Bards Behaving Badly: The Pulitzer Prize Fight

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“It was almost as if each [Mailer] book was a round in a fight.”

E.L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer’s editor


“What you have with a fight is what you have with writing:

… the ring, the page; the punch, the word… the sweat, the edit…

the bell, the deadline….the showoff shuffle, the mingled blood on your glove, the spitting your teeth up at the end of the day.”

Colum McCann, Hunter College writing professor


It was the year after the release of Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Venue: a launch party for his New York City mayoral campaign. On the invitation list were the literati who had not excommunicated him, homeless people, and “the power people,” as he called them. His Tonto, George Plimpton, was responsible for mustering the third group. Disappointed more didn’t show for his soiree, Norman swatted the Paris Review editor with a rolled newspaper at the weigh-in.

By 4 a.m. only about twenty diehard partiers were left. Their host had ordered them to form two lines: those for him, and those against him. His second wife, Adele, led the second, larger group. According to her memoir (The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer), the bell rang when she challenged her lubricated lesser half, dressed in a torn matador’s shirt, “Aja Toro, aja! Come on you little faggot, where’s your cohones, did your ugly whore of a mistress cut them off, you son of a bitch!”

Besides Jose Torres, Mailer’s other boxing trainer was Adele’s father. Perhaps not wishing to disappoint his in-law, he didn’t KO Adele. Instead, he shanked her in the chest with a pocketknife.

Later, in Tough Guys Don’t Dance, he wrote: “I was thinking that surgeons had to be the happiest people on earth. To cut people up and get paid for it – that’s happiness.”

But, after doing Adele, he was more desperate than happy. At the hospital, he begged her, on bended knee, not to press charges (though he had told his party guests not to call an ambulance, and to “let the bitch die”). Showing herself to be a sport, she didn’t. She told her doctors she fell on glass. This allowed her husband to do The Mike Wallace Show days later to flesh out his mayoral platform. To combat increasing city crime and juvenile delinquency, he suggested that potential felons blow off steam by jousting on horseback in Central Park.

Mailer went on to pass his court-ordered psych evaluation at Bellevue, perhaps handing out to his examiners signed copies of The Naked and the Dead or his “No More Bullshit” campaign buttons.

On account of “the Trouble,” as he called the stabbing of his wife, the novelist found himself unable to write anything but poetry. In ’62, he released his four hundred piece collection, Deaths for the Ladies. At a pre-pub reading, he told the crowd: “So long as you use a knife, there’s some love left.”[1]

By this time, Mailer’s top contenders for the American self-promoter crown were Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. “Out of all those people who began publishing when I did,” said the latter, “there are only three left that anybody knows about — Gore, Norman and me.”[2]

Nobody in the country rivaled the trinity in narcissism, competitiveness, or irascibility. Gore Vidal spoke for them all when he said: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Early on, Capote and Mailer were Brooklyn neighbors and friends. In a 1967 New York Post interview, Truman praised Norman as “a fantastic talent,” though undisciplined.[3] In turn, Norman praised Truman for “having a lovely poetic ear,” and for crafting “the best sentences” of their generation.[4]

The pushing and shoving started in 1968 when Mailer won the Pulitzer and National Book Award for his “non-fiction novel” about Vietnam, Armies in the Night. As editor Betsy Lerner later observed, there is nothing like such awards “to stir up grudges.” Two years before, with the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote had declared himself father of this new art form and had thrown himself “the party of the century” at the Plaza. But the Pulitzer committee had ignored him. He doubled his medications in 1979 when Mailer landed a second Pulitzer for The Executioner’s Song.

Capote accused him of pirating his new fiction genre. “Now I see that the only prizes Norman wins are for that very same kind of writing,” he sniped. “I’m glad I was of some small service to him.”

Holding his Pulitzer belts high in the ring, the TKO winner didn’t bother finishing the 5’2” featherweight off. He just laughed in his face and used him as a futon at a cocktail party.

“He has no talent! None none none!” protested the father of The New Journalism.

Capote might have mounted a stiffer defense if the third rail of the post-war American trinity, Gore Vidal, hadn’t been softening him on the ropes too.

