Andrew W. Thornhill is one of those human types novelists love. You can follow him around endlessly. He can easily fill up many colorful pages. Just giving him his proper due with a well-thought-out, elaborate introduction, can go on, and on, and on, and on, page after endless page.
He is a slightly over-sized, light brown skinned man with a large mustache that covers most of his upper lip. He is also full of bluster and self-importance, and can just as easily fill-up a room with the same ease he fills up the pages of a novel.
And, unlike countless others like him, he is blessed with a highly intelligent mind, filled with obscure bits of information that he artfully uses to its best advantage.
"What!" he might suddenly say, grazing at you with a look of absolute disbelief, "You didn't know that term limits was really the Willie Brown law?"
Pity the poor, uninformed fool who crosses his path!
But, if you look a little closer at Thornhill, you can spot through all the attempts at intimidation and generally know-it-all-ness—a twinkle in his light brown eyes—his little wink to you that only a part of him is serious.
I hadn’t seen him in years. Yet here he was in downtown Los Angeles, in March of 2003, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street giving a lecture before a small audience.
Thornhill had moved to Seattle about ten years ago, after living in the Southland for years, surprising everyone, including me.
Now that our paths had crossed once more, I asked him after his well-presented lecture on the future of television, how did he like living in Seattle?
“It’s the most racist place I have ever lived,” he answered straight-out, without a hint of hesitation, and with more than a hint of heartfelt bitterness.
Racist! I was momentarily confused. This was clearly not the answer I had expected. I quickly searched the data bank in my mind and pulled up everything I could concerning Seattle: a lovely place continuously shrouded in a cool, gray, non-stop mist coming in from the Pacific; a violent demonstration against globalization; serious looking young Asian and white men with close haircuts and little beards, quietly sitting around in numerous coffee bars with open laptops; Grunge, a gloomy Kurt Corbin, computer software and fantastic scenic beauty, with greenery and sparking water everywhere—but no racism to speak of.
“Trust me,” he said, staring firmly at me, clearly suffering me gently, and perhaps noticing the look of confusion on my face.
For most of the next week I pondered Andrew’s remark, mainly because it had sparked a sudden realization that I really hadn’t thought about racism in a long, long time.
Sure, I hated the movie business, because I thought they were racist. Sure, I hated the Los Angeles Times, especially the book section, because I thought they were racist. Plus, and worse, they wouldn’t review my books, or invite me to sit on one of their panels at their annual book fair!
Sure, I still kept one eye opened for white policemen, even while walking down the people-less streets minding my own business. But not that deep, obsessive thinking about racism; that sometimes over powering feeling I would get living in my hometown of New York.
“Jeeves,” I thought, “I haven’t thought about racism with the same bitter intensity since when?” I searched my brain. “Since when?”
I had been living back in Los Angeles now for three years. I hated the place as much as I did when I left in 1980 after six years of living here. When I left, I did something totally spontaneous as the Greyhound bus moved swiftly through Hollywood, up 101, headed for the I-5 and the mountainous Grapevine.
All at once an overpowering feeling overcame me. I suddenly turned around and looked back out of my window at what was left of a fast disappearing Los Angeles, and gave it the finger.
That remains until this day, the most heartfelt finger I have ever given!
I remembered the vivid dreams, the constant nightmares of my being gunned down by white cops. These inner fears, which brought me many sweaty, sleepless nights, were well founded. I had had guns drawn on me four times in six years for no reason— honest cases of mistaken identity the cops explained before they drove away.
The first time it happened I was pulling into a parking lot headed for my office at 6464 Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. The top was down on my brand new, shiny red sports car, and I was one happy man, even considering that my girlfriend who came here with me from New York, had just left me.
I worked for a large public relations company, hanging out with clients like the Temptations, Bill Cosby, Johnny Mathis, the O Jays, Earth Wind and Fire and people I never dreamed I would meet in person.
“This town is not so bad,” I often told myself.
