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Norman Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon discusses research for his book “Norman Mailer: A Double Life”

Cover of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” by J. Michael Lennon.
Cover of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” by J. Michael Lennon.

In January 1971, J. Michael Lennon wrote a letter of encouragement to Norman Mailer after watching the author get into a raucous televised debate with Gore Vidal. Mailer responded, sparking a lifelong correspondence between the pair.

 

Lennon went on to become Mailer’s personal archivist and authorized biographer, as well as Emeritus Vice President and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University. He has written and edited a number of books about Mailer, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000). His most recent book, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, comes out today. This biography draws on unpublished documents, including Mailer’s letters, as well as Lennon’s personal relationship with the author. In 2009-2010, Lennon visited the Ransom Center on a fellowship funded by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund to conduct research for the biography. Cultural Compass spoke with Lennon about his new book, his work in the Ransom Center’s archive, what first attracted him to Mailer’s writing, and more.

 

You knew Mailer well before starting work on Norman Mailer: A Double Life. While researching and writing, were you ever surprised by anything you learned about him?

 

I was surprised at the intensity of his depression after his second novel, Barbary Shore, received extremely negative reviews in 1951. He became more depressed (but not clinically) than I had previously thought and actually investigated the possibility of working in a prison or becoming a lawyer. The other things that surprised me were the extent of his many passionate love affairs and the number of young writers, hundreds of them, with whom he corresponded, and encouraged, something that went on from the 1950s until his death in 2007.

 

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

 

I hope readers will see how immersed Mailer was in the great events and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first years of the next one. He saw and wrote about World War II, the Cold War and the espionage and counter-espionage that accompanied it, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, technology and the environmental movement, and the early space exploration effort. Mailer not only wrote about these things, he also debated them publicly on just about every major talk show in existence. He is the most important public intellectual from the literary world in my lifetime. He was also a terrific biographer and wrote memorable biographical books and essays on a score of iconic figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway. Also some infamous individuals—Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hitler. And Jesus Christ, in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son.

 

What first drew you to Norman Mailer as an author?

 

His daring, his edgy style, his exploration of his identity, and his self-awareness.

 

The Mailer archive is the largest single-author collection at the Ransom Center. Have you been through every box? How do you organize and prioritize your work in the archive?

 

Yes, I think I have handled every piece of paper in it. Building on the pioneering work of Robert F. Lucid, my mentor, my wife and I organized Mailer’s papers and then helped the Ransom Center’s staff create the Mailer finding aid. During my several visits to the Center, I used the finding aid to organize my request list so that I could spend my time reading and note-taking. The system devised by Steve Mielke and his team made my research efforts considerably easier. I am indebted to the Ransom Center for expert and thoughtful help over the past eight years.

James Turrell display at the Ransom Center complements university’s new Skyspace installation

James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.
James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.

 

On October 15, a selection of books and artworks associated with artist James Turrell will go on view in the Ransom Center’s third-floor Director’s Gallery. Included in the display is Deep Sky, a suite of seven aquatints that Turrell executed with printer Peter Kneubühler, and that were published by Peter Blum Edition in 1985. The Ransom Center’s edition of Deep Sky is one of several portfolios in the Peter Blum Edition art collection, which showcases Blum’s collaborations with contemporary artists such as John Baldessari, Eric Fischl, and the collective General Idea.

 

Like many of the artists with whom Blum has worked, Turrell is not best known for his works on paper. Throughout his career, which has spanned half a century, Turrell has made a name for himself constructing spectacular installations that focus on light and space—or more specifically, the way the eye perceives different types of light in different spaces. This past summer, three major U.S. museums mounted simultaneous retrospectives of Turrell’s work, which includes illusionistic light projections and fully immersive spaces that bathe the viewer in colored light. For nearly 35 years, he has been working to transform Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in northern Arizona, into a series of rooms and tunnels that open onto vistas of the desert sky.

