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The Future President and the Novelist: When Norman Mailer Met John F. Kennedy

Richard Bradford on Political Mythmaking and Self-Delusion

Norman Mailer had been writing for Esquire for three years, a magazine that was split between soft-core verbal pornography and photographs and an affiliation to radical causes, notably the Beats and hipsterdom. It began to serialize Advertisements for Myself immediately before publication in 1959.

A few months later its features editor, Clay Felker, visited the Five Spot Café in New York, and the head waiter, assuming that he had come to meet Mailer, who was already there having drinks with Adele, her sister, Joanne, and Mickey Knox, guided him to their table. They had hardly spoken before, but Felker had read extracts from Advertisements for Myself, and he asked Mailer how he intended to cover the 1960 presidential election: a series of articles? a book? Disingenuously Mailer stated he hadn’t thought about it, and Felker suggested that he should go to Los Angeles to write about the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

He flew there with Felker, and the latter recalled that his companion’s first encounter with John Kennedy marked an “epiphany,” which Mailer later described for Manso: “He was in the back seat of an open car, his face suntanned, and there was a crowd of gays on the other side of Pershing Park, all applauding, going crazy, while the convention itself was filled with the whole corrupt trade-union Mafia Democratic machine. And I could feel these two worlds come together” (Manso, p. 305).

Or, as he had put it in “From Surplus Value to Mass-Media,” “If there is a future for the radical spirit, which often enough one can doubt, it can come only from a new revolutionary vision of society, its sicknesses, its strengths, its conflicts, contradictions and radiations…” Felker asked him to write a leading article on Kennedy, which would eventually be called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” In Mailer’s view, Kennedy’s campaign and, he hoped, victory would be a crossroads in the history of twentieth-century politics and culture. One passage is particularly striking:

Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull…and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation. (The Presidential Papers, p. 38)

This opens with what appears to be a straightforward observation, if couched in rather opaque language. By “double life” he seems to refer to a division between those who had survived the depression largely unscathed and others who remain horribly damaged in its aftermath. He does not refer to any statistics let alone economic assessments of America three decades after the recession. Rather the “underground” of US society is a projection of the hyperbole of “The White Negro.”

Who, one wonders, will be able to channel the “subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires” into the body politic? Who would become “the fleshing of the romantic prescription”? Supposedly, this figure is John F. Kennedy, but the “double life” Mailer refers to is an accurate though inadvertent portrayal of his own shifts between ambition and self-delusion. Quite soon he would attempt to make up for Kennedy’s failings as the political messiah.

They advised him that any misgivings Mailer might have about Kennedy would be sidelined if he was convinced that Kennedy admired his books.

Mailer worked on the article in Provincetown during July and August 1960. Felker decided that it had the potential to increase the esteem of Esquire nationwide and allowed him at least 13,000 words, most of a single issue. This was the run-up to an election in which one candidate was seen as the most liberal and left-leaning since Henry A. Wallace, founder of the Progressive Party, and this profile of him by his equal, at least in the intelligentsia, was seen as something that would influence undecided centrist voters. There was already gossip and speculation among those in the media and the press, and this led to exchanges between Felker and two of Kennedy’s advisors, Peter Maas and Pierre Salinger, on the possibility of a meeting.

The Kennedy family home in Hyannis Port is about an hour by car from Provincetown, and Mailer was informed by Felker that Kennedy had agreed to do an interview, including the preferred date and time at less than a day ahead. He had almost completed the article, but this one-to-one would make it unique. He arrived in a suit and tie “sweating like a goat” and was greeted by Maas, whom he’d met once or twice in New York, Salinger and Prince Radziwill, husband of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Caroline, all of whom were casually dressed in open shirts and cotton trousers, as was Kennedy when Mailer sat down in his office, “tense at the pit of my stomach.”

