DAVID: Oh, stop it! Will you stop? Ladies and gentlemen, turn down your volume! Turn it down immediately! She can’t be stopped! There’s something wrong with her.
MADONNA: There’s definitely something wrong with me — I’m sitting here!
DAVID: I think you’re a decent, nice person, and happy you could come by tonight and gross us all out…
MADONNA: Did you know it’s good if you pee in the shower?
DAVID [to the audience]: I’m sorry…
MADONNA: Don’t f### with me… peeing in the shower is really good; it fights athlete’s foot. [Uneasy audience laughter] I’m serious. Urine is like an antiseptic. It all has to do with the enzymes in your body.
DAVID: Don’t you know a good pharmacist? Get yourself some Desenex…
The air went out of the bout. Right there. Buddha just blown his cool. He might have spent his workin hours dribbling on the brains of Americans, but he cauld not bear a little dithering over his toes. His voice was so petulant that it all became clear: David worked for the corporation; David believed that cures came in bottles.
If he was overseer to all that was meaningless, it was because he had no poetry. He did not believe in a god who would be witty enough to put the cure for athlete’s foot into the patient’s urine.
So begins our modest story. Norman Mailer had been sufficiently taken with the manner in which Madonna disposed of David Letterman to mention it to Liz Smith. Friends of twenty years’ standing, they were happy to talk to each other at parties, and only occasionally was he concerned that an indiscreet remark would slip into one of her columns.
On this occasion, however, he could not pretend that he was unhappy at being quoted. Stick it to Letterman, by all means! What he did not expect were the consequences. His agent was asked the next day whether Mailer would write a substantial piece on Madonna for Esquire. That gave him pause (for twenty-four hours) while Andrew Wylie, agent, and Ed Kosner, editor, came to terms. Nor could he pretend that he was overjoyed at the assignment: Madonna, on the face of it, had to have an ego even larger than his own.
Still, he had liked the woman who was on the Letterman show. What the news stories had failed to convey was how ladylike she had been all the while that she was setting network records at the number of times Outstanding Guest was being bleeped per minute. It is not easy to keep uttering f### with style to millions of Americans you cannot see.
Moreover, Mailer had a bit of prior interest. During the period after Warren Beatty’s liaison with Madonna, the author had spent four days interviewing the actor. Beatty, a Virginia gentleman when you scratched him, maintained a resolute rule not to speak intimately to writers about any of the women in his life; Norman Mailer, having his own hincty opinion of himself, did not care to ask such questions. Still, it was evident that if Warren had been tempted to talk about any of his women with so intelligent an audience as his four-day guest, it would have been Madonna. Given all Beatty knew about women, it was nonetheless obvious that he saw Madonna as a phenomenon and that he had had a relationship with her that was unlike relationships with other luminous ladies.
So, at the least, Mailer had that much interest. Moreover, Esquire had agreed to an offer too decent to refuse. Mailer was a great believer in taking on jobs that simultaneously satisfied both your best and worst motives; a challenging assignment on fields of green was always an inducement to opening that vault where the bullion of extra energy is stored. Since Madonna would obviously be witting to such a principle — had she done anything in her life that did not engage her best and worst sides at once? — they would have for commencement that much in common.
A few days later, he was asked most politely by the magazine whether he would consider being photographed in black tie with Madonna while she was in evening gown. It was the kind of request he usually took pleasure in rejecting: He hated abetting photographic stunts in magazines and had hated it with personal motive ever since Annie Leibovitz had captured him for Rolling Stone in 1975 wearing bathing trunks, his belly protruding, his hips in the water, his face hidden behind a giant face mask, belly and face mask considerably swollen by the use of a fish-eye lens — one gargoyle of asshole for all the world to see. Ever since, he had avoided photographers’ inspirations. (Like a horse at the glimpse of a snake did he rear at the sight of a wide-angle lens.)
On this occasion, however, he accepted. He would be going to a black-tie party that night, and the photographic session could be scheduled to take place an hour earlier. Photographer, Wayne Maser; place, a loft in SoHo. It might be more interesting to meet Madonna in such manner than to drop in at her apartment with a tape recorder.
Let us not, however, pretend that he saw it as a wholly happy solution to the magazine’s need to have a picture of the principals taken together. Mailer was now seventy-one years old and, in consequence of the shrinkage that visits a senior citizen, was not quite five feet seven inches tall. He weighed two hundred pounds. Since he pumped modest amounts of iron from time to time, he looked (at his best) like a barrel. How can a barrel find pleasure in having itself commemorated in a dinner jacket, even a good dinner jacket? He would look like a barrel wrapped in velvet.
