Five days prior to my interview with Lawrence Schiller, I revisited the last 600 pages of The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s “true-life novel”.
This lengthy work was about Gary Gilmore, a notorious criminal who committed two murders in Utah in 1976, and who was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1977, thus ending the ten-year ban on capital punishment in the US.
The narrative of Gary Gilmore has been known to the public since it was featured on a national level. Lots of people are familiar with it thanks to The Executioner’s Song which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 and the book by his brother Mikal Gilmore, a Rolling Stone journalist, namely Shot in the Heart. Additionally, Matthew Barney’s movie Cremaster 2, starring Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini, has also given an interpretation of the Gary Gilmore tale.
Lawrence Schiller was a major character in the latter half of the book, and many are unaware that he was the one who pursued the story, purchased the life rights of Gilmore, and enlisted Norman Mailer as the writer.
He spent countless hours speaking to the people featured in the book, but could not write it himself – as he put it – “due to my lack of knowledge and writer’s vocabulary.” An unfavourable review of one of his previous books caused him to question if he could get across the emotional and spiritual complexities of the people he was telling the story of. Despite this, he still travelled to Utah, investigated Provo, bought confidence in himself, and even witnessed Gilmore’s execution.
Norman Mailer was not acquainted with Gary Gilmore before Gilmore’s execution. He used more than fifteen thousand pages of transcripts, followed by a trip to Utah to observe the area and talk to the mothers of the victims. This atypical arrangement resulted in Lawrence Schiller owning half the copyright of the book.
When I read Norman Mailer’s _The Executioner’s Song, Lawrence Schiller was portrayed as a barracuda and a hustler. But what was the real Schiller like?_
I had the opportunity to meet Schiller when I was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he currently serves as the director of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. Schiller had been witness to some pretty iconic moments in history such as Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s death march, Gary Gilmore’s execution and Marilyn Monroe’s nude float in the pool. He had also received advice from Bette Davis and Otto Preminger. Furthermore, it so happens that he lived across the street from O. J. Simpson.
— Suzanne Snider’s idea
The concept put forth by Snider is that individuals should have the power to control their own lives and make their own decisions. They should be able to choose their own paths and be free to live the lifestyle that best suits them. Everyone should be given the opportunity to make the choices that will best benefit them.
I heard that it was your idea to have Joan Didion write The Executioner’s Song initially.
Lawrence Schiller initially hired Barry Farrell, a friend of his, as a “corner man” to provide guidance during the intense interview process. He was not confident in his own intellectual abilities and felt that he may be missing something. Barry Farrell was supposed to be the writer for what became Executioner’s Song, but Schiller said he wasn’t going to. Interestingly, Barry’s closest friend was Joan Didion.
It became clear to me that I should not approach Joan as Barry might do me harm. Thus, I decided to visit Norman. I figured he would be able to empathize with me as he had stabbed his wife in the past. I am sure you recollect that particular incident. Norman composed the book Executioner ‘s Song, mostly using my ideas and his own research.
Did you ever inform Joan Didion that she was in your thoughts as a potential writer for the New York Times review?
At last, she comprehended it.
BLVR: How do you feel about the way Norman depicted you in the novel? Do you feel it’s an accurate representation?
I’ve dealt with more challenging issues than this.
Do you acknowledge your own identity?
Love and war both require a level of fairness; it’s only right.
BLVR: Did Norman have independence to compose whatever he desired?
At his memorial service, I recounted how LS and I had a major falling out when he influenced the opinion of someone I was interviewing. We didn’t speak to each other for almost a year until he sent me a fax that said, “If I knew I would have to kiss your ass, I would never have shaved.” After that, I called him and spoke the words, “Hello, lover,” and our communication resumed.
BLVR: How would you characterize your connection after that event?
By the time Executioner ‘s Song was finished, our working relationship had grown to the point where it felt like the two of us were rowing a canoe. We both had the difficult task of interviewing the widows of the [murder victims], but we managed to get through it. Our oars had finally found the same rhythm. When the project was complete, we had a strong understanding of how we both served each other so well.
