This story originally appeared in the Failed State Update newsletter. Subscribe at: https://lennyflatley.substack.com/
See also: Everything We Know About The Finders on Failed State Update
In 1960, Norman Mailer had a psychotic break. It seems that fame wasn’t doing all that much for his emotional well-being. Born into a Jewish family in Long Branch, New Jersey, his mother Fran doted on him. His father, Barney Mailer, was known for his carousing and gambling. At one point, he was in debt to loan sharks so deeply that the family almost lost everything. Exactly how they got out of this hole isn’t quite clear; it’s believed that Barney’s sister bailed him out. Mailer, it seems, learned the wrong lessons from this—he came to view his father as “an elegant, impoverished figure out of Chekhov.”
By the time of his psychosis, Norman had written one major novel, The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948 when he was 25. Afterward, there were a couple of smaller, poorly received novels, and a scattershot collection of essays, fiction, and verse called Advertisements for Myself. If he had stopped writing in 1960, Mailer would have been remembered as a man who had peaked well before his fortieth birthday.
The break with reality, according to his ex-wife Adele, had been coming for some time, although those close to Mailer tried to ignore it or pretend it wasn’t happening. (This was a man whose fame was such that his friends got laid for merely knowing him; hangers-on were hardly motivated to tell him when he flipped his lid.) Mailer declared his candidacy for New York City Mayor in 1960, which was improbable enough—he told Mike Wallace that he was running on the Existentialist ticket—then convinced himself that the system had it in for him because Eleanor Roosevelt and the Jacqueline Kennedy ignored his invitations for a November 19th party, to be held in his apartment in Brooklyn.
By the time the event began at 9:00 p.m., Mailer had been smoking pot and drinking bourbon since noon. He was speaking in a bad Texas drawl, as he was inclined to do for some reason. His dress that evening included a bullfighter’s shirt. The party wasn’t in full swing yet when he began prowling the streets, getting into fights with strangers and, at one point, attacking George Plimpton. At around four the next morning he returned home, as his wife Adele wrote in her memoir:
Norman was dirty, his bullfighter’s shirt as torn and bloody as his face. He had a black eye. I hardly recognized him, his face twisted, and he was out of his head, so drunk I don’t think he knew where he was. He charged into the living room like a crazed bull, looking for anyone, anything on which to vent his psychic pain and rage. I stared across the room at him, and for one insane moment, I became the matador waving my red cape, hating him, taunting him, my drunken anguish and fury matching his. “Aja toro, Aja,” I called, “come on you little faggot, where’s your cojones, did your ugly whore of a mistress cut them off, you son of a bitch!”
These two were clearly in a bad place, but what happened next was unconscionable. Mailer produced a knife and stabbed his wife twice. One of the thrusts punctured her pericardium, just missing her heart. She was lucky to be alive. To protect her husband, Adele agreed to a ruse concocted by Norman’s sycophants: she claimed that she had slipped and been stabbed by a broken bottle. Never mind the fact that she clearly had a knife wound, and that there was no broken glass to be found in their apartment.
It would be a few days before detectives convinced Adele to admit that she was stabbed by her husband. After that, Mailer was sent to Bellevue Hospital. When he was diagnosed with an “acute paranoid breakdown,” Mailer took umbrage: “My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of. I insist that I am sane.”
Mailer was released from the bin after a 17-day involuntary commitment.
Ten years later, Mailer will headbutt Gore Vidal moments before stepping on stage for an appearance on the Dick Cavett show. He’ll be roundly attacked by guests and the host, who clearly have no time for his macho bullshit. At one point, Mailer justifies his violent schtick by citing his role in American literature:
I've been so bold as to pretend to be the presumptive literary champ, you know, whether I deserve to be or not. The reason people always talk about me in relation to Hemingway is just that Hemingway at a certain point said to himself with his huge paranoia, “They're going to kill me for this but I'm going to be the champ, that's all I care about.” And he shifted the course of American letters because up to that point people who wrote books were men of letters, they were gentlemen, they wrote books, and Hemingway said, in effect, “No, people who write books take as much punishment as prizefighters and one of them has to be a champion.”
“I have presumed,” he continues, finishing the thought, “with all my extraordinary arrogance and loudness and crudeness to step forth and say, ‘I’m going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off.’”
This was the same television appearance where Gore Vidal equated Norman Mailer and Henry Miller with Charles Manson, which was a stretch, to say the least. (Vidal would go on to develop a very public infatuation with Timothy McVeigh, who invited him to attend his execution in 2001. Vidal accepted the invitation. “The boy has a sense of justice,” he said about McVeigh, who killed an indeterminate number of people—at least 168—in the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995. “That's what attracted me to him. We've exchanged several letters. He's very intelligent. He's not insane.”)
