PROLOGUE: COCK OF THE WALK
He was to go on in ten minutes, and the air in the room was charged. Over five hundred people eddied around the Four Seasons, the legendary dining spot on Manhattan's East Fifty-second Street. Near the buffet tables -- covered with silver trays of Hungarian goulash, quiche Lorraine, paté with hazelnuts -- the jazz harpist Daphne Hellman plucked her instrument, which was nearly inaudible over the party noise. Avant-garde composer and musician David Amram and his quartet played on the mezzanine, and a country and western group called the Foodstamps waited in the wings, to perform after midnight when the guests, it was hoped, would want to dance. At his side stood his assistant, Suzanne Nye, whom the columnists called his "great friend"; Carol Stevens, his mistress and the mother of his youngest child, was elsewhere in the room, as were his current wife, number four, Beverly, and his second wife, Adele, the one he had stabbed and nearly killed fourteen years before. His third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, with Paris Review editor Frank Crowther, had planned this evening; four of his seven children, and his mother, Fanny, were present. The buzz in the restaurant was tremendous: invitations had promised an announcement of "a subject of national importance (major)." It was Norman Mailer's fiftieth birthday party, and anything might happen.
The suspense had been building for weeks, ever since the five thousand invitations for the February 5, 1973, event, elegantly designed on purple paper, had gone out. The invitation had raised eyebrows: it stipulated an admission fee, to be donated to something called the "Fifth Estate" -- what this might be was not specified -- of fifty dollars a couple, or thirty dollars per person. As Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn later commented, "In Manhattan, nobody who's anybody ever pays to go to a party." In 1973, charity events were staid affairs, drawing mostly established Upper East Siders, and for the art openings that drew the hippest crowds extra passes were always available. Usually the press simply stayed away from parties that charged admission. Many invited guests elected to boycott Norman's party. But as the date approached, checks flooded in to the suite at the Algonquin Hotel where Lady Jeanne and Crowther were managing the arrangements.
Norman and Carol Stevens had arrived at the Algonquin from their home in the Berkshires around noon, hoping to rest before the party. But calls kept coming in all afternoon. Some were from theater people who had Monday night off and heard there was to be some action at the Four Seasons. The press, undeterred by the admission fee, was clamoring to get in. Calls came from the New York Times, Newsweek, Women's Wear Daily, the Detroit Free Press, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Oui, and from French, German, Italian, Canadian, and Japanese publications. The Four Seasons called: columnists Leonard Lyons, Suzy, Earl Wilson, and Eugenia Shepherd refused to come unless the entrance fee was waived. Would Mr. Mailer make an exception in their case? (He would.) Shirley MacLaine called to ask if she could bring Jack Lemmon. Actor Alan Bates and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, something of an enfant terrible after the recent release of Last Tango in Paris, were in town and wanted invitations. Senator George McGovern had sent in a check but was forced to cancel after learning that his wife had arranged a dinner party for that evening. Gloria Steinem, who had stood by Norman through the contretemps he created with his 1971 contribution to the dialogue on feminism, The Prisoner of Sex (and whom Norman had once taken to bed, unsuccessfully), called to send her regrets but added, "Tell Norman it's been a breathless ten years" in the interval since she'd met him.
"This is his answer to Truman Capote's party," a Women's Wear Daily writer was overheard to say that evening, referring to Capote's celebrated black-and-white ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966. (On that occasion Norman had appeared with Beverly and had distinguished himself by asking national security adviser McGeorge Bundy to step outside.) Others were not so sure what this party was all about. A joke circulated that Norman would announce his upcoming vasectomy, to be paid for by the admission fees. Others speculated that the guests' money would fund the writer's considerable alimony and child support payments. Many, remembering Mailer's run for mayor of New York City in 1969 -- an often inspired campaign, with a disappointing finish -- speculated that he might announce another election bid.
Lily Tomlin, making her way past two burly bodyguards borrowed frrom the Rolling Stones, told a reporter that she supposed she had been invited "out of the telephone book, like everybody else here." This wasn't quite truuuuue: a small coterie of Mailer's close friends was present: boxers Jose Torres and Joe Shaw; historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and his statuesque blond wife, Alexandra; writer and editor George Plimpton; former campaign staffers Joe Flaherty and Jack Banning; writer Dotson Rader, escorting Princess Diane von Furstenberg; journalists Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, and Murray Kempton; and cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy. But few guests knew each other, though many faces seemed familiar. Flashbulbs popped as photographers caught such personages as A&P heir Huntington Hartford, restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, New York magazine editor Clay Felker, writers Larry McMurtry and Jessica Mitford, filmmaker Melvin von Peebles, musicians Charles Mingus and Bobby Short, former senator Eugene McCarthy, actor Rod Steiger, New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff, artist Andy Warhol, and Senator Jacob Javits and his wife, Marion.
Those who remembered Mailer's parties of the past might have expected a raucous brawl. There was the party at a Lower East Side loft where Norman was clubbed by invading neighborhood youths; the 1960 affair at which street thugs mingled with celebrities and Norman stabbed Adele; the nonstop party that was the filming of Mailer's Maidstone in 1968; and countless parties at his Brooklyn Heights home or his summer place in Provincetown that had ended in fistfights, head butting, and general mayhem. Still, though this seemed to be a sober affair by comparison, expectations ran high. Nobody left before the "announcement." Near midnight, after an hour or two of milling about, the partygoers drew near a makeshift dais when columnist Jimmy Breslin, who as candidate for comptroller had shared a ticket with Mailer in his run for mayor of New York, appeared with a microphone. Ascending the dais, he called the crowd to order, complaining of the noise: "Hey, what is this? The place sounds like a Reform Democratic club over a Chinese restaurant on Broadway." He introduced Norman as "the one person whose ideas will last" and as "one of the half-dozen original thinkers in this century." Norman took the dais. Dressed in a blue shirt and tux, his hair in a modest pepper-and-salt "Jewish Afro," he cut a rumpled, paunchy figure. Under a spotlight, waving a fresh bourbon-and-ice in his left hand and pumping his right fist at his side, he immediately put his guests on the defensive. "Can everyone hear? Then I know if I hear people talking, they are simply not interested in what I have to say. All right. Must size up the opposition." He continued, trying to warm to his subject, "I want to say I've discovered tonight why Nixon is president. Tonight I found myself photographed more times than I can count. You see green, you see red, and then you see your own mortality. Now I know why Richard Nixon is president. He has gristle behind the retina." The remark was met with mild laughter. It hadn't made much sense, but he'd eased a little