If Mailer made notes none survive, but it was later disclosed that Kennedy, originally reluctant to do the interview, was briefed in advance by Salinger and Maas on Mailer’s reputation as an ideological wildcard. They advised him that any misgivings Mailer might have about Kennedy would be sidelined if he was convinced that Kennedy admired his books. Kennedy was told to first express his enthusiasm for The Deer Park, which some critics had treated as pornographic, rather than the safe option of The Naked and the Dead.

There is no evidence that Kennedy had read either novel, but Maas had cleverly picked out features of both that would persuade Mailer that he had. Mailer left the Kennedy compound exhilarated by the idea that the potential future president liked his work. On the way out the likely First Lady introduced herself and invited him to drive back the following day so that she and her husband could talk again, adding that she would like to meet his wife.

One moment that Mailer recalls from the interview involved them talking of an election poster he’d brought with him. In part it was a reproduction of one put together by the Democrat campaign team featuring a picture of Nixon looking swarthy and devious, with a speech bubble: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” The new version was a retaliation from the Republicans, and included a photograph of Kennedy—handsome, smiling with his beautiful wife—with the caption: “However, if you bought the car from Jack Kennedy, you would trust him and you would buy the car, and then after you’d bought the car, he’d drop by to pay a visit and see how it was working, and then he’d seduce your wife.” At the time Kennedy’s taste for infidelity, often with actresses supplied by the so-called “rat pack” media clique and sometimes by mobsters, was a reasonably well-kept secret among his political closed circle, but the Republican’s piece aroused suspicions within the Kennedy set that stories were circulating among the press.

In truth, this was the principal reason that Mailer had been invited to talk with Kennedy. The campaign team were aware that Mailer was on good terms with both conservative and radical media outlets; they wanted to know what he knew and if necessary to enlist him as an infiltrator. Kennedy asked Mailer, “I don’t really know what that means, do you?” (Dearborn, p. 151). Kennedy did his best to sound genuinely puzzled, but beneath his calmness he was anxious, and it was at this moment that he excused himself, left Mailer with the clipping, and next door asked his wife to interrupt Mailer when he left and invite him back. Kennedy assumed that if Mailer and Adele felt they had become honorary members of the elect they would be very willing to share information on rumors circulating in the media. Mailer swore he knew nothing and commented only that, compared with the shifty-looking Nixon, Kennedy was photogenic and had a taste for smart suits. Clearly, he was unaware of any Kennedy family secrets, but it was too late for John to ask Jacqueline not to issue the invitation.

Adele, in a state of shock, spent the evening and early morning thinking about what to wear. Mailer dressed down in accordance with his hosts and found himself racing towards the Kennedy house not knowing how Adele would be received or what had prompted this precipitous second meeting. This time Jacqueline had been briefed, and she stunned Adele by telling her that, apparently, she had seen her work in New York galleries. She showed Adele some of her own paintings and gave the impression that, by comparison, she was but an amateur.

He creates for him a personality cult, assembled from fragments of biography, mostly verifiable but sometimes exaggerated.

“Superman Comes to the Supermarket” sent sales of Esquire beyond 10,000; a reprint of the issue was done because of the impact of the piece. Mailer made it clear that Kennedy would be America’s savior: “one [Nixon] was sober, the apotheosis of opportunistic lead, all radium spent, the other [Kennedy] handsome as a prince in the unstated aristocracy of the American dream” (MoO, p. 143). What Mailer does not make clear is how exactly this man would rescue America from its various ills. Instead, he creates for him a personality cult, assembled from fragments of biography, mostly verifiable but sometimes exaggerated. A war hero whose courage and tenacity touches upon the suicidal, a man whose life seems to have been clogged by catastrophe—an almost disabling back problem when at college, suspected leukemia and a severe gastrointestinal illness, among other ailments—but who drove himself forward through service for his country and a career in politics, as if sensing that a colossal destiny awaited him. And, in Mailer’s portrait, he looked the part—”handsome as a prince.”