Drinking and fighting were equated with literary talent in Mailer’s mind, and he sought out friends who indulged him, including a “contingent” from the Washington, D.C., beatnik scene, including Dick Dabney of The Washington Post Weekly and the poet Lester Blackiston, who was there when Mailer stabbed Adele. These small-time writers “were always ready to indulge [Mailer] in his physical hijinks,” according to biographer Mary Dearborn.
If you look in the index of one of the several Norman Mailer biographies out there, even odds are that you’ll find a brief mention of Dick Dabney. You might even find Lester Blackiston. But you’ll never find the name of Marion Pettie.
Marion David Pettie was two years older than Norman Mailer, born on December 12, 1920, to David and Virginia Burke Pettie. At the age of fifteen, he lied about his age and joined the Army. He retired after 22 years, took his pension, and never worked again. He was 35 years old at the time, married with two sons.
“He wasn't rebellious in the usual sense,” according to his son, George Pettie. “He was intellectually rebellious. So he wanted to leave home.” At the time, you could enlist in the military at age 16 with a parent’s permission. It took some work, but Pettie was able to get his parents blessing to join the National Guard (which was known to be pretty loose with its paperwork). From there, it was a simple matter of transferring to the Regular Army.
This sort of thing wasn’t unheard of in the days before computers. In fact, the youngest American World War II veteran is believed to be Calvin Graham, who enlisted in the Navy at the age of 12. When he was wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal, his mother discovered his whereabouts and raised a fuss, leading to Graham’s discharge. (He went on to work as a welder in a Houston shipyard, got married at 14, and became a father the following year.)
Pettie’s first assignment was in Panama, where the 15-year-old was given lifeguard duty. He sat by the pool, read books, and worked on his tan for three years.
“I suspect that his affinity for an easy, laid back existence may have either started down there, or maybe it was enhanced,” George Pettie says. “Because you know, he never had much of an affinity for heavy exertion, hard work. He was really proud of the fact that he couldn't do anything with his hands.”
From there, Pettie went to Washington, D.C. “He spent World War II expecting to be sent to Europe, to the war itself,” according to his son. Instead, he remained stateside, where he was assigned to General Henry “Hap” Arnold’s detail. Hap Arnold was one of the best-known generals of World War II and one of the founders of the RAND Corporation. Pettie was his chauffeur, which kept him stateside during the war.
Pettie’s final assignment was in postwar Germany. He was there for six months before retiring as a Master Sergeant. The premature retiree finagled it so that he could use West Germany as a base as he traveled the world. His wife Isabelle, meanwhile, worked and took care of the kids. This arrangement lasted for four years until the Pettie family returned to the United States.
They settled in Nethers, Virginia, remote country at the foot of Old Rag Mountain. In addition to the farmhouse, the family owned property nearby and a house in Arlington, Virginia. Marion Pettie, long-since retired at the ripe old age of 42, spent much of his time either at the Arlington house or traveling; he liked to keep people guessing where he might show up.
Norman Mailer crossed paths with Marion Pettie in early 1963, when Dick Dabney and Lester Blackiston were staying at one of the properties the Pettie family owned in rural Virginia. It was the summer of ’62 when Dabney, who Pettie called “the number-two beatnik around Washington,” arrived with his wife. While the Number 2 Beatnik worked on his novel, they would be staying in a house that the Pettie family used as a youth hostel. They were eventually joined by Blackiston, who was going through a divorce, and his girlfriend.
George Pettie would’ve been sixteen years old when Mailer and his girlfriend visited the hostel. He accompanied his father and younger brother to meet the writer, whom he describes as a “compact fortyish man in jeans and a dark sweatshirt,” a “bohemian hipster” out of central casting. The beatniks were drinking red wine with orange juice.
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Pettie and Mailer got to know each other a little bit. When the writer congratulated him on how he raised his “young bucks,” away from the city that “screwed up” children “one way or another,” Pettie invited the writer to bring his family down. Later on, Pettie asked Mailer about Wilhelm Reich.
“I think his Orgiastic Potency stuff is fake,” the future Pulitzer Prize winner said. “Reich doesn’t know shit about sex.”
The Petties observed while Mailer and his two friends proceeded to get drunk. The banter turned into good-natured barbs, which eventually degenerated into wrestling. The woman loved seeing their men turn primal. “They’re like bucks banging antlers to impress the does,” Pettie told his boys. Eventually, George got bored and left, followed shortly thereafter by his father and younger brother. Later, George heard what happened next.
Mailer was an athlete and would have no problem handling a larger, out-of-shape Dick Dabney. At first, he let Dabney almost pin him, just to make the contest more competitive. Then he took Dabney down, sitting on him for the coup de grace.
