Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer Credit: Carl Van Vechten

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Back in the days when famous writers were rock stars, nobody rocked harder than Norman Mailer. From the 1960s on, he was a familiar figure on TV talk shows, from high-brow (William F. Buckley) to middle-brow (Dick Cavett) to low-middle-brow (Merv Griffin). He could be a charming raconteur or a petulant crank depending on his mood and who was in the room. “Norman Mailer is one of the leading spectator sports in America,” said Merv, introducing the author on a 1968 show that included a ventriloquist.

Mailer’s TV appearances were sparring matches where he settled scores with old enemies like Gore Vidal. He was as unpredictable as the exotic animals clawing Johnny Carson’s suit, and just as prickly. He mixed brilliant insights and petty insults. He reveled in controversy.

It’s fitting that what may have been Mailer’s greatest writer-as-rock-star performance happened live onstage in October 1967 at a D.C. rock ’n’ roll venue, the Ambassador Theater. The concert hall in Adams Morgan was a short-lived beacon of District counterculture, known for its psychedelic light shows and the Washington debut of Jimi Hendrix, who set his guitar on fire for an audience that included Pete Townshend.

Mailer put on a display no less electrifying. The first mass protest against the war in Vietnam was what brought the reluctant 44-year-old novelist to the Ambassador stage. At the Saturday demonstration, marked by a violent military crackdown on protesters, Mailer was arrested along with hundreds. 

He appeared at the Ambassador on the Thursday prior for a pre-march fundraising benefit sponsored by the march’s organizer, the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. The headliners were Mailer and poet Robert Lowell and other “Artists of Conscience,” in D.C. to rally supporters of the cause, along with an opening rock act. Tickets were $5, and for students, $2.50.

Mailer walked to the theater from a cocktail party a few blocks away, where he had filled a to-go mug with bourbon as a lubricant for his first stint as MC. Onstage, standing in front of the guitars and amps from the opening act, he made for an incongruous host for the crowd of 600. He was a World War II vet who never claimed to be a pacifist. He wore a three-piece pinstripe suit and sported a middle-aged paunch. The father of six, including a Barnard College freshman, he was the same age as the parents of the flower children in the audience.

The appearance has become legendary, mostly through Mailer’s own account, which makes up the opening chapters of his 1968 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Armies of the Night. In the book, he measures his own recall against what he deems the distortions of the mainstream press.

Big media—namely Time magazine and The Washington Post—framed the evening as a sloppy mess featuring a sloppier Mailer. 

An Oct. 20, 1967 Washington Post article, “Mailer Tells ‘em Like It Is in Fervent Profanity,” offered this recap:

“Author Norman Mailer stuck out his belly … and delivered an obscenity-by-obscenity indictment of the war in Vietnam, the Washington press corps, the public address system and his hecklers in the audience.

“In the audience yesterday were the tousled hippies, the demure peace ladies and a contingent from the local chapter of The Beautiful People set—some laughing at Mailer’s profane buffoonery and some clucking at the public disgrace of it all. …

“The whole affair, billed as a reading by ‘artists of conscience’ to support the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam at the Ambassador Theater, was like the boozy finale of a cocktail party to which no one in the audience had been invited.”

And an Oct. 27, 1967 Time magazine article titled “A Shaky Start,” which Mailer reprinted it in full in The Armies of the Night, gave this account:

“Washington’s scruffy Ambassador Theater, normally a pad for psychedelic frolics, was the scene of an unscheduled scatological solo last week in support of the peace demonstrations. Its anti-star was author Norman Mailer, who proved even less prepared to explain Why Are We In Vietnam? than his current novel bearing that title.

“Slurping liquor from a coffee mug, Mailer faced an audience of 600, most of them students, who had kicked in $1,900 for a bail fund against Saturday’s capers. ‘I don’t want to grandstand unduly,’ he said, grandly but barely standing.

“It was one of his few coherent sentences. Mumbling and spewing obscenities as he staggered about the stage—which he had commandeered by threatening to beat up the previous M.C.—Mailer described in detail his search for a usable privy on the premises. Excretion, in fact, was his preoccupation of the night.”

These contrast with Mailer’s recollection. And now City Paper has unearthed two additional accounts that reveal how sharp and credible Mailer’s memory of the event was. Behind the barrage of f-bombs was a clear-cut strategy to exhort his troops and engage his enemy—the representatives of mainstream media—on the big stage.

