THE OTHER ADELE
by M. J. Moore
A talented, uniquely fated woman died in New York on a Sunday night last November.
Then her obituaries appeared, and 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 drunken bash at their home 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 1950s (Hans Hofmann, for one).
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.
And, she also was a 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 scene in the 1950s.
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 favorably with poet Diane di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years.
What all those gifted women (and their memoirs) have in common is that their individual quests as female artists had to be subordinated, time after time, to the men in their lives. In the postwar 1950s, even in the hippest of bohemian enclaves, women who were painters or poets, dancers or musicians, actors or aspiring novelists, were expected to yield to the needs of their men, setting aside their own work to instead function as muses.
It never ended well. For Adele Mailer, it nearly prematurely ended her life.
Doubtless one of the most sycophantic, misogynistic, disturbing, and all-too-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 early 1960s; and they offered him unconditional support in the aftermath of his nearly successful attempt to stab his wife to death on November 20, 1960.
For complicated personal reasons, 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 penknife into the mother of two of his children, almost piercing her aorta.
Despite his vaunted reputation as a writer-fighter (his boxing obsession was profound), it was a small woman (who had given him 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.
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-infused 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 went. Then he pontificated on TV for decades, always hungry for media attention and forever promising the “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 1960s New Journalism), you have to wonder how so many were so fooled. 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 some kind of alter ego regarding 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 deserves to be remembered as an aspiring artist and a beloved mother, and not mainly as the victim of Norman Mailer's most outrageously insane, madman behavior.
(Heliotrope Books in New York will publish M. J. Moore’s novel For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor on August 29th.)
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