A talented, uniquely fated woman died in New York on a Sunday night in 2015.
When her obituaries appeared, the public was again reminded that Adele Morales Mailer was the second wife of author Norman Mailer; also that she was the wife he stabbed nearly to death at the nadir of a violent, overcrowded, all-night drunken party at their home, back in November 1960.
But she was more than the second of Mailer’s six wives.
Born in 1925 and living on her own in Greenwich Village, by 1950, Adele Morales Mailer was also a serious painter who studied with the best Manhattan instructors in the 1950’s (Hans Hofmann, for example).
Later, after marrying Norman Mailer in 1954, she gave birth to two daughters. By all accounts, she was a remarkably devoted mother.
Furthermore, Adele was a studious actress, who in her later years was a perennial member of the esteemed Actors Studio workshop, which is no cakewalk to audition for.
She also was a serious memoirist.
Her autobiography, The Last Party (published by Barricade Books in 1997), offers abundant insights into the highs and lows of the mythic, excessively boozy New York in the 1950s scene, with its Mad Men-era admixture of chain-smoking, chronic drinking, and relationship disasters galore.
Adele’s chronicle belongs on the same shelf as How I Became Hettie Jones (by Hettie Jones) or Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason.
The Last Party compares just as favorably with poet Diane di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. Both women were Brooklyn renegades who migrated, young and single, to Manhattan, infuriating their glum parents.
What all these gifted women (and their memoirs) have in common is that their individual quests as female artists were subordinated, time after time, to those of the men in their lives.
In the postwar 1950’s, even in the hippest of bohemian enclaves, women who were painters or poets, dancers or musicians, actors or aspiring novelists . . . well, they were expected to yield to the needs of their men; setting aside their own work to instead function as muses, maids, hookers, secretaries, and caretakers. Most of the time.
It never ended well. For Adele Mailer, it damn near prematurely ended her life.
Doubtless one of the most sycophantic, misogynistic, disturbing, and predictable episodes of favoritism in the history of American letters unfolded when the most powerful elements in the Manhattan literati circled the wagons around Norman Mailer in the very early 1960’s; and they offered him unconditional support in the aftermath of his insane attempt to stab Adele to death on November 20, 1960.
For complicated personal reasons (regarding their two small daughters), Adele opted not to press charges.
Mailer received a suspended sentence for assault, and he was let off with probation, despite having twice plunged a two-and-a-half inch pen knife into the mother of two of his children, almost piercing her cardiac sac.
Despite his vaunted reputation as a writer-fighter (his boxing obsession was profound), it was a small woman (who was with him raising two daughters) upon whom Mailer tested his cock-eyed ideas about violence as a form of redemption.
Contrary to his tough-guy persona, Mailer was a pampered, Harvard-bred mama’s boy, the ultimate personification of a Brooklyn nebbish. An insecure bully.
In more than one of the several biographies of Mailer, there are eyewitness accounts that concur: When one of the other guests made a move to help the crumpled, bleeding Adele as she lay on the floor in a pool of her own blood, Mailer’s enraged, liquor-inflamed fury impelled him to bark: “Get away from her. Let the bitch die.”
Nonetheless, Mailer was coddled as a putative genius, whose talent had to be protected. He was enshrined by the publishing mavens, though his books rarely became bestsellers for long.
In a bizarre, odd twist of fate, Mailer’s star rose after the stabbing, as far as being a literary celebrity goes. Then, he pontificated on TV for decades, always hungry for media attention and forever promising “the big book,” which, in his febrile and largely delusional fantasies, would inevitably transform the psyche and soul of America.
As a former advocate of Mailer’s fiction and nonfiction (for years I thought the world of him), I regret to say that if you try now to read much of his work (yes, even the most celebrated of his 1960’s New Journalism), you have to wonder how so many were so fooled for so long.
But that’s another argument for another day.
For now, suffice to say that his swaggering, egregious, drunken excesses and his pugnacious self-presentation as an “outlaw” and “existentialist” (as he dubbed himself) appealed perennially to the Walter Mitty-like schnooks for whom Mailer was an alter ego, embodying their deepest desires to be heedless, outrageous, and famous.
As for Adele, she deserves a better epitaph than having been “the second of Mailer’s six wives.”
She must, and will, be remembered as a talented, aspiring artist, beloved mother, and enlivening presence, just as her works and legacy demand and deserve.