The Norman Conquest: Author Norman Mailer Receives The Legion of Honor, Highest Honor from France

When I was much younger and uncertain of my future as a writer I often heard about sightings of Norman Mailer walking his Standard Poodle along the beautiful Promenade that forms a belt around Brooklyn Heights. My friends and I, young aspiring writers living in Greenwich Village, were intrigued to have this important author writing just across the East River. He was close enough for us to sense his aura, but too far to be part of it. We drifted back and forth between admiration and envy never once questioning whether or not we could measure up to what he could do. That’s what gets the youngsters to rise above the mud or just let it go. His presence in Brooklyn Heights was the carrot and publishing was the stick. The world as we lived it was our grinding stone.

We heard he lived in one of those tall houses, lined in a row along the bluff set back and overlooking the Promenade. This was a splendid stretch of park threading across the top of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and just beneath a row of houses looking like dark Monopoly structures. Strollers holding hands, young mothers and dog walkers got to look at the river and the breathtaking Manhattan skyline from this narrow park. It still is a Thomas Wolfe book jacket. The Promenade represented to us an essence of New York and the romance of living and struggling within it. A lot of dogs have claimed it with a lifted hind leg.

We used to speculate about Mailer’s work space, which we heard was at the top floor of his house and could only be accessed by rope ladders or such, designed for privacy. None of us really knew. Of the few things about him we were sure of were his books, articles, public appearances, private boxing matches, and the fact that he played with his black Poodle as they walked the Promenade together. We’d heard that he took his work breaks with his pal Tibo. All we ever knew for sure about Norman Mailer back in the Sixties was what he chose to say on television and in the papers, which was just as startling and original as anything he wrote.

Norman Mailer
(Photo by Jeffrey Michelson)

I used to wonder what he was really like and whether I’d like him if I knew him. More to the point, I wondered what it would be like to pal around with a guy like that and live the life he lived. Back then, owning a large, elegant dog in Manhattan was a luxury. Of course, coming back to your own house on the edge of the East River after visiting your books at a Fifth Avenue store were even greater luxuries. Back then, I did think about him, his dog and all the rest of it. But I also understood about the talent, the hard work, the discipline, the intelligence, the originality of his ideas, and, of course, his dynamic personality. Add to that just a bit of luck. Those realities scared the hell out of me. I had to put that stuff out of my head if I was to get a day’s work out of myself. Still, it crept in under the door like flood waters. I wondered if I would ever get published. I wondered if I would ever get to meet Norman Mailer.

Published? Many times over the past 35 years. Mailer? Well, not until last month. I had my answer decades later, on a bitter cold day in Manhattan. I was not to be denied by the brutal cold weather. Maybe, just maybe, I would finally get to realize a young man’s wish, perhaps a childish one. Others I knew wanted to meet Elvis.

It was 5:30 in the afternoon and my cab dropped me off at 79th and 5th, in front of the magnificent Payne Whitney Mansion now occupied by the Cultural Division of the Embassy of France. The massive iron and glass door swung open with a slow groan after I identified myself on an intercom saying, “I’m here as a guest to attend the ceremony for Norman Mailer.” The buzzer sounded and the door unlocked. I was an hour early and was alone in the all-white, marble foyer with one guard in shirtsleeves defending the interests of France as he read the NY Post. God, I was grateful to be allowed in from the arctic wind. In the center of the museum-like anteroom was a stone pedestal atop of which was a sculpture of a cherub of some kind. I think it was tooting a horn with cracks in it. I was quite surprised to learn later that it was an original Michelangelo and quite valuable.

Mordecai Siegal, James Lipton and (seated) Norman Mailer
(Photo by Jeffrey Michelson)

I sat in the quiet room as I listened to the pages of the newspaper turn one at a time by the guard, who seemed quite indifferent to my presence. Finally, people started drifting in including my friend Jeffrey Michelson, who is a recording and TV commercial producer, an old and valued friend whose generosity was responsible for my attendance at this unique affair. He knew I always admired Norman Mailer and wanted to meet him some day. Jeffrey kindly gave me his extra invitation to the ceremony giving up the opportunity to use it more to his advantage. I remember at the time how I almost leaped through the phone in disbelief when he asked if I wanted to go. He has been a close friend of Mailer since the Sixties and traveled all the way in from Pennsylvania on this freezing day to attend the honor bestowed on his friend. I couldn’t believe that he invited me to see Mailer receive France’s most prestigious award, the Legion of Honor.

