John Hall - Chapter Four - “My Best Friend - For 7 Hours”Aug 01, 2010 09:19PM ● By Brian O
by John Hall
One of the greatest things about newspapering is all the fascinating and colorful characters you meet and the great friends you make and keep for a lifetime. And one of the worst things is some of those great people you meet.
It was a warm Las Vegas summer afternoon in 1963 that author Norman Mailer and I became best friends. We were best friends for at least seven hours.
We met at the bar in the hospitality room at media headquarters four days prior to the Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson heavyweight title rematch that took place July 22 that year.
Between wives and between books, as everyone at and near the bar easily observed, Mailer was on assignment to cover the fight for Esquire Magazine, and I was on duty for the Los Angeles Times.
It was not one of the best periods of his life. He had a bimbo with him, parked on a chair near the door on the far side of the room. He'd already had a few. Drinks, that is, not bimbos. Well, maybe that, too.
We had a few more together. Just drinks, definitely. Mailer was loud and full of himself, clearly the self-crowned king of the room. The New York writers who knew him gave him lots of room. They'd heard him in action before and weren't about to get trapped with him. So he concentrated on me, his fresh and willing as well as humble new audience.
We talked boxing and agreed that the most exciting single event in all of sports was any heavyweight championship fight even when reduced a few notches to a Liston-Patterson rematch in Vegas.
He told me he liked my style and was looking forward to a long friendship. Suddenly, flash. A great idea hit him. He'd never seen Don Rickles perform and since the notorious Prince of Insults was appearing next door in the Sahara lounge, he'd like to host me and his "date" to see Rickles at his early show.
Fair enough. Mailer got us seats at the bar right below where Rickles was to work and right in front of the rest of the world. He parked the bimbo in the back of the room.
He'd heard that Rickles was a tough-talking comic, all right, but he didn't know the half of it. He was an innocent virgin about to be raped as the Victim of the Night.
Rickles, of course, was delighted when he spotted Mailer. "There's the great war hero," he said by way of warm greeting. "Old 'Naked and the Dead' himself. Spent World War Two hiding in a foxhole writing a book while his buddies were getting shot and killed."
Typical Rickles. The crowd loved it. Everybody but the virgin, who was instantly incensed, totally outraged. Rickles, doing his job, turned up the heat, just got tougher and nastier with each needle.. But Don didn't know the half of it, either.
Quite unfortunately for all of us, Mailer went completely coconuts. He started screaming insults of his own back at Rickles, jumped on top of his chair and challenged the comic to a fight as he tried to climb up on top of the bar and get a swing at him.
Security was there in a flash. Although I hadn't made a peep and was as astounded as everyone else by Mailer's mad dog fit, we both were escorted out of the lounge and turned over to the police. Mailer kept screaming, Lucky the police recognized him or we would have wound up in jail. After he finally cooled down, we vowed to keep in touch, and I promised I'd call him next time I got to New York. Next day in the hospitality room, he didn't recognize me, though, and we never met again.
The Liston-Patterson rematch didn't last as long as Mailer vs. Rickles in the Sahara lounge. Over again in the first round. Floyd even more pathetic than in the original and so embarrassed he famously ducked all interviews, sneaked out the back door of the arena, borrowed a car, put on a fake beard and drove out of town by himself in disguise, not to be seen in public again for two months.
I've often looked back and figured that one more night out with Mailer and I doubtless would have had to get a beard and leave town in disguise, too.
When Mailer died at 84 in November of 2007, Charles McGrath of the New York Times summed him up pretty well in his obit. "At different points in his life, Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist. a war protestor, an opponent of women's liberation, an all-purpose feuder, and a short-fused brawler who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm wrestling and random punch-throwing," McGrath wrote.
I've kidded around over the years wondering who in the hell wrote all his inspired and prize-winning stuff for him. But he was an author for sure. Besides his "Naked and the Dead" best seller in 1948 that put him on the map forever, he won Pulitzer Prizes for "The Executioner's Song" in 1979 and "The Armies of the Night" in 1968.
Sometimes he was very good, sometimes awful, as in his final novel shortly before he died, "The Castle of The Forest" featuring Adolph Hitler. He also did books on Jesus, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Give him his due. He wrote over 30 books. His sixth marriage worked. He fathered eight kids. But as my best friend for seven hours in 1963, I remember him mainly as the most arrogant, obnoxious egomaniac I ever met. b