The two had been bickering for years. Truman called Vidal a poor man’s Somerset Maugham, devoid of sensitivity, and suited only for glib, self-aggrandizing essays. Worse, in 1976, Truman told Playgirl magazine that Bobby Kennedy had once “kicked Gore out onto Pennsylvania Avenue” for manhandling his stepsister, Jackie, at a White House party.

“Truman Capote has made lying an art. A minor art,” Vidal rejoined, filing a $1 million libel suit. As for his rival’s writing, he told Playboy magazine it was “ruthlessly unoriginal” and lifted from Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty.

“I’m always sad about Gore — very sad that he has to breathe every day,” parried Truman.

He countersued, hoping to “destroy his career,” to exact “the greatest single revenge in literary history,” and to write his epitaph: “Here lies Gore Vidal: he messed with TC!”

Truman had vivisected Tennessee Williams in Unspoiled Monsters, too, going on to satirize others in Answered Prayers. When targeted former friends stopped talking to the incorrigible gossip, he complained to his editor, “What did they expect? I’m a writer, I use everything!”

Though furious with Mailer for stealing his In Cold Blood thunder, Capote was giddy when Norman flew over the ropes and headbutted Gore before their joint appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in ’71.

“You’re absolutely mad,” gasped the victim. “You are violent.”

But Norman wasn’t finished. He stumbled out, took a seat beside Cavett, and gave Gore one to the gut. What was inside, he announced to America, was “no more interesting than the contents of the stomach of an intellectual cow.”[5]

Mailer and Vidal had also been friendly early on. The relationship soured at the ’68 Democratic convention. Norman was there to research a book. Gore was there to make William Buckley his bitch, before Bill made Gore his. The ABC face-off climaxed with Vidal calling Buckley a “pro-crypto Nazi,” and Buckley calling him “a commie pinko fag,” then threatening to “sock [him] in the goddamn face.”

Afterwards, Vidal saw the conservative champion chumming it up at a Chicago Happy Hour with the self-described “Marxian anarchist” – Norman Mailer. Vidal, like Capote, was miffed that Mailer had just won the Pulitzer, whereas his own ’68 bestseller, Myra Breckenridge, had been ignored. Worse, Buckley called Vidal “an evangelist for bisexuality, and labeled the controversial novel “pornography.” More upsetting still, Mailer had accused Vidal of seducing Jack Kerouac and driving him to suicidal drinking.

To see his detractors schmoozing at the bar drove Vidal to the offensive. He soon shot one over his former friend’s bow. “No one reads Norman, they hear of him,” he sneered.[6]

So Mailer responded with the ’71 headbutt. Six years later at a Lally Weymouth mixer, according to Boris Kachka, he threw a cocktail in his Moriarty’s face, chased with a haymaker. “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again,” stammered Vidal, regretting by now that writers don’t get Workers’ Comp and can only file libel suits.

But, going the distance, he had the last laugh. With spit and vinegar, the grandfather of letters outlived Mailer, Capote, and Buckley. For the cherry on top, Gore Vidal was elected president of the American Humanist Association in 2009, and died in peace in 2012 at the ripe old age of 86, ending the literary Golden Age of American fisticuffs.

[1] Mary V. Dearborn, Mailer: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) 

[2] Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010) 

[3] Jerry Tallmer, “Truman Capote, Man About Town,” New York Post, December 16, 1967

[4] Robert Emmet Long, Truman Capote? Enfant Terrible (Continuum, 2008)

George Plimpton, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (New York: Talese/Doubleday, 1997).

[5] In his 2007 New York Times replay, “In This Corner, Norman Mailer,” Cavett wrote that Mailer’s “mission, … was to eviscerate Vidal” for the latter’s The New York Review of Books’ piece on The Prisoner of Sex, likening the title to “three days of menstrual flow” and comparing him to Charles Manson for his violent misogyny. 

[6] Susan Shapiro, “The Punch Lines,” The Village Voice, April 11, 2000


David Comfort has published three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster, and a fourth from Citadel/ Kensington. “Bards Behaving Badly” is excerpted from his latest trade title, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, released by Writers Digest Books in December, 2013. Comfort is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Red Hen, Helicon Nine, and Heekin Graywolf Fellowship. His current short fiction appears in The Evergreen ReviewCortland Review, The Morning News, Scholars & RoguesInkwell, and Eclectica Magazine.