BLVR: When conducting fieldwork in an unfamiliar city, like Provo, how does it make you feel? Do you feel a sense of excitement or do you experience loneliness?
LS: To me, loneliness isn’t an issue. Quite the opposite, it’s more like I’m taking a leap into an infinite abyss, and I’m not sure when or if I’ll reach the bottom. I’m so focused on my task that I’m unaware of anything else.
BLVR: I’m looking for an exact description of the materials provided when you presented your research to Norman Mailer.
LS: I did not simply hand something over; instead, I imparted twenty-four thousand pages of transcripts from my interviews to him. I kept up my questioning afterwards, and, perusing my work, he noticed something that was unlike his past experiences. He saw the material a novelist usually has to come up with, yet this time it was genuine. He grasped the personalities of all of them.
I never plan out my interviews, but rather let them flow in an organic manner. At times, they have lasted for extended periods of time. I’m often quite direct in my inquiries, and have been informed by many of my subjects that I’m not a therapist.
At times, I put people to the test. In ES, I ultimately spoke with Nicole [Baker, who was the focus of Gary’s complicated love] and I was determined to find out what made her go out in Midway to sleep with other men. What had [her ex-husband Jim] Barrett said to her? She refused to answer, so I gave her a piece of paper and said, “If you can’t say it, write it.”
Norman agreed to omit a section of her response for my biography, and it was an incredible remark. She had said, “Barrett informed me that making love to me was like making love to the wind.” Even a novelist could create a character based on this line as it portrayed everything about Barrett and women….Everything!
To get people to invest their time with you, you have to make them understand that they owe it to the past. Oftentimes, they may respond with a negative reaction.
Between crafting The Executioner’s Song and his leadership of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, Schiller wrote multiple commercial successes. He then went on to win an Academy Award for his movie The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975). Before that, he had a career in photography, selling one of his nude images of Marilyn Monroe to Hugh Hefner in 1962 – at the time, it was the most expensive photograph ever purchased. Additionally, he collaborated with W. Eugene Smith on the book Minamata, depicting the effects of mercury poisoning in Japan.
In Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer mentioned that one of your eyes wasn’t functioning correctly, but I can’t observe any such disability.
LS: My left eye has very limited vision. I’ve been registered as legally blind in that eye since I was seven, but the pupil remains intact. When I was a kid, I looked up into a dumbwaiter and noticed a woman tossing down an umbrella.…
BLVR: But then you embarked upon a career as a photographer….
LS: I was unaware that I had dyslexia until later in life, because I couldn’t read when I was young. I was so embarrassed that I would flee from classes. My father was a retail seller and portrait photographer during World War II and he gave me an East German camera called an Exakta when I was in the tenth grade.
At a young age, my brother and I were both achieved tennis players (I was slim). However, when my sibling outplayed me in the eleven-and-unders, I chose to quit sports (he went on to become a top-rated tennis competitor). I moved my focus to photography and became a successful sports photographer at an early age.
At fourteen, I had acquired the skills to be a runner-up, third, fourth, and fifth in the Graflex Awards, which consequently gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Andy Lopez of the Acme News Service during the summer of my eleventh grade.
I began to publish my photos from the death march of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from Union Square to Knickerbocker Village as a young person and my ego became disproportionate. To avoid revealing my age, I concealed it from the global media outlets. Jacob Deschin, a writer for the New York Times, said I was an expert at sixteen, while I was still in high school. Upon my college graduation, I was awarded the National Press Photographers Picture of the Year award.
BLVR asked what the image was.
LS: Nixon’s defeat of Kennedy, a tear rolling down his wife’s cheek, was the event that made me realize I wasn’t a great photographer. Even so, I saw myself as a hard-working individual. My camera was like a sponge, and I had the same ability as an athlete to predict what was coming. That’s what photography is all about; the anticipation of what could come next and being ready for it. At the age of twenty-two, I was driving a Mercedes, which was great in some ways, but it made me a bit unbearable in others.
BLVR: Who did you hear that from?
