Norman Mailer may have been a jerk, but at least he was our jerk.
The Pulitzer-Prize–winning author was an “egomaniac,” according to the London Daily Mail, a “combative, short-fused brawler,” according to the New York Times and a “sexist, homophobic reactionary,” according the Guardian — but this week, Brooklyn Heights’ own cast of characters shared memories that used words like “gentleman,” “always polite,” “shunned attention” and “kept to himself.”
Norman — we hardly knew ye!
“His death is a huge loss for Brooklyn Heights and everyone in New York,” said Greg Markman, a manager at the Heights Café, one of Mailer’s local haunts, at the corner of Montague and Hicks streets.
Mailer — born in New Jersey but raised in Crown Heights near Eastern Parkway — kept an apartment on Columbia Heights overlooking the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for more than 20 years until his death on Nov. 10 at age 84.
He was a member of the Brooklyn Heights Association, and, in the 1990s, took a great interest in the initial planning phases of what would later become the Brooklyn Bridge Park proposal.
Association Executive Director Judy Stanton recalled a “totally captivating” speech Mailer gave at the association’s annual meeting at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church on Montague Street in 1992.
“Everyone was in awe of him,” Stanton said. “He was spellbinding, and I remember he got an incredible standing ovation.”
Mailer covered a wide range of topics in his speech, from contemporary architecture (“You can’t tell a Roman Catholic church from a synagogue, a ski resort from a prison”) to presidential candidates (“Clinton seems the most presidential”) to the end of the Cold War (“When I visited Russia recently, I couldn’t believe what a Third World nation it was. It was far from an Evil Empire”).
When it came time for Mailer to take questions from his neighbors, he showed off his famous wit.
“I ask those who have powerful voices and short questions to speak up — I don’t care how rude you are, but nothing too profane, after all, this is a church,” he said.
Nando Ghorchian, who owns Café Buon Gusto on Montague Street, met the prolific writer in the late 1980s. Mailer and his sixth wife, Norris Church, often went to his restaurant on 77th Street in Manhattan and became regulars at his Brooklyn Heights location when it opened in 1992.
“He was a gentleman and a great writer,” Ghorchian said. “He was very quiet and down to earth. He was a pleasure to know.”
Stanton described him as “cordial and friendly,” but added that Mailer was “seldom seen around the neighborhood in a social setting, so most people respected his privacy and left him alone.”
The portrait of Mailer as a nice guy is completely contrary to his well-earned reputation as a violent curmudgeon. After all, he did stab his second wife in a room full of people, he did head-butt fellow writer Gore Vidal and he did bite off a hunk of actor Rip Torn’s ear (to be fair, Torn came at him with a hammer).
If Brooklyn Heights residents loved him, they were not the only ones. Mailer was an A-list literati ever since the publication of “The Naked and The Dead” in 1948 — when he was just 25. Twenty years later, he won his first Pulitzer for “The Armies of the Night” in 1968, and his second in 1979 for “The Executioner’s Song.” Along the way, he wrote more than 40 books in six decades. He also authored countless essays, plays, newspaper and magazine articles.
And he ran for mayor in 1968 under the slogan, “No more Bulls—.”
A taste of our Norman
Norman Mailer (pictured, on Montague Street in 1991) lived much of his life in Brooklyn, but the borough doesn’t make too many appearances in his copious work. Here’s one of our favorite passages from “The Naked and the Dead”:
“The candy store is small and dirty as are all the stores on the cobblestoned streets. When it drizzles the cobblestones wash bare and gleaming on top, and the manhole covers puff forth their shapeless gouts of mist. The night fogs cloak the muggings, the gangs who wander raucously through the darkness, the prostitutes, and the lovers mating in the dark bedrooms with the sweating stained wallpaper of brown. The walls of the street fester in summer, are clammy in winter; there is an aged odor in this part of the city, a compact of food scraps, of shredded dung balls in the cracks of the cobblestones, of tar, smoke, the sour damp scent of city people, and the smell of coal stoves and gas stoves in the cold-water flats. All of them blend and lose identity.” — from “The Naked and the Dead,” by Norman Mailer