BOSTON (Reuters) - Norman Mailer, the pugnacious two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a dominating presence on the U.S. literary scene for more than half a century, died on Saturday of kidney failure, his family said. He was 84.
Known for his biting prose, penchant for controversy and as an antagonist of the feminist movement, Mailer had struggled with his health for months, undergoing lung surgery in October and spending five days in a Boston hospital in September.
“With great sorrow, the family of Norman Mailer announces his passing on November 10, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City,” the statement said.
In more than 40 books and a torrent of essays, Mailer provoked and enraged readers with his strident views on U.S. political life and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Mailer’s first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” is considered one of the finest novels about World War Two and made him a celebrity at age 25 when published in 1948.
“From one end of his life to the other he sat in solemn thought and left so much to read, so many pages with ideas that come at you like sparks spitting from a fire,” said columnist and author Jimmy Breslin.
In 1969, Mailer waded into politics with a run for New York mayor, with Breslin running for city council president.
“He argued brilliantly for the absolute necessity of the minds of whites and blacks growing by being in the same city school classrooms,” said Breslin.
Mailer’s works were often filled with violence, sexual obsession and views that angered feminists. He later reconsidered many of his old positions but never surrendered his right to speak his mind.
“I found him to be extremely kind and gentle,” best-selling novelist Luanne Rice, a friend of Mailer, told Reuters in an interview. “The Norman Mailer that I knew was very different from the angry, contentious man that was famous.”
Rice, now 52, was just starting out as a writer when she met Mailer in the late-1980s. He invited her to join him for a drink, they talked, and over the years she said he became a mentor and father figure to the budding writer.
Detractors considered him an intellectual bully and he feuded with fellow authors such as Truman Capote, William Styron, Tom Wolfe and Norman Podhoretz.
Feminists like Germaine Greer and Kate Millett considered him the quintessential male chauvinist pig.
Some of the feuds even turned physical for the former college boxer, who stabbed one of his six wives at a party and also decked writer Gore Vidal.
“He always had this great voice, even when he was on crutches and canes, he still had that great voice that would get everyone excited,” said Dr. Thomas Staley, director of The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which houses the complete Norman Mailer archives.
“I knew him in the last five or six years of his life, when he had mellowed, and he was quite charming,” Staley said.
Mailer lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and had an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. In Provincetown, he was known as a generous public figure in his later years who loved to play poker and often held games at his Provincetown home.
He is survived by his wife Norris Church Mailer, and nine children, the family said. His son Stephen was at his side when he died at 4:30 a.m. (0930 GMT). They planned a private service and interment to be announced next week, and a memorial service in New York in coming months.
“He was a towering figure who wrote some of the best journalism in the English language, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Peter Manso, a Mailer biographer. (Additional reporting by Vicki Allen in Washington, Chris Michaud in New York and Sue Harrison in Provincetown; Editing by Jason Szep and Vicki Allen)