LS claimed that he was written up in Newsweek and other magazines worldwide, but he refused staff positions at these publications since he wanted to maintain the copyright of his photos. At times he’d respond to the magazines emotionally, such as when he photographed Marilyn Monroe in a swimming pool, and he’d demand five times the usual fee since he had not been assigned other work he desired.
At the end of the ’70s, I realized that the magazine business was ending as the advertising money was being moved to television. We were no longer the teachers of the world. To try and revive the industry, I proposed a project in 1972 that featured the works of twenty-four different photographers who had taken pictures of Marilyn Monroe. I suggested to a publisher that they should get either Gloria Steinem or Norman Mailer to write the text and the covers of Life and Time magazines would be released the same week. Eventually they chose Norman Mailer.
BLVR queried if that had been their initial joint effort.
LS: To provide some background, I had not read nor gone to school ten years prior. Instead, I was photographing Playmates for Playboy in the home of my college’s president. I had a D+ average in high school and Pepperdine was the only institution that accepted me with those grades. William Randolph Hearst granted me a four-year scholarship for journalism. In 1962, I began to self-educate. For every subject I studied, I interviewed sources thoroughly and often had them stay in my home for six months while I interviewed them every day and recorded their conversations. This enabled me to develop a unique style. In 1968, after I had written a feature on LSD for Life magazine, a journalist interviewed me over the phone. When the journalist published a book based on that interview–
Was the individual in question Tom Wolfe?
LS: Absolutely. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test made me realize that you could craft a good story even if you weren’t physically present in the setting. So, the following week, I employed Albert Goldman to write Ladies and Gentlemen –Lenny Bruce!! which was the first book I published after 1969. I began to look for the best writers to work with and compose books based on my concepts, research, and conversations. A lot of people are aware of my relationship with Norman because he chose to make it public. I didn’t have any intention of doing that. Additionally, there are many renowned writers I have collaborated with…
BLVR: –apart from those instances which are generally recognized…
LS: Yes, I’ve had books published on a large scale that have my name on the copyright page, from authors such as Mailer and even more well-known ones from around the globe. I haven’t been successful all the time, however, I wasn’t averse to making contact with Bernard Malamud and telling him that I thought my work could be fitting for him as a writer.
BLVR: With the transformation of the photography industry, did you consider relocating? There has been a notable surge in demand and appreciation for fine art photography since the 70s. Will you come back to this field? There have been many exhibition events, correct?
LS stated that his exhibitions had been a combination of pride and a way to ensure his grandchildren’s future education was secure. He then recalled a story of a very wealthy man from a foreign nation who was being pursued by governments and the head of the Mafia. The man had asked to be photographed, with the reasoning that LS had photographed Marilyn Monroe. Despite this, LS said he charged a hefty sum, and that all the money had to go towards a charity for the misuse of donkeys in Israel. This seemed to surprise the wealthy man, as LS suggested.
BLVR: [ Giggles ] Is that what you came up with?
LS vehemently asserted that it was, in fact, true.
What made donkeys so special for BLVR?
LS: My wife’s an animal activist, and we had the opportunity to witness the maltreatment of donkeys in Egypt. We then got involved in a sanctuary in Israel, for which I was paid an exorbitant sum to take the portrait of an individual with a face like El Greco’s who had been run over by many trucks. I now only do photography if it’s a fun experience and for somebody else’s benefit. I don’t consider myself as good as the other photographers out there, both men and women. I admire Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, and the other photographers whose books were the first I published; I’m not on the same level as them.
Schiller’s initial interest in the Gary Gilmore story was not due to the death penalty, but rather an article he read about the romance between Gilmore and Nicole Barrett and the double suicide pact that failed. Throughout his career, Schiller had an affinity for the lurid and sensational, particularly those whose secrets were revealed in court cases. He authored books about JonBenet Ramsey (Perfect Murder, Perfect Town) and O. J. Simpson (American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense).
BLVR: Have you ever had a shift in opinion concerning a certain trial, like the JonBenet Ramsey one, in regards to someone you have written about being innocent or guilty?
