Blood in the Morning: The Turbulent Relationship of Norman Mailer and Adele Morales

Norman Mailer and his reckless tendencies have been chronicled at length, but his tumultuous relationship with his second wife, Adele Morales, have often been ignored.

On the morning of November 20, 1960, author Norman Mailer almost murdered his wife.

His second wife, that is: Adele Morales Mailer. The oft-married Mailer (he tallied up six wives in all) is both famous and infamous for so many reasons that too often, Adele’s name goes missing. She’s often written off, at best, as “Mailer’s second wife.”

But she was more than that. She was an artist and painter who studied with Hans Hofmann. She was decades ahead of her time as a young woman who had moved by herself in the late 1940s to Greenwich Village, befriending the subterraneans known as bohemians, the Hip, and the Beat. Through a friend, she met author Norman Mailer in 1951. They married in 1954.

By 1960, she had given birth to two daughters. Adele and Norman were to New York in the Fifties what Scott and Zelda were to 1920s Paris. They rode the Zeitgeist. Highest highs included their heavy drinking, chronic use of marijuana, varied pills (prescribed and otherwise), and sexual misadventures with multiple lovers—sometimes singly, but also at orgies. They broke all the rules with abandon.

And it nearly got Adele killed.

The lowest lows included drunken brawls, public arguments in which Adele and Norman were bellowing, and finally the awful morning of November 20, 1960. That’s when an overcrowded, drunken, tension-filled party at their New York apartment nearly ended on a fatal note when Norman took a penknife with a two-and-a-half inch blade and twice-stabbed Adele—once in her chest and once again in the back. The knife punctured her cardiac sac. She could have died.

Adele and Norman Mailer in court in 1960, a month after he stabbed and seriously wounded her at a party at their apartment. Credit: United Press International

A weird foreshadowing of Adele and Norman’s fate occurred when bestselling novelist Tom T. Chamales (an Illinois-born ally of James Jones) was arrested in November 1958 for threatening his wife, popular singer Helen O’Connell, with a knife. Chamales died in 1960. He was incinerated by a fire he ignited after dropping his lighted cigarette at home, having drunk himself into a stupor. Tom T. Chamales, like Mailer, was a WWII veteran whose debut novel (Never So Few) had stunning success. Mailer’s 1948 bestselling first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was followed in the next decade by two novels that didn’t do nearly as well. Neither Barbary Shore nor The Deer Park hit it big in the 1950s.

At decade’s end, in 1959, a second daughter was born to Adele and Norman. That same year a new epoch in Mailer’s career commenced. Nonfiction dominated his output for the next twenty years. Mailer’s innovative, debut nonfiction collection—an autobiographical anthology titled Advertisements for Myself—shifted his career and his sense of artistic purpose.

Other things remained the same. Regardless of their newfound responsibilities as parents to two daughters, the New York literary life kept Mailer aflame. It also kept Adele on edge. Time after time, she saw how toxic, pugnacious, and depressed Norman could be. Everyone and everything become targets. Their marriage was no exception. Although preoccupied with her new infant and a growing toddler, Adele continued to make the rounds of nighttime parties—which Mailer routinely craved.

It wasn’t just a weekend thing. On any given night, any party would do. Book-launch bashes or anniversaries? Birthdays? It didn’t matter. Mailer accepted nearly all invitations. His nightly drinking was always capacious. So was Adele’s. Her art studies were sidelined. No time. No quiet. Too many distractions.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1960, Norman interviewed candidate JFK, shortly after Kennedy was nominated to be president. Mailer’s long-form Esquire coverage of that year’s frantic Democratic Convention in Los Angeles was a unique, trailblazing nonfiction endeavor. But his marital troubles exponentially expanded, as did his bursts of mania, brawling, and drunkenness. He was a time bomb.

One all-consuming flashpoint was his exhausting quest to ramp up a stage production of his novel The Deer Park. Mailer immersed himself in the realm of the Actors Studio and director Frank Corsaro recalls it like this: “Norman hadn’t [published] a novel since The Deer Park [1955] and a number of us at the Studio wondered about that—the typical question, ‘Why isn’t he writing a book?’ There was the notion that he was a typical one-book writer, that he’d written one tremendously successful novel and that was it. Plus the impression that he was trying to break into the theater . . . that he was stagestruck.”

Corsaro also mentored Adele at the Actors Studio: “She was full of tension, and  . . . hostility against the world . . . it became clear that there was built-up animosity—anger, resentment, confusion. We worked once a week for several hours. She’d do scenes from material I’d given her that was usually modern, never classic, things that would allow her to bring out her animosity.  She worked hard, and then it was steady progress.”

