If you had to meet someone who, over 72 years, has amassed six wives, nine children, 29 books, two Pulitzer Prizes, and a reputation for being, shall we say, outspoken, and if this person happens to be Norman Mailer, and you are the reporter taking him to the Museum of Modern Art to talk about his new book, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, take my word for it: You’d be nervous.
Except there he is on the street, surprisingly small and looking like a professor in a ratty teal cashmere sweater, and he glances up and smiles, and he’s nice.
Maybe it’s because you’re not a reviewer: ”A lot of them have minds that are crude when they’re not gross,” he grumbles. Perhaps it’s because you bear little resemblance to Picasso’s friend Gertrude Stein: ”a tremendous warthog.” Probably it’s because you don’t insist that Mailer wrote this personal interpretation of Picasso — for which he drew heavily on the work of art historians — in order to rummage through the psyche of a soul mate. ”Some [people] say, ‘Poor Norman, trying to identify with a man who’s greater than himself,’ ” says the author, settling on a bench in front of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. ”For all that, you have to use a good European word, which is kvatch. It’s polite for ‘crap.’ ”
Mailer began working on the book in 1962, even journeying to the south of France to visit John Richardson (who has since written the definitive volume about the artist as a young man), in hopes that Richardson would introduce him to Picasso. It never happened, ”but we had an interesting evening, we all got drunk, and that was that,” says Mailer, who subsequently dropped the project for 30 years. ”But now I’m much older, and it’s easier for me to understand him. There are some ways in which I feel close to Picasso. We had a similar childhood….I understand something about his competitiveness. But I never for one moment identified with him.”
While Mailer’s own life has been dissected by scholars, the author is unapologetic about delving into an artist’s personal exploits. ”It’s like a poem,” he says, splitting the word into two syllables, his Brooklyn background erased long ago by a Harvard education. ”Sometimes when I’m giving a lecture, I’ll have great fun because I’ll say, ‘Here’s a poem: I woke up in the morning/I brushed my teeth/I had breakfast.’ And they laugh. And then I say, ‘What if I told you Robert Lowell wrote it?’ And they say, ‘Ah.’ Of course, Lowell didn’t write it. I just made it up. But context is all.” Nevertheless, he sees one pitfall in writing about a real person: ”Beware of the dead man’s friends,” Mailer says slyly. Lucky for him Gertrude Stein isn’t around.