Norman Mailer was born to a Jewish family in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was brought up in Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Boys' High School and attended Harvard University in 1939, where he studied aeronautical engineering.
He is a former member of the Harvard Advocate. At the university, he became interested in writing and published his first story when he was 18. Mailer was drafted into the Army in World War II and served in the South Pacific. In 1948, just before enrolling in the Sorbonne in Paris, he wrote a book that made him world-famous: The Naked and the Dead, based on his personal experiences during World War II. It was hailed by many as one of the best American novels to come out of the war years and named one of the "100 best novels" by the Modern Library.
In the following years, Mailer continued to work in the field of the novel. Barbary Shore (1951) was a surreal parable of Cold War left politics, set in a Brooklyn rooming-house. His 1955 novel The Deer Park drew on his experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the early 1950s. It was initially rejected by numerous publishers owing to its sexual content. But in the mid-1950s, he became increasingly known for his counter-cultural essays. He was one of the founders of The Village Voice in 1955. In the book Advertisements for Myself (1959), including the essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (1957), Mailer examined violence, hysteria, crime and confusion in American society, in both fictional and reportage forms.
Other famous works include: The Presidential Papers (1963), An American Dream (1965), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), Armies of the Night (1968, awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), Marilyn (1973), The Fight (1975), The Executioner's Song (1979, awarded a Pulitzer Prize), Ancient Evenings (1983), Harlot's Ghost (1991) and Oswald's Tale (1995). His new novel, to be released January 2007, is called The Castle In The Forest.
In 1968 he received a George Polk Award for his reporting in Harper's Magazine.
In addition to his experimental fiction and nonfiction novels, Mailer has produced a play version of The Deer Park, and in the late 1960s directed a number of improvisational avant-garde films in a Warhol style, including Maidstone (1970), which includes a brutal brawl between himself and Rip Torn that may or may not have been planned. In 1987, he directed a film version of his novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, starring Ryan O'Neal, which has become a minor camp classic.
A number of Mailer's works, such as The Armies of the Night, are political. He covered the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1992, and 1996. In 1967, he was arrested for his involvement in anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Two years later, he ran unsuccessfully as an independent for Mayor of New York City, allied with columnist Jimmy Breslin (who ran for City Council President), proposing New York City secession and creating a 51st state.
In 1980, Mailer spearheaded convicted killer Jack Abbott's successful bid for parole. He helped Abbott publish a collection of letters to Mailer about his experiences in prison. Abbott committed a murder not long after his release. Mailer was subject to criticism for his role; in a 1992 interview, in the Buffalo News, he conceded that his involvement was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."
His biographical subjects have included Pablo Picasso and Lee Harvey Oswald. His 1986 off-Broadway play Strawhead starring his daughter, Kate, was about Marilyn Monroe. His 1973 biography of her was particularly controversial; in its final chapter he stated that she was murdered by agents of the FBI and CIA who resented her supposed affair with Robert Kennedy. He later admitted that these speculations were "not good journalism."
Mailer has been married six times, and has nine children by his various wives. In 1960, Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife at a party. While Morales made a full physical recovery, in 1997 she published a memoir of their marriage entitled The Last Party, which outlined her perception of the incident. This incident has been a focal point for feminist critics of Mailer, who point to themes of sexual violence in his work. Another of his wives was the British heiress and journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell, a daughter of the 11th Duke of Argyll and a granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook; by her, he had a daughter Kate Mailer, an actress.
In 2005 he co-authored a book with his youngest child, John Buffalo Mailer, titled The Big Empty. In 2007 Random House will publish his latest novel, The Castle in the Forest. Novelist David Ebershoff edited the novel for Random House.
He currently lives in Provincetown, MA.