Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mailer: His Life and Times

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 1

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Not long ago, I was browsing through Peter Manso’s enormous oral biography Mailer: His Life and Times, which has been one of my favorite reads for years, when I came across a passing reference to Norman Mailer’s friendship with the attorney Roy Cohn. Mailer and Cohn couldn’t have been less alike in their politics, but they found each other useful, and they were linked by the late publisher Si Newhouse, who passed away just last month. Cohn doesn’t figure prominently in any of Newhouse’s obituaries, but the two of them first met as teenagers at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and remained lifelong friends. In the book Newhouse, Thomas Maier explains the Mailer connection:

With Cohn’s help, Norman Mailer was convinced to become a contributor to Newhouse’s Parade magazine and later to sign a lucrative book contract with Random House…Si [had] expressed a desire to sign up Mailer, hoping to add that lustrous name to his publishing house’s stable of well-known authors…Cohn relayed this version of Si’s intentions to Peter Manso, a writer who then was close with Mailer and would later write a biography about him. Si Newhouse wanted Mailer to write a magazine piece about his views on capital punishment, Cohn told Manso…”He’ll pay cash,” Cohn told Manso about the Newhouse offer. “We’ll give him seven thousand dollars for the piece.”

Maier doesn’t mention how the two men happened to know each other, but they had evidently met when Manso was assigned to interview Cohn for Playboy in 1981—which is a detail that I’ll explore further in a moment.

Cohn took obvious pride in serving as a power broker, with what Maier describes as a talent for “making things happen,” and he systematically cultivated his famous contacts. After Mailer wrote the article on capital punishment and another piece on Russia, the two men became friendly, despite what Cohn saw as Mailer’s Soviet sympathies. Maier writes:

“I think Norman was always a little embarrassed about his association with Roy—he didn’t want to be too public with it,” said Peter Fraser, Cohn’s companion during the early 1980s when Roy’s personal life became an open secret. Cohn became involved in other business matters with Mailer. He rented a small cottage for himself and Peter Fraser in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The house was owned by Mailer and was next to a larger house where Mailer’s family stayed during the summer. On some summer evenings, Cohn and Mailer would hold court at a large dinner shared by family and friends.

Manso, who was living with Mailer at the time, goes even further, recounting that Cohn wanted to join their plan to turn the house into a condo, securing an interest-free loan of $300,000 from Si Newhouse for “all of us.” When Manso told Mailer about the deal, the author responded: “It’s about time I had a patron.” This is already pretty good gossip, but it gets better. In 1985, according to Manso, the Mailers attended Cohn’s fifty-ninth birthday party, which had a guest list that included Si Newhouse, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—and Donald Trump. After Cohn died the following year, the Mailers didn’t go to the memorial service, but a number of other prominent friends did, as Manso relates: “Donald Trump sat in the audience weeping with Cohn’s lover, Peter Fraser, and the ubiquitous Si Newhouse.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I want to focus for now on the thread between Newhouse, Cohn, and Trump. Cohn’s mentorship of Trump has been closely scrutinized, including by Peter Manso, who wrote a reminiscence for Politico last year about a party at Cohn’s house in 1981, at which he found himself seated next to “the boyish-faced real estate mogul, habitué of Le Cirque and staple of Page Six.” (In Manso’s account, Trump inquired of him: “Roy says you live on the Cape, and that you’re writing a book about Norman Mailer. Norman’s smart but a little crazy, right?” He then asked Manso whether or not he should do an interview with Playboy, which he eventually did, kicking off what became a long association between him and the magazine.) What’s more surprising is that Newhouse’s friendship with Cohn and its obvious relevance to Trump hasn’t received more attention. Last year, a profile in The New Yorker—which Newhouse still owned at the time—highlighted the publishing magnate’s role in the writing of The Art of the Deal. As the reporter Jane Mayer relates:

The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or [ghostwriter Tony Schwartz]. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong.

Cohn’s name isn’t mentioned here at all. Yet it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have anything to do with what turned out, in the end, to be a far more significant literary deal than the one that he had pulled off a few years earlier by luring Mailer to Random House.

For a connection that exists in plain sight, this angle remains strikingly unexplored. The only reference to it that I can find online is a tantalizing quote from Thomas Maier himself, who said last month in an interview with Bloomberg: “Newhouse’s fondness for Trump, the link with Roy Cohn and the way in which the Newhouse publications promoted Trump over the last twenty years really helped make him a nationally known figure and is one of the great unknown stories of the Trump rise to power.” I can’t help but agree, and while it’s tempting to suspect that Newhouse’s influence kept the story from being fully investigated during his lifetime, it’s also possible that the subsidiary players remained genuinely unaware of it. Mailer’s case provides an instructive parallel. After describing Mailer’s big contract with Random House and how his first novel with Newhouse, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, was excerpted in the resurgent Vanity Fair, Maier writes:

None of the Newhouse editors, however, were aware of Si’s guiding hand or the help of Roy Cohn in securing Norman Mailer’s services. “Upon reading the manuscript it was my idea, purely my idea, to buy it for Vanity Fair,” insisted Leo Lerman, then Vanity Fair’s editor, in describing how he decided to run excerpts of Tough Guys after talking with Mailer’s Random House editor, Jason Epstein.