The shoot, of course, turned all too quickly into a prepared scenario. Which is to say that Wayne Maser had his own ideas or instructions on where to go with it. Mailer had barely had time to say hello to Madonna, who was wearing a green evening dress and a black blindfold as she stood in front of a white canvas drop, before the blindfold was off and the photographer had stepped forward long enough to pull down the left strap of her gown, so exposing her breast, doing it, mind you, with about as much ceremony as a furniture mover flips a throw cloth off an armchair. Now we had portly Norman Mailer standing next to diminutive Madonna, in a green gown, one breast showing, a small nose ring in her left nostril. When she saw the stricken look with which he gazed upon her breast, she covered the gap in her gown with a dainty hand.
He had been stricken for the noblest reasons. Mailer, like many an upstart before him, maintained a secret gentleman in a closet — the nice part of himself, so to speak. This Edwardian was puffed with outrage by the imposition on Madonna. It was not that her breast had been exposed — Mailer along with much of America, had seen her bare breasts looking splendid more than a hundred times in film, video, magazines, and books. It was just that this was not the time for Madonna to be seen. If a man wished to present his naked genitals to the public, he would choose an occasion when his erection was noble. Much the same can be said of the female breast. It is full of moods. A breast can be as proud as the prow of a racing boat, or it can droop, pallid and sad Madonna, by this purview, was obviously depressed, or so said her poor breast, and our stout Edwardian was outraged that he should be assisting at such a dim revelation. They had been photographing her for hours before he arrived, of course, she was tired; of course her breasts would be the first part of her to express such physical discontent, even as any good fellow’s penis would shrivel when low in spirit. Still, how could her breast droop so at the sight of him!
Nonetheless, they were able to chat. She was easy to talk to. He looked, Madonna informed Mailer, like her former father-in-law, and after a moment, the connection was clear — she was referring to Sean Penn’s father. “Well,” he said, “that’s not surprising,” and went on to explain that on meeting Sean Penn two years ago, he had been struck with the actor’s resemblance to himself in his youth, except, of course, that Sean Penn was better looking. A reasonable exchange. Their only difficulty was that they wished to talk, not to take pictures, and Wayne Maser had his job and proceeded to pose them. Pretty soon, he had Madonna sitting on Norman Mailer’s lap. The evening strap was up in place over her shoulder again, and her waist certainly felt agreeable, but a shoulder strap that could go up could as easily come down again, and Mailer knew that Esquire, with all its new influx of editorial talent, could hardly keep from printing such a picture. He, Norman Mailer, would be famous for much too little: There would be Madonna — small, fine-toned, spirited yin to his meat-laden yang. She would hardly care whom she was photographed with or how the sad fellow would look. One more body in an assembly line of photographed bodies.
Moreover, Mailer was hardly comfortable at the thought of his own woman. He had a mate who was all too proficient at bringing up old scores for the thrice-weekly bickerfest. So he certainly didn’t want a photograph of himself sitting in a chair, girded in his black dinner jacket, while Madonna in a green gown was perched on his lap, one breast exposed.
It is interesting to note that ten years ago, Mailer would have said to himself, “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead — Madonna on my lap!” What we are witnessing is the action of female mind upon male flesh, otherwise known as the cumulative effect of being pussy-whipped over the course of twenty years of marriage by a strong, beautiful, redheaded wife.
So Mailer interrupted the proceedings. If he was going to be photographed, he told everyone, it would be side by side, standing up, head shots only. What a dim prospect for the photographer’s craft! Maser kept trying to reinstitute a stunt. Finally, Mailer said to him: “I respect your intelligence. Can’t you respect mine?”
Wayne Maser gave up. He could recognize a battle-scarred veteran of the photographic wars, and so a half-dozen more restrained shutter clicks ended the session. Madonna and Mailer agreed to meet a couple of times over the next few days for intensive interviews.
He was depressed by the place in which she lived. It was a duplex on Central Park West in a classic apartment house of the West Sixties. The ceilings were high, and the rooms were gloomy by afternoon. Central Park West speaks of upper-middle-class lives, the decorum of prescribed responses, slow, successful professions, and solid family life with few excesses of love. The stairwells in such buildings are as downhearted as slum tenements. Actors also live on Central Park West, but architecture is more powerful than personality, and all the stars of stage and screen whom Mailer had ever visited on Central Park West seemed to have succumbed to the gloom.
Madonna, if anything, had augmented it. The upstairs living room, in which they met for interviews, had white walls, a dark-maroon carpet, and but three massive, dark stuffed chairs without arms.