When I wrote the book, I refused to speculate on who might have committed the crime. Joyce Carol Oates, in her review, reprimanded me for this. I was honored that she was reviewing my work, but I have never changed my opinion. O.J. Simpson is a murderer; my daughter used to babysit him and we lived across the street. I have had numerous arguments with him about spousal abuse. In jail, I shouted at him and proposed that if he was judged to be innocent he should use his platform to spread awareness about the dangers of spousal abuse. I asserted that he could help many people in this manner. His response to this was something along the lines of not having done anything. To which I replied, “Forget you, O.J.” Despite this, he continued to engage with me, but I still believe him to be a cold-blooded killer.
BLVR: Wasn’t he attempting to prevent it from being published in the end?
At the start, LS was threatened with legal action. However, when the film was created, LS was sued, but the court dismissed the case.
BLVR: I perused some depictions of the court scene in Anatomy of a Trial. The writer presented you, Joe McGinniss, and Dominick Dunne–it seemed like any author who composes about the legal system and wrongdoing was in that court. Where do you think you slot into that scene?
LS: Hmm… the least skillful and creative of all the writers. But the one that is truly the finest at selling Avon or Fuller Brush products…
BLVR: Your humility is remarkable considering everything you have achieved.
LS: During the interview, I’m demonstrating one of my skills, which you may or may not have noticed. This skill is to speak in a lower pitch than the person with whom I’m conversing. This creates a powerful atmosphere, something I was taught by the great lawyer Edward Bennett Williams in Washington D.C. when I was young.
I have learned a great deal from Otto Preminger, but Bette Davis was my most influential teacher. She would sit on the steps of her home, making predictions about my first divorce, which would come to pass 8 years later. Her words of wisdom still stay with me to this day. I’ve changed for the better over time, just as Norman has. He was a boxer in the 1960s and became a rabbi in the ’80s and ’90s. We both have gained weight, have heart problems, and take pills. I have had 5 stints and there is a defibrillator in the room and in my apartment. Thankfully, since my heart attack in 2002, we have not had to use it. I would much rather die during this interview than in a hospital like Norman Mailer did.
BLVR: Not in this conversation [knocks on wood as a gesture of good luck].
LS: Absolutely, I’m quite earnest about what I said. I’ve experienced a vast array of situations in my life, and that’s why it’s perplexing even to me. Now I take a seat and contemplate a dog and attempt to comprehend why it is not able to recognize the distinction between good and bad. Issues such as these occupy my thoughts. Why do some creatures not discern between right and wrong? I imagine that is something theologians ponder over. I’m unsure if that’s an indication of my present position.
BLVR: I’d like to discuss the idea of reciprocity with all the people you’ve interviewed previously. I understand you do compensate them for their time, based on what they normally receive… What about once the books are out? How is your relationship with them then?
Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow, Marina Oswald, is still in LS’s life, along with many other men. Nicole Barrett drove up in a truck five days ago and LS had dinner with her, and she is still in his life. People like Vern Damico don’t understand the business of it and can get confused. LS feels obligated to remain in the lives of people he has affected, unless they indicate otherwise. This has caused problems in his marriages, as his partners don’t like these people coming back into his life.
BLVR: Indeed, there have been a lot of initiatives, which has resulted in a great many people being involved.
In that living room, Robert Hanssen’s children were present alongside other family members and his closest friend. Even now, that friend remains in my life and one of his children also still is. I don’t interact with them for extended durations of time. I have as many enemies as those that have kept in my life. I guess it’s inevitable to make enemies and if one is as immature as I was for many years, even stronger enemies will be made.
Even though Schiller has written four New York Times best sellers, he’s hesitant to refer to himself as a writer. Currently, he’s taking the lead on a distinctly literary undertaking. At the writers’ colony he’s in charge of, Schiller has the aura of someone who doesn’t quite fit in. Provincetown is a world away from Hollywood, where he spends the remaining ten months of the year. He takes advantage of his status, which serves to spur him on in his role as a driven outsider with innovative problem-solving abilities. For example, when he was pushed out of the O. J. trial, he managed to weasel his way back in by joining the defense team.