Out of nowhere, this mental fantasy was suddenly shattered, forever. White men in suits and ties surrounded me.
I looked up and all I saw was a pair of narrow blue eyes, a stern face, and the barrel of a small caliber revolver pointed directly at my head. I knew one false move, and I was a dead man!
“Don’t move, and keep your hands where we can see them.”
I was quickly saved, however
“That’s not the guy,” someone said.
They let me go without a word of apology, not even saying it was just a case of mistaken identity.
I was shaken, but more angry than scared.
What was this, a Goddamn banana republic!
I was to find, much to my discomfort, that Los Angeles was indeed a banana republic, devoiced from most anything I had experienced in New York City. This first incident occurred only a few months after I had arrived from New York, and over the years there were more incidents, just as serious, just as frightening.
I learn to hate cops. I also learn to hate cars, and suburbs, and the movie business, and white racism, and social Isolation. I hated the fact that few people read anything. In other words, I hated everything! Except the warm weather. And my two young daughters.
I still hate most things LA, but Andrew’s statement about cool, damp Seattle made me realize that now there was a clear absence of the kind of racism that I felt the last time I live here; the kind of racism that the great James Baldwin once said, “filled the conscious Negro with a sense of constant outrage!”
What had happened to Los Angeles between 1980 and 2003 bedsides earthquakes, fires, drive-byes, rain, mudslides, Rodney King, twice, O.J., low-paid immigrants and the never-ending drama of getting from point A to point B?
Modern Los Angeles is not a town for Cosmopolitans. In a way, this is rather odd statement, and seems anti-intuitive, in that it is perceived as perhaps the most racially diverse city in America. As I write this, I also realize that my perspective might be a bit skewed because I don't speak a word of Spanish, although I am surrounded by the language, and hear more of it on a daily basis than I do English.
The vast Hispanic, or Latino population that is now the clear majority in Los Angeles, are Hondurans, Guatemalans, San Salvadorians—in fact, all of Central America, although just as clearly, Mexicans are still the clear majority in that group.
So within this Hispanic world, in which I can never be a part of, maybe it is indeed cosmopolitan.
Whatever the case, for those who love the concept of diversity, Los Angeles is a great example of how it can work. But first, let’s be absolutely clear about what diversity means. It is about separation and segregation. Here, street signs like Little Tokyo, Koreantown, and Little Armenia are part of the landscape.
Armenians are supposed to live happily with Armenians. Koreans with Koreans. Jews with Jews. Hispanic with Hispanic. And the good thing is that these groups are not at each other’s throat—which is a real good thing indeed!
But strangely enough, given the fact that so much of what we think America is, comes from Los Angeles, the two groups, Northern Europeans and blacks, that are most associated with the so-called “American Experience,” clearly the face of America in books, magazines, television and in the movies, and who just as clearly dominated popular culture in this country-- have not thrived in this environment in Los Angeles the way other groups have.
One has to look long and hard to find a white face outside of the Westside and the Valley in most of LA; and chances are, if you do, their last names won’t be Jones or Smith, and, if it is, they will be taking to themselves in disjointed mumbles.
The black population is also rapidly shrinking, replaced by an army of homeless, unemployed black men valiantly hanging on.
What has intrigued me most about Los Angeles is not that the Central Americans took over, or that blacks were given a swift kick in the ass, with the strong suggestion that they get out of town as swiftly as their little legs can carry them, but that the Northern Europeans, the so-called Anglos, just walked away, leaving an incredible infrastructure mostly intact.
(Maybe they all moved to Seattle, and are now bedeviling my poor friend Andrew!)
When all is said and done, modern Los Angeles is a city designed by Anglos, although Jewish film Moguls obviously had a lot to say about it.
Here are the grand results of their efforts. In a small, but well-crafted essay in the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara, who writes a regular column entitled: L.A.Centric stated it best in a piece entitled “Personal space in cruising cocoons”: "It is a local hobby, the drive by crush. Occasionally, you see attempts at connection in classifieds or on the Internet—“You: hot in a red Camaro with the bashed-in left taillight; me: staring from the cream-colored Cooper.”—but the chances for follow-up are pretty small.