Bards Behaving Badly: The 4-Minute Bell

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“My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything.”

Ernest Hemingway


“The minute he began to have some sort of obligation

to you of love or friendship… then is when he had to kill you.” Donald Ogden Stewart, Hemingway friend


In The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway dismissed his contemporaries collectively as “pretentious fakes.” As a result, he was unfriended by many, notably two: his mentor and primary target, Sherwood Anderson, and his other enabler, Gertrude Stein, who purged him from her Lost Generation Montparnasse salon after claiming she had “created” him.

Papa’s Paris editor, Ernest Walsh, called Torrents “The Cheapest Book I Ever Read.” In another essay, Walsh failed to include him in his list of “the six greatest living literary artists.”[1]

When, months later, he died of TB at age 31, Hemingway wrote his remaining friend, Ezra Pound: “I have known too many good guys die to be able to sweat much from the eyes about the death of a shit.”[2]

While they were still on speaking terms, Hemingway had assured Walsh that his other title that year, The Sun Also Rises (1926) would contain “no autobiography and no complaints.” But it contained all the characters and events of bull fighting season in Pamplona the year before. The Jewish anti-hero, Robert Cohn, was his former traveling companion and boxing sparring partner, Robert Loeb, Peggy Guggenheim’s cousin. After the publication of the novel, he avoided his former “friend,” for fear that he might be shot.

Six years later, critics savaged Death in the Afternoon. Max Eastman parodied the bullfighting homage with “Bull in the Afternoon,” claiming that Hemingway not only wore false chest hair, but — like his Sun Also Rises hero, Jake — couldn’t get it up. Papa seethed over the insult for several years. At last, he cornered Eastman in the Scribner offices, charging that the socialist had tried to kiss his wife in a Paris taxi. Dispensing with accusations and epithets, the writers then got it on. Eastman reported that the scuffle climaxed when he threw Hemingway  over Max Perkins’ desk. Papa, however, insisted that Eastman had attacked him like “a clawing woman.” Showing his talent for fiction, Papa said he gentlemanly refrained from “socking” his assailant, lest he send him through the window and onto Fifth Avenue below.

Earlier, while other picadors were going to work on his bullfighting passion play, Hemingway had written his editor, Max Perkins: “You see what they [critics] can’t get over is 1. That I am a man. 2. That I can beat the shit out of any of them. 3. That I can write. The last hurts them the worst. But they don‘t like any of it. But Papa will make them like it.”

But he failed to make them like his follow-up, The Green Hills of Africa. Now he wanted to do more than beat the shit out of Eastman and his other detractors. “I would like to take the tommy gun and open up at 21 [Club] or in the N.R. [New Republic] offices or any place you name and give shitdom a few martyrs and include myself,” he wrote his friend, John Dos Passos, whom he called a money-grubbing “pilot fish.”

Instead of going Columbine on critics, he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, his only title from the ‘40s. The novel concerns a Spanish Civil War dynamiter who, maimed in the end, refuses to be shot by his comrades so he can kill more fascists before they kill him. In real life, one of them turned out to be his former ally, Edmund Wilson, who fragged him in “Hemingway: Gauge of Morale,” an essay he, Papa, unsuccessfully tried to quash with a legal injunction.

By 1951, fearing that James Jones’s From Here to Eternity was overshadowing his own war novels, Ernest wrote to their publisher, Charles Scribner Jr.: “I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales. If you give him a literary tea, you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss out of a dead nigger’s ear.”

In his otherwise laudatory and diplomatic memoir, Scribner wrote, “Working with Hemingway was rather like being strapped to an electric chair,” adding that he was “a two-timer and not above despicable tricks.”[3]

Ezra Pound had helped him get his start in Paris. In exchange, Ernest had taught Ezra — already a jujitsu master who had once thrown Robert Frost over his back — how to box. Of the many other artists the poet had helped, Papa wrote without irony, “In the end a few of them refrain from knifing him in the back.”

Had the Life and Argosy celebrity sportsman been deprived of Spanish bulls and African trophies, one imagines that he might have adorned his Ketchum hunting lodge walls with the heads of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, and the others imprudent enough to help him.

