ARCHIVE: A Tough Guy’s Last Dance

dwayne-and-norman-june-2006jpg-4fa05227f78c8d23_mediumAuthor Dwayne Raymond — pictured at right with the late author Norman Mailer — visits Red Bank on Tuesday night to promote MORNINGS WITH MAILER, his book about the years he spent as the literary lion’s editorial assistant, cook and friend.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 8, 2010)

He was called a lot of things in his time — working class champion and fame-hungry narcissist; sweet-natured guy and wifebeating misogynist; courageous activist and confrontational a-hole; a good friend and a great writer. During the 60 years that preceded his passing at age 84 in 2007, Norman Mailer staked a career-long claim on a position as alpha dog of American letters — in an era when writers were household celebs, sought-after guests, respected pundits, and above all, people who wrote what they damn well pleased.

From the time he punched his way into the literary scene with his breakthrough book The Naked and the Dead, Mailer wrote scores of well-known novels (The Pulitzer-winning Executioner’s Song), nonfictions (fellow Pulitzer winner Armies of the Night), biographies (Marilyn), essays (The White Negro), poems, plays, columns and correspondence. He also found time to run for Mayor of New York City, to co-found The Village Voice, and to direct a series of way-out, largely improvised 1960s films like Wild 90 and Maidstone — the latter of which climaxes with a real-life fight between a shirtless Mailer and a hammer-wielding Rip Torn.

And he was born in Long Branch, NJ, although you probably didn’t hear that from him.

A resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts in the last decade of his life, Mailer never deviated from his prolific pace — producing his last four books with the help of a young writer named Dwayne Raymond. It was Raymond — who Mailer met when the younger guy was waiting tables in a P-town bistro — that became the literary lion’s first and only editorial assistant, as well as personal cook and, most importantly, a good friend. And it’s that relationship that forms the basis ofMornings with Mailer: A Recollection of Friendship, a memoir that the Huffington Post contributor will be reading from, discussing and signing when he stops in Tuesday evening at NovelTeas Authors Aromas & Gifts on the Left Bank of Red Bank.

Established by Kim Widener as a home base and focal point for her nascent NovelTeas brand, the recently inaugurated book salon/ tea room/ gift boutique previously hosted financial-thriller journalist William D. Cohan (a followup appearance by The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin was snowed out and will be rescheduled for a later date). The 7pm event includes a signing copy of the book and a reception catered by Monmouth County’s own international celebri-chefDavid Burke (of David Burke Fromagerie and many other restaurants of renown). Admission is $45, and you can take it here to register.

The event is also part of “Memoir March” over at NovelTeas, with the shop inviting guests to enjoy a complimentary cup of tea and share their own “six word memoir” (a la Hemingway’s profoundly brief “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”). Here at Red Bank oRBit (where it takes us six words just to tell you we love you), we’re happy to share this interview with wordsmith Raymond, available to all when you Continue Reading.

Raymond-210RED BANK oRBit: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Dwayne — and on Oscar night, yet. So how are things out in P’town? Our friend Marjorie Conn, who started the Provincetown Fringe Festival there years ago, would always talk about how slow and peaceful it is there in the winter — and the way this winter’s been going, things must have been a little bit on the quiet side for the past month or so.

DWAYNE RAYMOND: It’s a little bit on the quiet side for most of the year here! But it’s great here, and I do remember the Provincetown Fringe.

Well, Marjorie’s based in Asbury Park now, which is just a few minutes away from where you’ll be appearing in Red Bank. And in between those two towns is Long Branch, where Norman Mailer was born all those years ago.

Right; he was only there just for a very short time — less than three months, I believe.

From what I know, Mailer always referred to himself as a New Yorker, not unlike another famous writer who was born in Long Branch — Dorothy Parker. For the past few years, they do an annual Dorothy Parker Day there, and there’s been some talk about possibly doing a Mailer Day at some point.

But did Mailer privately ever mention being a son of the Jersey Shore? Or was that just not an accepted part of the mystique, the myth? And what’s your opinion of a civic event sort of salute to the man?

He was actually proud of being born in New Jersey. His family roots were in Brooklyn; his mother was literally planted in Brooklyn. But my work, my friendship with Norman Mailer had nothing to do with the mystique. He was a man in full by the time I met him; a writer who was admired and respected by such a large number of people, although he hated being a celebrity for its own sake.

There is a Mailer Society, and they’ve done events in Provincetown for several years — in fact, they started when he was still alive. It’s not so much a celebration, more like a symposium, but they would host a large party, and his fans would just be rabid about meeting him; going to the house where the master lived.

