Encore

Crime and Punishment

Norman Mailer stabs his wife -- We recall the writer's assault on his wife Adele in November 1960

There is no other way to describe the crime: It was Maileresque. And so was the perpetrator's egotistical plea to the judge: ''It is important to me not to be sent automatically to some mental institution,'' Norman Mailer said after his arrest for stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales, at their Manhattan apartment on Nov. 20, 1960, ''because for the rest of my life my work will be considered as the work of a man with a disordered mind. My pride is that as a sane man I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of.''

As a sane man that unusual night, Mailer gave a party unofficially kicking off his New York mayoral campaign, hoping to bring together the dispossessed and the power elite. But the power elite stayed away, while street people and literati crowded the apartment. The disappointed host grew drunker and more belligerent, brawling with his guests. He and Adele argued: She reportedly told him he was not as good as Dostoyevski.

Was it wounded vanity? Depression? Or, as critic Lionel Trilling has suggested, some Dostoyevskian desire to explore evil that prompted Mailer, once the guests had left, to stab Adele twice with a penknife? Whatever, she was taken to the hospital in critical condition, with one wound in her heart. But she recovered. Mailer spent 17 days at Bellevue Hospital under psychiatric observation. Adele refused to press charges, but a grand jury indicted Mailer for felonious assault. Six months later, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence. The couple had already divorced.

Mailer, whose Harlot's Ghost is a current best-seller, eventually subdued the beast within by giving it voice in his writing. He returned to the scene of the crime in his novel, An American Dream — in which an intellectual kills his wife — and a short poem, ''Rainy Afternoon With the Wife,'' which reads: ''So long as you use a knife, there's some love left.'' Maileresque, absolutely.



TIME CAPSULE

Nov. 20, 1960
Westerns dominated the small screen and Gunsmoke was top gun. Elizabeth Taylor turned on the steam in Butterfield 8. James Michener's Hawaii topped the fiction list, and Ray Charles had ''Georgia on My Mind.''

Originally posted Nov 15, 1991 Published in issue #92 Nov 15, 1991 Order article reprints
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