A very gentle, neatly-dressed and well groomed young man, perhaps a diplomat in training, quietly walked down the long, red-carpeted staircase that flowed into the anteroom, and said to me with great sincerity, “Excuse me, sir. You will be much more comfortable upstairs. Why stay here?” I gathered myself up and with the help of a cane (for a sciatica problem); I hobbled up the long staircase and entered the world of the diplomatic reception. At the top of the stairs was a man in a tuxedo, gloved in white and holding a silver tray with elegant glasses of red wine and Pellegrino water, splashing about with a wedge of lime. The reception was in two large adjoining rooms with exceptionally high ceilings, draped dark curtains and the flags of both nations standing tall and at rest. It was all so pleasing to the eye, so graceful and yet quite official-looking. I immediately thought of a scene in a spy movie.

The first room was where you stood with a glass in your hand and casually chatted. Even the talk was subdued and tasteful. The wine and the exceptionally dry champagne were generously poured and poured again and again by formally dressed servers. There were a number of linen-covered tables scattered around the room festooned with the most spectacular hors d’oeuvres I have ever seen. They were as ornamental as they were delicious. I can’t even describe them except to say they were red, green, tan and black. Some were for dessert and came with all sorts of berries in miniature tartlet shells. It was one of those situations where everyone was waiting for someone else to pluck the first one off the tray not wanting to be the one to disturb the aesthetic. It was too intimidating for me. One bold young woman finally dug her fingers in them and popped one in her mouth in one bite to the relief of everyone else and then they started disappearing quickly. When one tray was emptied, a pair of hands in white gloves appeared from nowhere and replaced it. Imagine one server’s assignment that night was simply to refill the hors d’oeuvres tray. Even a Francophobe would have loved it.

With a flute of champagne in one hand and a cane in the other, I drifted into the adjoining room, which was where the presentation would take place. I licked my lips to make sure there were no bits of caviar on them and barely avoided spilling champagne on my best tie. It was a large space with many rows of black metal chairs, a rostrum at the far end with the flag of France on one side and the American flag on the other. In the rear, several international TV crews were setting up their tripods and light stands as press photographers from various news services were figuring out their shots. I hadn’t seen anything like that since Best In Show at Westminster, last month.

Seated near the back was a fascinating dowager-like woman, bedecked with more jewelry than I have ever seen adorning the human body. She sat at the end of the row with her wheeled walker parked next to her. In it was a bottle of oxygen connected to her with a clear tube. Even that looked bejeweled. Her face was sweet though, very bright and welcoming. She caught my eye and motioned for me to sit next to her. I was planning to sit with Jeffrey but he disappeared in the crowd as he seemed to know a lot of people there. I think my cane was what bonded us together. “Hello, I’m Leila, who are you?” She took the oxygen from her nose as she waited for my answer. I told her my name and she asked about the Mordecai part. People often do. “It’s from the Old Testament. The story of Esther,” I answered. She smiled and nodded with approval and commenced to engage me in a long, delightful conversation, only stopping once to return the oxygen to her nose. Like two old gossiping friends, we huddled together and softly laughed as she pointed out all the interesting people in the room such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., his very tall and beautiful wife, Alexandra, Gay Talese, several famous lawyers I never heard of, two of the Mailer wives and several of their children. She also singled out John Buffalo Mailer, the author’s youngest son, with whom he had just coauthored a book titled, The Big Empty. He seemed very young to be a published author. I thought back that it took me ten years to get a book contract and that was about dog training. Mailer, the younger, seemed very poised, very smart and devoted to his father.

Mordecai Siegal and Jeffrey Michelson
(Photo by Christina Nagorski)

Leila made a number of references to her late husband “Hank” assuming I knew him. I sipped from my champagne glass and finally got up the courage to ask her for her name. She was surprised that I didn’t know it and said in a matter-of-fact way, “I’m Leila Hadley Luce. My husband was Henry Luce, the Third.” I tried to drain the last few drops from the glass as my mouth dried up. She must have assumed I knew her. I have since learned that Mrs. Luce is a highly respected author of successful travel books based on her adventures in remote parts of the world. She was also close personal friends with the heads of two companies that have published several of my books. She never heard of my books or me but did ask me politely what they were about. I must confess chatting with her was a memorable part of the evening. I could sit and listen to her talk for hours. Of course, we do not travel in the same circles and it is doubtful that I will ever have such a unique pleasure again. Whereas I write about dogs and cats, she has written about Asian countries and Buddhism. Whereas I have subscribed to Time Magazine, she, well, you know.

