Andrew O’Hagan

  • Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer
    Little, Brown, 791 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 316 87620 8

When Gary Gilmore faced his executioners one cold morning in 1977, there was a serious, anxious, bearded reporter-type standing only a few feet away. Before the hood was placed over Gilmore’s head, the man walked over to the chair, and took both of the killer’s hands into his own. ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ he said. Gilmore looked up, and replied sweetly: ‘You’re going to help me escape.’

The man’s name was Lawrence Schiller. And he did help Gilmore escape: he took him to the world, over the tops of the Mormon hills and the mobile homes of Utah, he flew with the story of Gary Gilmore. He produced the television film, sold the interviews, oversaw pictures, advised on chat shows and specials, became the reporters’ reporter, the producers’ producer, and he later brought in Norman Mailer to write the book. He showed himself to be the king deal-maker and media broker, the chief documenter, of grand-scale American tragedy. Wherever there has been sensational news in America over the last thirty years, there you will invariably find Lawrence Schiller.

Schiller has helped all manner of American figures escape in this way, through the portals of recorded history, into legend. Marilyn Monroe, during the filming of a bathing scene in her last, unfinished film Something’s Got to Give, suddenly disrobed on the set, at the studios of Twentieth-Century Fox. Just as she did so, there appeared a young man with a camera. On assignment for Life (expecting to take some pretty pictures of the actress in performance) his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Marilyn, he was alert enough to know, had not been photographed naked since the late Forties, when she accepted 50 dollars to pose nude for a calendar. Schiller’s exclusive photographs were syndicated around the world. And Norman Mailer later wrote the book.

When O.J. Simpson wanted to tell the world of his innocence, and the globe’s media scratched at the door, there was only one man with the skill to breeze into his cell. Lawrence Schiller came in with his beard, his anxiety and his notepad, and he helped Simpson write a book called I Want to Tell You, a book that had nothing to do with Norman Mailer, but which sold uncontrollably during the Simpson trial. Schiller has had one of the strangest – and most strangely necessary – jobs in America. He understood the power of syndication in a way no one else did; he felt the need for made-for-TV movies while others still haggled over cinema releases and back-catalogues; he saw the point of cable; he knows how to cut up a story, how to apportion it, and how to pin down exclusivity. And he has, from time to time, introduced himself as a new sort of figure in the world of books. The Producer.

So it was with a certain inevitability, as the KGB archives were opened up to the West in 1992, that Lawrence Schiller would find himself in Moscow. The new documents would bear on many things, but Schiller, as usual anything but slow on the uptake, knew they might tell us something we needed to know about Lee Harvey Oswald, perhaps the most mysterious and most tragic American figure in the age of Schiller. If the gods of reason were attentive, it would make sense for him to be reunited with his sparring partner and sometime mate, Norman Mailer. Surely, if he was to help Lee Harvey Oswald to ‘escape’, there was only one writer in America who could reliably meet the task.

But there were problems to be overcome. Schiller and Mailer – odd partners in the worlds of show and tell – had not always got on. ‘When it comes to lying,’ Mailer warbled to gossip-columnist Liz Smith of the New York Daily News in the mid-Eighties, ‘Larry Schiller makes Baron von Munchausen look like George Washington.’ Yet at the beginning of this new book there is an appreciation: ‘to Larry Schiller, my skilled and wily colleague in interview and investigation, for the six months we laboured side by side in Minsk and Moscow, and then again in Dallas, feeling as close as family (and occasionally as contentious).’

In a way, Norman Mailer has been staring for most of his life into the face of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mailer’s characters have always been parts of himself, and part and parcel of the America of his time. If Marilyn Monroe was his dream lover – ‘every man’s love affair with America’ – and Ernest Hemingway his idea of a self-like literary champ, it might also be said that his astronauts, his boxers, his single-minded karmie killers, his existential heroes, Greenwich Village idiots, his political ogres and saints, his high-minded Trillings, turncoat Podhoretzes, his self-authenticating graffiti artists, and his cursed, totalitarian generals, were also travellers in Mailer’s inner cosmos.

This has been Mailer’s project: to make something of himself, something that is sometimes too much, an Emersonian üiber-man, or superman, whose fine consciousness sits, full of human character and folly, at the centre of his literary makings. It has been the wellspring of his originality as a writer, this business of letting his time pass through him, of imagining his time altered by his passing through it, and there is virtually no risk he has refused on the way to becoming the sort of writer he is; no embarrassment avoided, no self-abuse too small or too large, and no spectacle of the ego too much to bear. Norman Mailer has been as compulsive a literary character as we’ve had this half-century, but he has also been among the most compelling on the page. He has wasted much of his talent on money-spinning inelegance, and fruitless meanderings and quests into the mysteries of sex and destiny, but he has also risked and emboldened his talent by imagining himself at the core of things.

Mailer has had courage as a writer – and the courage to speak of courage and heroism – at a time when talk of such things can seem fuelled only by machismo, vanity and vicious buffoonery. He may have been mistaken in his self-watching (though he’s more honest a writer than most) and mad with ambition, but it might also be said that he has kept watch over the Republic in ways too various, and too arresting, to be summarily dismissed. He has now, in his seventies, been encouraged to turn his attention to America’s arch-assassin, its First Ghost and anti-hero, and the whole enterprise signals the coming together of the best of his insights and the pared-down style of his best writing self.

It could be said to be natural, Mailer’s interest in Lee Harvey Oswald. ‘Natural’ in the sense that he has always, as a writer, been interested in people who broke rules and took chances, who lived urgently and died violently. He has also set himself the task of shadowing those who, like himself, were greedy for action, and who forged their celebrity in the heat of extreme activity. But his relation to Oswald is even more proximate than that. Oswald may have killed the President, and Mailer, much more than any writer of his generation, has always tended to see himself as an American President manqué. In 1959, in his Advertisements for Myself, he wrote that ‘like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began.’

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