“The real dream machine in Los Angeles is not Hollywood, it's freeway culture and freeway culture is not big on follow-up...
"For all its purported body worship and collective gym membership, Los Angeles is not a physical city. People visiting here are stuck by the lack of direct contact required by daily life-unlike in New York of Paris or Tokyo or Rome-- you can go about your business for days in Los Angeles without touching another soul or even bumping shoulders.
“The secret," she concluded, " to Angelenos is that many of us like to be left alone. If that seems a strange preference for citizens of the second most populated city in the country, then you haven't quite grasped the meaning of freeway culture."
I agreed with most she said, but unlike what I would have done, she wrote about the city with approval; whereas, I would have made some of the same observations, but I would have wrote it in a sneering, cynical tone, sorely pissed off at having to live in such a hideous place.
From that column, and from all available evidence, the Anglo builders of Los Angeles wanted to create a city were the different population groups had as little contact with each other as possible. At that, they were very successful. They used all the available space, built those famous freeways, built outward, not upward, made sure that there be no public transportation to speak of, thereby forcing everyone into a car. They also made sure that there would be no neighborhood bars and corner grocery stores.
Neutron City, as one writer has described the lack of people on the street. (A Neutron Bomb kills people but leaves the buildings alone).
Yet, as Ms. McNamara so ably pointed out, Los Angeles was able to grow to the second largest city in the country. Many of the reasons are obvious. One is the most obvious, is that Southern California boasts the best weather in the world. With mostly a small swing, both up and down, of 20 degrees from the norm of the mid-60’s-- even the bad days are good days.
Although it has been cooler than I remembered the last few years I have lived here, most times it is still sunny, warm, with low humidity—the perfect place for large outdoor squares, city parks and common meeting grounds for people to meet and mingle.
So it is puzzling, to say the least, that the city fathers would have taken such an approach to their city and try as mightily as the could to isolate everyone indoors in enclosed shopping malls and enclosed “cruising cocoons.”
Nevertheless, despite the poor choice of design, people still came in droves. Another reason for this is also rather obvious, as any one who has spent anytime here, will testify. I can remember when I lived in Los Angeles during the 70’s as editor-publisher of Neworld: The Multi-Cultural Magazine of the Arts; weekly people would come to my office fresh off the bus, plane, or train, and ask me how could they break into show business.
The stream was constant, never ending. I felt most time, after having seen so many frustrated, highly talented would-be actors and singers in the short time I was here—to tell them they should pick up and return back from which they came.
I never gave that advice, however. Because I also remember, how, more than once, I’d be walking down Hollywood Blvd when a loud, insistent car horn would get my attention. I would turn to the heavy traffic and soon spot the same wide-eyed person who had been sitting in my office sixth months earlier.
Now he was driving a brand new Rolls, top down, waving vigorously at me, with a broad smile spread completely across his happy face. He was the Next Big Thing.
(This was the late 70’s. We were soon to learn by the early 80's, that too much free love, and mind-altering drugs like cocaine and speed, was bad for us-- just as the preachers had warned. But this was still the good times, and this was the last time people in Hollywood still showed off, unscripted. No dark tinted, tank-like SUV’s for these cutups!)
These things happen in Hollywood. Someone has to have a hit record, hot television show, or HUGE movie. There will always be the Next Big Thing. That’s what Hollywood was all about. So who was I to say to that bright, hopeful young man or woman from Eugene, or Detroit, or Macon, or even from tough, should-know-better New York—that they were pipe dreaming?
Somebody was going to make it big. Why not them?
But the key reason for our large population, bar none, is the Hispanics. There are many reasons for their being here, not the least of which being that all of California was once part of Mexico. This is their native land, and the whites, and the blacks are the “illegal aliens,” as have had pointed out to me, time and time again.