Next, it was time for Lester and Norman to go at it. This was more of an even match. At some point, a knife appeared. “It was a little unclear exactly who did what,” George says. “The upshot of it was Lester got cut across his belly. Pretty big slice. A nice laceration.”
Lester said that Mailer stabbed him, but Lester's girlfriend disagreed.
“Nah, you're the one who had the knife, Lester,” she said.
“Well, but still, he cut me.”
And then one of the other women said, “We didn't see him. We didn't even see him get ahold of the knife. We don't think he even had the knife.”
Lester insisted that Norman cut him, despite the protests of everyone present. Soon, a consensus formed. “Lester grabbed a knife and it fell on the floor, and he fell on it, or something like that,” George says. “It was basically an accident.”
While all this was going on, the Petties were at home, sleeping. They were awakened by a panicked beatnik, pounding on the door, screaming. “Dabney’s falling to pieces,” George remembers. “So they hop in the Volkswagen, tear up to the hostel to find Lester on the couch,” bleeding from the belly wound.
By that time, Mailer was nowhere to be found.
“Norman skedaddled right away, right in the middle of the night,” Pettie says. “He and his girlfriend took off.” It had been just over a year since Mailer stabbed his wife, and the last thing he needed was another arrest. “He probably didn't even cut Lester. I don't think he would have, and I don’t think he did.”
A consensus formed as to why Lester claimed that Mailer stabbed him.
“Lester aspired—we think, this is speculation—to be in Norman’s inner circle. And there was no better way of being in this circle than to fight with him, you know? A ritual fight with him,” George says. “And if you're cut by Norman? Even better.”
If you thought that an involuntary commitment or indictment for felonious assault (he pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence when his wife declined to press charges) was going to slow Mailer down, you don’t know Norman Mailer. In January 1964, Esquire began running his serialized novel, An American Dream. Its protagonist is a World War II veteran and Harvard graduate, a public figure who appears on TV talk shows and murders his wife in an existential act. The parallels between the protagonist and the author are striking—as are the differences. These similarities must have struck Gore Vidal when he compared Mailer to Charles Manson. (Not sure why Henry Miller got dragged into this.)
Mailer would go on to marry six women total, sire nine children, and author eleven best-selling books, including The Executioner’s Song. The true crime novel, which presumably takes us into the mind of murderer Gary Gilmore, earned Mailer his second Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
As far as I can tell, the only time Mailer publicly expressed regret for stabbing his wife Adele Morales was in an interview for a PBS documentary that aired in 2000:
It changed everything in my life. It is the one act I can look back on and regret for the rest of my life. And it happened out of the way I was living. There's no question about that… We are as ugly as animals in our fashion, and unless we deal with the ugliness in ourselves, unless we deal with the violence in ourselves, the brutality in ourselves, and find some way to sublimate it, just to use Freud's term, into something slightly higher, we're never going to get anywhere with anything.
Over the years, Marion Pettie developed a reputation more notorious than even Mailer’s, and he never stabbed anybody. His hostel at the foot of the Old Rag Mountain in Virginia would turn into an open land commune, which in turn would become an experimental lifestyle collective called The Finders. On February 6, 1987, police in Tallahassee, Florida arrested two Finders for babysitting a half-dozen of the group’s children in a public park. The men refused to cooperate when questioned—they were following Pettie’s philosophy of never talking to cops—so social services took custody of the children. During a press conference the next day, Tallahassee Police Department officials said that The Finders were just one node in a national network of satanic cults.
“As far as we're concerned, this goes from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico,” police spokesman Scott Hunt said in a press conference, offering no proof whatsoever of his claim.
This was during the Satanic Panic, a nationwide moral panic that accused non-Satanists of being Satanists, and accused Satanists of kidnapping children and using them in rituals. None of this was true, however, and by 1994 this fact began to dawn on law enforcement. That year, a study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect looked at 12,264 accusations of ritual abuse and couldn’t find clear, corroborating evidence to back up any of the claims. Not one.
Pettie died in 2003, but every year his notoriety grows. Not as a philosopher, which is how he would’ve like to have been remembered, and not even as the host of a wrestling match between a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the Number Two Beatnik in Washington, D.C. Instead, his reputation is cemented among conspiracy theorists and true crime buffs as the mastermind behind a CIA child abuse operation that never existed.
America is a violent country, and that violence comes for everybody at some point. How it manifests can hardly be predicted, but it is certain to make an appearance. Maybe you’ll be stabbed by your psychotic husband. Or maybe you’ll be implicated in a non-existent CIA child abuse plot and angry internet trolls will badger you for the rest of your life. Maybe you’ll be recruited into the Army, or maybe you’ll be born into the wrong family. The possibilities are endless, and they’re all ugly.
I’d like to believe that justice comes to all of us at some point as well, even if few will live long enough to see it.