Peter Manso: A journalist and biographer of Marlon Brando and Norman Mailer

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Peter Manso, Biographer of Brando and Mailer, Dies at 80”:

Peter Manso, an embracing biographer of Marlon Brando and Norman Mailer and a journalist whose piercing interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward I. Koch returned to haunt them when they ran for the governorships of California and New York, died on Wednesday at his home in Truro, Mass., on Cape Cod….

A New York native who fancied racing and writing about fast cars, Mr. Manso preferred an unhurried, painstaking, scholarly approach to researching what proved to be mammoth oral biographies, consisting heavily of transcribed interviews. The 768-page “Mailer: His Life and Times” (1985) took him six years to write. He worked for eight years on his definitively titled “Brando: The Biography” (1994), which weighed in at 1,160 pages.

In The New York Times Book Review, Barbara Goldsmith called Mr. Manso’s book on Mr. Mailer “the quintessential celebrity biography.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The Times that the size of the book “seems just plain ridiculous,” but “try dipping into Mr. Manso’s interviews without at once becoming addicted.”

Mr. Manso wrote prolifically for magazines…and was the author of several other books, including “Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape” (2003), and “Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen” (2011), in which he challenged the conviction of a 34-year-old garbage collector with a low I.Q. in the 2002 stabbing death of Mr. Manso’s neighbor Christa Worthington, a 46-year-old fashion writer and single mother from an old Cape Cod family.

His relationships with his subjects and critics of his works were often tempestuous.

He and Mr. Mailer, who early on shared a house on Cape Cod, in Provincetown, later traded insults over the way the author was portrayed in what had begun as an authorized biography. The Oscar-winning screenwriter Jeremy Larner, a friend of Mr. Manso’s, recalled that “Mailer quickly went past the limits of what could be forgiven” and that Mr. Manso had reciprocated.

The critic Dwight Garner’s panning of “Reasonable Doubt” in The Times — he called the book “a disaster, at once lumpen and bonkers” — prompted Mr. Manso to write a 700-word letter to The Times in response.

He later told Women’s Wear Daily: “This is a review designed to kill a book, not to describe a book or its shortcomings” — particularly since Mr. Garner had tended to agree with the author’s conclusion that the defendant in the case had been railroaded….

In August 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California, he was embarrassed when a 1977 interview with Mr. Manso in Oui, an adult magazine, resurfaced. In the article Mr. Schwarzenegger had acknowledged taking part in group sex and using marijuana and hashish.

Confronted with the article, Mr. Schwarzenegger explained that he was 29 at the time and, as an actor, had no intention then of pursuing a political career. Californians apparently accepted his explanation. They voted to recall Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and replaced him with Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Peter Manso was born on Dec. 22, 1940, in Manhattan….His parents were immersed in the Provincetown artists and writers scene, and Peter mingled frequently there. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan when he was 16.

“He was funny, he was jaded, he was hilarious,” his friend Eugene Fedorko was quoted as saying in The Cape Cod Times. “He was a supernova among the rest of us fireflies.”

Mr. Manso earned a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College in 1961 and a masters from Johns Hopkins in 1962. After teaching for a year at Rutgers University, he turned to writing, earned a doctorate in American literature from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968 and helped manage Mr. Mailer’s chaotic campaign for mayor of New York in 1969….

Before he died, he was working with Mr. Mailer’s son Michael, a producer and director (and Mr. Manso’s godson) on a documentary film about an unsolved murder in Provincetown.

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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