Norman Mailer has died at age 84. He came to the University of Tennessee in 1973 to give a lecture, which turned out to be a reading from his book about Marilyn Monroe. That’s it–he just got up and read from his book. Hundreds of people had turned out, and much was the disappointment. He had been paid $10,000 or $15,000 or what seemed like a tremendous amount of money for that time, and all he did was read and answer a few questions.
There were high hopes for a better showing at the party afterwards. I was an undergraduate and a member of the committee that chose the lecturers. One of the perks of being on that committee was getting to hang around the man or woman of the hour, often at a dinner before the lecture or a party afterwards.
This particular Mailer soiree was at the home of Kit and Mary Ewing. Kit was the head of the UT art department, and it seemed that everyone on the campus tried to wrangle an invitation to the event. I mentioned to one of my journalism professors that I was going, and the man jumped to his feet and said that he had written either his thesis or dissertation on Mailer. I knew he badly wanted to go, so I told him I would see what I could do. (I could have given him an invitation on the spot, but I wanted to make it seem hard to get.)
After the lecture everyone drove like hell out to the Ewing’s art-filled home and descended upon the bar and food like we were starving. Most of the students were starving, for that matter. In those days, faculty members didn’t drink with undergraduates–at least none of them did with me–so for us it was heady to be sipping white wine with people we usually addressed as “Doctor.”
Mailer didn’t show for a while, and you could hear people murmuring about whether he would make it and wouldn’t it be awful if he didn’t. We hoped he would show up and get drunk and butt someone’s head or wrestle in the floor or take on some of our local feminists, a few of whom were present, bristling but happy to be there.
Finally The Great Man appeared, leonine hair atop a short, barrel-chested body. For all of his bravado and wife-stabbing New York behavior, he seemed subdued and more like a visiting accountant than a Big Name Author. Instantly, everyone in the room became studiedly nonchalant. All of us positioned ourselves where we could keep one eye on Mailer and engaged in meaningless conversations like the ones you see on stage among the actors when the star is in a crowd scene.
We had our pride. We didn’t want to all rush him at once like a bunch of rubes. Norman Mailer might have been from New York, but we wanted to show him that our parties could be just as sophisticated and that we could engage in heavy issues and light repartee with the best of them. I’ll bet every one of us had formulated a question or remark and were just waiting for the right moment to conversationally cut in.
That’s when it happened. Someone had invited some airhead sorority girl, and while all of us were waiting for the right moment, she barged right up to Mailer and opened her mouth. I have been in a couple of bicycle wrecks, and in both of them it seemed as if I approached the ground in slow motion. Everyone in the room felt the same way; there was no way this could turn out well.
“Mr. Mailer,” crooned the Tri Ditz, “we’re just so thrilled that you came down from New York City to see us here in little ole Knoxville. I just have one question.” Mailer leaned in and lowered his head in order to hear what she said. Maybe he was looking down her dress–I’m not sure.
The conversation in the room stopped. If a cartoonist had been captioning a photo of the party, the collective thought balloon over all of the heads but hers and Mailer’s would have read “Noooooooooooooooooo!”
Out it came: “What’s your sign?”
Mailer lifted his head and looked into her eyes before answering, as if he were thinking “Is this the best you freaking hillbillies can come up with?” He answered a quiet “Aquarius.”
The Tri Ditz beamed as if she had become the first sorority girl to win the G.E. College Bowl, and had no more to say. The conversation in the room instantly resumed, and all of us hoped the evening hadn’t been ruined. It wasn’t, but nothing wild happened, either. Mailer didn’t get in any arguments or fistfights. He didn’t put anyone in a headlock.
I never knew what happened to that sorority girl. I wonder if she ever graduated, for every faculty person in the room gave her a solid look to imprint her face in their minds. If she ever set foot in any of their classrooms, she would get an F.