When Kurt Vonnegut Met Norman Mailer in Cape Cod’s Legendary “Helltown”

From a story on crimereads.com by Casey Sherman headlined “When Kurt Vonnegut Met Norman Mailer in Cape Cod’s Legendary ‘Helltown'”:

“Helltown. The nickname fits this place perfectly,” said Norman Mailer as he peered out at Long Point and the Provincetown harbor from the third-­floor study of his home at the east end of Commercial Street. Sitting at his desk, he also had a pristine view of the Pilgrim Monument, the 252-­foot granite tower looming like a colossal sentry in the distance.

To Mailer, the town in July was “as colorful as St. Tropez on Saturday morning and as dirty as Coney Island come Sunday night.”

But it was autumn now, and the leaves were dead. The town was dead too.

Mailer had just returned from Chicago, and he was all alone in his five-­bedroom, 5,800-square-foot brick fortress, which sat on more than a hundred feet of waterfront. Beverly Bentley, his fourth wife, was gone. She felt isolated and bored and could not take another winter here. Mailer missed her warm touch and the aroma of her cooking. Beverly made a dish of mushrooms stuffed with duxelles that was to die for. The writer would have to fend for himself now.

Unlike Vonnegut down the road, Mailer worked in longhand and at a feverish pace. Over the next eighteen days, he scribbled down his memories and observations from both party conventions on yellow legal pads, fifty thousand words in all, which were added on top of the twenty-­five thousand words he had already committed to paper. It was the job of his secretary, Sandy Charlebois Thomas, to type them up and send them off to his editor. Mailer put in between twelve and fourteen hours a day at his writing desk, and his assistant found it nearly impossible to keep up with the manic author. She understood why he did most of his writing there on Cape Cod instead of New York City.

“Your attachment to this place goes back to writing The Naked and the Deadhere,” she told him. “Ptown’s your spiritual home. It embodies a great natural beauty and quality of light and incredible evil.”

Mailer knew what she meant. Despite being surrounded by all the enchantment and artistry that embodied life in Provincetown, it was the darkness that drew him there.

Danger and deceit flowed through the veins of this place. When the pious Pilgrims first dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor after fleeing religious persecution from the Church of England and later as exiles in Holland, they stole corn from the Pamet tribe before signing the Mayflower Compact and returning to their ship and heading east along Cape Cod Bay to establish a permanent settlement in Plymouth.

Later, the area crawled with pirates, whalers, smugglers, and mooncussers, who lured ships to their doom by raising lanterns high atop the dunes at night, convincing ship captains that a lighthouse and safe harbor revealed themselves ahead. The ships would wreck on the constantly shifting shoals, and the mooncussers would then steal their cargo and occasionally slit the throats of any survivors on board. The ploy only worked on moonless nights, and these outlaws would cuss the moon if its radiance foiled their plans. Helltown was a settlement just south of Hatches Harbor with about thirty dwellings: rooming houses, taverns, and bordellos. When a sea captain was asked why the place was called Helltown, he grumbled, “Because of all the helling that goes on there.”

It was a place for those creatures, spit onto the sand, that the sea did not want, and according to Benjamin Franklin’s uncle, it also came with a sea monster.

Mailer rested his pencil on his wooden desk and ran his hand across his whisker-­free chin.

“Maybe it’s time to grow another goatee,” he said aloud.

He had worn facial hair years earlier, back when he lived in Greenwich Village. Now he was a suited, tie-­wearing, middle-­aged fossil. But like most dinosaurs, he was still feared. He loved Provincetown, but most townies did not love him back, at least not anymore. Tavern owners called him a menace, especially now during the off-­season, when he would stumble in and out of bars along Commercial Street picking fights with anyone who looked at him sideways. Locals were weary of what they called “the Mailer headbutt,” which the writer was quick to employ on his foes. Many considered him a bastard, but at least he was their bastard, and his presence added to Ptown’s eclectic decor. He fit right in here in Helltown.