Cohn was content to remain in the shadows, and he had reason to take satisfaction in the service that he had rendered to his friend and new neighbor. Mailer had suffered from money problems for decades, and the deal with Newhouse offered him an important source of stability, as his editor Jason Epstein observed: “I sensed that what Norman really wanted was to clear the decks and have nothing to worry about financially for the rest of his life.” Trump was at the beginning, not the end, of his career, and what Cohn and Newhouse had to offer him was rather different, but no less precious—and the consequences would be immense. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

The Ex-Kardashian’s Song

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Kris Jenner

A couple of weeks ago, the Kardashian family released a new video. (If you’re already tuning out, please stick around—it’s going to be worth it, I promise.) It was a birthday tribute to matriarch Kris Jenner, in the form of a remake of a short vanity film that Jenner herself had made decades earlier. And while the media lavished most of its attention on the new version, written and recorded by the Kardashian sisters and featuring cameos from the likes of Justin Bieber, I found myself much more intrigued by the older clip, which has been kicking around online for a few years. It’s a remarkably guileless celebration of its subject’s looks, wealth, and connections, disguised as a love letter to her friends, as sung to the tune of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” Watching it now, it’s hard not to think about the strange places that life would take her, or to wonder at the change in her routine implied by the original lyrics, which mention the Cheesecake Factory, Bible study, and church on Sundays. The images of her “friends,” which include brief glimpses of Michael Jackson and O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson, carry an unavoidable charge of their own. But the moment that made me really sit up and take notice came at the very end, as the credits began to roll: Directed by Lawrence Schiller. And in all the cheeky coverage that the video and its remake have inspired, nobody seems to have mentioned the Schiller connection, which in many ways is the most surprising detail of all.

Who is Lawrence Schiller? He’s one of the great hustlers and characters of the twentieth century, a man often compared to a mercenary version of Forrest Gump, and for good reason. Schiller began his career as an enterprising photographer and ambulance chaser who first gained fame with his shots of Marilyn Monroe’s nude swim on the set of Something’s Got to Give. Later, he used his natural shrewdness to get everything from Jack Ruby’s last interview—which he snuck into Ruby’s hospital room to obtain—to an exclusive with Sharon Atkins of the Manson family. To most readers, he’s best remembered for his collaborations with Norman Mailer on no fewer than seven projects, most notably The Executioner’s Song. (Schiller got the life rights to Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole, brought in Mailer as a writer for hire, and conducted most of the interviews and background research. He appears as a major character in the second half of the novel itself, and later directed the miniseries of the same name, which provided a breakthrough role for Tommy Lee Jones.) His relationship to Mailer, whose estate he currently oversees, is neatly described by Peter Manso in the exquisitely bitchy afterword to Mailer: His Life and Times:

Like most hustlers [Schiller] was smart, full of nerve and combativeness, and what was most obvious was that he enjoyed his reputation as an independent who refused to play by other people’s rules…“Norman, I’ve just signed up so-and-so. You interested?” Schiller might offer, operating as a one-man production office, talent agency, and cash register, and if it was a Yeah, the high-energy dealmaker would scurry off to take care of all the details. Then boom, there it was, a new project on the table. How could Norman resist?

Lawrence Schiller

And his connection to the Kardashians is even more implausible. Schiller was friends with Robert Kardashian, an entertainment businessman and lawyer in Los Angeles who moved in similar circles. He had also been neighbors in Bel Air with O.J. Simpson. (An old profile from the Los Angeles Times notes: “Schiller had also once directed O.J. in a music video”—apparently a reference to the Jenner birthday film—”as a favor to their mutual friend Robert Kardashian.”) When the Simpson trial began, Schiller was more than ready to pounce: with the blessing of Kardashian, by then a member of the defense team, he spent thirty hours interviewing O.J. in jail, and he ghostwrote the resulting book I Want to Tell You. After the verdict, Schiller performed one of the great about-faces in the history of journalism, spinning his access to the Simpson defense into the book American Tragedy, which is best known for its account of a lie detector test that Simpson failed two days after the murders. The book and its subsequent adaptation as a miniseries, which Norman Mailer wrote, led to Simpson filing a lawsuit against Schiller and Kardashian, claiming that Schiller had obtained the interviews under false pretenses. Kardashian was also disciplined by the California State Bar for his involvement with the project, and he ultimately agreed not to practice law for two years. He died soon thereafter.

Schiller is in his late seventies now, but he hasn’t slowed down: he released a new pair of documentaries on the Simpson trial just last month. (In a weird reversal, for a later generation, the O.J. story retains its interest primarily because of the Kardashian connection: the new tidbit that got the most play involved a suicide threat that Simpson allegedly made in the teenage Kim Kardashian’s bedroom.) It’s unclear what his relationship is with the family now, although I’d guess that it probably isn’t great. But it also feels like his last big scoop. I’ve believed for a long time that there’s a fantastic book lurking at the heart of the Kardashian saga—not the cheap cash-grabs that currently populate Amazon, but a huge, Robert Caro-level treatment that would give the rise of this family the consideration it deserves. As sick as some of us may be of the Kardashians by now, there’s no denying that if we were encountering their story for the first time, it would strike us as indecently fascinating, with a cast of characters ranging from O.J. to Caitlyn Jenner to Lamar Odom to Kanye West. And Lawrence Schiller is obviously the man to write it. It’s impossible to imagine that the thought hasn’t crossed his mind: Schiller has put himself at the center of such circuses for half a century now, and even if he weren’t so close to the story already, he’d be a great choice. His books tend to be enormous, meticulously researched, and saturated with gossip, and few figures of any era would have more to say about the role that the media plays in the creation and destruction of human stories. Consider this post an open letter to Schiller. This book needs to exist; I know I’d buy it. And Schiller ought to get on it now.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2015 at 11:01 am

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