Travel with me now through the mists of time to an era when it was still possible for a novelist to occasionally appear on magazine covers and be invited as a guest on late night television shows like Johnny Carson’s and Dick Cavett’s. Seen from the bleachers overlooking the daily nightmare of the Trump presidency, you might call it a more innocent time, although it didn’t feel innocent back then. It was a time that teemed with intellectual and artistic and political ferment, a time when writers picked fights with one another that were covered in the pages of the New York Times, a time when the release of an album by Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or a movie like “Easy Rider” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” could be an earth-shattering event.
One novelist in particular had an uncanny ability to dominate the national conversation. Norman Mailer made the news when he covered an antiwar march on the Pentagon and wrote “The Armies of the Night,” when he picked a fight with fellow novelist Gore Vidal on the Cavett show, when he wrote a magazine cover story on the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, when he bit off a chunk of actor Rip Torn’s ear in a fight during the filming of his underground movie,”Maidstone,” in the Hamptons.
I was a young man back then. Correction: I was an ambitious young man, and I don’t mean “ambitious” in the sense of aspiring to a particular job or career, or making a lot of money, or wanting to achieve elective office. I was ambitious in a way that if less focused, had the same power over me that more conventional drives had over others. If there was a national conversation going on, I didn’t just want to be a part of it, I didn’t just want a voice in the conversation, I wanted to know the people who made the news with what they had to say.
I remember sitting in my room listening to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” holding the album with the photograph of Dylan and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. walking down a wintry Jones Street in the Village, and saying to myself, I’m going to walk down that street, I remember listening to Dylan singing the line, “Lights flickered from the opposite loft,” on “Visions of Johanna,” and thinking, I’ve got to get to know this guy. I want to live in a loft. I remember lying in my bed reading Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself” and “The Deer Park” and “The Naked and the Dead” and “Why Are We in Vietnam?” and thinking, I want to be in that argument. I have to meet this guy.
I didn’t want to just sit on the sidelines reading the books and listening to the music and going to the movies. It wasn’t just fandom or hero worship. I wasn’t interested in their celebrity. I wanted in.
When I was a “plebe” at West Point, I got a subscription to the Village Voice, the weekly newspaper Mailer had founded a decade earlier with Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher, and I started writing letters to the editor. The first letter I wrote got responses the following week from Dwight Macdonald, an anti-war activist and cultural critic, Aryeh Neier, a director and lawyer for the ACLU, and Paul Goodman, a prominent social critic and author of “Growing Up Absurd.” Well, that was a start. A response to another of my letters to the editor from Mailer would come later. I took it as a sign and began to correspond with him by mail. We carried on an ongoing argument — about an article he wrote, or a book he had recommended that I read, or a movie we had both seen, and of course, the war in Vietnam. He was everything his public persona indicated he was: whip-smart, acerbic, brutally direct and, at times, hilarious.
I was having the time of my life writing letters back and forth to one of America’s most famous novelists and public intellectuals when one day I received a letter from Mailer inviting me to an appearance he would be making at the “Theater for Ideas” on Gramercy Park. You see what I mean? This was a time in America when they actually had a goddamn theater where every month or so, very smart people would have intelligent discussions about hot topics in the news and intellectual theories or the state of American politics. It turned out that on this night Mailer would be discussing the state of the American theater on a panel moderated by Voice columnist Nat Hentoff with Paul Goodman and the two people who ran the radical group of performance artists known as The Living Theater, Judith Malina and Julian Beck.
The group had recently put on their controversial play “Paradise Now” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a semi-improvisational piece during which some audience members were invited to sit on the stage and participate in the action. Most famously, during the performance, actors moved through the audience loudly reciting a long list of political and social taboos, and when they got to “nudity,” they disrobed en masse, standing naked in the audience shouting the rest of their list. It was wildly popular.
My girlfriend and I made our way down to Gramercy Park and paid our admission — $10 at the door, including an open bar at the close of the discussion — and took our seats. Mailer and the rest of the panel took the stage, with each of them making an opening statement in turn. I found it peculiar that with five people on the panel, there was only one microphone, which they passed from hand to hand. It became quickly obvious that whoever had the mic was in control of the “discussion,” and the evening soon devolved into Mailer shouting at Julian Beck and Judith Malina shouting at Nat Hentoff with Paul Goodman trying, usually fruitlessly, to get a word in from the sidelines with the audience shouting questions from the floor.
Suddenly, some of the people in the audience began standing and loudly shouting “I am not permitted to speak freely,” and “I cannot smoke marijuana,” and “I cannot feed my family.” They were members of the Living Theater who had been peppered through the audience before the panel began, and of course when they reached, “I cannot be naked,” they began disrobing. People were screaming from the audience. The panelists were fighting over the microphone.
