"I knew Mailer's books the way Southern Baptists preachers know the Bible."
— J. Michael Lennon, Westport resident and friend of Norman Mailer who just wrote definitive bio
When Fall River-born J. Michael Lennon was a student at Somerset High School in the late 1950s, he fell in love with the writings of Norman Mailer.
When he went to Stonehill College as a member of the class of '63, the English major fell in love with the Art of Writing.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam, Lennon was so moved by Mailer's classic war novel, "The Naked and the Dead," that when he went to grad school at the University of Rhode Island in the early 1970s, he wrote his doctoral thesis on it.
After seeing Mailer and rival Gore Vidal argue on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971, the URI student wrote Mailer a letter sympathizing with him, and discussing his thesis.
He never expected Mailer would write back an even longer letter than he wrote to the famed author.
A few years later, when Lennon was a professor at the University of Illinois Springfield teaching a course on Mailer's works, he took a group of students to see the author speak.
After the event, Lennon mentioned that '71 letter to Mailer. The two writers went to grab a few beers at a bar and closed the place down.
A lifelong friendship was born.
Lennon, 71, and his wife Donna, who live in Westport, even bought a summer house on Cape Cod, right next to Mailer's Provincetown home. The Lennons have three sons: Steven, Joseph and James.
"From 1997 to 2007, we spent a great deal of time living in our Provincetown house. The last three or four years of Mailer's life, I did a lot of interviews with him, we had dinner together three or four times week, went on trips; I helped him around the house," Lennon, 71, told me.
"He liked that I knew a lot about his books. He'd say, 'What book did I write this line in "¦?' And I'd say, 'That was in "¦' I knew Mailer's books the way Southern Baptist preachers know the Bible."
Before Mailer died in 2007 of acute renal failure at 84, he gave the SouthCoaster an epic task: to write his official biography.
BookLovers, Lennon nailed it.
"Norman Mailer: A Double Life," out now, is the definitive biography of one of America's greatest literary talents and most popular intellectuals of the 20th century.
If you love Mailer, like him, or never heard of him, read this book. It contains everything you could ever possibly want to know about the legendary author.
Mailer's life is fascinating. He was no angel, and Lennon is in no way biased toward his friend — every blemish is pointed out. Lennon's research is meticulous; the amount of work that went into this 900-page book is staggering.
"I don't have another book like this in me," Lennon told me.
Not many writers have one like it.
Lennon considers himself a lifelong "student of Mailer's work. I wrote essays, book reviews, critical essays on him. I've basically been writing about Mailer for the last 40 years."
Lennon was granted unlimited access to Mailer's 48,000 letters — some of which had never seen the light of day. He had interviews with some 85 people, including Mailer's wives (there were six), his children (there are nine), his nephew, his sister, his editors, his good friend Doris Kearns Goodwin, who praised Lennon's book, and a handful of Mailer's many mistresses, who are "uncountable," Lennon said.
Indeed, Mailer made Don Draper look like Old Faithful.
"Women were very attracted to him. I've been with him many times, and women were around him like bees around honey; I had to shoo them away sometimes. He was a sexy guy, and he liked women and women liked him," Lennon said.
Mailer was often hurting in the wallet because of his sex life — at one time he was supporting 14 people, and had six kids in college.
That Mailer was labeled a misogynist by feminists in the '60s and '70s is somewhat ironic, Lennon told me.
"One of his wives said, 'Norman doesn't hate women; he loves women more than anyone.' "¦ He never treated them as sexual objects, he thought women were mysterious and had great powers. He was fascinated by them. He was a terrible flirt. But he was no misogynist."
Lennon also writes about Mailer's infamous feud with Gore Vidal, including their heated debate on "The Dick Cabot Show" that was sparked by Vidal's review of Mailer's "Prisoner of Sex," and the head-butting incident at a big New York City party.
"Vidal came in and Mailer "¦ threw a drink and the glass in his face, grabbed Vidal by the lapels and head-butted him. He liked to head-butt," Lennon told me.
Lennon writes about the infamous pen-knife incident, when Mailer stabbed and almost accidently killed his second wife Adele in 1960.
"He wasn't trying to kill her — she was calling him names, she called him a (expletive deleted) and he opened up a pen-knife he had in his pocket and kind of poked at her, and he nicked her (near the) heart and she started bleeding everywhere," Lennon told me.
"It was the worst thing in his life. He didn't write for two or three years after that; he drank a lot. It took a long time for him to get back in shape."
Mailer was born in 1923 to a well-known Jewish family in New Jersey. He was raised in Brooklyn, and was accepted to Harvard at age 16. As a young writer, he idolized Hemingway.
A journalist, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, actor, writer and political candidate, Mailer's work throughout his lifetime was prolific. At age 23, he published his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead" which spent more than a year on the New York Times Bestsellers list.
His best work is widely considered to be "The Executioner's Song," (1979) which won him his first of two Pulitzer Prizes. "Armies of the Night" was awarded the National Book Award.
Like Hunter S. Thompson, Mailer wrote creative nonfiction, sometimes called Gonzo journalism, and was also known for his essays. In 1955, Mailer and three others founded The Village Voice, an arts and politics oriented weekly newspaper distributed in Greenwich Village.
I asked Lennon why he loved Mailer's work so much.
"Because he was a fearless writer who would tackle anything. He wrote about the women's movement, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Hollywood, Apollo 11, prize fights, about Alaska, about cities. He wasn't a narrow writer that wrote about one thing. He was a curious guy, he was worried about democracy in America.
"He knew (John F.) Kennedy; he knew (Jimmy) Carter, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Monica Lewinski came to visit him "¦. Clinton used to date his wife before she married Norman — her name was Barbara Davis when she dated Clinton, but she changed it to Norris Mailer.
"He was on 'Charlie Rose' 12 times. There's no writer like him today. Anyone who watched TV knew who Norman Mailer was. There may never be another writer like that again. We had Hemingway, Mark Twain and Norman Mailer."
Lennon will speak at 7 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble in Dartmouth. The event is free, open to the public, and handicap-accessible. For more information, call Barnes & Noble Dartmouth at (508) 997-0701, or visit the Stores & Events tab at www.bn.com.