My Dinner with Norman

In the fall of 2006  Norman Mailer invited me to visit him at his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts .  We had been corresponding for nine years at the time, exchanging a few letters each year.  Our friendship began in 1997 when I wrote him a letter about his new book Picasso as a Young Man,  my letter was quite long.  In it I discussed many aspects of Picasso’s life as written in Norman’s book and concluded with a discussion of Cubism, a topic on which I had lectured at Harvard, USC, and many other places.  To my amazement, Norman wrote back, a two page, single-spaced typed letter, in which he said my criticism of his book was the finest he received from any publication in the country and he appreciated it very much and….if I was such an expert on Cubism that I should write a book on it.  This was a challenge too potent to deny and I proceeded to write this book, Station Point, Two Steps Publishing Co. 1998,  Norman coached me on the text at a few milestones and helped greatly with his editing suggestions.  On the weekend of my visit,  I flew into Boston, spent the night at the Harvard Faculty Club and on the following day I rented a car and made the four hour drive out to P-town.  I arrived in the late afternoon and appeared at the door of Norman’s beautiful brick house (mansion - a former nunnery).  His gorgeous wife Norris (former couture model, author of Windchill Summer - a superb novel) answered the door, invited me in and informed Norman of my arrival.  I busted out in a massive grin and overcame my nervousness at being in the presence of my favorite writer, philosopher, American public figure . I began reading Norman’s work as a nineteen year old and felt he was the only writer who understood and wrote so clearly about the passionate chaos of my childhood family life.  His writing was a bright light  in the emotional/intellectual turbulence.  Norman had a great big smile himself and welcomed me in, Norris left us and Norman invited me into his den with a big row of picture windows that looked out on Boston Harbor.  Norman asked my what drink I preferred and upon hearing scotch, he opened a new bottle of a great single malt, 25 year old Balvenie,  We began a conversation about writers and critics and art and after finishing our drinks,  Norman mentioned that he made a reservation for dinner at Provincetown’s finest restaurant for us.  Norris was working on her next novel, Cheap Diamonds,  and bowed out of joining us.  It was fun to walk into a public place with a big celebrity and sense the heads turning and the whispering.  Norman was greeted by the hostess as a distinguished local citizen rather than a big star.  Our dinner lasted for four hours, we shut the place down.  Once the conversation began it just stormed like a hurricane over a hundred different subjects.  Norman recounted his experience as a movie director (four films) and likened it to being a general in the Army.  He savored the total command  of organizing a movie production, opposed to his status as a private in the real Army during WW II.  We discussed Muhammad Ali, Ryan O’Neil, Isabella Rossellini, both of whom appeared in one of Norman’s movies.  Norman was surprised to hear that my father had been married two more times than himself,  five for Norman, seven for my dad-ouch! Who were those women? Maaaa - meatloaf ma!    My mother (my father's first wife - fifteen years)  was only married three times.  We talked about going to school at Harvard.  We talked about the Kennedys who Norman was close to when Jack Kennedy was running for president.  My Kennedy experience was limited to passing Caroline on a very long snowy path across some Harvard real estate over a winter break.  Here comes someone on the narrow path through the snow,  off in the distance, it’s a woman, the path isn’t wide enough for both of us, she’s getting closer, she’s wearing a long black overcoat.  I’m going to have to turn sideways at some point to let this woman brush past, It’s Caroline Kennedy! We smiled at each other, passed and continued on our way.  One morning at Elsie’s Café I was sitting at the counter eating breakfast after running my daily thirty flights of stairs at Harvard stadium.  Joe Kennedy and his entourage walk in.  I’m facing a large African-American waitress whose face lights up like she’s staring at Jesus himself - I turn around and there stands a smiling, laser blue-eyed Kennedy.  It was wild to see the effect on the staff - the place went electric.  The only other time I’d seen cosmic scale charisma like that was the night Rick Derringer and his entourage crowded to the front of a line at a Dave Brubeck concert in Cleveland the night before they opened for Aerosmith at a local arena.  During our conversation, I told Norman a story about an Army experience of mine and he laughed, said it was a classic and insisted that I write it.  Here is that story.