 

In addition to Roden Crater, Turrell has executed scores of site-specific installations all over the world. On The University of Texas at Austin campus, he recently completed a Skyspace entitled The Color Inside, which will open to the public on October 19 as part of the University’s Landmarks program. The work, like all of Turrell’s Skyspaces, is architectural—a structure built with its location in mind—and it is intended to facilitate a specific viewing experience of the sky above. At sunrise and sunset, a carefully programmed sequence of colored LED lights causes the eye to perceive the shifting colors of the sky as a series of dramatically different hues. Emerging from a Skyspace light sequence, a viewer is often more attuned to the surrounding environment—as if the mind, used to believing that the sky is blue without ever taking notice of its true color, has been recalibrated.

 

For an artist so invested in utilizing light and color as the materials of his art, it is somewhat surprising that the prints in Deep Sky are absent of color. The seven aquatints are meticulously printed, with velvety swaths of black ink and subtle variations of grey. But these prints, which represent seven views of Roden Crater, are explorations of space and scale and how they factor into one’s perception. The prints serve as experimental renderings; they are nearly abstract pictures of how a viewer might apprehend space at Roden Crater.

 

The catalog published to accompany Turrell’s recent retrospectives includes the artist’s description of a visit to a garden in Japan:

 

I noticed a small, low, triangular window, which provided another view of the garden. The view opening onto the same part of the garden as a larger window above, except the view was scaled down. The small rocks appeared as mountains, blades of grass became wooded hillsides and the bonsai looked like large trees. The microcosm had become a macrocosm, which perfectly echoed the motifs and forms of the larger view. I then realized that the garden should be viewed from numerous vantage points.

 

The Deep Sky prints are just a few examples of the numerous vantage points that Turrell has explored in his work with Roden Crater. Ultimately, there is no way to view the site all at once, but in the microcosms represented in these superbly printed aquatints, one can at least begin to understand the completeness of Turrell’s vision.

 

James Turrell: Deep Sky will be on view in the Director’s Gallery, on the third floor of the Ransom Center, until December 13. The Director’s Gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

 

James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.
James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.

In the Galleries: Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka. “Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Michalovce.” 1966 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.
Josef Koudelka. “Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Michalovce.” 1966 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.

 

Initially drawn to their traditional folk music, Josef Koudelka (b. 1939) photographed the nomadic Romani people—or Gypsies—of Czechoslovakia and Romania for nearly ten years. Most of the photographs in his seminal 1975 book Gypsies were taken in Eastern Slovakia between 1962 and 1968. In his sensitive study of these communities, Koudelka examined the remnants of a threatened way of life after government efforts to assimilate the Gypsies confined them to grim settlements lacking basic utilities or sanitation services. Something of a nomad himself and forced to seek political asylum after escaping the Czech Republic early in his career, Koudelka has often lived as his subjects do, fostering a shared experience and sense of respect that is discernible in his photographs.

 

In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on view through January 5, this photograph is presented with four others from the series, as well as a copy of Koudelka’s book, one of several pioneering publications by Magnum photographers highlighted in the exhibition. There were few publishers for photography books during Magnum’s first decades, but when photography gradually gained widespread acceptance as an art form in the 1970s, publishing houses began to embrace the medium.  Photographers aspiring to use the book form to give a more sophisticated account of world events and personal journeys now had more models to guide them. These books employed complex sequencing and innovative combinations of images and text; they displayed a nuanced understanding of layout and design and a standard of printing quality not previously associated with works of reportage.

 

Koudelka will speak on a panel at the upcoming symposium “Magnum Photoso into the Digital Age.” The symposium takes place October 25–27.

Fellows Find: Fleur Cowles archive sheds light on woman behind pioneering magazine “Flair”

Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 


Teal Triggs is a Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at Royal College of Art, London. She spent time at the Ransom Center over the summer exploring materials related to Fleur Cowles with funding from the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund. She shares some of her findings here.