In America, there is always a dollar sign connected to any phenomenon. Money is the real reason why they are here in such large numbers.
Los Angeles needs servants. What is a mogul or movie star to do without them? Someone has to mow those king size lawns, and make all of those beds, and wash all of those expensive cars, and maintain those huge mansions.
There are no "illegal aliens" living in Los Angeles. Every Mexican, sitting in his small, poverty stricken village buried somewhere deep in the interior, which his government does little to help, knows that all he has to do is make it across the border to LA, and he need not be able to speak a word of English, or Spanish, for that matter, or have any education to speak of--a job awaits him, plus a decent place to live, as well as a community to lean on for support.
You don't find armies of Hispanics men standing around their communities doing nothing, like you might find in black communities. They are the workers of choice, and they know it.
The big money people invited these Central American here to subsidize their lifestyle. The Hispanics work hard, don't complain, don't start unions, don't ask for raises and health insurance and are apolitical--just glad to be in the promise land. In many cases, they are the difference between someone being a mere millionaire, to really living large, as a high-flying multi-billionaire, as a recent article in Forbes candidly admitted.
All of this did not bode well for the Anglos and the blacks, mainly, because they made lousy servants. The blacks talked back, and were always loudly complaining about something, always pointing out that slavery was over! (Given the assertive black personality, how did slavery last so long? There had to have been many compromises made between master and slave, or else the violence would have been overwhelming.)
The Northern Europeans, with a sense of entitlement unmatched by any other group on earth, also talked back, but they also insisted that they sleep with the lady of the house, or they would burn the mansion down, with the owners inside!
Chief Parker, Chief Davis, Chief Gates, Mayor Sam Yorty notwithstanding, no wonder no one wanted to keep them around!
Some people blame the earthquakes on why the Anglos left. If you have ever been in one (I have been in 7) it is the most terrifying experience imaginable, because it totally surrounds you. The impact is everywhere. Color, money, fame are now meaningless. There is nowhere for anyone to run or hide. Seconds seem like hours as you wait to see if the shaking and the low rumble will just increase and grow stronger.
Even so, earthquakes and Hollywood disappointment still does not completely explain why Anglos and blacks were unable to make much of a future for themselves here even as other groups prospered.
Maybe looking at the experiences of other groups could help answer that question. The group I find most interesting are not the mighty Jews, who you might have expected, who have obviously thrived in Los Angeles, this now having the second largest Jewish population after New York City.
This city also is home to one of the largest concentrations of Armenians in the new world. Most of us know the history of the German holocaust and attempted genocide of the Jews by Hitler. And many assume, wrongly, that this was the first attempt in the 20th century to wipe out an entire people.
Don’t tell that to an Armenian! I first discovered this during the 70s while working for the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles. We presented a program starring a group of Whirling Dervishes from Turkey. First, the FBI came to warn us of possible bomb threats. Then, on opening night, with the LAPD in our area on tactical alert, we were greeted with a huge crowd, but not the kind we had expected. Instead, hundreds of Armenians showed up in protest.
And they had reason to protest. During the closing days of the once powerful Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. It was one of the largest wholesale slaughter of a people ever.
Many of the survivors of that holocaust made their way to the United States, and most settled in California, especially the Central Valley, where they because expert raisin growers, among other things. The greatest known Armenian is the writer William Sarayon, although Cher would come in a close second if she would ever acknowledge her roots. Armenian George Deukmejian served as governor of the state of California from 1983 to 1991, and despite serving two terms in such a high profile state, he made little splash on the national scene.
With such a highly dramatic history, you would think that Armenians would have a higher profile in American society. But the truth be known, I knew nothing about them until I started working part time at Macy’s a few years ago and met a number of them.
I wrote about one in my novel, The King of Macy’s, I described her thus:
Just two days ago, he had had a conversation about the non-stop workload with a woman who worked full time in ties right across from him.
She was always watching him. She was a beautiful, thirty something Armenian. Many of the workers at this store were Armenians. Some had arrived shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but many had long roots in this country. Before he came here, he didn’t know that many Armenians existed in this country.
