ENCOUNTER: Norman Mailer

What I appreciated most about Norman Mailer, as a writer and a person, was how genuine, honest and available (although often overzealous) he was. He didn’t hide who he was or how he felt or what he thought. In the powerful and precedent-shattering “Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History” (1968), for example, he not only explained his opposition to the Vietnam War but laid bare his feelings and his political commitment. It was an honest, straightforward and admittedly self- serving book, which skillfully enmeshed political rhetoric into storytelling. The same year, Mailer took on both the Democratic and Republican parties in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” Then, in 1969, he was a candidate in the Democratic primary race for mayor of New York City, sharing a ticket with the equally outrageous journalist Jimmy Breslin, running for president of city council. They had the coolest campaign slogan: “The other guys are the joke!” (These days, that slogan might apply to either side.)

Mailer never really had a chance of winning the primary; he received only 41,000 votes (Breslin got 75,000 but still came in fourth of five candidates). Fortunately, Mailer applied his drive and energy with more success in service of the literary community. Most people don’t realize how instrumental Mailer was in fortifying literary life for writers of all genres. He was a co-founder of The Village Voice, which in its early years had a greater impact on the nonfiction/ journalistic world than any other single publication, with the possible exception of Esquire and The New Yorker. In his later years, Mailer was, among other things, a president of the PEN American Center and—according to his contemporary Gay Talese, a member of the organization at the time—used his prestige and devoted his time to putting the organization on the map, nationally and internationally.

Mailer died in 2007, but his legacy continues at the recently established Norman Mailer Center and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, based in Provincetown, Mass.The Colony’s mission is to help nurture emerging writers in Mailer’s spirit of openness and dialogue. The Mailer Center sponsors annual essay awards—with significant cash prizes—for high school and college students. Last year, I was honored to be one of the judges for the college award, along with writers Barbara Lounsberry and Melissa Fay Greene. At the chic Norman Mailer Writers Colony gala at Cipriani, co-hosted by Tina Brown of The Daily Beast and David Remnick of The New Yorker, we watched John Gilmore, from the University of Utah, accept the $10,000 prize for best college essay.

The Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, which publishes this magazine, have many objectives in common, the most important of these being to showcase and support the work of emerging writers in the nonfiction field. Subsequently, Lawrence Schiller, co-founder and president of the center and the colony, and I agreed that Creative Nonfiction should publish Gilmore’s winning essay. “Final Cascade” begins on p. 37 of this issue.

2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the year that Mailer’s book, “The Executioner’s Song,” won the Pulitzer Prize. In many respects, that book, about the life and death of the convicted killer Gary Gilmore (no relation to John), is similar in style and content to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” published more than a decade earlier. A major difference is in the “fine print” of the labeling: Capote referred to his book as a “nonfiction novel” and insisted on the “nonfiction” part of the equation while Mailer’s book, described as “a true life novel,” won the Pulitzer in the fiction category.

And yet, as Mailer explained in the Afterword, “The Executioner’s Song” “does its best to be a factual account” and was based on extensive interviews and research. Lawrence Schiller played an essential role in this work; it was he who actually bought the rights to Gilmore’s story and hired Mailer to write it. He did most of the research and conducted many of the interviews—and was present at Gilmore’s execution— and he ultimately provided Mailer with thousands of pages of notes and transcripts. In fact, Schiller owns half the copyright of the book—a rather unusual arrangement but certainly fitting in this instance. If there were a Pulitzer to reward a researcher, producer, editor and overall accomplished, inspiring and dedicated friend, Schiller would have received it long ago.

In this issue, we’re pleased to include an excerpt of “The Executioner’s Song” as well as a brief and illuminating summation of Mailer’s nonfiction by his official biographer, J. Michael Lennon, and a charming recollection by one of Mailer’s dear friends, the narrative historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

– Lee Gutkind

The Executioner’s Song

from Chapter 29, “The Sentence”


Now that the Mitigation Hearing was over and the Jury had gone to the jury room,Vern and Ida went outside and milled around the courthouse with other people waiting for the verdict.They had not planned to be in Court at all, but Gary had called Ida days ago and asked her to be there, and after that, nothing could have kept them away.

Insidethecourtroom,MikeEsplinarrangedwiththeguardsforNicoletobeabletositnearGary.That way, he was able to talk to her across the railing.While they waited, they joked.They even held hands. It impressed Mike Esplin.The fellow was waiting to find out whether he was going to be executed or not, yet he was acting like a cavalier.