 

With the support of the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund, I was able to spend two weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the personal archive of the journalist, painter, and American socialite Fleur Cowles (1908–2009). As a graphic design historian, my research has focused on the significance of the early 1950s American publication Flair magazine (1950–1951), created and edited by Cowles. The magazine ran for only 12 issues (with a limited-run, 5,000-copy, pre-publication prototype printed in September 1949), yet its influence would continue long after its closure. Whilst the Cowles archive at the Ransom Center is not specifically about Flair, it does contain related materials that provide useful insights into Fleur Cowles’s extensive social network, her commitment to the arts, and importantly for me, her working methods as a writer and editor.

 

Flair was very much a product of its time, simultaneously created as a response to the growth of specialist magazines and a nod to the new medium of television. As Cowles writes: “I wanted a magazine with ultimate dual reader appeal, male as well as female. And, in the frameword (sic) of television’s allure, I wanted a magazine of extraordinary visual excitement.” Flair achieved this with its unorthodox and experimental die-cut covers, unusual paper stock, tipped-in booklets, and luxurious use of space featuring illustration and photography. Undoubtedly, her editorial vision—signified by a drawing of her trademark rose—pushed the conventions of printing technologies and magazine design. Cowles found this a “thrilling gamble.” The original photographs in the collection show her sourcing paper in Milan and capture her exuberance in creating a magazine that has “a sense of surprise, a joy of discovery, with each new reading.”

 

As an editor, Cowles fulfilled, but also shaped, her reader’s aspirations. Flair was ultimately a reflection of Cowles’s own “jet-setting” lifestyle, with features on society’s elite, Hollywood celebrities, and exotic travel. The magazine featured those she knew and places she herself had visited, while often showcasing the contributions made by women with careers in politics. Flair was also a space where she expanded on her interest in design, with stories on interiors, architecture, and fashion. The archive material also shows that whilst Fleur promoted a stylized femininity, she was indeed a pioneer in promoting the role and careers of women in journalism and publishing.

 

Other documents in the collection clarify Cowles’s motivations. Before editing Flair, she was an Associate Editor at Look magazine—a publication owned by her then-husband “Mike” Gardner Cowles. One document that reveals Cowles’s commitment to gender equality is found in a speech she gave to the University of Syracuse and Syracuse Advertising and Sales Club on May 5, 1950. The title of her talk “The Woman in Publishing,” brought a decidedly feminist perspective to America’s publishing history, an aspect of her life I intend to explore further.

 

The opportunity to see the original magazines alongside supporting documents in the collection including letters, cards, telegrams, speeches, and manuscripts presented a rich context for my research, for which I am very grateful, and which will eventually appear in a book about Cowles’s impact on design.

 

Related content:

Publisher, author and artist Fleur Cowles’s archive donated to Ransom Center

Video: Fleur Cowles describes her artwork

Fleur’s Fleurs: “Flower Game” reveals friends and their favorite flowers

Slideshow: Cover art and designs of Flair magazine

In the Galleries: Robert Capa

“France. Normandy. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach.” 1944 © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
“France. Normandy. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach.” 1944 © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

Robert Capa (1913–1954), proclaimed “The Greatest War Photographer in the World” by the Picture Post in 1938, famously created some of the only surviving photographs of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944. When his rolls of film arrived for development at the Life magazine office in London, a darkroom assistant was told to rush the processing to get the photographs to New York for publication in the next issue. The assistant placed the newly developed film in a drying cabinet on high heat, melting the emulsion on three of the four rolls. Luckily, ten images from the fourth roll were not entirely destroyed and appeared only “slightly out of focus,” the title Capa would cleverly give to his memoir in 1947. The blurred photographs became known for their sense of drama and immediacy, as Life’s story captions falsely attributed the blur to Capa’s trembling hands.

In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on view through January 5, this photograph is presented in a way that shows both the front and back of the print. Visitors are able to see the stamps, inscriptions, reference numbers, and notes that trace the trajectory of this individual press print, one of nearly 200,000 recently donated to the Ransom Center. Also on view are four additional photographs from the larger group that constituted Capa’s D-Day picture story, facsimile versions of his handwritten captions submitted to Life magazine, and copies of the June 19, 1944 issue of Life showing how the story was published.

