I’ve blogged about my long-distance fondness for Theodore Solotaroff, the editor whose New American Review series ushered me through the gates of Quality Lit. If you read that post, you’ll know why I’ve been relishing these excerpts from Solotaroff’s unfinished memoir of his publishing days, run in two parts by The Nation. The passages offer glimpses into a long-gone era when ambitious magazines held a place at the center of American culture, along with some amusing, gossipy stuff about silver-maned literary lions — and the lesser specimens who wanted to play like them:
I began working at Commentary in September 1960, some nine months after Norman Podhoretz had taken over, invigorating the magazine and steering it in a less Jewish and more leftward direction. By leading off his first three issues with long excerpts from Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman, the surprise witness whose testimony would soon change the terms of the debate about American society from conformist to deformed, Norman made it clear that the magazine would hold its own as the suddenly prominent new voice of a new decade . . .
He [Pohoretz] was no longer the spokesman of our sober, mature look, whose wistful suggestion for acting up was a midnight plunge in the Plaza Hotel fountain. No, that Norman was history. In the past year or two he had teamed up with Norman Mailer, the lead rebel, iconoclast and sensualist of the New York scene. The result was a hard-drinking, sexually liberated Norman who didn’t seem to spend many evenings at home. Our editorial meetings were often punctuated by phone calls from Mailer, who appeared to have open access to Norman. We always knew it was “the other Norman”–as Sherry referred to him, with her droll roll of the eyes–because the butch side of Norman would emerge as he responded to Mailer’s latest brainstorm or piece of gossip or plan for the night’s revels.
It’s been a long, long time since words like “invigorating,” “fresh” and especially “leftward” were used in connection with Commentary, but it’s even more surprising — and hilarious — to picture the younger N-Pod getting wild man lessons from Norman Mailer in his brawling prime.
It’s not hard to believe that some of those evenings spent following Mailer along the razor’s edge fueled N-Pod’s overweening self-image as the twilight warrior against communism — and later on, a cartoon idea of terrorism. If there is an afterlife, I expect Mailer is off somewhere reading those words and thinking, I created a monster.