Craig Snyder got curious what Gary and Nicole might be talking about, and got near enough to hear Nicole say, “My mother wants you to paint her a picture.” “Oh,” said Gary, “I didn’t think your mother really liked me.” “Well,” replied Nicole, “she doesn’t. She just wants it so she can say, ‘Gary Gilmore painted that picture.’” Gary laughed. Craig couldn’t get over it. To have Nicole near seemed more important to Gary than anything in the trial. He looked so happy.

A little later, he wanted to go to the bathroom, and so the two guards got up with him, and they filed off slowly, Gary in lockstep, the shackles keeping his feet from moving quickly. Brenda came up. “Gary,” she said, “don’t be such a sore-ass. Just because I turned you in, and testified against you, is no reason to be mad, is it?” He arched his neck and looked down at her. It was awful to see him chained. She reached out and touched his handcuffs tenderly, but he pulled his hand back, and gave her a look that ate at her for a long time and never stopped bothering her.

For weeks to come, she would be standing at the sink doing the dishes, and she would start to cry. Johnny would walk over and put his arm around her and say, Honey, try not to think about it so much. All she could see was Gary behind bars again, deeper than he’d ever been.


Word came that the verdict was ready, and they all returned to the courtroom.The Jury walked in.The Bailiff read the verdict. It was Death.The Jury was polled. In turn, each one of the twelve said:Yes, and Gary looked across at Vern and Ida and shrugged. When the Judge asked him, “Do you have an election as to the mode of death?” Gary said, “I prefer to be shot.”

Then Judge Bullock replied, “Very well, that will be the order.” The sentence was set for Monday, November 15, at eight o’clock in the morning of this year, and Gary Gilmore would be remanded to the Sheriff of Utah County for delivery to the Warden of Utah State Prison.

The news lived in the air of the courtroom. It was as if there had been one kind of existence in the room, and now there was another: a man was going to be executed. It was real but it was not comprehensible.The man was standing there.

Gilmore chose this moment to speak to Noall Wootton. This was the first time he had addressed him in weeks. Gary looked over calmly, and said, “Wootton, everybody around here looks like they’re crazy. Everybody but me.” Wootton looked back and thought, “Yes, at this moment, everybody could be crazy, except Gary.”

Noall had this bothersome feeling now. It was in the impression he had had all the way that Gilmore was more intelligent than himself. Wootton knew damned well that Gilmore was more educated. Self-educated, but better educated. “Jesus Almighty,” Wootton said to himself, “the system has really failed with this man, just miserably failed.”

After that, people were going out and Nicole was crying in the corridor, and Nicole and Ida met, and they embraced, and broke down, and Nicole said, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.” Vern was walking around in a state of shock. He had expected it all, but he was shocked.

A girl, a young reporter, came up to Gary and asked, “Do you have any comments?” He said, “No, not particularly.” She said, “Do you think everything was fair? Is there anything you’d like to say?” Gary said, “Well, I’d like to ask you a question.” She said, “What’s that?” He said, “Who the hell won the World Series?”


The State Patrolman who would escort Gary back to jail and then take him up to the prison was named Jerry Scott, and he was a big, good-looking man. He had a personality clash with Gary right from the start.

When he went into the courtroom to pick him up, Gilmore didn’t have leg shackles on, or handcuffs, so Scott knelt and attached the stuff, and asked him to stand so the restraining belt could be locked. Scott thought it was easier and more comfortable for the prisoner if you could put on a restraining belt and hook the handcuffs through the hold in the front rather than pinion a man with his arms behind his back. But when Gary stood up, he said, “You’ve got the leg irons too tight. I’m not going anywhere.”

Jerry Scott reached down. He could move the irons back and forth a little, so he knew they were not binding. “Gary,” he said, “they’re okay.” At which point, Gilmore replied, “Either get those shackles off me, or you’re going to carry me out.”

Scott said, “I’m not carrying you anywhere. I’ll drag you out.” Scott was disgusted. Everybody around Gilmore had been sayingYes, Sir, and No, Sir, as if committing the murder made him a special person.You had to be firm with prisoners was one thing Scott had decided a long time ago, and here was everybody hovering over backwards to be extra nice to this fellow. Maybe it was because he was always staring you right in the eye like he was innocent or something.

Gilmore was really starting to act up now and using profanities in the courtroom. Scott didn’t want to fight him all the way down the stairs and into the elevator with everybody watching, so he loosened the cuffs and shackles after all. Gilmore complained again, and now Scott had them really loose, and Gilmore was still complaining. Scott got suspicious, especially when Gilmore repeated, “You’re going to have to carry me out of here.”

“I’m not loosening them any further,” Scott said. “Just get your ass in gear.We’re going down whether you like it or not, and if you don’t, I’ll drag you, but I won’t carry you.The decision,” Scott said, “is up to you.”

