NEW YORK - Norman Mailer, the pugnacious prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country's literary conscience and provocateur with such books as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song," has died at the age of 84.
Mailer died Saturday of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital, J. Michael Lennon, the author's literary executor and biographer, said.
"He was a great American voice," said a tearful Joan Didion, author of "The Year of Magical Thinking" and other works, struggling for words upon learning of Mailer's death.
From his classic debut novel to such masterworks of literary journalism as "The Armies of the Night," the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner always got credit for insight, passion and originality.
Some of his works were highly praised, some panned, but none was pronounced the Great American Novel that seemed to be his life quest from the time he soared to the top as a brash 25-year-old "enfant terrible."
Mailer built and nurtured an image over the years as bellicose, street-wise and high-living. He drank, fought, smoked pot, married six times and stabbed his second wife, almost fatally, during a drunken party.
He had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York City on a "left conservative" platform, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan YWHA for reciting obscene poetry, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against women's liberation.
Mailer had numerous minor run-ins with the law, usually for being drunk or disorderly, but was also jailed briefly during the Pentagon protests in the late 1960s. While directing the film "Maidstone" in 1968, the self-described "old club fighter" punched actor Lane Smith, breaking his jaw, and bit actor Rip Torn's ear in another scuffle.
But as Newsweek reviewer Raymond Sokolov said in 1968, "In the end, it is the writing that will count."
Mailer, he wrote, possessed "a superb natural style that does not crack under the pressures he puts upon it, a talent for narrative and characters with real blood streams and nervous systems, a great openness and eagerness for experience, a sense of urgency about the need to test thought and character in the crucible of a difficult era."
Norman Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J. His father, Isaac, a South Africa-born accountant, and mother, Fanny, who ran a housekeeping and nursing agency, soon moved to Brooklyn.
Mailer earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard University, where he decided to become a writer, and was soon drafted into the Army. Sent to the Philippines as an infantryman, he saw enough of soldiering to provide a basis for his first book, "The Naked and the Dead," published in 1948 while he was a postgraduate student in Paris.
The book became a best seller, and Mailer returned home to find himself anointed the new Hemingway, Dos Passos and Melville.
Buoyed by instant literary celebrity, Mailer embraced the early 1950s counterculture, defining "hip" in his essay "The White Negro," allying himself with Beat Generation gurus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and writing social and political commentary for the Village Voice, which he helped found. He also churned out two more novels, "Barbary Shore" (1951) and "Deer Park" (1955), neither embraced kindly by readers or critics.
Mailer turned reporter to cover the 1960 Democratic Party convention for Esquire and later claimed, with typical hubris, that his piece, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," had made the difference in John F. Kennedy's razor-thin margin of victory over Republican Richard M. Nixon.
While Life magazine called his next book, "An American Dream" (1965), "the big comeback of Norman Mailer," the author-journalist was chronicling major events of the day: an anti-war march on Washington, the 1968 political conventions, the Ali-Patterson fight, an Apollo moon shot.
His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, "The Armies of the Night," won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was listed in the top 20 on a 1999 New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.
When he covered the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for Harper's magazine, Mailer was torn between keeping to a tight deadline or joining the anti-war protests that led to a violent police crackdown. "I was in a moral quandary. I didn't know if I was being scared or being professional," he later testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
Jorge Herralde, editor of Mailer's Spanish publishers, Anagrama, said Saturday that Mailer was a titan of literature who, like Kafka, was never awarded a Nobel prize. "He surely had too excessive a profile for that award," Herralde said.
Mailer's personal life was as turbulent as the times in which he lived. In 1960, at a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed in her memoir how close she had come to dying.
His other wives were: Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens and Norris Church. He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.
"He had such a compendious vision of what it meant to be alive. He had serious opinions on everything there was to have an opinion on, and everything he had was so original," friend William Kennedy, author of "Ironweed."
Mailer's suspicion of technology - "insidious, debilitating and depressing" - was so deep that while most writers used typewriters or computers, he wrote with a pen, some 1,500 words a day. In a 1971 magazine piece about the new women's liberation movement, Mailer equated the dehumanizing effect of technology with what he said was feminists' need to abolish the mystery, romance and "blind, goat-kicking lust" from sex.
Time magazine said the broadside should "earn him a permanent niche in their pantheon of male chauvinist pigs."
"He could do anything he wanted to do - the movie business, writing, theater, politics," author Gay Talese said Saturday. "He never thought the boundaries were restricted. He'd go anywhere and try anything. He was a courageous person, a great person, fully confident, with a great sense of optimism."
In "Advertisements for Myself" (1959), Mailer promised to write the greatest novel yet, but later conceded he had not. Among other notable works: "Cannibals and Christians" (1966); "Why Are We in Vietnam?" (1967); and "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" (1968).
"The Executioner's Song" (1979), an epic account of the life and death of petty criminal Gary Gilmore, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. "Ancient Evenings" (1983), a novel of ancient Egypt that took 11 years to complete, was critically panned.
"Tough Guys Don't Dance" (1984) became a 1987 film. Some critics found "Harlot's Ghost" (1991), a novel about the CIA, surprisingly sympathetic, considering Mailer's left-leaning past. In 1997, he came out with "The Gospel According to the Son," a novel told from Jesus Christ's point of view. The following year, he marked his 75th birthday with the epic-length anthology "The Time of Our Time."
Mailer lived for decades in a Brooklyn Heights town house with a view of New York harbor and lower Manhattan from the rooftop "crow's nest," and kept a home in Provincetown, Mass., where he spent increasing time in his later years.
Despite heart surgery, hearing loss and arthritic knees that forced him to walk with canes, Mailer retained his enthusiasm for writing and in early 2007 released "The Castle in the Forest," a novel about Hitler's early years. "On God: An Uncommon Conversation," came out in the fall.
In 2005, Mailer received a gold medal for lifetime achievement at the National Book Awards, where he deplored what he called the "withering" of general interest in the "serious novel." Authors like himself, he said often, had become anachronisms as people focused on television and young writers aspired to screenwriting or journalism.
Lennon said arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends would be announced next week, and a memorial service would be held in New York in the coming months.