The most striking evidence is from a little-seen, rarely screened 1968 documentary, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?, a staple on public TV in the ’70s. Directed by British filmmaker Dick Fontaine, the cinema verite film follows Mailer in various public roles (novelist, citizen, actor, celebrity) before, during, and after the march. The second source is an article about the evening from an underground newspaper, Washington Free Press

Credit: Washington Free Press

Footage from the documentary shows a clearly inebriated Mailer, but in far more control of the proceedings than what the mainstream press reports allowed. 

He was there to rouse the protesters. “I volunteered to be the master of ceremonies tonight because I’ve never done it before. On Saturday, we’re gonna go in there and do something no one has ever done before. C’mon kids! I’m gonna warm you up!”

The film’s close-ups and reaction shots show the range of Mailer’s angry and often bemused expressions as he gauged the crowd’s response, which was animated and mostly supportive, and chiefly aimed at egging him on. According to reporter Ellis Pines of the Free Press, Mailer “hustled the collective consciousness of the audience.”  

Introducing Lowell, Mailer told the crowd how the poet had more integrity than most artists—including Mailer himself—can muster. Lowell was notorious for turning down an invitation from Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson to attend a reception at the White House two years earlier, well before the tide of anti-war sentiment had swelled to mass proportions.

In a brief snippet, Lowell appears on camera and he expresses his bewilderment with both the event and the venue. “It’s a queer occasion when you see there are too many red lights in front of you,” he said before reading from his poems. “It’s glaringly formal and sort of disturbingly informal. And what’s it mean? Who the hell are we talking to?”

Back on stage, Mailer had an answer. He zeroed in on the main targets of his wrath, mainstream journalists, who he considered the enablers of LBJ’s war machine.

Mailer’s account of what happened next, which he rendered in the third-person in The Armies of the Night, goes like this: 

“‘You just know all those reporters are going to say it was sh*t tomorrow. F*ck them. F*ck all of them. Reporters, will you stand up and be counted?’

“A wail of delight from the students in the audience. What would the reporters do? Would they stand? One lone figure arose. 

“‘Where are you from?’ asked Mailer.

“‘Washington Free Press.’ 

“A roar of delight from the crowd. It was obviously some student or hippie paper. 

“‘Ah want The Washington Post,’ said Mailer in his best Texas tones, ‘and the Star. Ah know there’s a Time magazine man here for one, and twenty more like him no doubt.’ 

“But no one stood. So Mailer went into a diatribe. 

“‘Yeah, people,’ he said, ‘watch the reporting which follows. Yeah, these reporters will kiss Lyndon Johnson’s *ss and Dean Rusk’s *ss and Man Mountain McNamara’s *ss, they will rush to kiss it, but will they stand up in public? No! Because they are the silent assassins of the Republic. They alone have done more to destroy this nation than any force in it.’” 

Fontaine, the filmmaker who captured the evening and later read Mailer’s account, wrote this: “One aspect of that experience which still gives me chills: having spent endless hours with the filmed record of the events Norman describes in the book before it was written made the reading of it quite uncanny. It’s a long book, right? I was present at most of the events he describes so brilliantly but also reports verbatim in page after page of dialogue. I don’t remember one inaccurate line in the whole book! I know he didn’t take a note. How did he manage that? It’s miraculous.”

It turns out that Mailer did have help to jog his prodigious memory and it came from the “hippie paper.” Soon after the March, he phoned the office of the Washington Free Press at Thomas Circle. He asked permission to use material of the coverage from the Pentagon issue, which helped him lay the groundwork for his epic of New Journalism, The Armies of the Night. The article by Pines in Free Press bolsters Mailer’s telling and shares verbatim dialogue and scene details with what was later published in Armies

On Nov. 2, 1967, two weeks after the march, Mailer made another appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. The clip for this is shown in its entirety at the end of the documentary, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? 

When Merv asked Mailer what he was doing in Washington, Mailer replied, “I was trying to help the American Revolution.” As he went on to explain his rationale, the studio audience hissed.

“I was drunk when I appeared at the theater, but I was drunk in my own way, which meant that I was highly sober and more intelligent than usual. I used a great many four-letter words.”

Merv: “I read that!”

Mailer: “And I did it for a good reason. I wanted to make a point. We get terribly agitated about entertainers and authors being obscene in public, but we’re engaged in a war which is so obscene that one minute in the life of General Westmoreland is more obscene than all the dirty words and dirty books that American authors have ever put together. Think about it, dear American people out there.”

Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? is part of the National Education Television Collection at the Library of Congress, and the Washington Free Press is being digitized as part of the DC Public Library’s archival project, DIG DC.