She was one of the newcomers. She had already informed him that she had been an accomplished musician before she came to America. She had a long nose, and dark, mysterious, sexual eyes, and a sly smile that said all kinds of nasty things.
For some reason, this quiet night at Macy’s, besides the usual bitching and moaning about work, and how full-timers like her were always at the beck and call of the managers, the topic also turned to sex.
“You know what my husband said to me last night,” the Armenian woman said to Randy.
“I’m going to tell you something very private.”
“He asked me to get on top of him when we were making love. He said ‘baby, come on, get on top of me’.”
The Armenian spoke in a broad, low toned, conspiratorial accent, and moved closer and closer to him. She suddenly reminded him of all those bad Hollywood movies of the veiled harem girl whose dark eyes said volumes.
“And did you? He asked.
“Yes. But I fell asleep!”
They both laughed loudly, with Randy letting out a loud howl. Her face took on a young, goofy look. That was funny! Randy had been working here for only a few months, and only part time, but he fully understood the meaning of that joke.
Most nights, the conversation was not about sex, but their answers to the many questions I had concerning their hidden, mysterious culture. They told me that they had settled in Fresno and Glendale and as far away as Sacramento. And now many have moved to Hollywood, creating Little Armenia. I learned first hand why it was Armenians were so hidden from the rest of us, and why many in their community wanted to keep it that way. I how knew just how closed their culture was to non-Armenians.
To be frank, I was greatly surprised that a white, Christian group could have stayed that segregated from the rest of America. After all, wasn’t that the promise of America? Wasn’t that the essence of the melting pot, which was the direct opposite of diversity? That all whites would be met with a hail-fellow-well-met ness and welcomed into the world of whiteness?
But you can see just how a city like Los Angeles could work in the Armenians favor, and help them maintain a separateness, as everyone cruised by in their cocoon, not sure who, or what was in the car ahead, or next to them, or following close behind.
For the Hispanics, the same set of circumstances also worked well. Because so little is seen, only dry numbers in a newspaper. Who knew just how brown the city was becoming year after year. I knew what was coming in the 70’s when I lived here. The day my last child was born in 1977, at the nursery at Hollywood Children’s Hospital there was one black new born, one white, one mixed and over twenty Mexicans (or Hispanics). It was clear to me that day what the future of Los Angeles was.
I have been asked more than once why I thought it was that the Hispanics overtook the city. Simple, I always reply, they found an easy way for ordinary people to have sex.
One of the most interesting observations made by Ms McNamara was “freeway culture is not big on follow-up.”
The practical outcome of that observation is that if you spent all, or most of your time indoors, locked away in what is really a moving living room, how the hell are you going to meet anyone?
The rich, as the actor Charlie Sheen notoriously demonstrated with his $26,000 a year sex bill, can just pick up the phone and call someone.
I remember one of the scariest moments in my life. It was a beautiful Christmas day in 1979. I was at Venice Beach with my wife, and our two lovely young daughters, Alexis and Tama. I loved going to the beach on Christmas day and New Year’s, just as I loved picking an orange off a tree and eating it on the spot. That was my finger to the bitter cold winters of New York City.
We were walking near the basketball courts, where young black men soar sky-high. Out of nowhere, a clearly angry young black man came up in back of us and started yelling, “I can have a family! I can have a family! You think you’re the only one that can have a family!”
I instinctly pulled the two-year-old Alexis, and the six year old Tama closer to me and steered my family away from the disturbed man. I looked back at him to make sure he wasn’t following us, and also to take a better look at him. He was still glaring at me as we moved further way, still mouthing the words, “I can have a family. I can have a family!”
He scared me. Yet, he also moved me deeply because I thought I understood the source of all that obvious pain. I knew he was filled with heart-aching loneliness, unbearable sexual frustration and deep, unmet, emotional needs—triggered perhaps to a feverish pitch by the sight of me, a young black man just like him, my beautiful Hispanic wife, and my two young girls.
