Don DeLillo described him as a writer who "gave America a literature worthy of her vastness." Joan Didion spoke of his 1000 page nonfiction masterpiece "The Executioner’s Song" (it was a "novel" she believes, as were all of his works) as "ambitious to the point of vertigo." It upended so many peoples’ expectations, as it broke ground with what Didion described as a voice "as flat as the horizon" it depicted and with its strong women as storytellers of a broken heartland. "I can think of no other writer with the character to have risked" that book Didion told the 1500 or so who gathered at Carnegie Hall late Wednesday afternoon for a celebration of Mailer’s life and work.A video tribute captured Mailer’s rampaging through –and reflecting on– life. "I became a species of combat soldier in life" he tells the interviewer. It’s all there –his bouts with feminists, his bouts with boxers, the march on the Pentagon, the arrests, the campaign for mayor of NYC ("I would sleep better if Mailer were mayor" jibed one of the campaign buttons.) In his televised defense of writers’ and artists’s right to protest (was it on the Dick Cavett Show?) Mailer spews forth, brilliantly, about General Westmoreland’s obscene Vietnam war crimes. His prescient opposition to the Iraq war elicited clapping: " I am worried about starting something we can’t finish without changing the nature of America."Sean Penn spoke briefly, reading off his Blackberry, apologizing for that but promising he would be brief, and celebrating Mailer as "what greatness once was and what greatness should be …a natural of the highest order and an earner who has left us with a towering legacy…." Muhammad Ali’s wife Lonnie described meeting Mailer in 1997 when he visited their Michigan farm. "He reminded me of my uncle." And as Muhammad and Mailer sat in her kitchen she saw "two lions who had ruled the jungles in which they lived….their growls no longer as intimidating …two kindred spirits..both champions of opposition, only the biggest and the best..fighters for ever..real men to the end."
It was Mailer’s sprawling, irrepressible, creative children, all nine of them, who stole the show.Each carried the imprint, the impress of their father, and in different ways, with humor, passion, sadness, writerly detail, these actors, artists, writers, former boxers, producers, all united in abiding affection for their father, described a man who engaged them, cared about their lives and talents and always challenged his brood.
The evening closed–and it was evening by the time the close-to-three hour memorial ended–with announcement of the creation of The Norman Mailer Writers Colony –to be established in Provincetown, anchored in the home he shared for decades with his beloved wife Norris Church Mailer….. Advisory Board members, still coming together, now include Gunter Grass, Joan Didion, Doris Kearns Goodwin and William Kennedy.Mailer wasn’t a fan of organized religion, organized fellowships or organized anything but I suspect that a project anchored in his home will have the spark to nurture risktakers, disturbers of false peace, fighters and adventurers of this time. We’re going to need them. As we needed Mailer.