Memorable Mailer: The Wild Man of Literature Was Obsessed with God

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The news arrived in an early morning phone call from our daughter Jessica, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., a short subway ride from where Mailer died Nov. 10 in Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital at the age of 84.

Mailer was among my most memorable personal encounters. I interviewed him about a retrospective of his work, The Time of Our Times. We met in Mailer's penthouse suite atop Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel.

I went to the private reception area and was greeted by a cheerful 28-year-old who asked, "How do you spell that?" when I asked to see Norman Mailer. That she did not know Mailer is a commentary on her, but as you will see, was also a confirmation of Mailer's worst fear.

I was uncharacteristically anxious as I headed for his room because I had been warned of Mailer's strident, combative, feisty ways.

Things are often not what you expect.

When Mailer opened the door, he seemed frail and feeble, using a cane to steady himself. He asked if I needed anything to drink, offered me a chair and we got down to our work.

His opening words still haunt me.

He pointed to a small desk and said, "Fifty years ago I was an unknown man sitting alone in a room with a pen and pencil, and now 50 years later I am an unknown man sitting alone in a room with a pen and pencil."

It was an odd place to start a conversation with a man who burst on the scene in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead and went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for The Armies of the Night and for The Executioner's Song.

But like the boxers he so admired, Mailer built a career on throwing surprising punches and, even in his advancing years, was ready to stand his ground and take on a conversationalist. I actually don't remember the interview itself. I do recall what happened after.

We had been talking about the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect he admired. He launched into a diatribe about the Apostle Paul, whom he believed bastardized Jesus' teachings into a legalistic religion that Jesus himself would have railed against. …