…only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation; a hero embodies the fantasy and so allows each private mind the liberty to consider its fantasy and find a way to grow. Each mind can become more conscious of its desire and waste less strength in hiding from itself. (MoO, p. 125)

This kind of conjectural hyperbole was the keynote of Mailer’s writing for a decade, involving no practical solutions to the problems facing the world’s most powerful nation. Nonetheless, he ventures a few examples of the figures which embody his complex notion of the political hero: Roosevelt, Churchill, Lenin, de Gaulle and Hitler all feature. The latter is, he concedes, “odious,” yet he “gave outlet to the energies of the Germans.”

Amusingly, when he and Felker were discussing the piece, Mailer confessed that he was apprehensive about doing an article on realpolitik—”the only political writing I know anything about is Marx”—and his understanding of Marxism was questionable, to say the least. He confessed to being flattered by Kennedy’s admiration for his novels and stated that even if, as rumored, “Kennedy was briefed…(which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers” (MoO, p. 130). Here he implies that their brief encounters would be the beginning of something like a partnership.

Pete Hamill of The New York Post commented that “It [“Superman Comes to the Supermarket”] went through journalism like a wave…Norman took political journalism beyond what the best guys—Mencken, Teddy White, Richard Rovere—had done.” He meant that it was a transformational moment during the pioneering years of New Journalism, important because its visionary speculations came from a person who had actually spoken with Kennedy. Its influence on the way people would write, let alone vote, was slight compared with its effect on its author. Mailer believed that he had found “the one ingredient” that made Kennedy electable, that he had, through the essay, convinced Adlai Stevenson’s team to give the Kennedy campaign their belated support.

He “had a feeling that if there were a power which made presidents” then he personally had harnessed it, “that is what I thought … [and] I still do” (The Presidential Papers, pp. 60, 89). Following Kennedy’s election, by the narrowest of margins, Mailer remained convinced that he would soon be contacted by the White House and invited to become an advisor or consultant for the administration. No such invitation arrived, but he persuaded himself that his new role as a man who could influence politics by writing about it would enable him to become a version of Kennedy.

Shortly after the election Mailer met H. L. “Doc” Humes, chairman of the Citizens’ Emergency Committee, a group set up to contest criminal cases against political subversives and black people in New York. The city had enabled its law enforcers to constrain selected theatre performances, cabarets and jazz events by requiring those involved to carry licenses and identity cards. Otherwise, the events could be closed down and performers could be faced with arrest. A large number of those detained were black musicians or people involved in Beat culture and related leftist causes. This crackdown was a spin-off from the McCarthy anti-communist neuroses of the early 1950s, flavored by fears of left-wing involvement in the civil rights movement in the Southern states and most of all from the sense of anxiety felt in America by a communist revolution taking place only a hundred miles off the coast of Florida.

Humes’s The Underground City (1958) is a sprawling experimental novel that makes Mailer’s fictional and non-fictional explorations of creative psychopathy seem conservative. The two men got on well, and while Humes admired Mailer’s presentation of Kennedy, he also convinced him that the new president would, despite his best intentions, remain an instrument of the political and economic establishment. What was needed, he argued, was a figure who would stand out as the president’s junior revolutionary consort; part rival, part ally.

The Citizens’ Emergency Committee was also vocal in its support for Castro’s attempts to overthrow Batista in Cuba. Even before his election, in the months between summer and autumn 1959, Kennedy had spoken publicly about sending a “relief force” to Cuba. At the time the Soviet Union had hardly heard of the place, but the American political establishment feared that it would soon become a Caribbean version of the Soviet bloc, a communist outpost adjacent to US democracy.

Mailer was appalled by Kennedy’s stance and wrote to his advisor Arthur Schlesinger instructing him that if the candidate pursued a politically aggressive policy, following his hoped-for electoral victory, the consequences would be “tragic,” involving “some yet undefined Marine corps lumpen proletariat for the invasion of Cuba… a chilling [but] perhaps forgivable mistake due to the excesses of campaigning” (Mailer to Schlesinger, 28 October 1960). That he expected Schlesinger, and Kennedy, to take him seriously testifies to his delusional condition. As late as 1999 he commented that “I wanted to be an advisor…I felt that, you know, I might have a certain talent for it” (Lennon, p. 274).

