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Fight of the Century

Matt Schudel

Norman Mailer, the great or greatly annoying (depending on your point of view) novelist, journalist and provocateur, died last Saturday at the age of 84.
We had an obituary in hand by Bart Barnes, a former Post obit writer who retired about three and a half years ago. (I sit in Bart's old chair, and a picture of him carrying pumpkins with his grandchildren looks over my shoulder, sort of like a monitory presence from the past.)

Anyway, since I'm the only obit writer on duty on Saturdays, it fell to me to update Bart's piece on Mailer and get it ready for the paper and the Post's website. In doing so, I made a remarkable discovery.

Bart had properly described Mailer's combative nature, which reached its apotheosis (well, I guess nadir would be a better term) when he stabbed his second wife with a penknife during a drunken "bacchanal" (Bart's word) in 1960. Not surprisingly, she divorced him -- one of five wives to do so.

In the 1970s, Mailer had a well-publicized dispute with writer Gore Vidal, culminating in another drunken episode at a party, when Mailer threw his drink in Vidal's face, head-butted him and punched him in the mouth. With deliberately contemptuous understatement, Vidal called it "The Night of the Tiny Fist." The 1977 party, by the way, was at the New York apartment of Lally Weymouth, who is the daughter of former Washington Post chairman of the board, Katharine Graham.

These two public displays of Mailer's belligerence are fairly well known, but what fewer people seem to know about is his bloody fight with the actor Rip Torn. Among other things, Mailer fancied himself a filmmaker, and in 1970 he was directing a movie called "Maidstone," in which he played a politician named Norman Kingsley. (Kingsley was Mailer's acutal middle name. The completed movie is called by the only user review on the Internet Movie Database "not the most wretched movie ever made, but close.")

The equally pugnacious Torn didn't care for Mailer's directing and voiced his dissatisfaction in a rather direct manner: by attacking him with a hammer. He struck Mailer's head with three blows -- enough to draw blood -- and the two began grappling and beating on each other and ended up rolling partway down a hill. At some point in the melee, Mailer bit off a piece of Torn's right ear. (No, I'm afraid that's not how Rip Torn got his name, which is really Elmore Ruel Torn Jr.)

Eventually, amid cries from Mailer's children and the pleas of other actors and camera people on the set, Mailer and Torn were finally separated. But here's the amazing thing about this wild, rather frightening episode: The whole thing was captured on film, complete with sound. View it for yourself on YouTube.

Needless to say, I added a paragraph to the final obituary about the Mailer-Torn "Maidstone" death match.

By Matt Schudel |  November 16, 2007; 6:09 AM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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The comments on Youtube and elsewhere seem to be somewhat mixed as to whether this was planned, semi-planned, or spontaneous. It's strange, I'll give it that.

Is Rip Torn calling Norman Mailer "baby"? My mind did not need to go there at 9 AM on a Saturday morning.

Posted by: Charlene | November 17, 2007 11:02 AM

Mr. Schudel's blog on writer Norman Mailer is mostly about the cult of personality. While Mailer cultivated this to some extent, he also left behind a lot of good books to read and thoughtful interviews. It's a disservice to Mailer's memory and to his readers to characterize him merely on these unfortunate moments in his life. I'll go back and read the his whole obit on the author in hopes that it probes a bit deeper than a gossipy blog.

Posted by: Jim Hagan | November 17, 2007 9:27 PM

Mailer is probably best known for the public image he very deliberately cultivated. It's not wrong for the Post to highlight that public image. An obituary is not a eulogy or a panegyric, after all; if a man is best known for deliberately marketing himself as a loud-mouthed, misogynistic bully, obituarists shouldn't ignore or downplay that.

Posted by: Charlene | November 18, 2007 6:27 PM

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