Norman Mailer's legendary appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

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Aug. 2 2007 1:42 PM

The Guest From Hell

Savoring Norman Mailer's legendary appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

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Cavett then appeared on another part of the set to shill Domino sugar, which really is great for home-baked cookies at holiday time. His imitative Cookie Monster rumble ("Cooookies!!!") was rather too cute. For a segue, he actually said, "My next guest is a tough cookie." Reasoning, in all probability, that Mailer wouldn't hit a man wearing glasses, Vidal then put his glasses on.

The only hitch with my proposed stage adaptation is Mailer's inimitability. Either he'd have to play himself, or you'd have to cast someone far out—Johnny Depp or Tilda Swinton or Shaq or someone—in the role. Mailer swaggered out imitating a fighter's coiled ease, a superstar in a dark suit and black leather boots, angel-headed under Bob Dylan curls. He'd come from a cocktail party and boasted he'd been drinking, and he also looked pretty baked. He had head-butted Vidal in the green room. He bounced right into a performance that was better than some of his journalism and all of his novels. Everything he learned from studying Ali (rhythm and rope-a-dope) and Chaplin (grace and grandiosity) and Marilyn (eyelash-batting) went to use.


Mailer failed to shake Gore's hand and pursed his lips when explaining why: "I guess I forget." Honestly besotted with Flanner—"I'm a student of television, and I'm overcome with how good you are"—he apologized to her in advance for breaking the charming mood, going on to call Gore a liar and hypocrite and "absolutely without character or moral foundation or even intellectual substance."

At issue was Gore's New York Review of Books piece on Mailer's Prisoner of Sex, that pot of crock about feminism. The review had said that Mailer's thoughts on sex "read like three days of menstrual flow," but Mailer as much as agreed with that. No, he had found it unreasonable that Gore had likened him to Charles Manson and that it was low of him to mention the thing with Adele and the penknife—"We all know that I stabbed my wife many years ago"—and then he went gunning. He didn't turn everyone against him at once, instead gradually modulating his courtliness with Flanner ("Angel, it's my turn now") and deepening his casual disdain for Cavett ("Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?"). When the audience booed, he started yelling back—his accent, formerly professorial-patrician, slipping around from Texas sheriff to white Negro. He turned a swank salon into a churning saloon. For a coup de grace, Mailer called out Gore for lifting a bon mot from the previous week's Times Book Review. (For evidence that Mailer's point, however loutishly made, was a sharp one, note that the offending passage does not appear in Vidal's essay as reprinted in United States.)

Flanner seemed to appreciate Mailer's verve and quickness, despite being wholly put off by the arguing and insults: "Very odd! You act as if you're the only people here."

To which Mailer said, "That's the art of television, isn't it?"

We came back from the last break to see that Cavett had given Flanner a colorful bag of home-baked cookies made with Domino sugar. Clutching them in one gloved hand, she sighed, "My only solace," and the set went dark, and Mailer trotted off stage left.


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