Elsewhere, Dr. Jack Begner (a pediatrician to whom Adele took the children) bonded with Mailer over their shared passion for prizefighting—“at least,” Dr. Begner remarked, “until I began lecturing him about his drinking, since I thought he was headed for an alcoholic psychosis. I thought he was nuts in those years . . . several breakdowns.”

Mailer’s sister, Barbara, put matters into focus when interviewed by Peter Manso for a 1985 oral biography called Mailer: His Life and Times: “That year on the literary scene in New York [1960] it was all in fashion to go crazy, like ‘Doc’ Humes. Humes had an apartment underneath Norman in the same building on Ninety-fourth Street. He’d written a big important novel about Europe, The Underground City, then went nuts, violently manic-depressive. It was the fashion to push things to their ultimate extreme—all kinds of sexual and drug experimentation. Once, at a party . . . someone put LSD into my drink, and I went home and woke up seeing things. I thought I was going crazy until someone phoned later and asked how I liked my acid trip. It was the beginning of the Sixties, really . . . it was all very violent . . . I didn’t like being part of it . . . but one sensed that it was all getting out of hand.”

Novelist Alan Kapelner (author of Lonely Boy Blues and All the Naked Heroes) also cited 1960 as a turning point: “I’d had it with the Village scene, and I guess I wasn’t seeing Norman and Adele so much. I cut off the whole scene, like I cut off cigarettes. Then a few times I bumped into Adele and she looked pretty bad . . . The problem was a psychotic condition—Norman’s need for publicity. He’d always been extraordinarily self-conscious, aware of how to create controversy, but now he’d become a publicity junkie. By the time of the stabbing I wasn’t seeing him at all.”

JFK was elected president in the first week of November 1960. Quickly, Adele and Norman took a bizarre new turn. Mailer decided to run for mayor of New York City. Besotted by the notion that his Kennedy Esquire piece tilted the election in JFK’s favor, and thus convinced that he, too, had a political destiny, Mailer created his idea a campaign platform: He would form a coalition of the disenfranchised. He would lead an “existential party” of disaffected, alienated voters embittered by politics as usual.

At a large party on Saturday, November 19th, he launched his mayoral bid. It was a wildly crowded party, with close to 200 jammed into an apartment at its peak hours; and many of those in attendance became keenly aware that overlapping cliques and badly clashing demographics were transforming what Adele later called “the last party” into a dangerous, intimidating milieu.

Mailer invited in strangers off the street to join invited guests still being told that the ostensible reason for the bash was to celebrate the birthday of a Mailer pal (boxer Roger Donoghue). But the announcement of Mailer’s mayoral campaign was also on the agenda. Massive quantities of liquor were imbibed. Debates flared into arguments, and nasty physical altercations occurred. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz shouted and shoved each other around. The mood was ugly all night long. It worsened after midnight.

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Functioning as Mailer’s de facto “campaign manager” was “Doc” Humes, who in addition to Mailer’s neighbor as mentioned above was also the co-founder of The Paris Review with George Plimpton, and others. About this epoch, Humes later recalled: “The whole period around November ’60 has to be looked at in terms of pathology. It was crazy beyond belief—the cabaret-card scandal . . . the trouble the Village coffeehouses were having, and of course the big folk singers’ riot in Washington Square Park, which was the first time anyone saw the TPF, the Tactical Police [Force] in fatigues instead of in uniform.”

Similarly, the recollections of George Plimpton are vivid: “[Norman’s] campaign was based on the rather interesting idea that he was truly suited to represent the disenfranchised of the city—Bowery bums, deadbeats, bag women, prostitutes, pimps, victims of police brutality, outcasts, runaways, and so forth—and if he could convince this marginal if large group that he had solid connections with the ‘power structure’ of New York City, he’d get their support in his quest for the mayoralty.” Mailer had recently held meetings about founding and funding his so-called Existential Party.

Inevitably, Adele and Norman crossed swords. As usual. They often fought openly (and loudly) in front of fellow party-goers. And on this night, both of them were wretchedly intoxicated. Adele was incensed that he had a new mistress. She was confused by his detour into politics and his delusions of electoral victory. There were signs all through the party that Mailer was in a highly agitated, unstable state. When his sister, Barbara, attempted to talk to him about his planned campaign literature, he slapped her face. Some guests left early. Others lingered, getting drunker.