Police Chief Cheney Marshall knew him well. Their first run-­in had occurred nearly a decade earlier when Mailer and his second wife, Adele, rented out the Hawthorne House for themselves and their two young children. It was shortly after 1:00 a.m. on June 9, 1960, when Mailer, stumbling home from two local joints, Ace of Spades and the Atlantic House, yelled out, “Taxi, taxi!” to a passing squad car. Adele told her husband to shut up and called him a fool. The car stopped, and two cops got out and asked the writer to move along.

“I’ll move when you get out of my way,” Mailer slurred.

Hearing this, the officers grabbed him and stuffed him into the back of their car.

“Adele, you’re my witness,” he cried out. “I’m not resisting arrest.”

Mailer stayed mute for the quick ride to the police station. A Portuguese American police officer known as “Cobra” pulled him out of the vehicle and pushed him along the pavement. Stubborn and intoxicated, the novelist demanded to walk in on his own accord. That demand triggered a tussle on the steps with Cobra. Mailer ducked, spun, slipped, blocked, and sidestepped the officer’s advance until a billy club came crashing down on his head, opening a gash that would take thirteen stitches to close.

“Okay, you happy now? I’m bleeding,” Mailer snarled.

A short time later, as he cleaned the wound with a towel in his cell, he got into a verbal joust with Chief Cheney Marshall.

“I coulda beat those two toy cops of yours and you know it, kid.”

“Listen, boy, I could take you with one hand,” the chief fired back.

“Maybe you could, and maybe you couldn’t, but you picked the wrong pigeon this time. You cops are used to dealing with people who can’t defend themselves. Well, I’m a writer, and I know how to use words, and boy, I’m going to use them.”

Adele brought fifty dollars cash to the police station and bailed him out.

The charge was drunk and disorderly, and there would be a trial with Mailer acting as his own lawyer.

At this time, the writer had plenty of support from his Ptown neighbors. Chief Cheney Marshall had planted his big thumb on the village, and the townies rebelled. He had already arrested Franz Kline, the abstract expressionist painter, for playing records late at night, and he also closed down a number of gay bars on trumped-­up charges.

During the one-­day trial, Mailer called Officer William Sylvia, the cop known as “Cobra,” to the stand. Mailer had a laundry list of questions for him. “Do you know what Cobra means?” he wanted to ask. “Webster defines it as ‘any of several very venomous Asiatic and African snakes.’… Are you aware that people in this town believe they have a bullying and brutal police force?… Do you know the nickname for the police here is the Gestapo?”

The judge tossed out these inquiries before they could leave Mailer’s lips. Still, the writer did his best to agitate the witness. “You grabbed my arms from behind, isn’t that right, Cobra?”

After a stern objection from the judge, Mailer followed with another uppercut.

“Do you ever have bad dreams about violence?” he asked Officer Sylvia.

“Objection!”

Mailer then took the stand in his own defense.

“I have a bad temper,” he told the judge. “Maybe they thought I was a dangerous beatnik. I was cocky, sassy, and arrogant.”

But he forcefully denied that he could have gotten drunk on only four cocktails, and he certainly was not, in his opinion, disorderly to the cops.

The judge split the verdict, announcing to the packed courtroom that the writer was guilty of drunkenness but not disorderly conduct. He also blasted Chief Marshall for the actions of his Officer Sylvia.

“You police officers are too thin skinned,” the judge surmised. “You have to deal with many summer visitors here, but you can’t manhandle a man because he says something you don’t like.”

Mailer claimed victory and celebrated with a few stiff ones down the street at the Old Colony tavern.

That kind of circus was typical of Mailer. He was known as much for his outlandish antics as he was for his authorship. The writer considered himself to be the heir apparent to Ernest Hemingway, his hero, who had taken his own life in 1961. But still, Mailer refused to have his writing overshadowed by his personal transgressions. While working on the book that would eventually be called Miami and the Siege of Chicago, he learned that Armies of the Night had won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Ever weary about good fortune, Mailer shouted, “Gott helfe uns vor dem bösen Blick!” God protect us from the evil eye.

News of Mailer’s accolades traveled fast through literary circles and found its way to Vonnegut’s writing studio in Barnstable.

“It all comes so fucking easy for Norman,” Vonnegut grumbled. “Motherfucker exploded out of the gate and has tasted nothing but gravy ever since.”