He persuaded himself that his new role as a man who could influence politics by writing about it would enable him to become a version of Kennedy.

Within two days of his letter to Schlesinger, Mailer decided to use Cuba as a central issue in his decision to stand in the New York City mayoral election of 1961. He discussed his candidacy with Irving Howe and several on the editorial team of Dissent, who were tolerant enough until he announced his intention “to establish New York as the West Berlin of the world.” The Berlin Wall had yet to go up, and Mailer idealized the western part of the city as quasi-autonomous and politically unaffiliated, his model for New York City.

He followed this by reading them his “Open Letter to Fidel Castro,” which requested that the revolutionary leader form an alliance with him in an “existential campaign” so that voters would sense the potential for New York City as, along with Cuba, “a force in the world.” He added that he had recently despatched a signed version to “Comrade Fidel.” Howe, rather stunned, advised him as diplomatically as possible that this policy might not win over too many middle-class voters, who were principally concerned with local taxation.

Nonetheless, Mailer continued to refer to the letter throughout his campaign, despite having received no reply from Cuba. He praised Castro “for sending the wind of new rebellion to our lungs.” Most significantly, he compares the tyranny of Batista with the ongoing authoritarian politics of America. “In Cuba, hatred runs over into the love of blood; in America all too few blows are struck into flesh.” But he promises that he will inspire his fellow repressed citizens into acts of physical violence. He does not give a particularly clear account of who would suffer these attacks or to what end, but the rambling verbosity of the piece—threats of brutality strung together with jargon from Marx, existentialism, etc.—was more or less consistent with the material he had produced over the previous five years.

The difference this time, however, was that he promised to implement them as leader of America’s most powerful metropolis. In the parts that were relatively coherent he laid out the nature of his active constituency, those he would inspire as his agents of savagery: the disenfranchised in general, and in particular, prostitutes, runaways, the homeless, drug addicts, recreational junkies, “Negroes,” criminals of every hue, and of course hipsters. While most treated his journalism as both entertaining and the harmless rants of a publicity-hungry novelist, he was now putting himself forward as the political incarnation of mass, cure-all barbarity.

During the few weeks between the publication of Advertisements for Myself and the beginning of his campaign, Mailer sent letters to, among others, Stephen Spender, John Brosnan, John Cheever, T. S. Eliot and Jackie Kennedy. His topics were various but each was underpinned by his assumption of his great potency and, more absurdly, that his correspondents would take him seriously. The ostensible subject of his letter to Eliot was the refusal of André Deutsch, the British publisher of Advertisements for Myself, to include “The Time of Her Time” in their edition.

They were reluctant to do so because of its vivid emphasis on sex. Eliot was not directly involved with Deutsch, but Mailer assumed that they would listen to one of the most eminent figures in London publishing, who would address them on behalf of the mayor-elect of America’s greatest city. He introduced himself to Eliot as “Prince Mailer the Norman of Principath to T. S. Lord King of Eliot, Impervious to Compassion, Blind by Pride, Royal as a Royal Roach who has Earned his Place which is High…do challenge your inflexible taste by presenting the fruits of my orchard and the war of my castle” (October 1960). He closes with “Do answer. No answer is war, and one would detest that.” But there is no record of a reply from T. S. Lord King of Eliot.

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Excerpted from Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford. Copyright © 2023. Available from Bloomsbury Caravel, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Richard Bradford
Richard Bradford
Richard Bradford is Research Professor in English at Ulster University and Visiting Professor at the University of Avignon, France. He has published over thirty widely acclaimed books, including biographies of Philip Larkin, Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, George Orwell and a controversial portraiture of Patricia Highsmith. Bradford has written for The Spectator and The Sunday Times and has appeared on the Channel 4 series In Their Own Words: British Novelists.





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