- Norman Mailer, who died on November 11, 2007, aged 84
In January, I began a post about Muhammad Ali with the then very much alive Norman Mailer who, when asked by Vanity Fair which living person he most admired, named 'The Greatest'. It should not have surprised, since Ali had been a hero of Mailer's since ever.
The Observer of Sunday 11 November was chock full of Norman Mailer, and I delighted in reading every word. They rehashed every glory, every failing: he drunkenly stabbed his second wife, almost fatally - she refused to press charges, angering the women's liberation movement; he bit off part of the ear of the actor Rip Torn, which brought to my mind all sorts of dark wordplays concerning the thespian's name - and which, bizarrely, made think: 'Oh, at least Mike Tyson wasn't the only one that did that, and I ought to stop feeling shamed on the uncouth boxer's account'. Who'd have thought Mailer and Tyson would have a meeting ground?
The 'ear-ripping', happily, was the only thing perhaps that Mailer shared in common with Tyson. The great writer's boxer of choice as previously noted, was Muhammad Ali. Mailer said of Ali: "There is always the shock of seeing him again. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth."
With all the extraordinary Mailer high-jinks recounted after his death, you felt the obituarists were almost urging you to hate the man. If you dare. But I read with awe, as I expect many people did. Norman Mailer once threw a punch at his great rival, Gore Vidal - and missed - whereupon the latter quipped: "Lost for words again, Norman?"
Nice one. But even Vidal would concede, ultimately, that words never failed the literary pugilist. My enduring image of Mailer is from the Oscar winning documentary of Ali's legendary 'Rumble in the Jungle' boxing match against George Foreman in Zaire (DR Congo). Mailer's anecdotes about his hero and the bout, delivered to the camera by an old man who beamed with the excitement of a young boy at the memory - are a joy to watch. One of the many things that make the documentary, 'When We Were Kings', special.
When all is said and done, Norman Mailer lived exactly the way he wanted. How many people live such a wildly varied life, marry 6 wives and sire 9 children and still write 'The Naked and the Dead'? What the hell, he's saying somewhere up above, now.