Frank Corsaro from the Actors Studio was appalled by the scene: “You couldn’t move. The place was packed wall to wall, mobbed with the wildest, most heterogeneous group imaginable. Really straight-out street bums too, and I remember saying, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? I’m not enjoying myself, let me get out of here. I had talked to Adele and she had been drinking, and when she was drinking she got very abusive. Between the two of them they used to abuse each other endlessly.”

And then this from Mailer’s sister Barbara: “It was a very mixed crew, everybody from all walks of Norman’s life, plus a real motley crew toward the end. I was talking to Norman Podhoretz, and he said he didn’t like the look of things either. [My brother] was in an odd mood. Earlier he’d come up to me and said, ‘Now, don’t you talk to me, stay away from me. I could really let fly tonight’—something like that. Then when I left, around one-thirty or so, he was very rum-murky, cloudy, surly. Maybe thirty or forty people were left, but others were coming in off the street.”

A man in the apartment’s living room grabbed an eight-foot-long table laden with bottles of liquor and glasses, and heaved it up into the air. Shards of glass-strewn detritus were strewn across the floor. Tempers boiled. And Mailer kept moving between his 12th-floor apartment and the sidewalk outside, where his constant fighting with anyone he could pummel spilled into the street, again and again.

Sensing real danger, George Plimpton exited early—later recalling: “I didn’t stay very long. Norman was out on Ninety-fourth Street. He was not in good shape at all.” Legendary Grove publisher Barney Rossett said: “I had never seen such a bad combination of people in my life . . . the hostility was all-pervasive.”

Shortly before dawn, with one or two-dozen guests still present, Mailer stumbled in from the street (where he’d been instigating fist-fights with others), demanding that the leftover guests line up in two separate rows—those “for him” and “against him.” His temper? He was crazed. He was incoherent. Extremely drunk and hostile. And at this time, Adele began taunting him about “having no balls”—“C’mon, you little faggot! Where’s your cojones?” Then she continued to holler accusations about his manhood and demanded to know: “Did your mistress cut them off?” Her insults about Mailer being a eunuch or a homosexual were intended to infuriate him. Mailer was a product of his times and gay men were commonly scorned. After Adele’s insults about Mailer’s manhood, she chided him for wearing a ruffled bullfighter’s shirt—now torn and bloodied.

Finally, as she yelled “Toro! Toro!” to further ridicule Mailer’s bullfighter fetish, their routine of making public displays of their distress hit bottom. In a blind rage, Mailer thrust with a pen-knife and in two striking blows, he stabbed Adele: First in her left breast, and then again in her back.

She crumpled to the floor. All the onlookers gasped. Bleeding profusely as she lay on the floor, Adele was circled time and again by Norman—who barked at others: “Leave her alone! Let the bitch die!” Ignoring Mailer, others attempted to help Adele.

Humes had left the party earlier to his apartment one floor below, and he was made aware of the stabbing. He called a friend named Dr. Conrad Rosenberg, who arrived shortly thereafter.  Humes later said: “Her face was pallid, she was in shock, but she was remarkably lucid . . . Adele was scared and also angry. But she was boozed, which kept her quiet and probably saved her life. The point of the knife had punctured the cardiac sac, but she was fully conscious.” Dr. Rosenberg arrived and soon an ambulance followed. After arriving at University Hospital, Adele insisted that she fell on shattered glass. The doctors and nurses knew she was lying.

Norman Mailer leans on the desk at the police station as he is booked on the charge of stabbing his wife, Adele, 35, in violent windup to a party in their West Side apartment. Credit: Walter Kelleher

Throughout that Sunday and the following week, a series of calculated efforts were made to say whatever was necessary and to do whatever most ensured that Mailer did not end up in prison. He was arrested when police confronted him as he left University Hospital, after visiting Adele.

Yet in an aftermath dominated by friends, family members, colleagues, and other enablers rallying to Norman, it became clear that he’d be “protected” and Adele, for all intent and purposes, was left to recover from her wounds and resume her life. Mailer briefly sat in jail, before being court-ordered to Bellevue for 17 days. In less than one month, he was back home. After plea bargaining was agreed to, Mailer’s reduced charges led to a suspended sentence and probation.

A network of obtuse, sexist, amoral sycophants closed ranks around Mailer. Unfortunately, Adele was complicit—opting not to press charges, mostly to keep the father of their two daughters from the likelihood of years in prison. Adele and Norman finally divorced in 1962.