I grew up in a cop family in Chicago, so when the Democrats arrived for the 1968 convention, I didn’t go anyplace close to where people might be engaging in confrontation–not Lincoln Park, not the International Amphitheater, not Michigan Avenue. I knew first-hand how potentially catastrophic demonstrating might be, how certain cops could get pretty psychotic if they were opposed. At that time getting sapped by the police struck me as pointless (it still does).
During college I had turned against the war and had also become a big Mailer fan. At that time, Mailer would go on the Merv Griffin show in the afternoon and call LBJ a war criminal and, in effect, a motherfucker–how cool was that, especially compared to today’s literary artists, who politically tend to be rather less forthright. In 1967, after the Pentagon anti-war march, I hung out at the news stand every day waiting for On the Steps of the Pentagon, his piece for Harper’s magazine.
I knew he was covering the ’68 political conventions, so I hung around downtown once the Dems arrived, celebrity watching and hoping to meet the man himself. (I did get on an elevator with Robert Lowell at the Hilton and road for a few floors, but was too awestruck to say anything; besides, he had the frightening look that day, close up, of somebody who just might explode from the tension inside.)
I looked all week but I couldn’t locate Mailer, though I just missed him one day when he addressed the protesters in Grant Park (I did get into the Hubert Humphrey suite at the Hilton and met one of the speech writers, but that’s another story). The convention finished on Thursday night, and Friday morning I gave it one last shot, stopping at the Hilton, the lobby still putrid from the tear gas and stink bombs Mailer would later describe so vividly. I picked up the house phone and asked for Mailer’s room on the off chance he might be staying there . . . and was put right through!
“Hello.” That Brooklyn growl.
“Mr. Mailer,” I said. “You don’t know me, but I wonder if I could stop by before you leave town. I have a poem to give you.”
“Yeah, OK, come on up.” He gave me a room number.
Well, I was completely flabbergasted by this impending brush with greatness, if that’s what it would turn out to be. What did I, a 22-year-old nobody, a policeman’s kid, have to say to Norman Mailer–Harvard grad, literary legend, TV star, major American celebrity! And what did he have to say to me?
In my pocket was a brief poem, a meditation on surrender and self-destruction, which contained a line inspired by Mailer’s title for the book on the Pentagon march, The Armies of the Night, itself lifted from Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
The hotel room door opened and there was the literary legend, dripping wet, just out of the shower, wrapped only in a large towel, having just applied Brylcreem (the scent was unmistakable) to his wet hair. We shook hands; he pointed over his shoulder and introduced me to his friend Jose Torres, who was still in bed half-asleep and barely glanced my way. I mumbled some greeting or other and handed Mailer the poem, which he read quickly, and I asked him for an autograph. He tore off the bottom of the page and wrote, using my pen: “To PATRICK O’HAYER, after reading ‘O When Is It Ignoble?” (signed) Norman Mailer.” I said thanks, and something like, My god, what an amazing week! Mailer concurred but pretty quickly ushered me out of the room with “Nice to meet you and good luck with your writing.”
And that was it. Well, almost. Later that year I was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps (they draft into the Naval service in time of war). I sent Mailer a note critical of some of his political writing (I’d fallen under the baleful influence of Mailer’s cellmate at the Pentagon march, Noam Chomsky). In his reply to me, I discovered that Mailer was also a master of the personal insult: “Stop beating your fat pussie [sic] red Irish gums . . . If you want to correspond then show some literary manners to your betters.” Good grief, but I was put in my place.
A couple years later, nevertheless, I started sending him an occasional poem and he was invariably encouraging–he even agreed to do a blurb for my second collection. Obviously, this was mainly a one-sided correspondence–the star on one side, the fan on the other. But he was awfully kind to this beginning writer, and certainly generous to someone he knew, really, not at all.
In 1984 he sent me this in response to some generic complaining: “Your last letter . . . sounds like my life. I fill my home with kids and I dream of having a year to myself to do nothing but read. Also, am obliged to interest myself in the problem of making money much more than I want to. Ah, these universal traps.”
PATRICK O’HAYER can be reached at email@example.com