The room fell silent as Mailer slowly came in, walked down the center aisle directly to the front. My heart sank at first because he walked very slowly with the help of two canes and with assistance from those closest to him. His hair was now snow white and he looked frail. He was not the same man I remembered as an amateur boxer or the guest on the Dick Cavatt Show who was combative with Gore Vidal. The ceremony began as he was seated. I was impressed that the Ambassador to the United States from France, H.E. Jean-David Levitte, had come in from Washington specifically for this occasion. He was a young-looking man, perhaps in his early fifties, quite handsome, immaculately groomed who spoke in flawless English with only the slightest hint of French inflection. His impressive introduction and presentation took all of fifteen minutes. I must say, his talk was quite beautiful and one could see how he got to be a diplomat.

“We are here, dear Norman Mailer, to celebrate your outstanding contribution to the literature and thought of our times, as well as your powerful connection with France…Tonight, on behalf of France, I am deeply honored to present you with an award that testifies to our esteem and our gratitude to you, and, through you, our attachment to American literature.” He then pinned on Mailer’s lapel the imposing metal and said, “Norman Mailer, au nom du President de la Republique, je vous fai Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.” It sounded so beautiful in French. I must confess that I was moved by his words and the feeling expressed in his voice. A chill ran up my spine.

The most amazing part of the evening was the transformation from dusty frailty to dynamic speaker that took place before our eyes. It was magical. Mr. Mailer spoke from his chair for at least thirty minutes as he lit up the room with his energy and brilliance. He was funny, he was profound, he was very nostalgic and at all times, his usual unflinching self. I particularly enjoyed his reminiscence of his youthful years in Paris. He said, “I remember hearing then that it is essential for a young writer to be in Paris. Well, I found out that it is.” As he said that I realized that I didn’t get to be in Paris until I was in my mid-sixties, divorced and done with the responsibilities of parenthood. I had already written many books and was finally able to spend some of my earnings on myself. Mailer was right, though. Spending time in Paris was an incredible experience for a writer. It might have been better when I was in my twenties, but I’ll take what I got and be grateful.

His was a great performance that night and I was thrilled to be there. He made us laugh. When he finished speaking, the evening was officially over and many people lined up to shake his hand and congratulate him as he tried to be casual about the colorful medal on his lapel. Jeffrey, bless his heart, came back to my seat, grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “Come on. It’s time to meet Norman.” I was quite nervous standing in the line, which had gotten much shorter. In front of us and in deep conversation with the seated author was the noted TV host of The Actors Studio, James Lipton.

Finally, Jeffrey leaned over to Mr. Mailer who looked up at him and patted him affectionately on the cheek as he would his own son. He was obviously pleased that Jeffrey came in for the occasion. “Norman, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Mordecai Siegal, who has written 33 books.” Mailer looked up, looked me over quickly, and said defensively, “So have I.” It made me smile to know that we shared the same sense of competition or demand for proper recognition. I reached out, shook his hand, and said with great feeling, “Mine are not all like yours.” I was very touched by the experience but my writer’s mind was at work and I couldn’t help but notice the hardness of his powerful hand shaking mine. It was covered with tough skin and firm bones and muscles beneath. All the years of boxing were in his grip and I remember thinking I’m glad I never had to get in the ring with him.

Not wanting the moment to end I blurted out with a smile, not letting go of his hand, “I read your first book, The Naked and the Dead, on a troop ship on the way to Korea but after finishing it I seriously considered jumping ship. You scared the hell out of me.” He laughed heartily and then repeated the comment several times to others around him. One of the women hovering over him asked what he was laughing at and he said, “This man was on a troop ship getting ready to fight. But after reading my book thought twice about it.” He laughed again, and then it was over. After 43 years, it was finally over like a gourmet feast. I was worn out but it was as good as Paris. I was very pleased. What an event.

* * * * * *
On Friday, March 3, 2006, Norman Mailer was conferred “Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur” by the French Government. Napoleon Bonaparte created the Legion of Honor in 1802 to express France’s gratitude to those of eminent merit for services rendered to France, which include exceptional artistic or intellectual influence on their cultural life. Fewer than 500 people living today have received it, most of them after the D-day landing 60 years ago, for participating in the Liberation of France. Barely out of the US Army in the Pacific Theater, Norman Mailer came to newly liberated Paris where he continued his education at the Sorbonne and learned about France and the French language, and then translated several books from French to English. In 1983, Mr. Mailer was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the government of France. In the United States he won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards.

* * * * * *
“I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?”(Simon & Schuster/Fireside) is Mordecai Siegal’s latest book and is available wherever books are sold. He is also the author of “The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,” (HarperCollins), comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book; “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year” (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog” (Henry Holt); “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things” (Little, Brown); the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do?” (Simon & Schuster/Fireside); “The Cornell Book of Cats” (Villard); “The Davis Book of Dogs” (HarperCollins); and “The Davis Book of Horses” (HarperCollins). He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association. Mordecai resides in New York City.


Comments are closed.