Vonnegut viewed the success of Mailer’s debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, with a touch of disdain. Mailer was twenty-­five years young when the book was published in 1948, and it sold an astounding two hundred thousand copies in the first three months. When he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, Mailer set out to write, in his words, the war novel. He was stationed in the Philippines and served as a typist, line wireman, and cook. He also went out on patrols, as the self-­confessed third lousiest guy in a platoon of twelve. Those experiences fueled his creativity, and that combination had produced a masterpiece. It also introduced the word fug to the American vernacular because Mailer’s publisher would not allow him to use the word fuck in his prose.

The combined sales numbers for Vonnegut’s collective works were far less than for his rival’s signature novel. Vonnegut had to clear his mind, or he would sink into a funk of depression, and the writing would not come. He had spent much of his adult life parrying and dodging his darkest thoughts. Depression was something that Vonnegut had inherited like a set of polished silver from his mother, Edith, who had swallowed too many sleeping pills, overdosing and dying in her bed when she was fifty-­six years old.

Her eldest son was forty-­six years old now, looked much older, and was wallowing in artistic and financial misery. The Saab dealership was a disaster, and Vonnegut had five children to clothe and feed. He and his wife, Jane, his classmate since kindergarten, had three kids, including the teenaged Edie. They had also adopted Vonnegut’s two nephews after his sister Alice died of cancer in 1958, just two days after her husband, James, was killed in a train wreck.

Vonnegut had given up economic security long ago when he quit his white-­collar job as a publicist for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, to pursue his dream as a writer on Cape Cod.

“Don’t give up your job and devote yourself to writing fiction,” one mentor had advised him. “I don’t trust a freelancer’s life. It’s tough.”

But Vonnegut did just that, despite a steady stream of rejection letters, including one from an editor at Esquire, who critiqued a short story Vonnegut had submitted this way: “Not a striking plot. Overdramatized—­not on our level of interest.”

When he did manage to sell one of his stories, the money was not enough in his mind to buy a pack of baseball cards. Instead of tucking the funds away, he and Jane would celebrate by throwing a big party for their friends with lavish food and drink, only to go back to eating plain cereal the next day.

Like the Pilgrims, Vonnegut had chosen Provincetown as his first landing spot when he arrived on Cape Cod back in 1951. He and Jane rented a tiny, shingled home on Commercial Street, close to the place where writer John Dos Passos had once worked in a house built on an old wharf that had been destroyed by fire, ice, and the sea. Provincetown had also been home to Pulitzer Prize–­winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, who wrote Anna Christie at Masonic Place and had lived for a time at a lifesaving station tucked away in the Sahara-­like dunes.

Shortly after their arrival, Jane Vonnegut bumped into a young Norman Mailer on the street and introduced herself. “My husband is a writer as well,” she said. “I’d like very much for you to meet him.”

The two men gathered over cocktails, and Jane found Mailer to be “a nice guy.”Mailer did not think twice about the encounter; it had been a turning point, however, for Vonnegut. Mailer was a boxer, but it was Vonnegut who sized him up like a fighter during a weigh-­in for a championship bout. Physically, Mailer did not impress. He was short with curly hair and a barrel chest, and he had ears sticking out of his head the size of Dumbo’s. But his eyes, those striking blue eyes, offered Vonnegut a window into his youthful genius. Vonnegut attempted to swat away thoughts that he was not worthy of Mailer’s attention or his friendship. They were more alike than one could realize just by looking at them, and this notion settled Vonnegut’s nerves.

You’re about my age, Vonnegut thought as he stared at Mailer over the brim of his cocktail glass. You were a college-­educated infantry private like me. But you’re a world figure because you’ve published your great war novel. But I’ve got a story of my own to write.

Vonnegut would spend the next two decades stopping and starting his Dresden novel. The novel had cost him dearly in money, anxiety, and time. It was the fall of 1968, and Vonnegut, in his words, had “gone broke, was out of print, and had a lot of kids.”

Something had to happen for him fast. He focused his attention on the Luftwaffe sabre—a memento from the war—standing upright in the corner of his writing shed with its gold-plated ceremonial handle, and he went back to work revising Slaughterhouse-­Five.

Excerpted from Helltown: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer on Cape Cod by Casey Sherman. ©2022

 

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