Lawrence took me up to Norman Mailer’s workroom, noting that it had remained unchanged, with no dusting, since the day of his passing. On one side was a large Nautilus machine, and the area was furnished with two desks. One of these desks was piled up with Mailer’s final work.
Mailer’s standard process included faxing his handwritten pages to his secretary in New York, who typed it up and sent it back to Norris. When it was printed out, Norman edited it at a large dining-room table we were sitting at, looking out to the shore. The tabletop had his own scratches from a pencil to show he had been there. I was seated at the head of the table with Mailer’s markings to my right and Schiller on my left. On the porch, a set of poets-in-residence were working on a project with a critic from Oxford.
Schiller is aware of the challenge that he has faced, and will continue to face, of differentiating his own reputation from Mailer’s.
Norman Mailer was a rare individual. He had the ability to communicate and connect with everyone, no matter if they thanked him for it or not. He sent out about fifty thousand letters in his lifetime, with eight thousand of those letters coming from other writers. Of those, he made sure to answer six and a half thousand. He was passionate about helping young writers in any way he could.
He was never one to write the same way twice. It takes effort to refine one’s skill. The term intellectual is not something I’m familiar with. If I were to evaluate my ability to hold an intellectual discussion, it would rank very low.
What is your current connection to reading and writing?
LS: To read a book, I must take a trip across the globe and be entirely alone. The first book I wrote, Ladies and Gentlemen –Lenny Bruce!! by Albert Goldman, which was based on the journalism of Lawrence Schiller, achieved the status of a New York Times best seller. I am in awe of people who can create amazing nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, as I simply take in information. It was Norman who realized the specialness of my interview process. When his biography is written, people will understand what he noticed in me that I did not.
BLVR: What motivated you to hire these writers?
LS: I was intrigued by these tales, however, getting a book penned down was a component of a more extensive strategy. Initially, hunt for a narrative that is deep and has a broad appeal. Hope to discover a writer who shares the same interests as you. Secondly, once you have a finished manuscript and, with luck, a best-seller, search for the right screenwriter. Finally, with a good script, a film can be created.
BLVR: Are you still pursuing narratives?
LS: Pursuit is an apt word. I did chase stories in my life. I’m not as attentive to the news as I once was, but I still care. Financial stability isn’t as important to me now. A person has accused me of riding on Norman’s coattails, but Norris knows that’s not the case. People don’t know how involved I really was and perhaps they never will, and that’s alright. Everyone said that the colony could never become a reality, but I had it up and running within nine months.
I was informed that Don DeLillo had been present.
LS: Absolutely. I often reach out to people who typically don’t like to go out, and my opening line to them is always, “I need your help.”
Many individuals dislike my character, yet they recognize the potential in the accomplishments that I could accomplish.
BLVR: How is it to work on your own, since a lot of your projects involve engaging with others?
I’m not a one-man show; I surround myself with gifted individuals.
Do you ever carry out your work without any assistance?
LS: Could you provide an explanation of what it means to work by oneself?
Spending time in a solitary environment to compose writing.
LS stated that he had worked late into the night and woke up early, but was reminded of the interview when his phone alerted him. He admitted that although he works alone, he had contacted someone across the globe in the dead of night to check the spelling of a word due to the time difference; the person was located in Australia.
BLVR inquired as to what the word was.
No matter, I’m not scared! During dinner, I interrupted Christopher Ricks mid-sentence and asked, “What does this word mean, Chris?” Then, shortly after, I asked the same again with a different word. That’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.
BLVR: In what way will you determine if the colony is successful?
LS has experienced his own failures, such as when he overextended himself on a movie in Chernobyl and had to work to get out of bankruptcy in two years. Despite this, if writers can find something advantageous in the colony, then it is a success. He acknowledges that he has made mistakes in the past.
BLVR queried what type of schemes Norman had established for the colony.
