Norman Mailer Biography

Norman Mailer, 1923—2007 Biographical Sketch

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born January 31, 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey. His father, Isaac Barnett “Barney” Mailer, worked as an accountant. His mother, Fanny “Fan” Schneider, ran several small businesses. For the majority of his youth, the Mailer family, including his younger sister Barbara, lived in middle class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York.

In 1939, at age sixteen, Mailer entered Harvard University. He majored in engineering sciences, but also pursued a passion for writing. He worked on the Harvard Advocate and studied under English faculty members Robert Gorham Davis, Robert Hillyer, and Theodore Morrison. Mailer’s short story “The Greatest Thing in the World” won the 1941 Story magazine college contest and brought him to the attention of several editors and publishers.

Mailer was graduated from Harvard in 1943. In early 1944, he married his college girlfriend, Beatrice “Bea” Silverman, and was drafted into the Army. After basic and advanced training, he was assigned to the 112th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines, performing various duties including reconnaissance patrols. After the Japanese surrender, Mailer served as a cook in occupied Japan until his discharge in May 1946.

Mailer’s army experience formed the basis for his 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and The Gutenberg Award, the book brought Mailer great literary fame and financial success.

By the early 1950s Mailer had separated from Bea and was living with his soon-to-be second wife Adele Morales in Manhattan. His second novel Barbary Shore (1951) received overwhelmingly bad reviews. Although a third novel, The Deer Park (1955), was greeted more favorably, Mailer increasingly sought to write outside the novel format. In the early 1950s he began writing for magazines such as DissentEsquire, and Partisan Review and in 1955 helped co-found The Village Voice. Through these and other periodicals, Mailer commented on race, feminism, sexuality, politics, literature, art, culture, and society. In 1959 he published a collection of these essays, with additional fiction and commentary, titled Advertisements for Myself, recapturing his earlier critical acclaim.

Norman mailer writers colony

In the midst of his renewed celebrity and a planned New York mayoral run, Mailer’s personal life deteriorated, reaching its nadir in a notorious 1960 penknife assault on Adele during a night of drunken brawling. Despite severe injury, Adele refused to press charges. Mailer received court probation and public condemnation, and his second marriage ended.

In the early 1960s, Mailer worked to stabilize his life and further build his literary reputation. A short marriage to Lady Jeanne Campbell in 1962 was followed by marriage to Beverly Bentley. He published a volume of poetry, Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (1962), and a fourth novel, An American Dream (1965). But throughout the 1960s and 1970s he received the greatest recognition for his work in nonfiction and “New Journalism.” He explored topics such as politics, space exploration, feminism, race relations, and boxing in a variety of works, including The Presidential Papers (1963), Cannibals and Christians (1966), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), St. George and the Godfather (1972), and The Fight (1975). He received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his narrative of a 1967 Vietnam war protest in The Armies of the Night (1968) and another Pulitzer for his account of Gary Gilmore’s execution in The Executioner’s Song (1979). 

Norman Mailer center

In the late 1960s, Mailer made three experimental films: Wild 90Beyond the Law, and Maidstone. In 1982, he wrote the television adaptation of The Executioner’s Song and later wrote and directed a major studio production of his 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance. He performed minor roles in several films and television programs and wrote the television screenplays for American Tragedy and Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story.

Wizards Norman

In addition to numerous and varied pursuits, including a 1969 Democratic primary bid for New York mayor and a two-year term as President of the American Center of P.E.N. in the mid-1980s, Mailer wrote The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing (2003) while continuing to produce best-selling fiction such as Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), Ancient Evenings (1983), Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984), Harlot’s Ghost (1991), and The Castle in the Forest (2007). Other pieces included full-length biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, and Lee Harvey Oswald as well as shorter works for magazines and journals.

In 1980, following his divorce from Beverly Bentley and a short marriage to Carol Stevens, Mailer married Norris Church (formerly Barbara Davis). They remained married until his death on November 10, 2007, in New York. Sources:

  1. Lennon, J. Michael, and Donna Pedro Lennon. Norman Mailer: Works and Days. Shavertown, PA: Sligo Press, 2000.
  2. Rollyson, Carl. The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography. New York: Paragon House, 1991.
  3. Whalen-Bridge, John. “Norman Mailer.” Dictionary of Literary Biography
  4. Online, (accessed 10 October 2006).