“Ernest would always give a helping hand to a man on a ledge a little higher up,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, explaining his friend’s idea of camaraderie.

Fitzgerald had indeed been higher up in ’25 after Gatsby but was overtaken by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises the following year, then left in the dust by A Farewell to Arms in ’29. In the year of the Crash, according to his biographer, he made only $32 in book royalties.[4]

This is how things stood when the American heavyweight faced off with the Canadian, Morley Callaghan, Fitzgerald filling in as ref. A former Toronto Star colleague of his opponent, Callaghan had only one novel to his credit before their bout at the American Soldiers Club of Paris where they sparred regularly.

Though four inches shorter and forty pounds lighter, Callaghan knocked Hemingway down late in the 2nd Round. Regaining his feet, Papa struggled to stay up till the 3-minute bell from Fitzgerald. But the 3 minutes seemed to him the longest he had ever endured in the ring, Callaghan delivering a barrage of haymakers, returning him to the mat several times. When at last, Fitzgerald counted him out, through swollen eyes Hemingway saw the clock closing in on 4 minutes. Scott apologized profusely.

“If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so,” snapped Ernest. “Only, don’t say you made a mistake!”

The relationship of the two masters was never quite the same. Hemingway began publicly denouncing his former friend for cowardice and self-pity.

“Please lay off me in print,” Scott wrote him. “If I choose to write de profundis sometimes it doesn’t mean I want friends praying aloud over my corpse.”

After Fitzgerald’s career went south, and Hemingway’s in the opposite direction, he wrote, “I could talk with the authority of failure – Ernest with the authority of success. We could never sit across the table again.”

But the two American icons continued to correspond now and then. In another de profundis moment, Scott confided to Ernest that his wife, Zelda, had mocked the size of his penis. The bare-bones masculine stylist — whom Zelda had called impotent and a closeted homosexual — was kind enough to console his fretful colleague with an adverb and adjective. “It’s perfectly fine: Your wife just wants to destroy you.”

Then to make the creator of Gatsby feel better, he wrote a poem for him: ”Lines to be Read at the Casting of Scott Fitzgerald’s Balls into the Sea from Eden Rock.”


[1] Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Robert McAlmon, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and Emanuel Carnevali.

[2] James R. Mellow, Hemingway: A Life Without Consequence (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992)

[3] Charles Scribner, Jr., In The Company Of Writers, (New York: Scribners, 1991) 

[4] Jeffrey Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2004)


David Comfort has published three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster, and a fourth from Citadel/ Kensington. “Bards Behaving Badly” is excerpted from his latest trade title, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, released by Writers Digest Books in December, 2013. Comfort is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Red Hen, Helicon Nine, and Heekin Graywolf Fellowship. His current short fiction appears in The Evergreen ReviewCortland Review, The Morning News, Scholars & RoguesInkwell, and Eclectica Magazine.


Bards Behaving Badly: The Three Stooges vs. The Man In Full

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“I think of the three of them now as Larry, Curly & Moe.” Tom Wolfe, of John (Updike), John (Irving) & Norman (Mailer)


A century and a half after the Poe/English bout, three pedigreed but aging novelists shanked a colleague shorter than the Baltimore bete noire, but with a larger tongue and following.

Swords were first crossed when Tom Wolfe made millions on The Bonfire of the Vanities; but John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer dismissed the novel as populist drivel. Wolfe counter-attacked with his 1989 Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” about a fiction Old Guard too fossilized to appreciate his revolutionary fiction nonfiction.[1]

Resentments seethed for a decade, and erupted again with Wolfe’s latest bestseller, A Man In Full.

“Entertainment, not literature,” sniped Updike in his New Yorker review, “even literature in a modest aspirant form.”[2]

“At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman: Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated,”[3] argued Norman Mailer, speaking from the experience of tackling his own 1,310 page Amazon, Harlot’s Ghost. Man in Full tipped the scales at a mere 742. He went on to coronate his colleague as “the most gifted best-seller writer… since Margaret Mitchell.”

Wolfe dismissed the creators of Rabbit and Dear Park as “two piles of bones.”[4]

Their comrade-in-arms, John Irving, flew over the ropes and spelled the hyperventilating tag team. “I can’t read him,” he said of Wolfe, “because he’s such a bad writer.”