Three years later, Capa and his close friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour founded the Magnum Photos agency in the penthouse restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photographer William Vandivert also joined the group but left after about a year.) These were photographers who had experienced a catastrophic war and were united by their belief in a shared obligation to be the historians of their own causes. Magnum Photos continues to be fully owned and supported by its members, numbering over 100 since its founding in 1947, with offices in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.

Photography department intern Josephine Minhinnett contributed to this post.

75 Years, 75 Days: Donate now to support the fall 2014 “Gone With The Wind” exhibition

The Ransom Center is raising $50,000 in the next 75 days to support the upcoming exhibition “The Making of Gone With The Wind.”
The Ransom Center is raising $50,000 in the next 75 days to support the upcoming exhibition “The Making of Gone With The Wind.”

The Harry Ransom Center is raising $50,000 in 75 days for the Center’s 2014 exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. This Hollywood classic premiered in 1939 and will mark its 75th anniversary in 2014.

Film producer David O. Selznick’s 1939 epic film Gone With The Wind was embroiled in controversy before a single frame was shot. Based on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, the film’s depictions of race, violence, and cultural identity in the South during the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction continue to both compel and trouble audiences around the world.

The exhibition will reveal surprising new stories about the making of this quintessential film from Hollywood’s Golden Age and illustrate why it remains influential and controversial 75 years after it was released.

The exhibition will include over 300 original items from the Selznick archive housed at the Ransom Center, including behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, and fan mail. The exhibition will also feature gowns worn by Vivien Leigh as the beautiful and ambitious Scarlett O’Hara. These recently conserved costumes will be displayed together for the first time in more than 25 years.

Your support will provide funds for outreach, additional docent-led tours, a published exhibition catalog, and complementary programming and presentations. Donors will be acknowledged on the Ransom Center’s website and receive the following:

$10-$499: Commemorative save-the-date postcard with an image from the Ransom Center’s collection.

$500-$999: Complimentary Ransom Center membership for one year, at the dual level, which includes two tickets to the exhibition opening party.

$1,000-$4,999: Complimentary copy of the exhibition catalog.

$5,000+: Special curators’ tour for up to six people.

Registration closes next week for symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age”

Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen, “Russia. Altai Territory. Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed space¬craft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel,” 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.
Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen, “Russia. Altai Territory. Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed space¬craft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel,” 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.

The Harry Ransom Center presents the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.” Scheduled for October 25–27, the symposium is in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.

Twelve Magnum photographers, including Christopher Anderson, Bruno Barbey, Michael Christopher Brown, Eli Reed, Jim Goldberg, Josef Koudelka, Susan Meiselas, Mark Power, Moises Saman, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Alec Soth, and Chris Steele-Perkins, as well as Magnum CEO Giorgio Psacharopulo are scheduled to appear in panel discussions with a focus on the cooperative’s evolution and future.

To celebrate the fact that this many Magnum photographers are coming to Austin, we’re giving away a copy of panel moderator Kristen Lubben’s coffee table book Magnum: Contact Sheets (Thames & Hudson). To be eligible to win, retweet information about the symposium on Twitter or “Like” our Facebook post about the symposium on Facebook by midnight CST on Thursday, October 10.

The symposium brings together photographers, curators, and historians to discuss the ways in which Magnum Photos has continually reinvented itself from the moment of its founding.

Symposium information, including registration, is available online. Registration closes on Thursday, October 10. Register now.

Panel moderators include Kristen Lubben, Curator and Associate Director of Exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, New York; Anne Wilkes Tucker, Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; David Little, Curator of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Stuart Alexander, Independent Curator and International Specialist, Photographs, Christie’s, New York; and Jessica S. McDonald, Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Ransom Center.

The Magnum Photos collection was donated to the Ransom Center by Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, and John and Amy Phelan.