The director James Toback visited one of his favorite subjects on Monday night at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. That would be gambling. Not his own campaign with the notoriously risky pastime, which has been well documented in his films (Toback wrote the screenplay for the 1974 film ‘The Gambler’) and in the press, but that of his friend, the writer Norman Mailer. Toback was Master of Ceremonies for The Norman Mailer Center’s Sixth Annual Benefit Gala held at the venerable institution on October 27th, and he held forth throughout the evening with colorful anecdotes and insider stories about Mailer that elicited guffaws and hearty laughter from the audience of over 250 guests.
The Norman Mailer Center and Writer’s Colony is an educational nonprofit dedicated to nurturing the values of Mailer’s work in future generations of writers. Through a diverse set of programming including creative writing workshops, the Mailer Fellowships, student and teacher writing awards, artist retreat programs, and initiatives for international outreach and exchange, the Center provides educational, monetary and professional support to early and mid-career writers in all genres who relish dialogue and debate; are driven by an endless curiosity to make sense of the times in which they live, fully exercise their creativity; apply themselves to the craft of writing with the rigor of an athlete; and wish to reach a broad audience through their work. Through its programming, the Center aims to preserve the role of the engaged writer as not only a legitimate, but indispensable voice in contemporary dialogue.
Mailer, who died in 2007, at 84, published more than 30 books, including novels, biographies and works of nonfiction, winning two Pulitzer Prizes along the way, for ‘The Armies of The Night’ (1968), and ‘The Executioner’s Song’ (1979). The story of convicted murderer, Gary Gilmore, the first person in the United States executed since the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976, ‘The Executioner’s Song’ took a central position in the national debate over the revival of capital punishment by the Supreme Court. Tommy Lee Jones won an Emmy Award for his depiction of Gilmore in the 1982 television film adaptation. Mailer took flack in 1981 when he championed the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, who was serving time for armed robbery and the fatal knifing of a fellow inmate. Abbott was serving time at the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, when he began a correspondence with Mailer, offering to help the writer better understand prison life after reading an article in a newspaper about Mailer’s work on Gilmore’s story. Mailer, impressed by the literary quality of Abbott’s letters, offered Abbott a job as a research assistant. By that time Abbott had already signed a book contract with Random House. Abbott won his parole in June, 1981, and on July 18th of the same year, the day before The New York Times Book Review published a review of his book, ‘In the Belly of the Beast’, he committed murder outside an East Village restaurant. Abbott committed suicide in prison in 2002.
Great American writer that he was, Mailer is also remembered for his verbal and physical pugilism with other writers like Truman Capote, William Styron, Germaine Greer, and, most famously, Gore Vidal. His sparring with Vidal on the Dick Cavett show is the stuff of television legend, and Vidal famously said of Mailer, after getting punched to the floor by Mailer at a party, “Words fail Mailer once again”. The feminist writer Kate Millett apparently coined the term “male chauvinist pig” in honor of Mailer, but his machismo and combativeness certainly helped to burnish his image as a rock star of the written word. He was a ubiquitous presence on the cultural landscape, even acting in films. He played the doomed architect Stanford White in the 1981 film adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow (an editor of Mailer’s) book, ‘Ragtime’, as well as appearing in ‘Cremaster 2’, one of six films that comprise the magnum opus of the artist Matthew Barney. Barney paid Mailer the ultimate homage with his six-hour film, ‘River of Fundament’, which is loosely based on Mailer’s 1983 novel, ‘Ancient Evenings’ and features a wake for the writer in his NYC apartment attended by a host of New York celebrities, including the writer Salman Rushdie and the singer Debbie Harry.
Mailer was a larger-than-life figure during his tenure as a man of letters, with his personal life and exploits closely followed by international media. His memory is that of a superstar author, thus an award in his name is a significant thing indeed. The Mailer Center honored three established writers on Monday night, along with presenting awards to fledgling writers in categories ranging from nonfiction to poetry to essays. Don DeLillo, author of 15 novels, including ‘Underworld’, ‘Falling Man’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘Libra’, was presented by Nan Graham (Sr. Vice President and Publisher of Scribner) with the Lifetime Achievement Prize. The poet Billy Collins (United States Poet Laureate 2001-2003) was awarded the Distinguished Poetry Prize. Collins’ last three collections of poetry have broken sales records for poetry. Collins is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, as well as Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, was presented with the Distinguished Magazine Publishing Prize.
Andrew W. Jones, of Hinsdale Central High School, Hinsdale, Illinois, was presented with the National Middle and High School Teacher Nonfiction Award for ‘The Inca Champions League’; The National Four Year College Nonfiction Award was presented to Sarah Esther Maslin, Yale University, for ‘Now I Ain’t Sayin’ He A Gold Digger’; the National Two-Year College Nonfiction Award was presented to Connor Rystedt, Anoka Ramsey Community College, Coon Rapids, Minnesota, for ‘The Flag Room’; the National College Poetry Award was presented to Angela Qian; the National High School Nonfiction Writing Award was presented to Henry Colt, Northfield Mt. Herman School, Gill, Massachusetts for ‘Three Personal Essays’.
The Gala’s theme was ‘On the Road With Norman Mailer’, a reference to the foundation’s signature On the Road writing fellowship and workshop programs, which takes emerging writers from all over the world to a location that inspired Mailer’s writing career. Proceeds from the gala go towards supporting the Center’s programming and fellowships for developing writers. During his remarks, Lawrence Schiller, a longtime collaborator and friend of Mailer’s, and co-founder of The Norman Mailer Center, announced that since it began six years ago, the program had supported 250 writers, and 22 of those writers had gone on to be published. Luxury Maison Van Cleef & Arpels returned for the third year as the gala’s lead underwriter, continuing their sponsorship of the foundation’s Poetry Fellowship for a fourth consecutive year. Worldwide CEO and Creative Director, Nicolas Bos, was on hand to present Qian with the College Poetry Award. The partnership between The Norman Mailer Center and Van Cleef & Arpels was born out of a mutual appreciation for the art of poetry, and an earnest desire to develop the next generation of writers and poets, and recognize those writers who have provoked important dialogue.
The Norman Mailer Center