Now it was three against one — the hoopster, the headbutter, and the wrestler – against the diminutive dandy in full. “I think of the three of them now — because there are now three –as Larry, Curly and Moe,” he said. “It must gall them a bit that everyone — even them — is talking about me.”

“If I were teaching fucking freshman English,” Irving fumed, “I couldn’t read a sentence [of his] and not just carve it up.” When the Canadian TV Hot Type host asked if he was at war with the little man in white, Garp’s creator — overlooking a proletariat revolution or two — bristled, “I don’t think it’s a war because you can’t have a war between a pawn and a king, can you?”

But, in the end, the southern gentleman had the last word, aware that Irving and his stooges were the best PR reps he’d ever had. “Why does he sputter and foam so?” Wolfe wondered in a statement released by his publisher.[5]

In the mid-sixties, the 34-year-old heretic had published The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine- Flake Streamline Baby. The title, a collection of his pieces from the Washington Post and elsewhere, replete with exclamatories, ellipses, and neo-street speak, spawned The New Journalism. To create a buzz by tossing a Molotov cocktail over the battlements of the Bastille, he strode into his editor’s office at the Herald Tribune one morning and asked —

“How about blowing up The New Yorker, Clay?”

So the Tribune ran “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead,” Wolfe’s assault on the alma mater of his Moriartys – Larry, Curly, and Moe. It featured a portrait of editor, William Shawn, as head funeral director, surrounded by his dutiful retainers and embalmed guardians of literature, the Tiny Mummies. The satire had been inspired by The New Yorker’s invitation-only 40th anniversary party at the St. Regis, which the stooges had attended and Wolfe crashed.

Shawn, who received an advance copy, fired a letter off to the Tribune’s owner, Jock Whitney. He called the article “murderous and certainly libelous,” and demanded that it be pulled from Sunday’s upcoming edition. Jock declined.

The magazine called in its cavalry. The Tribune was barraged with diatribes from Muriel Spark, to J.D. Salinger, to The Elements of Style E.B. White himself. Then the magazine’s enforcer, Dwight MacDonald, fired off a 13,000-word polemic, “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine,” for its sister publication, The New York Review of Books. MacDonald called Wolfe’s style “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”[6]

When the smoke cleared, the magazine had a shiner, and Wolfe’s new Streamline Baby was a sensation.

Just as the man in full had pioneered a new literary form, he had bested a boxer-wrestler- hoopster tag team by means of a revolutionary literary sparring technique: JuJutsu. The gentle Eastern art of rechanneling the opponent’s own aggression against him.

“Bullshit reigns!” the new champion of American letters proclaimed in Bonfire of the Vanities.

[1] David Foster Wallace and Sven Birkerts reinforced Wolfe with their 1997 New York Observer “Twilight of the Phallocrats” denouncing “our arts-bemedaled senior novelists [Updike, Mailer, Bellow, and Roth]… as Great Male Narcissists.” In turn, the Observer’s Anne Roiphe denounced the young literary guns for “urinating” on G.M.N.S.’s out of their own “primitive” male competitiveness. (“Literary Dogs Snap Savagely at Top Dogs,” New York Observer, October 27, 1997)

[2] John Updike, “AWRIIIIIGHHHHHHHHH!” New Yorker magazine, November 9, 1998

[3] Norman Mailer, “A Man Half Full” The New York Review of Books. December 17, 1998

[4] The Charlotte Observer, November 1999 interview.

[5] Jim Windolf, “It’s Tom Wolfe Versus the ‘Three Stooges,” New York Observer, February7, 2000 

[6] Dwight MacDonald , “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine,” The New York Review of Books, August 26, 1965.


David Comfort has published three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster, and a fourth from Citadel/ Kensington. “Bards Behaving Badly” is excerpted from his latest trade title, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, released by Writers Digest Books in December, 2013. Comfort is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Red Hen, Helicon Nine, and Heekin Graywolf Fellowship. His current short fiction appears in The Evergreen ReviewCortland Review, The Morning News, Scholars & RoguesInkwell, and Eclectica Magazine.