Not a Liar or a Hypocrite: Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer

I was sad to hear that author, playwright, commentator, etc. Gore Vidal passed away Tuesday from complications from pneumonia. Vidal was a rare breed who was able to be intellectual, thought-provoking, controversial, and a celebrity all at the same time. Popular culture often takes the easy well-worn path down to a common denominator, but Vidal was able to be both smart and entertaining, whether one agreed with him or not.

I have enjoyed several of his books, including his historical novel Lincoln and his collection of fascinating essays in United States. But when I heard he died, my first thought was of his famous feud with Norman Mailer that was brilliantly captured in December 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show. It was an exchange between two men you would not expect to see on television today. Several years ago, Slate even suggested the confrontation be made into a play.

Mailer was drunk and had head-butted Vidal in the green room before the appearance as revenge for Vidal’s negative book review of Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex. In the review, Vidal wrote that Mailer — along with Henry Miller and Charles Manson — were part of “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women.” Mailer took the criticism as a reference to an incident where he was arrested in 1960 for stabbing his wife with a penknife. The two writers continued the argument in front of the audience with Cavett and writer Janet Flanner in the middle. . .

Well, okay, it is a little like reality TV, but with two great writers and intellectual giants of their generation. Note that after Mailer called Vidal a “liar and a hypocrite,” he then pointed to Vidal’s reference to the wife-stabbing. Vidal responded with great wit, “But that wasn’t a lie or a hypocrisy.” Ouch.

And we are still talking about it decades later, as Cavett wrote about the interview in a 2007 essay about the experience in The New York Times. In the article, Cavett noted that both Vidal and Mailer returned to his show again, but he never had them on the same show again. Although the two writers never became great friends, they did not remain enemies. Mailer later explained, “We pass, and like two old whores on the street, say ‘Still at it, Norm?’ ‘Yep. Still at it, Gore?’ ” Unfortunately for us, neither man is still at it, but we can still read and debate their stories and their ideas, and that is not a bad legacy. RIP Mr. Vidal.

Who do you think wins the exchange? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Bryan Cranston As LBJ in “All the Way” (Short Review)
  • Ned Miller: The Shy Man Behind “From a Jack to a King”
  • Merle Haggard: “Kern River”
  • Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog
  • B.B. King: “Why I Sing the Blues”
  • RIP Percy Sledge: “When a Man Loves a Woman”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)