Norman Mailer, the macho prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country’s literary conscience and provocateur with such books as “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Executioner’s Song” — the latter of which also earned him an Emmy nomination — died Saturday of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 84.
From his classic debut novel to such masterworks of literary journalism as “The Armies of the Night,” the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was distinguished for his insight, passion and originality.
“He could do anything he wanted to do — the movie business, writing, theater, politics,” author Gay Talese said Saturday. “He’d go anywhere and try anything.”
His 1982 script for miniseries “The Executioner’s Song,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 novel about the life and death of Gary Gilmore, earned him an Emmy nom.
His 1987 screen adaptation of his novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1984) was somewhat better received as a pic (which he also directed) than as a book.
Mailer stepped in front of the camera for several small roles as well, most notably as Stanford White in 1981’s “Ragtime.” His most recent appearance was as Harry Houdini in Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster 2” (1999).
He produced five other films.
Mailer built and nurtured an image as pugnacious, streetwise and high-living. He drank, fought, smoked pot and married six times. He made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against women’s liberation.
But as Newsweek reviewer Raymond Sokolov said in 1968, “In the end, it is the writing that will count.”
Mailer, he wrote, possessed “a superb natural style that does not crack under the pressures he puts upon it, a talent for narrative and characters with real blood streams and nervous systems, a great openness and eagerness for experience, a sense of urgency about the need to test thought and character in the crucible of a difficult era.”
Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J. His family soon moved to Brooklyn — later described by Mailer as “the most secure Jewish environment in America.”
Mailer earned an engineering degree in 1943 from Harvard U., where he decided to become a writer, and was soon drafted into the Army. Sent to the Philippines as an infantryman, he saw enough of army life and combat to provide a basis for his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” published in 1948 while he was a postgraduate student in Paris on the GI Bill of Rights.
Mailer returned home to find himself anointed the new Hemingway, Dos Passos and Melville.
Buoyed by instant literary celebrity, Mailer embraced the early 1950s counterculture, writing social and political commentary for the Village Voice, which he helped found.
Mailer turned reporter to cover the 1960 Democratic Party convention for Esquire. His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, “The Armies of the Night,” won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Mailer’s suspicion of technology was so deep that he wrote with a pen, some 1,500 words a day. Despite heart surgery, hearing loss and arthritic knees that forced him to walk with canes, Mailer retained his enthusiasm for writing and in early 2007 released “The Castle in the Forest,” a novel about Hitler’s early years, narrated by an underling of Satan. A book of conversations about the cosmos, “On God: An Uncommon Conversation,” came out in the fall.
In 2005, Mailer received a gold medal for lifetime achievement at the National Book Awards.
Mailer’s wives were Adele Morales, Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, actress Carol Stevens and painter Norris Church. He had three sons, including producer Michael Mailer, five daughters, including actress Kate Mailer, and a stepson.
J. Michael Lennon, Mailer’s biographer, said arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends would be announced this week, and a memorial service would be held in New York in the coming months.