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Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and the Iguana

A marathon interview/colloquy with Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and a Ms. Interlocutor named Carole Mallory appeared in Esquire in May 1991. The whole thing may be found (reprinted in 2012) here, and it is intriguing for many reasons.

Today we’ll deal with one or two. The interview answers the old question, What commonality can we find between Norman Mailer and iguanas? Surprisingly enough, there is none. One would expect this bibulous controversialist to live in a house filled with fornicating lizards, much as the 1940s Ernest Hemingway in Cuba surrounded himself with dozens of rutting, un-spayed and -neutered semi-feral cats who had the run of the Finca. But no, Mailer never seems to have had pets at all. No doubt of one of his six (seven?—check) wives and eight (ten?) children had the usual menageries, but Norman was evidently not an animal person, certainly not one to surround himself with reptiles.

I don’t even recall anyone so much as calling Norman Mailer “reptilian.”

However, way down deep in the interview they get to talking about Tennessee Williams, and Gore uncorks his well-told tale about how Time magazine damned every play or film script the Bird ever wrote, from The Glass Menagerie onward, until about 1963 when he gave us The Night of the Iguana. Which Time—mirabile dictu!—praised to the skies.

The reason for all this, says Gore, is that Tennessee was a “fag,” and while Harry Luce was alive and active (he died in 1967, was retired by 1963) no known homosexual was going to get a good review in the Time-Life stable. But now it was 1963, and we know what Philip Larkin said about that.

The whole thing amused Gore greatly, so much so that he mischievously excerpted every trashy, innuendo-filled notice Time ever ran on Tennessee Williams, 1945-1962. Gore published this, anonymously, in Esquire, on a single page. The capper at the end was the obsequious, fawning review of Iguana—ironically a lurid, confused drama, never considered to be front-rank Tennessee Williams. But nevertheless a resounding hit with Bette Davis, soon to be a Major Motion Picture with Ava Gardner and Richard Burton.

Esquire illustrated this cut-and-paste job with a mockup TIME (or rather T*M*) cover on the facing page. Here we had Tennessee-and-typewriter slowly emerging from a fetid swamp. The illustration was by Al Jaffee, who the following year would begin a 15-year stint of producing back-cover comic “fold-ins” over at Mad magazine. Unfortunately there are no iguanas in the Jaffee painting:

It was a favorite subject of Gore’s because he had had almost the same problem with the New York Times. In his early 20s he had written a bony, naturalistic novel about queer relationships and queer High Society (suspiciously well-informed; more than a hint of roman à clef in parts). The NYT wouldn’t take advertising for it, or publish a review of a Vidal novel till the 1960s . . . by which epoch Gore had become quite rich on movie scripts and some Broadway hits of his own; fie on you, Times!