“John F. Kennedy arrives at the Democratic National Convention on July 9, 1960 held in the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, California”. Photo courtesy the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Norman Mailer’s in that crowd somewhere.
The afternoon he arrived at the convention from the airport, there was of course a large crowd on the street outside the Biltmore, and the best way to get a view was to get up on an outdoor balcony of the Biltmore, two flights above the street, and look down on the event. One waited thirty minutes, and then a honking of horns as wild as the getaway after an Italian wedding sounded around the corner, and the Kennedy cortege came into sight, circled Pershing Square, the men in the open and leading convertibles sitting backwards to look at their leader, and finally came to a halt in a space cleared for them by the police in the crowd. The television cameras were out, and a Kennedy band was playing some circus music. One saw him immediately. He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor, and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards. For one moment he saluted Pershing Square, and Pershing Square saluted him back, the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street, one of those very special moments in the underground history of the world, and then with a quick move he was out of his car and by choice headed into the crowd instead of the lane cleared for him into the hotel by the police, so that he made his way inside surrounded by a mob, and one expected at any moment to see him lifted to its shoulders like a matador being carried back to the city after a triumph in the plaza. All the while the band kept playing the campaign tunes, sashaying circus music, and one had a moment of clarity, intense as déjà vu, for the scene which had taken place had been glimpsed before in a dozen musical comedies; it was the scene where the hero, the matinee idol, the movie star comes to the palace to claim the princess, or what is the same, and more to our soil, the football hero, the campus king, arrives at the dean’s home surrounded by a court of open-singing students to plead with the dean for his daughter’s kiss and permission to put on the big musical that night. And suddenly I saw the convention, it came into focus for me, and I understood the mood of depression which had lain over the convention, because finally it was simple: the Democrats were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.
When Mailer was working on his essay about the 1960 Democratic National Convention for Esquire, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”, he naturally interviewed John Kennedy. Mailer got spun:
In their conversation, what struck Mailer was something Kennedy said at the outset, which he found to be “altogether meaningful” to him, but otherwise irrelevant. Kennedy said that he had read his books, paused and continued, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” a remark that startled Mailer. In countless similar situations, the book invariably mentioned was The Naked and the Dead. “If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisors.” As it turns out, Kennedy was briefed by [Pierre] Salinger, who, in turn had been prompted by [Peter] Maas. According to Maas, there had been some reluctance to grant the interview in the first place, because “a that time in his life Norman was not viewed as Mr. Stability.” So Maas told Salinger that ‘if you really want him eating out of your hand,” tell Kennedy to refer to The Deer Park. “But string it out a little. The timing has to be just right.” Salinger, who was present for the interview saw his boss deliver the line perfectly, and “Norman just melted” They got along well enough for Kennedy to invite him to come back the next day with his wife, which he did. Mailer wrote later, “After I saw the Kennedys I added a few paragraphs to my piece about the convention, secretly relieved to have liked them, for my piece was most favorable to the Senator.”
Mailer heard later from Jackie Kennedy that JFK really had read The Deer Park. She’d read it too. Jackie knew how to spin journalists herself.
Mailer only learned of Kennedy’s reaction much later, but shortly after the piece appeared, he received a four-age handwritten note letter from Jacqueline Kennedy expressing gratitude for his essay. “I never dreamed that American Politics could be written about that way---why don’t more people have the imagination to do so,” she asks, and then answers by saying, “I know why---the poor things don’t have the talent.”
The passage quoted at top is from “Superman Comes to the Supermaket” which you can read online at Esquire or in The Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays by Norman Mailer available in paperback and for kindle from Amazon.
The middle and bottom quotes are from J. Michael Lennon’s biography of Mailer, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which comes out in paperback next week, but if you’re in a hurry to read it, it’s available in hardcover and a for kindle from Amazon.