Norman Mailer Throws a Block Party, Martha Raye Tries to Spoil It
Mailer's Street Scene: Renewal on Sunday
By Stephanie Harrington
When Norman Mailer gives a party in the Village, even the elements hang in for the old burgomaster. Last Sunday the air was soft and inviting to nostalgia, perfect for drifting back seven, 10, 15 years, when the literary bohemian haze had not yet lifted from the crazy streets, when Sundays and spring collided with an almost sensual expectancy, and you might wind up the afternoon in the White Horse arguing those ancient creeds, Freudianism, and Marxism, or contemplating the sexual attractions in the back room.
Last Sunday was a day when couples over 25 and under 50 could be seen strolling the streets of the West Village and sidewalk artists were attracting crowds on the corner of Christopher and Bleecker.
Last Sunday MacDougal Street and the teenyboppers and the cruising, mistrustful, acid hostility was a million miles away, and the world was reminiscing momentarily on the old western frontier, on Bedford Street, between Grove and Christopher, where the old folks were having a block party.
A block party on Bedford Street, with bushels of babies and toddlers and assorted other children, with parents and grandparents, uptown literati and old-time Villagers who have been swept nearly into the Hudson River in their attempt to hide out from the onslaught of the psychedelic future. Like recluses coaxed by the spring, they were out in force on Bedford Street, stretching out the kinks and reconnoitering the old territory between free beers and hot dogs, the latter provided by G.I. Joe the Sabrett hot dog man, and all courtesy of Norman Mailer, the Dial Press, and Dell Publishing company on the occasion of "The Deer Park's" 100th performance at the De Lys and of the play's publication.
Bedford Street between Grove and Christopher, between 6 and 8 p.m., was mobbed, but it was a mob you could wade into with confidence -- happy, friendly, mellow. There was none of the tension that makes the walk down MacDougal from Washington Square to Bleecker a slightly less optimistic venture than the charge of the light brigade at Balaklava. There were, to be sure, numbers of mcluhanmenschen and a rock group called the Dirty Shames, but the shaggy babes who soar on speed and acid and bobby-the-poet were, even among the gyrating dancers, outnumbered three-to-one by the boozers who still remember Bertolt Brecht. And that was fitting for a celebration in the front yard of the De Lys, where Brecht's "Three Penny Opera" enjoyed a run of historic length.
And this old bergomaster, Daddy Norman, wanted it made quite clear that the reason he was at the party was "precisely to locate the A-asterisk-h*le who called this booze a deer-in. Is there no respect left," fumed Big Daddy, with indignation, "for the languor" (languor? I know the perils of misquoting you, Big Daddy, but you have really got to stop mumbling) "and the precisions of the heroic, sturdy, and finely wrought convocation of words which we call English?!"
As for the convocation of people, there was, of course, the cast of "The Deer Park," and Donald Swann of Flanders and etc., and, lending some tone to the affair, tall and tan George Plimpton. And would you believe Martha Raye? In drag? Which is to say in the same Special Forces uniform in which she led New York's Loyalty Day parade last week. And while there is no doubt that the intentions behind her ensemble were completely patriotic, the fact that she was doused with perfume from the top of her green beret to the tip of her combat boots could have led some people to believe that she was implying something about the Special Forces.
But back to the Green Beret later, because the high point of the evening was Daddy Norman's farewell address before hi-tailing it back up to the Cape.
"Now that they have taken the title away from Muhammad Ali, the greatest champion of them all," he announced, "a little of it has fragmented to all of us. And now, I'm the greatest, by Mohammedan designation....Things are fragmenting, and if you can fragment without acid, then you are three steps ahead of the rest, and you will not only be beautiful, but you will be able to make children!"
"And another thing! The Mayor ain't here. And let me tell you I don't look lightly on that. There's gonna be a reckoning. Loooong John," Daddy Norman drawled out the threat, "is gonna be saaad Tom."
With the Mayor's political future hanging in the balance, the oratory ended. And then, heading north, guzzling a colorless liquid from a milk container, the champ finally encountered the Green Beret. But, like everything else, according to prophecy, the account of their meeting is necessarily fragmented, because, despite the jokes about the dimensions of her mouth, Martha Raye, like Norman Mailer, is a mumbler.
Though the star lady had previously evinced an unequivocal hostility to those who denigrated her uniform or indicated that they might not be aware of the fact that she is currently starring in "Hello Dolly," she was clearly delighted to meet the champ. And likewise. And, gentleman that he can be, only after chatting for some minutes about his admiration for her, did he even seem to notice her rather extraordinary get-up. Then, with just a polite nod in the direction of her Green Beret, he mentioned, almost incidentally, that he and she were enemies.
"Why?" she asked, all innocent wonder, and then observed that of course what we are fighting for is the right for people like him to "say what they want." (Memo to LBJ).
At that moment an interloper broke in, attacking the lady for masquerading as a "colonel."
"Lieutenant colonel!" she corrected him, adding that she had every right to be wearing a uniform because she was a member of the United States Army (an honor bestowed in return for her entertaining the troops).
"But she doesn't understand," her accuser persisted; "she can't be a colonel. They wouldn't let her. She's a woman!"
"Get outa my way, bub!" the colonel retorted, still mumbling, but louder and angrier. "Just keep outa my way, baby, because you're just a child!"
The Special Forces' non sequitur seemed about to escalate the argument into another dreary generational debate when the champ, all style and grace, broke it up, gently telling the lady to forget it.
"Hey," he said softly, "look me in the eye. Don't pay any attention to him. He's just setting you up, that's all. You've got the same thing on your side." Then he told her she was a lady, and a pretty lady at that. And it was all over. They looked each other in the eye. Two mutually respectful anatgonists, like Rommel and Montgomery. LIke Montgomery, she had the advantage of power on her side, but like Rommel, he had all the class.
She left, after repeating several times how much she hoped he would go to see her perform and visit her backstage afterward.
And though there were those unkind enough to suggest that maybe her presence in uniform was a reverse publicity stunt to drum up business for her play, the champ, a gentleman to his fingertips, insisted that she was courageous to have ventured into enemy territory showing her colors.
But whatever her reasons for being there and whatever her politics, Martha Raye wasn't out of place on Bedford Street last Sunday. The day, the party -- and it was a good party, good enough to survive a political argument -- belonged to another time. And so does the lady in the Green Beret.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]