I knew he was one of those hopefuls I sat talking to in my office on Hollywood Blvd, gladly giving my bits of wisdom, glad for the company. I knew he was drawn here by big dreams and grand hopes, but has been unable to connect with anyone expect the basketball players.
And this was Christmas. A day for family. A happy day.
The Hispanics avoided this lonely world. They didn’t come here for show biz. They came to work at anything they could get their hands on. It was this low income and willingness to work at any job that worked for them in unsuspecting ways. For example, they used public transportation, often waiting for an hour-and-half for a crowded bus, to get back and forth to those low paying jobs.
Kerouac wrote in On The Road about Los Angeles, “there was no comradeship on those streets.”
But there is comradeship on those buses, as women chat away in Spanish, and the quiet men nod signs of recognition at each other, and the teenagers make eyes, and the young girls giggle and wore tight t-shirts that read: “Tell your boyfriend to stop bothering me,” or, “Talk to me, not to my tits,” and everyone admires the latest baby, and old women make subtle, playful faces at two-year olds.
A letter to the Los Angeles Times rebuffing Ms McNamara’s observations surprised me. The writer, with an Asian sur-name, called her views “very 70’s,” and called attention to the new social interaction on our new subway system.
But the truth be told, this social interaction has always been there, even in Kerouac’s late 40’s. This non-freeway culture the Hispanics create also led to a lively street life, which also increased personal interaction. Friendships were made on the warm, sunlit street, and flirtations abound.
So it is little wonder their population just kept increasing!
With the success of the Armenians, the Hispanics and the Jews, as well as an assortment of Asian groups, we can see a real pattern. A strong sense of people hood seems to be essential to overcoming the isolation of the freeway culture. For the black population, historical forces were busily working against them establishing that sense.
In the black world, for example, there are many who hate the idea of separate but equal, including me. It has always meant bad schools, lousy jobs, nightriders, and white fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson denying their children-- and being kept away from the grand party, which was America.
Even if people like me were in a small minority, and most blacks did want to be left alone, whites were always sneaking around in the dead of night spying on our churches and juke joints—stealing our culture.
No disrespect intended, but it’s hard to imagine a young Elvis hiding in the dark shadows outside a synagogue in the Fairfax District, or a church in the barrio, letting the soulful seeds of creativity envelop him, and change his very essence, thereby helping change the very essence of America.
As one Hispanic comedian so artfully put it recently, “Without blacks, America would suck!”
The world, especially the white world, just wouldn’t leave blacks alone. We became, in a weird, paradoxical sort of way, the most sort after, segregated people on earth.
So something needed to be done. Some effort had to be made for blacks to get in touch with their inner separateness. Something that would make them stop pining longingly away for integration with Anglos, who continued to publicly thumb their noses at them, turning their backs on them, pretending they didn’t like them.
Something that would give blacks an old world distinctness like the other groups, something that goes back thousands, and thousands of years to mother Africa, something that would make them more than just, well, plain old Americans.
Black nationalist Ron Karenga, LA’s own ingenious provocateur, understood this, and deftly pulled off a yeoman-like effort to do something about it. Applying what he called “ancient African principles,” he created out of whole cloth, Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa has grown over the years into something like an affirmative action, equal opportunity quasi-religious holiday, little understood even by those that sing its praises.
You can’t fault Karenga, however. He will go down in American history along side Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad and L. Ron Hubbard as one of the truly inspired ones who created home-grown religions that millions of people now follow!
Kwanzaa or not, in the end, it still couldn’t make blacks a “pure” culture, sat down intact like the other pure cultures, in the semi-desert of Los Angeles. They were unlike the Asians, Hispanics, Armenians and Jews.
What about the Anglos? Didn’t they have a strong sense of people hood? Why else would they have designed a city where the key factor for survival is a strong sense of us ness? But alas, the Anglos were plagued with the same deep, dark curse as the blacks. Try as they may for old world distinctness, in the end, they were stuck with just being plain old Americans.
