My mother and Norman Mailer were longtime friends. So it made sense that Betsy Mailer and I were roommates in our first year of college. On the big moving day, out of NYC to Princeton, Norman and Norris (Betsy’s stepmother) and my mother Jean rented a car, packed us up and drove us the hour or so down the Jersey turnpike. It was an uneventful trip, though I think we all groaned and held our noses driving through the chemical smells of Elizabeth, NJ.
When we got to the campus, I’ll never forget Norman Mailer– great American writer, world class rabble rouser, pugilistic pensman–helping move stuff into our dorm room and chatting with parents who’d come from around the country for the big day. I remember thinking that most didn’t seem to have a clue who he was. And Norman didn’t seem to mind.
My mother, who wasn’t chatting it up with the other parents, was wearing the biggest sunglasses I’d ever seen. And she kept sniffling and tearing up about my leaving home. Norman didn’t have much patience with her…barking, at some point, “Jean, the kids have to get out of the house!” It was a loving bark. I didn’t quite get it then, though I realized soon after that Norman was depositing his second child– of eight of his brood/ kids at college. My mother stopped sniffling. Eventually, after we all had a meal in town, the parents took off back down the turnpike.
Betsy and I enjoyed the craziness of first year at college–without parents. I don’t think Norman and Norris ever came back to Princeton, except for graduation, though I may be wrong. I know my mother never made it back down, except for another round of sunglasses and tears at graduation five years later (I didn’t get out of there in 4 years– deciding, instead, to take a year off to intern at The Nation.)
Many will celebrate the work of Norman Mailer–as it should and must be. But I keep thinking of Mailer, the Good Father, moving books and stuff into his daughter’s dorm room on her first day of college in Fall 1977.