I was eager to get a drink and finally meet Norman Mailer, so I whispered to my girlfriend, pointing to two large speaker cabinets on the theater’s floor on either side of the stage. I knew that on the back of each cabinet would be two thumb screws attaching the wires from the amplifier. I realized that in the madhouse the theater had become, no one would notice us if my girlfriend and I walked up to the front of the theater and bent down and unscrewed the speaker wires. We did it. The microphone went silent, and the discussion of the state of the American theater, such as it was, was over.
Nat Hentoff waved his arms and shouted, “The bar is open,” and the audience began making its way past the now-nude members of the Living Theater, who were still shouting about the freedoms society had refused them. I introduced myself and my girlfriend to Mailer and we stood around and watched as people from the audience accosted him with complaints about remarks he had made that night and essays he had recently published. Mailer seemed in his element, drinking and jousting with the public, but his wife, the actress Beverly Bentley, wasn’t having it. She grabbed him and began dragging him toward the door. My girlfriend and I followed close behind.
By the time they reached the street, Mailer and his wife were arguing loudly. She wanted to leave. He was the object of attention inside, and he didn’t. A cab pulled up, and she opened the back door, shouting at him that if he didn’t get in, he shouldn’t bother coming home tonight. Mailer hesitated, then reluctantly got in, still arguing loudly with his wife. The cab driver was leaning over the seat asking, like cab drivers did back then, “Where to, Mac?” Mailer was yelling at his wife, ignoring him, so the cab was just sitting there with the back door open. I figured, wherever they’re going has got to be better than anything I had planned, which was nothing, so I helped my girlfriend into the back seat and I opened the cab’s front passenger door and slid in.
Mailer and his wife were still fighting and didn’t even notice we were there. The cab driver, yelling over their argument, asked “Where to, Mac?” again, and Mailer paused long enough to give him an address on East 72nd Street, and the driver threw the meter and drove away. We had traveled blocks uptown before Mailer noticed my girlfriend sitting next to him and me in the front seat. He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders and started in again with his wife.
When the cab pulled to a stop, we were at the very eastern end of 72nd Street in front of a townhouse. We followed Mailer and his wife up a flight of stairs and into a large living room, with windows overlooking the East River, that was filled with people standing around talking with drinks in their hands. It was a party, and soon a tall, smiling man approached Mailer and welcomed him. It was George Plimpton, and this was his house and without having a clue about where we were going, we had ended up at one of his legendary parties.
Mailer introduced me to Plimpton, and Plimpton graciously introduced himself to my girlfriend and welcomed us in. Mailer and his wife were soon spied by friends and drifted away on a cushion of bonhomie and fame. My girlfriend and I made our way to the bar and got drinks and took in the scene. We didn’t know a soul, but haute literary New York was in attendance: There was Gay Talese, over by one of the windows. Truman Capote was sitting on a sofa talking to a woman as thin as a lampstand. Kurt Vonnegut was nearby, looking studiously morose.
At the street end of the room was a pool table. I recognized one of the guys playing pool. It was Ed Sanders, the poet, founder of the magazine, “Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts,” and the lead singer of the Fugs, which was named, purposefully and ironically, after the word Mailer was made to substitute for “fuck” in the pages of “The Naked and the Dead.” I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and we walked over to the pool table and I introduced myself and asked if I could have the next game. Ed gave me a big smile, and said, “You’re the guy from West Point who’s been writing in the Voice, aren’t you?” I had recently written my first front-page story in the Voice and glowing with accomplishment said yes. He showed me where the cues were, I picked one, and we started to play. We were among the last to leave.
From that night on, we were fast friends. Shortly after the party, Ed wrote me a letter inviting me to a poetry reading at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. A few years later, in 1972, when I was on assignment covering the Republican National Convention, I saw him and Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman leading street protests by the Yippies. The next year, we drove to Washington together and attended the first three days of the Senate Watergate hearings.
Nine years after that, Ed called me up one day and asked, “You still do hambone?” This was a folk tradition of keeping rhythm by rapidly slapping your thighs and chest I had learned in high school in Kansas. I answered yes. “How would you like to play hambone with us at the Mudd Club in a couple of weeks?’ I said, “You mean with the Fugs?” “Yeah, we’re getting back together for a night. You should come. We’ll have fun.” I practically swallowed my tongue saying yes.
That’s me in the photograph in the foreground, sitting on a chair doing hambone with Ed in the background singing lead. That’s how my dream came true: I was a Fug for one night at the Mudd Club.