White folks, as it were.
Their melting pot upbringing, which helped remove the British, the French, the German, the Irish from their inner being, made them strangely enough, just like the blacks.
The Goddess of Historical Irony must not have just chuckled at that, but she must have thrown back her old head in a loud guffaw.
At the March on Washington fifty years ago, author Norman Mailer ended up feeling bored and indifferent; so he wandered off at day’s end. No joke.
The postwar author most often lionized as “a prophet” regarding America’s tumult in the 1960s drifted off and willfully missed (remember, there were printed programs) the capstone feature: Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in all of its 18-minute climactic glory. Granted, no one knew that on that day MLK’s speech would congeal and consolidate (he’d delivered variations of it in churches and at other rallies) in such a way that now, fifty years later, it’s commonly called the 20th-century’s greatest speech. But, still. On August 28, 1963, even before his speech was articulated, Dr. King was already a legendary figure (only one year shy of winning the Nobel Peace Prize). Yet, Norman Mailer’s mind was elsewhere.
Perhaps Mailer was preoccupied with an older writer’s brand new novel, officially published on that same day. Mary McCarthy’s The Group also hit the streets on August 28, 1963, with a confident first-run printing of 75,000 copies.
Soon enough, as readers spread the word and with strong reviews in mainstream newspapers and magazines, American bookstores were ordering 5,000 copies per day. Second printing. Third printing. On and on. McCarthy’s novel about eight Vassar College graduates from the Class of ’33 and their social, sexual, political, psychological, marital and domestic rites of passage circa 1933-1940 not only hit the top of the Best Seller’s list in 1963, it stayed there for almost two years. It was a smash-hit novel with the public, despite being derided by the highbrow critics McCarthy most valued. The paperback rights and the sale of movie rights made her wealthy by the standards of the era, and both her name and The Group became household words.
No wonder Norman Mailer was preoccupied. He was also furious, dismissive, jealous, insulting, misogynistic, nasty, and almost incoherent in all of his envious, apoplectic rage, which revealed itself in one of the strangest pieces ever to be published as a so-called “book review.”
Framed as a legal argument and titled “The Mary McCarthy Case,” the essay monumentally expanded on the brief denunciations of fellow writers that Mailer included in Advertisements for Myself, his 1959 nonfiction collection.
Four years later, Mailer’s hyper-competitive penchant for judgments, verdicts, and other tropes (when he wasn’t using sports metaphors about boxers) focused itself on Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It’s possible to paraphrase his febrile indictments, but it’s impossible to convey Mailer’s authoritarian tone of unassailable superiority.
A few quotations are called for. Mailer began by ridiculing those who praised The Group, and in the process he sneeringly chided McCarthy, who had been publishing fiction and nonfiction of all sorts (memoirs, criticism, journalism) since the 1930s:
It had to happen. It was in the command of all the ironies that there would come a day when our First Lady of Letters would write a book and lo! the lovers would stand. Arthur Mizener would stand to be counted, and Granville Hicks, Clifton Fadiman . . . The reviews came in on wings of gold, “Brilliant” “Sheer” “Superlative” “Highly” “Generous” “Wonderfully Worth” “Great Joy To.” Not since Elizabeth Janeway wrote The Walsh Girls has any lady-book been given such praise by people such as these.
There it is. The smoking gun. Not only did The Group (McCarthy’s fifth novel) earn a great deal of praise from many reviewers, but some of those same critics had demoted Mailer when his second and third novels (Barbary Shore in 1951 and The Deer Park in 1955) received nothing like the admiration induced by The Naked and the Dead, his 1948 debut. Furthermore, the years were rolling by and none of the grandiose projections made by Mailer in Advertisements for Myself four years earlier—“ . . . it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years . . .”—had come even remotely close to fruition.