In 1971 I was a buck sergeant in the Army, three stripes.  Not an insignificant rank in the world of enlisted men.  I was twenty years old and in charge of the graphic design office at the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters at Fort Bragg North Carolina.  My duties included preparing slide shows for visiting foreign heads of state that instructed them on the features of modern U.S. Army airborne operations.  I once walked past Joseph Mobutu, president of Zaire,  as he chatted with some generals after one of these presentations.  I also drew a cartoon each week for the Fort Bragg newspaper, The Paraglide, I painted large, humorous portraits of retiring colonels that were presented at their banquets and on the side I painted large pictures for top sergeants to hang in their homes and I jumped out of a plane once a month.  I had a great stereo hooked up in my office where my hardworking staff of six could listen to the latest Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Ten Years After, Santana, Dylan, Janis, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Cocker, The Band,  etc.  The walls of this office were covered with my drawings and paintings.  This was a command center for the counterculture in the belly of the beast,  as the XVIII Airborne Corps is the headquarters group for the 82d Airborne division (known at the time as the “Jumping Junkies).  Lots of officers and enlisted men in the headquarters building liked to hang out in my office and during evenings where the lights were on until my hand cramped up from drawing,  usually around eleven. I listened to many very wild war stories from Vietnam on some of those nights.   None of the high ranking officers in the building seemed to mind the tenor of my office as long as we turned out great slide show material which we did,  thanks to Curt Moore, Joe Cusumano and Tommy Budzinski.  Ray Higley would stop by from G-2 (Army Intelligence) for advice on his architecture and love poems and Jerome Smith was a regular with tales of growing up in the Cleveland Ghetto and his fifty five victories as a light heavyweight Army boxer.  Smitty was a sparring partner of Cassius Clay during preparation for the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

In May of 1971,  Army troops from Fort Bragg and Marines from Camp Le Jeune were airlifted to Washington D.C. to subdue student anti-war protesters who threatened to shut down the federal government with a “Mayday ‘71“ event.  The protester's motto: “ If the government won’t stop the war - we’ll stop the government“.  Many tens of thousands of protesters were led by Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden , Lee Weiner etc.  After we landed at Andrews Air force Base, the troops from the XVIII Airborne Corps rode in  trucks to Fort Mc Henry near the capitol.  My job was to prepare large battle- maps with many  plastic overlays of tactical troop movements that involved countering stated strategies of the protesters to shut down traffic in the city.   The protesters printed up a very useful (to the Federal troops) “Tactical Manual” that listed the twenty one key bridges and traffic circles they intended to snarl.   Areas that I was working on  involved these roadways as well as the Pentagon, The Washington Monument, The Lincoln Memorial and many others.  I used colored grease pencil and Chartpak tape to create large red and green arrows indicating troop movements and chopper landing zones just as if we were in a foreign war. After working all day on these maps in the basement of the Fort Mc Henry Command Center, I was hanging around for further instructions in a  large day-room where ten or so top Army and Marine generals and colonels who had gathered in a semi-circle on folding chairs to watch the ten o’ clock news on a little black and white television.  After watching footage of large masses of students on the streets with thousands getting arrested (13,000 total)  the newscaster stood next to Rennie Davis, the chief organizer of the march and its appointed leader.  Rennie was a little, frail looking, long-haired, young guy wearing John Lennon glasses.  After Rennie spoke, a gruff Marine general sitting near me leaned forward, pulled his cigar out of his mouth and jabbing it at the tv screen said:  “You mean to tell me we flew 70,000 troops to Washington D.C. for that skinny little prick!”  Norman found this greatly amusing.

See drawing done at 3:00 AM  while guarding the Top Secret Library - XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, NC - 1970  (listening to "Truth" album by Jeff Beck at "Artwork" this blog  "Kooper Rico Ratso"