It is no great revelation that Norman Mailer, the irascible novelist, journalist and playwright who died in November, was a bit of a dog. He had six wives, one of whom he famously stabbed with a pen knife (or possibly a pair of kitchen scissors) and sired nine children. And now we are learning that for nine years until 1992 he was having regular sex on the side with a B-movie actress while married to wife number six.
Nor, in our celebrity preoccupied culture, should we be scandalised to learn that the woman in question, whose life story is also colourful if not quite inspiring, kept careful records of her meetings with Mailer and had it in mind for many years to cash in by selling them to the highest bidder, especially since they include panting descriptions of their carnal excursions together.
We are bidden, however, to salute the woman in question, whose name is Carole Mallory, for concluding a deal not just with anyone. She has sold the pervy papers – a collection of letters, writing tips Mailer gave her, as well as passages of writings of her own – to none other than Harvard University.
Here is where we might start a debate. Why would an institution such as Harvard succumb to the pecuniary ambitions of Ms Mallory, pleasant and persuasive though she may be? This is not an acquisition that has been hailed in America's literary journals. No, most of us became aware of it by glancing, as we do, through the scandal-mongering column inches of Page Six in the New York Post.
The source of the Page Six scoop was, of course, Ms Mallory herself, now 66, retired from her low-altitude modelling and Hollywood careers and living in a small town in Pennsylvania. (All right, she had a small part in The Stepford Wives and claims to have had more film-star boyfriends than the Queen has had corgis.) She took care to feed the Post writers all the juiciest bits of her Mailer portfolio.
Among the papers now in the hands of Harvard's esteemed curators is what Ms Mallory, who was 19 years younger than the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, described as a 20-page sex scene from an unpublished memoir she wrote called Making Love With Norman. "It's very steamy. Norman was a real man and he knew what he was doing." There is plenty more. In fact, Ms Mallory, who was carrying on her liaisons with Mailer while he was married to Norris Church, managed to put seven boxes of papers together, all now sold to Harvard. The university says it took possession of the materials last month. It has not disclosed how much it paid for them and nor, so far at least, has she. About her motivation, however, she is not coy. "I knew they were valuable and I wanted to have some more money."
The sessions apparently took on a comfortable routine. "We'd have a writing lesson, we'd make love and then go to lunch in whatever order that would be, and I saved all the writing lessons," she reveals. "I wanted him to teach me to be a writer. He was one of our greatest writers in America."
How successfully he imparted his skills to her we will soon find out since her trove also includes an unpublished novel of her own, edited by Mailer. When I Fall in Love, she says, is about "an Arab with an eye patch who really has 20/20 vision, but wears it to get sympathy. There's a long scene in that which is also based on our sex life. Norman dared me to write a 50-page sex scene, and he lost the bet."
In Mailer, she had surely found the best professor available, even if on the art of love-making he may or may not have had much to teach her. We might wonder because of a short biography she apparently contributed herself to the website whosdatedwho.com.
"During my active alcoholism I had affairs with many stars," she writes, reeling off such names as Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, Matt Dillon, Bobby De Niro, Richard Gere, Rod Stewart, Robin Williams and Anthony Hopkins. (No mention of Mailer oddly.) Back in the early Seventies she was allegedly also engaged for two years to Claude Picasso, son of Pablo. Seven years ago, she married a 33-year-old baker, Kenneth Bambone.
A giant of American letters, Mailer is the man who was credited with inventing the new genre of novelised journalism. His most famous works included The Armies of the Night, describing the 1968 anti-war march on the Pentagon, and The Naked and the Dead, praised by George Orwell as the best book ever written about the Second World War. His second Pulitzer Prize was for The Executioner's Song of 1979, which told the story of Gary Gilmore, the first man executed after capital punishment was reinstated by the US Supreme court three years earlier.
Famous for baiting women's libbers in the Seventies – as well as for occasional eruptions of temper and violence as when he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, during a party in 1960 – Mailer also never had any qualms about offering wildly descriptive, if sometimes clunky, sex scenes in his own writing, such as the one that turned into "a hard punishing session with pulley weights, stationary bicycle and 10 breath-seared laps round the track".
Today, Ms Mallory can still remember the most important principles that Mailer impressed on her about writing prose. They included keeping the dialogue punchy, staying away from adverbs and resisting the urge to lecture the reader.
When it comes to the tricky business of narrating sex is it possible that Ms Mallory will turn out to be rather more talented than he? It was soon after his death that Mailer was awarded the Literary Review's "Bad Sex in Fiction Award" last year for attempting to describe moments of heated intimacy between the parents of Hitler in his last novel, The Castle in the Forest. The judges were clearly swayed by Mailer's description of the male member in this interaction as being "as soft as a coil of excrement" and speaking of its owner standing "ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety".
More diligent research reveals that Ms Mallory does in fact have one book to her name, published in the late Eighties when she and Mailer were in full swing. The few kind cover blurbs it received were presumably his doing. "Fun and dirty," proclaimed Dominic Dunne, "smart and sexy" said Gloria Steinem. Mailer himself chose "wicked and funny".
Called Flash, the book follows the travails of Maya, a startlingly randy young starlet who finds satisfaction revealing herself to men before having sex with them. A slut by anyone's measure, Maya achieves stardom but never finds real love. In the same year, Ms Mallory also made the front cover of Parade magazine in the US with a story about her own recovery from alcoholism. How much of this has been the subject of inquiry at Harvard we do not know. No matter, because Mailer studied at Harvard, gaining a degree in aeronautical engineering, and the university was disappointed when he decided to sell his own papers to the University of Texas for $2.5m three years ago. Now at least its library will have something of one of its more famous graduates.
"It's important to have Mailer represented in some way in the collection," insisted its spokeswoman, Beth Brainard, perhaps sensing that the acquisition would be considered off-colour by some. Primarily responsible for the transaction is Leslie Morris, Harvard's curator of modern books and manuscripts. The Crimson, the campus newspaper, reports she is getting "ticked off" by the media's preoccupation with the torrid parts of the trove. "When we acquire collections of material, there often is sex in it because people are human beings," she suggested. "It is very weird to have a completely sexless collection. What we are interested in here is not sex, but how writers write."
Robert Scanlan, an English professor at the university, approves. "It is always an extraordinarily important thing for any large resource centre to get hold of the literary remains of anybody of that stature," he said. Recalling Mailer, who was his friend, he added: "Sexual content, racy language, obscene language are definitely a major part of his career as an author."
Perfectly unabashed meanwhile is Ms Mallory herself who notes that she waited until after her former lover's death before putting the papers on the market out of respect for his family. (Never mind that the deceived wife is still living.) And if we focus on the naughty bits then that is quite fine with her. "I don't believe in shame," she said. Mailer, we can only hope, would agree.