Do you think it might have bugged him to be paid tribute like that while he was still walking around, like, here’s your gold watch, now fade away respectably…

It was more like, here’s a gold watch, and we’ve got another one in the making for next year!

Now was Mailer a year-round P-town resident by that point? And how did you first make his acquaintance?

Norman lived there full time for the last 12 years of his life. I came to Provincetown in 1998, and I waited on Norman when I was working in a restaurant. You’d see him at shops around town. I loved getting to know and work with him, and he loved a good meal — it was a love of food that drew us together.

But my first exposure to him, long before I actually met him, was when I saw him on a TV talk show. I had tuned in because Lillian Hellman was going to be on the show, and I was waiting to see her — but here’s this short, stocky guy with a rapid-fire way of speaking; this smart, magnetic personality. I immediately became interested in him and his work at that point — I don’t even remember whether Lillian Hellman ever made it on to the show.

Mailer was absolutely one of those writers who was made for talk shows, back when a talk show was something more than someone peddling their new movie for five minutes and they’re gone. You’d have Mailer feuding with Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show, arguing with William F. Buckley on Firing Line. He was a genuine celebrity, I think, but one who backed it up with strong work over the course of a long and prolific career. Was it a little intimidating at first when you were presented with the opportunity to work with him?

Everything bounces off celebrity in our society, but I looked to him as a friend, not this living legend. He would burden me with crappy jokes and various odd tasks, and I appreciated every moment.

What was the first project you worked on with him, and what among those projects was your personal favorite? 

I’d have to say The Castle in the Forest, which is what we started on when I came aboard — but I should also mention the little book Modest Gifts, which was something that was very special to Norman, a collection of his poems and drawings. We actually took a break from working on Castle to put together Modest Gifts.

And during this time was Mailer starting to slow down physically; was he keeping close to home instead of hitting the road on book tours?

He had great energy and really didn’t sustain any serious illness until the last four months of his life. He was really vigorous; he’d travel as he always did before. He’d go to New York; head out from Provincetown, get on a plane and go anywhere.

Talking about Provincetown again reminds me of his last movie, TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE, which while it wasn’t as all-out weird as his 60s movies is still pretty strange being that it’s an attempt at a mainstream thriller that takes some wild turns…

Oh, his movies are amazing — he was very much ahead of his time in some regards. And Tough Guys Don’t Dance, although some things about it are a little odd — I don’t think anyone else was giving lead roles to Ryan O’Neal at that point — is a pretty interesting film. The lyricism of the photography is just off the wall; the opening sequence, with the music by Angelo Badalamenti — THAT is Provincetown in the off season.

According to Norman, he blew it in a few places — there’s that “oh god, oh man” scene — but other scenes are really worth watching.

I loved Lawrence Tierney’s performance as Ryan O’Neal’s dad; he’s great in it. 

As was Wings Hauser! He did some of his best work in that film. A great cast —Penn JilletteIsabella Rossellini.

Now, in recent times you’ve watched Mailer’s passing and written extensively about him — and I read a piece you wrote about J.D. Salinger when he died earlier this year. With those guys gone now, who in your opinion is The Lion? Who’s the guy? 

This might be surprising, because he’s always kept more of a low-key profile, but I adore John Irving. The way he’s just sustained that voice throughout his career is amazing.

I think it’s gotta be just as tough for a new writer to be as famous as Mailer, as it is for them to be as reclusive as Salinger anymore — even Thomas Pynchon showed up on THE SIMPSONS. But wouldn’t the mantle of Salinger naturally belong now to Harper Lee?

Harper Lee doesn’t sign anything anymore — and all newer editions of To Kill a Mockingbird don’t have a photo of her on the jacket. But what Salinger did — and this was a brilliant coup, even though I don’t think he wrote a grand novel — Salinger pulled a Garbo! You give just a little of yourself, and then you banish yourself.

You know, speaking of myths, it’s been said that Norman Mailer didn’t like Harper Lee, but that was a load of bullshit. Norman thought of her as one of her good friends. Same with Truman Capote, another famous contemporary of his — not just a celebrity, but a writer who gave us Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of the sweetest novellas ever done.

And of course IN COLD BLOOD, a much different and equally influential piece of work. So do you think, given the hard realities of publishing these days, that we’ll ever really see the likes of Mailer and Capote again — these authors who were not only able to move from novels to nonfiction, screenplays and biographies and essays and whatever, but who were actually encouraged to do so by their publishers?

There’s a real tendency to pigeonhole people as one type of writer or another. I myself never intended to write a memoir — I had no interest in memoirs — but I had spent several years in an odd place, with one of the truly great American writers, and I didn’t want that time to be lost. So, I’ve written the book as if it were a novel — true and factual, but at the same time I wanted it to be lyrical.

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