Remembering Peter Manso, biographer of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando

His interviews of celebrities and politicians like Ed Koch, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Roy Cohn made history.

Peter Manso, the author and journalist who wrote definitive biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, and whose interviews of celebrities and politicians like Ed Koch, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Roy Cohn made history, died of an apparent heart attack on April 7, in Truro, Massachusetts. He was 80, and, with his wife, Anna Avellar, commuted between homes in Truro, New York City and Berkeley.

A native New Yorker, Manso kept up a vital connection with Berkeley that began with graduate study in English literature at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. In 2003 he returned with Anna to live and write at a storied house on Vine Lane, in the Berkeley hills, while returning every summer to Cape Cod.

Manso was born on Dec. 22, 1940, in Manhattan. His father, Leo Manso, was a painter and collagist who taught at Columbia University and whose work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum and MOMA in New York. Manso’s mother, Blanche (Rosenberg) Manso was an expert dealer in Indian and Nepalese art. Peter grew up amid New York’s mid-century intelligentsia: Lionel and Diana Trilling were his parent’s friends and neighbors, and he liked to boast he attended an elementary school so progressive it made the famous “Little Red School House” look pink. In the ‘50s the family’s summers were spent in Provincetown, the old Portuguese fishing village on the end of Cape Cod that was becoming a staging ground for advanced mid-century American painting. Hans Hoffman was the local eminence, Robert Motherwell was a close family friend, and Peter crewed for Adolph Gottlieb. Manso often said that in those years Provincetown boasted more genius, artistic and literary, per acre than any other place on Earth.

Graduating from the New York High School of Art and Design at 16, Manso earned a B.A. at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, followed by an M.A. at Johns Hopkins, and continued with a stormy passage through the graduate English Department at UC Berkeley, where he began a Ph.D. dissertation on Norman Mailer, which was never submitted.

Working across the river from New York as an assistant professor at Rutgers University in 1969, Manso joined Norman Mailer’s tumultuous run for mayor of New York on a ticket with newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. Manso wrote the campaign’s position papers, later collected in his first book, Running Against the Machine: The Mailer-Breslin Campaign, which called for, among other things, New York City becoming the 51st state and a ban on automobiles.

Manso had a passion for fast cars

Manso’s first and most enduring passion was fast cars. As a teenager, he’d assemble and disassemble engines in his bedroom, and he dreamed of one day designing them. Over the years, he drove a succession of Porsches down Route 6 on Cape Cod and across the country, setting imaginary speed records as he went. In France, he became a friend of “Jimmy” Baldwin and an expert on Grand Prix Formula One racing. Out of this passion came Vroom!! Conversations with Grand Prix Champions in 1969, followed by Faster: Diary of a Race Car Driver, which he co-authored with Jackie Stewart in 1970, along with the award-winning Grand Prix docudrama, “One by One.” In 2021 he was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame in Daytona Beach, Florida, which saluted the life of “the bestselling author and superb motorsport journalist.” At his death, Sir Jackie sent condolences.

Manso’s first biography was on Norman Mailer

In 1985, Manso, known for his exhaustive interviews, wrote a lively biography of Norman Mailer, Mailer: His Life & Times, authorized by Mailer himself and based on stories from Mailer’s vast array of friends, foes, relatives, rivals and lovers, most of whom Manso had been directed to by Mailer. While Mailer later claimed to have broken off relations because he disliked the biography, Manso plausibly said that their friendship did not survive their “lunatic” decision to buy and “split down the middle” a large, but, as it turned out, not large enough, waterfront house in Provincetown. It was a complicated transaction, subsidized on Mailer’s part by a loan from a publisher brokered by New York fixer and McCarthy committee counsel Roy Cohn, whom Manso had interviewed for “Penthouse.” Rightly anticipating that he and Mailer would never reconcile, Manso added a long and critical “Afterword” to Mailer for a new edition in 2008.

Manso later wrote about Marlon Brando

Nine years after Mailer, Manso published his most detailed and ambitious book, Brando: The Biography, based on exhaustive interviews with Marlon Brando and with sources who had known Brando at every step of his legendary career. Manso mixed first-hand stories with details from his Brando interviews, re-creating, among other things, Brando’s account of his preparation for each of his major roles, supplying a unique history of Brando’s evolving creative process.

It was inevitable that after Brando came out, its formerly cooperative subject would find the less-than-heroic description of his personal life in conflict with his loftier self-perception and denounce the very book that made the highest claim for his creativity. On national TV, during his book tour, Manso then described Brando as “a living American tragedy,” leading to Brando’s authorizing a morose, self-pitying autobiography for which Random House paid the actor a $5 million advance.

Now it seems clear that between the nearly 2,000 pages of the two biographies, Manso crafted a documentary history of Cold War culture—literary and theatrical divisions—from the 1940s to the 1990s, as told by a host of witnesses: theater people, politicians, movie stars and bit players, directors, critics, writers and artists, ex-wives, lovers and old enemies in their relation to these two notorious American culture-heroes.

And Manso was nothing if not an American, who never lost his belief that the ongoing tumult of national mythologizing can be settled, once and for all, with the good guys and the bad guys defined for all time by the light of triumphant prose. Writers compelled by that desire will always have a lot of work to do.

