He was -- quintessentially -- Norman Mailer.
Effie Bathen/The Gazette
Norman Mailer visited Rockville to accept the fifth annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award Saturday night at Montgomery College.
The novelist, who has tangled with feminists, presidents, generals, the press and his peers, did what everyone was hoping he'd do: he gave the audience gathered for the fifth annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference the pure, concentrated essence of himself.
And they loved it.
Despite the fact that he had told a metropolitan-area reporter a few days before that the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award -- which was bestowed upon him Saturday night as part of the event -- was "not an overwhelming award," conference-goers gave him two standing ovations.
"I think he did a fantastic job," said John O. Moser, co-chairman of the literary conference committee with Donald L. Boebel.
"We are absolutely delighted to get him to come to us," Moser had said prior to the event. "We tried to get him in 1996 but he couldn't make it."
Previous winners of the Fitzgerald Literary Award were E.L. Doctorow (1999), Joyce Carol Oates (1998), John Barth (1997) and William Styron (1996).
While presenting the award, U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella took a good-natured jab at Mailer's stance on feminism and his opinion that women are ill-suited for the White House.
Mailer laughed, then began his acceptance speech by telling the crowd: "I promise not to grouse too much."
Nonetheless, he grumbled just enough to please the audience, imitating such friends as Truman Capote and Dorothy Parker, speaking in the third person about himself, and comparing American writers to athletes.
"Most major American novelists are absolutely as competitive as American athletes," he said. "We are very critical when we read each other."
Mailer confessed to the audience that Fitzgerald was not his favorite writer.
"I loved him, but I didn't revere him as I revered the others," he said, referring to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
"As I started to think about it, however, I realized Fitzgerald had more effect on me than I thought he had," Mailer said.
Mailer's well-respected novel "Armies of the Night," for example, was written about himself, in the third person, as Fitzgerald wrote of himself in so many of his works.
Mailer, 77, knew he wanted to be a writer from the time he was 8 years old, he said during a brief interview after his presentation. When he was at Harvard, he won a short story contest at the end of his sophomore year and said he knew at that moment that he was a good writer.
"Then my family also believed," he said.
So he began writing in earnest.
During the post-conference interview, Mailer said he is working on "one big book" right now, but declined to give further details.
Mailer has won two Pulitzer Prizes (1969 and 1980), is co-founder of the Village Voice in New York, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City.
With all that behind him, he said smiling, he wants to be remembered as a novelist, "because I write fiction."
A host of award-winning writers, musical composers and poets -- the famous and the aspiring --gathered Saturday and Sunday at Montgomery College for the Fitzgerald literary conference named for Rockville's adopted son.
It opened with a discussion entitled "Fitzgerald and Biography" by Scott Donaldson, literary biographer and retired professor of English at the College of William and Mary.
The event then moved into the musical realm with the addition of lyricist Murray Horwitz, who joined composer and librettist John Harbison to write "The Great Gatsby as an Opera."
Harbison, who was delayed in Chicago due to bad weather, took part in the conference by telephone.
Horwitz, vice president of cultural programming at National Public Radio, is the originator and co-writer of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Ain't Misbehavin."
Harbison also has written two well-known operas, "A Winter's Tale" and "A Full Moon in March," as well as string quartets, symphonies, concertos and the Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata, "The Flight Into Egypt."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of "The Great Gatsby" and "The Beautiful and the Damned," among many novels and short stories, is a cherished figure in the state and especially in Rockville.
The Minnesota native spent childhood summers with relatives in the Rockville area and wrote some of his most well-respected works while living in Maryland.
He, his wife Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, and their daughter Scottie are buried with other relatives at historic St. Mary's Church cemetery in Rockville.
The conference originated in 1996 as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the writer's birth on Sept. 24, 1896. It has grown into an event that attracts seasoned and aspiring writers, respected educators and lovers of literature. Fitzgerald's granddaughters and other close, personal friends have taken part in the conference in previous years.
The annual short story contest drew over 300 submissions this year, and the high school short story contest, initiated just two years ago, drew 80 entries.
James Mathews of Gaithersburg won first prize in the adult contest. Runners-up included Elysia Whisler of Manassas, Va., Julie Langsdorf of Potomac and Thomas Bligh of Columbia.
In the student contest, Rachel Gatwood of Silver Spring, who is homeschooled, took first place and a runner-up prize. Runners-up included Anne E. Pinto of Bethesda, a student at Stone Ridge School, and Milla Lindqvist of Gaithersburg, a student at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.