No wonder Mailer’s furies were directed at the critics who sang McCarthy’s praises, and also at Mary McCarthy herself, who, at age 51 in 1963 (she was eleven years older than Mailer) achieved a unique status thanks to The Group. In one fell swoop, she proved that an older female author could generate big sales and serious praise by publishing a novel so provocative in its details about birth control issues, virginity lost or preserved, high-functioning alcoholic archetypes, and a passel of other taboos, that what some readers called “filth” was being received by others as revelation. McCarthy had delivered, whereas Mailer could only promise.
What to do? Norman did what he did best in those years. He went on the attack. And he stayed on the attack. In the first paragraph of his alleged review of The Group, immediately after giving the back of his hand to those reviewers who had praised the book, McCarthy was pilloried: “ . . . our Mary, our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc, the only Joan of Arc to travel up and down our raddled literary world, our poor damp kingdom, her sword breathing fire while she looked for a Dauphin to save us, looked these twenty years . . .” And on he goes. In between the lines, for “those in the know” (as poet Robert Lowell put it), the across-the-board insults accrued: McCarthy’s gender, her Catholic upbringing (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood had done well in the 1950s), her stature as part of the clique often called “the Partisan Review crowd” and her age (comparing her to Ethel Barrymore was akin to saying she’s a fossil), it was all grist for the mill.
But it wasn’t just McCarthy whom Mailer had it in for in 1963. Before his piece on The Group appeared in The New York Review of Books, Mailer had again bulldozed his male peers in a harsh critique published in Esquire in July 1963.
One rival in particular incurred Mailer’s wrath: William Styron, whose 1960 novel Set This House on Fire had weathered a tsunami of negative American reviews, only to emerge triumphant when the French literary critics received it rapturously.
By 1963, in spite of its few high-profile American admirers, Styron’s Set This House on Fire (his second major novel) was being increasingly enshrined as a modern classic. In a letter Styron wrote to fellow novelist James Jones early that summer, the situation was explained: “This afternoon I got a phone call from Gay Talese . . . his tone was of high dudgeon and outrage. He told me he had gotten an advance look at the forthcoming July issue of Esquire, which has . . . another nobly-conceived dissection of his fellow writers by Mailer. Apparently this time Mailer has stooped to an all-time low, even for one who has been flopping around in the gutter as long as Norman . . . The bulk of Mailer’s hatred is reserved for me. An all-out, slavering attack on Set This House on Fire: but Talese said the thing that bugged and horrified him the most was the personal venom . . .”
Talese was right. Mailer called Set This House on Fire “ . . . a bad novel. A bad maggoty novel . . . it was the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people . . . It was the book of a man whose soul had gotten fat.” The ad hominem attack was, more often than not, Mailer’s ultimate strategy. Along with much condescension and piling on.
Mary McCarthy’s longtime friend Hannah Arendt (whose Eichmann in Jerusalem was another flashpoint for fierce debate in 1963) best described the toxic, volcanic, incendiary atmosphere in the debut season of The Group: “I read Mailer’s review only a couple of days ago—it is so full of personal and stupid invectives that I can’t understand how or why they printed it. And what surprises and shocks me most of all is the tremendous amount of hatred and hostility lying around and waiting only for a chance to break out.”
Arendt may have been alluding to the New York literati of that smoldering period, but soon enough America’s “hatred and hostility” would burst in long hot summers, a new war in Vietnam, a Generation Gap, a Sexual Revolution and an epoch of racial and cultural and political issues about which people are still arguing and vacillating.
In the past few days and weeks and months, the media’s focus on this season of 50th anniversaries (from the murder of Medgar Evers to the rise of the Rolling Stones to the March on Washington) has intensified.
Now that we've heard the millionth replay of the final minute of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (MLK would fume at how little of his text is commemorated) and with the imminent November monomania about President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas (yes, the 22nd of November falls again on a Friday this year), it’s fitting that a 1963 novel like The Group remains in print.
It has never been out of print. Surely that’s enough to infuriate Mailer’s ghost.
[M. J. Moore is writing a biography of novelist James Jones.]