At this point, Gilmore started walking out with him.They had to go real slow, because he only had about ten inches of movement with the leg shackles on, and Gilmore was mad all the way down to the car, and all the way across Center Street to the jail. Scott put Gary in the front seat next to himself and had two deputies in the back. After they arrived, they took off the leg shackles, and the handcuffs, and brought Gilmore to his cell and listened to him talk to his cellmate while he gathered his personal items for transport up to Utah State Prison.

Well, they gave me the death penalty, Gilmore said to his cellmate. He shook his head, and added, “You know, I’m going to eat first.” His cellmate said he had a money order which he hadn’t cashed yet, and he got $5 from one of the guards in exchange for it and gave it to Gary who said, “You’re too much. I’ll never be able to repay you.” “It ain’t no big thing,” said the cellmate. “Listen, do me a favor,” said Gilmore, “get these books back to the Provo Library, so Nicole won’t get into any trouble. They’re checked out in her name.” “No sweat,” said the cellmate. Then as Scott watched, Gilmore handed him a blue western shirt and said, “Nicole made this for me,” and then he handed over a Schick Ejectable Razor and said, “I want you to have this as a remembrance.” They shook hands and wished one another good luck, and the jailer undid the lock and chain on the door and Gary walked out, turned around with his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers.The cellmate did the same. Sheriff Cahoon came by and shook hands with Gary.

Scott took him down the corridor, and made him strip for a shakedown.That got Gilmore upset all over again. He was being very protective about his person and his personal items.This last was just a bunch
of letters and some books, but he wouldn’t let them out of his sight and acted like the skin shake was a personal attack. Scott didn’t feel that way at all.The fellow had just been given the death sentence.There had to be tight security.

Once he was stripped, they ran their fingers through his hair to make sure he hadn’t glued anything in there. His hair was long enough to hide a nail file.They checked behind the ear lobes, and made him hold his arms high, checked through the hair under his armpits and in the navel.They had to lift up his testicles to see if there was something taped under his sac and then had him bend over and spread his cheeks to make sure nothing was extending from the rectum area. Policy was not to give finger waves down there anymore. Finally they checked the bottoms of his feet to make sure something wasn’t being held between the toes. All the while, Gilmore kept using every four-letter word he could find.

Then they put the shackles back, and Scott made sure they were secure. Jerry Scott said, “Gary, I don’t like you, and you don’t like me, but let’s forget that. I’m going to take you to State Prison and I don’t want you trying to get away. Deputy Fox is going to be sitting right behind, and if you give any trouble, or make any fast movements, or any aggressive movements, he’s going to snap your neck, snap it.” Even after a skin search, you never knew what a prisoner could hide. A flat bobby pin could be slipped up under the cuffs and get them loose.Why you could open handcuffs with the refill from a ball-point pen if you knew how to do it. So, there was always a lot to worry in moving a prisoner. Scott told him to just sit in the car and they would go straight to prison and it would be all right.

He moved in his slow shackle-step out of the jail and into the vehicle, and sitting the same way as before, they took off. For protection, Jerry Scott had arranged to have two detectives follow in another car three hundred yards behind.They would watch for any driver who might pull in behind the lead car to commence an escape plan.They were also watching for any vehicle driven by a kook who might decide he wanted to assassinate Gilmore.

Anyway, the trip went quietly. Gilmore said something about how the air felt good and the scenery did look good out there in the evening, and Scott answered, “Yeah, the weather is fine.” Gilmore took a real deep breath and said, “Can I have my window down a little bit?” Scott said, “Sure,” and then said over his shoulder to the officer behind him, “Lee, I’m going to bend over and open his window some.” So Deputy Fox leaned forward to cover as Scott leaned over with one hand and rolled it down.That seemed to cool Gilmore. He didn’t say any more for the rest of the way … but he also seemed to relax.

When they got to the State Prison, the officer in charge ushered them through different gates into the Maximum Security area.There they took the foot braces off, and the shackles, and the handcuffs, and shook him down again, and took him to his cell, and he never said another word. Scott didn’t say good- bye. He didn’t want to agitate him, and such an attempt might seem like heckling. Outside the prison, night had come, and the ridge of the mountain came down to the Interstate like a big dark animal laying out its paw.

That night, Mikal Gilmore, Gary’s youngest brother, received a phone call from Bessie. She told him that Gary received the death penalty. “Mother,” Mikal said, “they haven’t executed anybody in this country for ten years, and they aren’t about to start with Gary.” Still, nausea came up on him as he put down the phone. All he could see for the rest of the night were Gary’s eyes.

© 1979 by Norman Mailer, Lawrence Schiller, and The New Ingot Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Lawrence Schiller/Norman Mailer Licensing LLC

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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