William F. Buckley

Mailer took two practical steps that bounced off our Chicago exchange. The first was to sue Playboy -- on the grounds that, manifestly, his essay was worth more than the $5,000 paid to us. That done, he said he wished to explore with me a string of Buckley-Mailer debates throughout the country, "beginning in Carnegie Hall."

This initiative brought him and his wife to our house in Stamford, Conn., and I took him out on my 36-foot sailboat. He could not believe it when I turned the wheel over to him, pointing out a course to the end of the harbor. It was very cold by the time we had finished dinner, but he ordered his wife, Jeannie, to the back of his motorcycle, and they zoomed off to Brooklyn.

There were other episodes. There was the night in New York when, after dinner, I said I needed to file a column, but he wasn't ready to go home, pursuing us to our apartment nearby. Wobbling up the steps, his then current wife passed out and was placed by my wife in a spare bedroom. Norman climbed upstairs with me to my study and spoke disparagingly of the column as, paragraph after paragraph, I gave it to him to read.

Finally he said it was time to go home, and we walked down the stairs to where his wife had been taken. But rousing her from that sleep defied any resource we were willing to deploy, so Norman announced fatalistically that, never mind, she would eventually rise, go out the street door and get a cab. "Me, I'm going home, Slugger," as he called my wife. I helped him find a cab.

But Norman Mailer is a towering writer! So why this small talk? Perhaps because it no longer seems so very small. I said about Mailer a few years ago that he created the most beautiful metaphors in the language. I reiterate that judgment. But I go further, wondering out loud whether the obituaries are, finally, drawing attention to the phenomenon of Norman Mailer from the appropriate perspective. The newspaper of record says of him, as though such a profile were routine, that he was married six times, that he nearly killed one wife with a penknife, and that he had nine children. What if he had had seven wives, the seventh of them abandoned there in somebody's bedroom, waiting for a taxi to take her home, any home? Would that have claimed the obituarist's attention?

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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