LS reported that Norman had no financial resources and no life insurance. His family is not able to provide help financially. He rents this from the family, but the 501(c)(3) organization is completely independent. While some family members are on the board, they are completely independent. The biggest difficulty is that people don’t understand there is no money.
What was the motivation for this project to come to fruition?
LS recollects that when they were sitting in the same spot roughly half a year before Norris passed away, he told him, “Random House likes this book, so I’m trying to get it published quickly.”
He then added, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to the end of the year, Larry.” Not knowing what to say, he was met with silence. Shortly after, Norris said to him, “You’d better decide what is going to happen to this house and my legacy.” At the time, Norris was conversing with LS’s wife in the other room. Only four weeks later, he was in the hospital, saying he could hardly breathe, as the scar tissue was constricting his lungs.
When I encountered him in the hospital, a nurse walked in and posed the question, “Do you mind if I ask for some advice on writing, Mr. Mailer?” He replied by inquiring, “What are you doing this weekend?” She answered, “I’m sailing with my boyfriend.” He then said, “Write about your experience when you come back, and I’ll review it and offer you some guidance.” After ten days, she returned with her papers.
Despite having numerous IVs, he still took the time to review her manuscript. After a while, he gave it back to her, and she couldn’t stop looking at it while crying. This was the moment the foundation [for the colony] was established.
At his burial in Provincetown, I was standing with two other writers near the clock. One of them asked what would happen to Norman’s house. I said that I did not want it to be forgotten. Later, the idea of a writers’ colony came up.
I went upstairs to the room where Norman wrote and the following morning I asked Norris if she would be in favor of turning the house into a writers’ colony. She gave her approval and said she would support whatever I decided to do.
I invested some of my own money and reached out to Gunter Grass and Joan Didion for advice and to lend their reputations. After three days of phone calls, I had managed to get everyone on board. Not many people thought I would be successful. To learn the art of fund-raising, I contacted Tina Brown and asked to have breakfast together. My biggest obstacle was my personality, which didn’t lend itself to the task of raising money – it almost worked against it.
25 years ago, my disposition would have caused people to leave me. I wouldn’t have been able to lead this colony. At that time, my personality was in another place–I was in jails or the AG’s office.
I and Norman got into a nasty quarrel in Belarus. We exchanged blows and ended up tumbling down a staircase. We disagreed on the issue of bribing someone and whether we were being framed. Our opinions on the matter were different. People transform over time.
Have I overlooked anything that should have been asked?
LS: You failed to inquire about who I shared a bed with last night…
BLVR asked who the other person was that had shared a bed with them the previous night.
No one can be found.
BLVR inquired, inquiring as to what was to come next.
I do not plan out my actions; a lot of my projects remain incomplete. However, I consider this particular undertaking to be deserving of the effort I am putting in. This is because one person out of sixty is likely to gain a scholarship as a result. My grammar has improved significantly and I am now aware of the difference between there and their.
BLVR: How about giving us some information about you?
LS: I have been interviewed for two years, with a session every week lasting two hours, and a total of eight months dedicated to the project. The interviews are nearly finished. I have requested to not have the book published until after my death, so that the writer is completely unrestricted in what they can write.
BLVR: Was it you who selected the writer?
I have received multiple requests from numerous authors and I am granting complete access to just one of them.
BLVR: Is there a mystery here?
LS has come up with a title, I Survived My Mistakes, and some have seen a story in it. However, they cannot find a through-line in it and admit to being quite eclectic. They hope it is not episodic but would be content if someone could find a through-line.
Do you think that authors ought to be more varied in their pursuits? You have had an extensive career with many facets…
LS: It was definitely an unexpected turn of events. I’ve gone through marriage three and a half times, so I completely changed myself four times. I’ve essentially started over four times. Every day I try to learn something new and then I realize how many mistakes I’ve made in the past.
BLVR: It would be greatly appreciated if you would lend your signature to my edition of The Executioner’s Song.
It is Norman’s responsibility to sign it.
BLVR: [ My gaze falls upon the vacant chair beside me ] I would like for you to put your name on it.
LS stated that Norman’s name should not appear on the title page.
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