Honoring Mailer's Legacy
The inaugural Norman Mailer Writers Colony gala and benefit this Tuesday features a pride of literary lions, including Toni Morrison and Joan Didion. Colony co-founder Lawrence Schiller on the author’s final wish.
On Tuesday night in Manhattan, a group of the country’s most acclaimed writers will gather to celebrate the first year of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony—a new residency program based out of the late author’s Provincetown, Massachusetts, home. The gala—which will be chaired by Daily Beast Editor in Chief Tina Brown and New Yorker Editor in Chief David Remnick—boasts a guest list that reads like a who’s who of American letters, including Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Jeffrey Eugenides, Simon Schama, Robert Hughes, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Kennedy, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Gay Talese, and Don DeLillo—all coming together to honor the memory of Mailer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a lion of narrative nonfiction.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Norman Mailer and the Writers Colony
During the benefit, the first-ever Norman Mailer Awards will be presented to Toni Morrison and the late David Halberstam, best known for his early reporting on the Vietnam War—Morrison will receive the award for Lifetime Achievement and Halberstam for Distinguished Journalism. The colony’s mission is to recognize the greatest of American writers while fostering the next generation, from high-school students and beyond, just as Mailer held an active dialogue with his peers and also mentored many young writers during his life.
The colony, which was open this year for the first time from May through September, hosted seven Mailer fellows (selected from 500 applicants), and 42 more aspiring writers and journalists for workshops ranging from biography to memoir to historical narrative. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Schiller, Mailer’s longtime friend and collaborator, who noted that “Norman had helped hundreds of writers over the years, reading and commenting on manuscripts, sending many to his agents and publishers, and answering questions in letters and giving advice on a writer’s life.” After Mailer passed away in 2007, both Schiller and Mailer’s wife, Norris Church Mailer, decided that a colony was “exactly what the house should be.”
Below, read Lawrence Schiller’s memories of Mailer’s final days, and the story of how the colony came to be, and view a gallery of images from Provincetown over the years, from Mailer’s residence to its current state as a center for creative endeavors.
In 2001, when we were in Moscow together working on a book, my friend Norman Mailer and I often talked about dying. One night Norman was in the kitchen of a friend’s apartment, in an undershirt, cooking, and I was alone, sitting across from him, waiting for dinner. “If I die before you,” I said, “will you be there for [my wife] Kathy? She may need someone like you.”
“You’re not going to die before me,” Norman replied. “I’m older and lived a harder life.”
“No,” I said, “That harder life has made you more fit.”
“And what if I die before you?” he asked me.
“Well I’ll do what needs to be done at the time”.
Norman just looked at me and smiled and went back to cooking pasta.
When I last visited Norman in 2007, he knew that he was dying and that he would not live out the year. He died on November 11, in New York City, and was buried at the tip of Cape Cod, in the Provincetown cemetery. That same evening, at Norman’s home, I was talking to our mutual friend Hans Janitschek.
“So what will happen to the house?” Hans asked me.
“I know one thing: Norman didn’t want it to be lost to history.”
“So will the family keep it?”
As we continued to talk, one of us—I don’t remember who—first used the words “writers’ colony.” And those words stayed there in the air, hovering, as our conversation moved on to other topics.
The next morning, I found myself standing in Norman’s third-floor writing room, which faced west. He would never again climb those 30 steps and sit down at his desk at the end of the room. I surveyed the room: exercise equipment, rarely used; three closets under the eaves stacked with books, not much floor space; a small bed under another eave; more bookshelves crammed with what looked like 2,000 books; folders with labels—-Himmler, Goering, Hitler’s Bunker, Rasputin; a fax machine, a small box with dictionaries in various languages, some almost clawed apart from use.
I felt so alone at that moment. But that feeling reinforced my will to preserve Norman’s legacy. What I first said to Norman in Moscow I would do, I was doing: “I’ll do what needs to be done at the time.”
Within a month, I began laying the groundwork for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, to be established at Norman’s home in Provincetown. The vision of the Colony was to keep alive the endangered serious writer; it would bring writers together for workshops, seminars, lectures, readings, and conferences; provide a space for individual growth; offer fellowships, stipends, and scholarships; reach out to the community and make visiting writers available to schools and organizations; and offer residencies for visiting professionals.
During the 16 weeks of this last summer, the Colony awarded 42 scholarships and seven monthlong Fellowships, And this fall and winter there will be 14 writers-in-residence in Provincetown. On October 20, in New York City we will award the first Norman Mailer Nonfiction Writing awards for high-school and college students in partnership with the National Council of Teachers of English. Toni Morrison will receive the first Norman Mailer Lifetime Achievement Award and Jean Halberstam will accept on behalf of her late husband, David, the Norman Mailer Distinguished Journalism Award.
Günter Grass, Joan Didion, William Kennedy, Gay Talese, and Doris Kearns Goodwin are all part of the advisory committee. Norman left his mark on the literary world, and now, in an outpouring, many of its members are there for him. During Norman’s life he wrote some 50,000 letters, thousands of them were to aspiring and mid-career writers, and many to his distinguished contemporaries. He said what he thought. He never beat around the bush. He even wrote once to the Black Panther member Eldridge Cleaver, giving him advice on a book he was writing.
Soon after Norman was hospitalized at Mount Sinai in 2007, a nurse, knowing who he was, said nervously to him, “I’d like to write, but I don’t know how.”
“What are you doing this weekend?” he asked. “Write about your weekend, bring it to me, and I’ll take a look at it.”
When I returned to visit Norman, he was in the ICU, pencil in hand, editing some text. The same nurse was sitting there at his side, listening in awe to his every word as he went line by line through the typed pages she had given him. Then I knew that the groundwork for the Colony was being laid, without anybody saying a word about it.