When I originally launched my countercultural magazine The Realist in 1958, I requested an interview with Norman Mailer. He declined, but in 1962, after I published an interview with Joseph Heller when Catch-22 was published, Mailer called me. He was finally ready. We met at his home in Brooklyn Heights. Mailer sat in a chair, poised like a prizefighter. And I was his sparring partner.
In 1963, when I performed stand-up at Town Hall and introduced Heller in the audience, somebody else—a friend of his—stood up. But since the audience didn’t know what Heller looked like, they applauded. “That’s not Joseph Heller,” I said from the stage. “This is right out of Catch-22.”
Then I spotted Mailer and introduced him, and again somebody else stood up. This time it was a young woman. “I’m a friend of Norman’s,” she called out. “He couldn’t come tonight.”
“That’s the story of his life,” I responded. It was a cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist. “He’s writing another book about it,” I added.
In my interview with Mailer, we had been talking about the mating process of two individuals. “It’s mutually selective,” he said. “You fall in together or go in together.” Little did I dream that I would “fall in together” with that young woman in the audience, Jeanne Johnson. We got married at Mailer’s home and had a daughter, Holly.
The last time I saw Mailer was in 2005 at Wordstock, the first annual Portland (Oregon) Book Festival, where I was invited to open for him.
“The thing I most admire about Mailer,” I said, “is a combination of his courage as a writer and how much he respects the craft. He writes in longhand with a No. 2 pencil, he told me once, because it puts him in more direct contact with the paper that he’s writing on. And I felt so guilty, because I was still using a typewriter at the time. You remember typewriters. In fact, I have a niece who saw a manual typewriter, and she said, ‘What’s that for?’ I explained, and she said, ‘Well, where do you plug it in?’ ‘You don’t have to plug it in, you just push the keys.’ And she said, ‘That’s awesome!’”
“Anyway, one aspect of Norman Mailer’s craft is that he chooses his words very carefully. Or, as he would say, ‘One chooses one’s words very carefully.’ The thing that I recall, the words that he chose most carefully, of all the books he’s written, was something that he said [43 years previously] when I asked him how he felt about circumcision. He thought for a moment, then he chose his words carefully and, with a twinkle in his eye—one of his main characteristics—he said, ‘Well, I believe that if Jews didn’t have circumcision, they would punch their babies in the nose and break them…'”
When Mailer came onstage—walking with the aid of two canes because of a severe arthritic condition—he received a standing ovation. He eased himself onto a high chair behind the podium.
“Gee, Paul, I didn’t know how to start tonight,” he said, “but maybe you got me going. Now, if I ever made that remark—that the reason Jews get circumcised is to keep them from breaking their babies’ noses—all I can say is that I must have been down in the lower depths of a very bad marijuana trip. But I think, even at my worst, I couldn’t really have said that. Paul is a master of hyperbole. He loves hyperbole, as for example when Lyndon Johnson ’attacked’ the wound in JFK’s head.”
“At any rate, if I did say it, I would forgive myself now for having said it, because circumcision happens to be something that every Jewish male thinks about every day of his life. It makes us obsessive for a very simple reason: We don’t know if it’s an asset or a liability. And I’m not speaking of it lightly. I’m speaking of psychic castration that may make us smarter, or it may not. We worry about things like that. So I will say categorically that in my head, and to the best of my marijuana memory, I never made it. I want to thank you, Paul, for making that up and giving me a beginning tonight, and for warming up this audience…”
One night a couple of years later, I had a dream that Mailer died. When I woke up, I decided to send him a note to let him know that my daughter Holly was getting married. But then I heard on NPR that he had died, and it was too late.