Written by JOSEPH BERGER © 2011 New York Times News Service/Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
NEW YORK—Among the furnishings, photographs and knickknacks that fill Norman Mailer’s curious apartment in Brooklyn Heights, a visitor can get a sense of the writer’s voracious appetite for the patchwork of experiences life has to offer.
There is a button for Mailer’s quixotic 1969 campaign for New York City mayor that says “I would sleep better if Norman Mailer were mayor.” There is a framed original print of Milton H. Greene’s leggy photograph of Marilyn Monroe, a Mailer obsession and the subject of two affectionate books. And there is a photograph of Mailer boxing with Jose Torres, a light heavyweight champion. Torres taught Mailer how to box on the condition that Mailer teach him how to write.
The protean Mailer died in 2007 at age 84; Norris Church, his wife of 27 years, died last November at 61. His son Michael, one of nine children Mailer had or adopted with the six women he married, took over the apartment, a quirky cross between a Victorian parlor and the cabin of a sailing yacht.
Now Michael and his eight siblings have put the apartment, a fourth-floor co-op overlooking the Promenade, the Statue of Liberty and the harbor framing the skyline of Lower Manhattan, on the market for US$2.5 million and hope to share the proceeds.
“It’s a tough thing to sell a family apartment because there are so many memories,” Michael Mailer said. “A lot of us are not eager to sell it at all. It’s an unusual place and only someone with a particular sensitivity and style would buy it. If you’re a family, it’s probably not very practical. It’s a dangerous place.”
Michael, 47, a film producer, has been showing visitors around the apartment, which requires one to climb nautical ladders, brave narrow parapets high above the living room and walk a gangplank to view Mailer’s writing “crow’s nest.”
“Dad liked a view when he was writing,” Michael said.
His father broke through the brownstone’s roof to create this multilevel nautical adventureland not only so his children could frolic but because Mailer, a son of Brooklyn’s pavements, had turned himself into a passionate sailor as well.
As he gives visitors the tour, Michael hauls out stories that go with the objects. He recalls how his father—who wrote a book about the 1974 fight in Congo (then known as Zaire) between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman—gave him a pair of boxing gloves when he was six and had Torres teach him to box.
Michael learned so well that not only did his schoolmates in Provincetown, Massachusetts, “stop picking on me,” but as a student at
Harvard, he made it to the Golden Gloves quarter finals in Lowell, Massachusetts, the town featured in the recent film The Fighter. Mailer later brought Michael into his circle of sparring partners at Manhattan’s Gramercy Gym.
“My dad used to say to me, ‘If I could box the way I write, I’d be heavyweight champion of the world,”’ Michael recalled.
While a polymath, Norman Mailer was foremost a writer—he published more than 30 books—and two cabinets contain first editions of his fiction or journalism. They quickly offer a sense of his eclectic range, with books about the CIA, Picasso, the 1969 lunar landing, the Kennedy assassination, capital punishment, the Vietnam War, bullfighting and Hitler.
A framed poster tells of his venture into playwriting. It is for The Deer Park, which Mailer based on his novel about the Hollywood blacklist and starred his fourth wife, Beverly Bentley, Michael’s mother. Books about the movies hint at his foray into filmmaking; Mailer wrote and directed the 1987 movie Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Another framed poster recalls Norman Mailer’s career on the talk shows and his fondness for verbal jousting; it heralds the 1962 “Debate of the Year” between him and William F. Buckley Jr., whose topic was “What Is the Real Nature of the Right Wing in America.”
“He was a true existentialist,” Michael said. “If he wasn’t experiencing new things he wasn’t growing. There was an expression of my dad’s: ‘One must grow or forever pay the price of remaining the same.”’
The kitchenette is small, and Michael tells visitors that his father, on those occasions when he cooked, favored stuffed mushrooms and a breakfast of hash, eggs and pears that he learned as an Army cook in World War II.
Mailer was very close to his mother, Fanny, and the apartment contains two carved wooden cabinets he inherited from her. He was also proud of the sensual looks of Church, who was 26 years his junior, and the apartment has photos by Robert Belott that show her in a revealing dress pulled well below her shoulders while her husband embraces her.
There is a photo of Mailer when he was five or six, looking like a studious but shy cheder boy, and one when he was 26, around the time he wrote his breakthrough novel, The Naked and the Dead, looking slightly brash and Bogart-like with a cigarette.
Oddly, for the home of someone often disparaged as an egomaniac, there are almost no awards visible. A National Book Award—a gold medal dangling from a ribbon—is slung over the corner of a mirror in the apartment’s guest room. Mailer’s two Pulitzers, his son said, are stored in a box somewhere.
And then there are ghosts. The Old World dining table evokes parties at the home, like one in the 1970s attended by John Lennon, Woody Allen and Bob Dylan.
Mailer described his father as an intimidating parent who nevertheless was “very focused” when he was with his children. He would take them on madcap sailing adventures and jarring rides through Cape Cod dunes.
“He’d always take us to areas where we felt uncomfortable, to extend our boundaries,” Michael said.
Writing seven hours a day and leading the life he did, he was also absent a lot. Mailer told his son in his last years, “I could not have been the writer I am and been more of a father to you.”
“I said to him,” Michael said, “‘I’d take quality over quantity any day.”’