Interviews with politicians and celebrities made history

In print media’s last golden age of lavish expense accounts and riotous publication parties, Manso was a prolific and sought-after contributor to Playboy, Penthouse, Premiere, Vanity Fair and other big-time publicity magazines. His articles were translated into French for the newsweekly Paris Match, and Manso was delighted that a cover story on John F. Kennedy, Jr., displayed a photo of the young man posing bare-chested. JFK Jr., seeking to publicize his new magazine George, seemed not to mind the exposure, but Ed Koch, hoping to become governor of New York in 1982, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had the same ambition in California in 2003, were not so fortunate in their encounters with the demon interviewer.

Days after Koch announced his candidacy, Playboy published a Manso interview in which Koch derided the “sterile” suburbs and belittled the hicks who lived upstate and wore “Gingham dresses or Sears, Roebuck suits. . . This rural American thing—I’m telling you, it’s a joke,” said the mayor. Supporters recoiled, and Koch was drubbed by Mario Cuomo.

Twenty years later, Schwarzenegger, running to replace Governor Gray Davis, was momentarily disconcerted by a Manso interview in Oui, in which his younger self blithely confessed to engaging in group sex and indulging in marijuana and hashish. As the New York Times reprised the episode: “Confronted with the article, Mr. Schwarzenegger explained that he was 29 at the time, and, as an actor, had no intention then of pursuing a political career.”

In 1999, Manso returned to Berkeley to reconnoiter the power struggle between the national board of the listener-supported Pacifica radio network, based in New York, and the staff and volunteers at KPFA, its flagship station, over employment practices, programming, and, most crucially, control of the station’s 59,000-watt signal. Manso’s presence at a 10,000-strong protest outside KPFA’s studios in downtown Berkeley was duly noted in the press. Years later, Manso did preliminary interviews for a book about radical politics in Berkeley, a project which now remains only as a tantalizing might-have-been.

His next two books were about Cape Cod

Peter Manso on a sailboat near Provincetown. Credit: Manso’s family

The author’s next two books were set in what he liked to call “my Cape Cod”; each got a tempestuous reception in the Boston area. Advance copies of Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape (2002) were eagerly passed by hand weeks before the book became the No. 1 best seller in New England. A New York Times piece titled “Dockside Confidential” detailed the scandalized reaction of locals, among them “former hippies,” who had prospered from catering to later, more gentrified arrivals.

“In addition to depicting Provincetown as an artists’ colony and bastion of free-thinking being ruined by wealthy home buyers, most of them gay,” the Times explained, “Ptown includes characterizations of local residents that are unsparing to say the least.”

The executive director of the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, who compared the book to a “hate crime,” said, “I actually wanted to call the chief of police.” Manso, though not one to mince words, always replied that his intended enemy was gentrification, not sexual preference.

In 2005, Manso stirred up another, more furious controversy with his strenuous advocacy on behalf of Christopher McCowan, a 36-year-old Black garbage collector accused of murdering his apparent sex-partner Christa Worthington, 46, a Vassar graduate who had come from an old Yankee family and had written for Vogue and other fashion magazines. She was discovered fatally knifed at her small Truro beach house, with her 2-year-old daughter still trying to suckle at her breast. When McCowan was indicted three years later, Manso, armed with a book advance, virtually appointed himself to the defense team, sharing his findings as he went along, while accusing Cape Cod prosecutors and law enforcement of near-criminal conduct, including a quick dismissal of the local gang chief and drug dealer whom McCowen tabbed as the real murderer. In interviews, including regular commentary on Court TV, and later, in his book Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod and the Trial of Chris McCowen, Manso indicted the prosecution and the entire Cape for Southern-style “endemic racism.”

The 2020 documentary, Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, directed by Ivy Meeropol, granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn prosecuted, was based in part on Manso’s archive of 18 hours interviewing Cohn in the 1980s. Manso consulted on the film and also appeared on camera as an unusually definitive commentator. He had no illusions about Cohn … or, ultimately, any of his illustrious subjects.

He pondered writing book on Berkeley’s radical politics

In Berkeley, Manso and Anna lived not quietly but more quietly than he did on the Cape. They liked to cook gourmet dinners for friends, which Peter usually tried to turn into symposia. A year ago, they decided to ride out the pandemic in Truro, and that was where Peter, in seeming good health, died suddenly one morning while Anna was out shopping for groceries.

At 80, Manso was full of energy and plans, including another true crime TV documentary set on the Cape, the unsolved mystery of the still-unidentified “Lady of the Dunes,” for which he was collaborating with his godchild, Michael Mailer, the novelist’s oldest son. Manso was looking forward to a retrospective of his father’s paintings and collages at the Provincetown Museum of Art this coming July.

Manso’s long-time editor at Penthouse, Peter Bloch, wrote: “I was lucky enough to have a job that paid me to meet and work with writers like Peter—but in truth, there were no others like him.” Tom Goldstein, former dean of the graduate schools of journalism at UC Berkeley and Columbia University, who is now dean at the Jindal School in New Delhi, recalled: “A friendship with Peter was hard to maintain, but his friendship was worth it. Beneath his gruff, tough-guy exterior resided a kind and generous gentleman.” His friend and Provincetown neighbor Eugene Fedorko said fondly, “Manso was funny, he was jaded, he was hilarious. He was a supernova among the rest of us fireflies.”

Peter Manso will be missed and mourned by his loving wife Anna Avellar, who brought two stepsons into his life, Anson and Chad, and two grandchildren, much-loved by Peter, and by Peter’s younger brother, Victor, for whom Peter served as father more than brother.