Wednesday, November 21, 2007
It was a chilly fall evening on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in Manhattan and I was passing out flyers for a New York premiere of a play I was acting in written by the newly elected President of Chekoslovakia, Vaclav Havel.
Inside the walls of the Cathedral was an evening of the who's who of New York, because the guest of honor was Mr. Havel. Accompanying him would be music performed by Paul Simon along with a line of celebrity limos wrapped around the architectural wonder.
As I approached the steps in my worn black leather jacket and unkempt artsy attire, the first person I happened upon, to hand an invite to, was none other than Norman Mailer. It was the early 1990s and already he was carefully hobbling down the steep incline.
Upon my greeting, he was at first gruff and somewhat dismissive, as if I were handing him a menu to a local deli. Then, realizing what I was offering, he softened and became interested in the play. Our conversation wasn’t very long and I told him about it hoping he could make it. He said he would try, but I knew he made his home in Provincetown and given the gait at which he was taking the steps, wasn’t hopeful about holding him a seat.
I say all of this because what was to follow on that night was an evening of paparazzi flashbulbs and swank movie stars shuttled in through the backdoor of the house of prayer. It was a night I was to remember because never before had I seen so many stars from various categories, musicians, actors, writers all strutting by with a swagger and style that was like something out of a dream. They truly glistened with a sheen as if Annie Liebowitz was spraying the air with her magic, airbrushed fairy dust.
At that youthful time in my life, there had been a few books that truly hit me and made an impact like no other. One in particular had as one of its themes, the celebritification of a killer seen through the dark lens of our media culture – The Executioner’s Song.
By coming out some ten years earlier, it pre-saged the cultish following our paparazzi obsessed civilization, would endow the media.
With Executioner, Mailer’s tender prose and simple styling was like looking into a clear western sunset. He allowed us to see and observe something that was normally impossible, prohibitive and off limits. It was a fire that was so powerful and dangerous, yet through him, one could feel Gary Gilmore’s breath.
Having drunk in that night, I remember how it tasted like nectar and how my ears were ringing at the alter of Simon’s guitar. People were aglow in that cavernous house of the spirit as vibes were being channeled, ricocheting off the stone walls.
Mailer had greeted me as I passed into a world beyond belief that night, just as he’d let so many readers into his amazing imagination.
His style of New Journalism had already blurred the line between fact and news and gave the latter half of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary events a perspective that was dangerous, anarchic and sublime from the moonwalk and Vietnam to political conventions to the CIA.
While many of his enchantments were disappointing, when he was on fire he crackled and lit up the page, taking us on a path through an underside of a world not normally seen.
His final literary descent bathed us in Hitler’s wicked gene pool, where readers came face to face with the devil himself. Mailer intended to continue The Castle In The Forest. So how fitting, how mythic of him not to return after descending the lower depths.
Now he’ll always remain for me standing at the gates of that castle, that cathedral, beckoning us to go within.