with my manuscript and would be happy to endorse it.

My publisher said no. Abbott was no longer a celebrity in New York literary circles. In 2002, he hanged himself in his cell.

Unrepentant Mailer Caught With His Pants Down

I was thinking about Norman Mailer this week because his sixth wife and mother of his eighth and ninth children has published a book, A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir about her life with the famous author.

A former model and much younger than Mailer, Norris knew that she was married to a womanizer and she was determined to put an end to his philandering. It didn’t work. She caught him in his seventies having sex with a woman who was not nearly as attractive as she was. The woman “wore a gray wig, was about five feet tall, and must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds or more,” Norris noted.

Mailer explained it by saying, “sometimes I need to be the good-looking one.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.