MONICA, Calif. ó "The question is, then,"
Mike said, "what is evil?"
that is decided," Doyle said, "by the fellow
holding the gun."
Mamet wrote those words, the most recent of thousands he
has memorably placed into the mouths of hundreds of
characters of his own creation.
two men above are some of the colorful folks in his new
novel, "Chicago," a Prohibition-era tale of
murder and mystery, gangsters, love, friendship and
betrayal. It "stars" two hard-boiled reporters
for the Chicago Tribune and is peppered, as is all of
Mametís work, with hustling, humor and heartbreak.
And, of course, that distinctively fast, clever, edgy
dialogue that has come to be known as Mamet Speak.
Mamet speaks, saying, "I have thought about how my
life should end. Itís four oíclock in the morning. Iím
drinking bourbon, smoking Camels and playing the piano
in a Chicago whorehouse. That would be heaven."
prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright,
Oscar-nominated screenwriter-director and writer of many
books is in Santa Monica, Calif., a place that, for one
coming in from snow-clogged, icy Chicago, is a passable
rendering of heaven ó sun shining bright and
temperatures in the 70s.
is inside a multilevel townhouse that functions as an
office that he comes to five or six days a week. There
are guitars on the floor, a piano in the corner, art on
the walls, comfortable furniture and, among many
talismans of Chicago (old postcards, old button pins), a
small framed poster from Riverview, the bygone amusement
never know what Iíll do here when I walk in the
door," he says. "I get here about 10 and leave
late in the afternoon. Itís sort of magical. Iíll
screw around. Iíll write in my journal. Iíll write
letters. Iíll play the piano. Maybe I take a nap.
Maybe I wake up at four in the afternoon with all these
thoughts and characters in my head and ask myself, ĎNow
whatís all this?í and start to write. I really donít
understand any of it but it sure beats working."
and raised here, he worked a lot of jobs when he was
younger: actor, busboy at the London House and The
Second City, carpeting salesman, editor at Oui magazine,
cab driver Ö the list is a long one.
once he started writing seriously while attending what
he calls "hippie-dippie" Goddard College in
Vermont, he has never stopped. And he has been able to
sell a great deal of what he has written and make for
himself and his family a comfortable and rewarding life.
really am so fortunate to have discovered the career
that I have," he says.
so there is a new play sitting on the kitchen table:
"I was talking with my Broadway producer and he
said, ĎWhy donít you write a play about Harvey
Weinstein?í And so I did."
long ago and powerfully explored the matter of sexual
exploitation in his 1992 two-character play (later a
movie) "Oleanna." "I think about this a
lot now. I have a bunch of daughters, a young son,"
he says. "Every society has to confront the
ungovernable genie of sexuality and tries various ways
to deal with it and none of them work very well. There
is great difficulty when you are switching modes, which
we seem to be doing now. People go crazy. They start
tearing each other to bits."
on the table is the script for a film. He is adapting
the best-selling 2017 Don Winslow novel "The
Force," about a revered New York City cop caught in
a web of dirty drugs deals, racial tensions and
corruption, for a Fox film to be directed by James
is pleased, telling the Hollywood Reporter, "Davidís
work is a beacon of fierce originality, clarity,
mystery, economy and blunt masculine poetry."
author of the book is pleased, too, saying of Mamet that
"no one on the planet hears the sounds of the
film is set to be released March 2019. The play? To be
determined, though itís currently titled "Bitter
Wheat" and there has been great interest in the
lead role expressed by a Chicago stage legend who is now
a movie star.
most pressing conversational concern is the pile of
books stacked in one of the kitchen cabinets. They are
copies of that new novel, "Chicago," his first
in nearly 20 years but really a lifetime in the making.
is made up in part by some of those stories that we all
grew up with," he says. "I have always been
influenced by the cityís darker traditions, its
collective fondness for gangsters and con men. I realize
how physically close I have been to places where those
dark things happened ó the St. Valentineís Day
Massacre, the kidnapping of little Bobby Franks, the
Levee District ó and it was impossible for me not to
hear the echo of the past."
so we encounter in "Chicago" such people as Al
Capone and his associate Jake Guzik, the
African-American aviatrix Bessie Coleman, Nathan Leopold
and Richard Loeb (perpetrators of the "Crime of the
Century" for the murder the aforementioned Franks),
lawyer Clarence Darrow, North Side gang boss Dean OíBanion,
who ran a flower shop across the street from Holy Name
Cathedral, and his sidekick Samuel "Nails"
Morton, kicked to death by a horse in Lincoln Park.
most of the novelís major characters come from Mametís
imagination, his busy brain, and they started to come to
life on paper in this townhouse a couple of years ago.
day I just started writing a little bit, this Chicago
thing," Mamet says. "And when I finished I
said to Pam, ĎI donít know what this is. What do you
think of it?í"
is Pam Susemiehl, a delightful and protective woman who
has been Mametís assistant (a word that does not come
close to capturing the many facets of her job) for the
past 15 years. Sheís a child of Oak Lawn, the
University of Illinois and Columbia College, who also
has written screenplays and a play, none yet produced.
For a time she had worked as a newspaper photographer.
She liked the "little bit" Mamet gave her and
she told him so.
so he kept at the "Chicago thing," writing as
he has done on all his many projects, in longhand in
leatherbound journals and then transferring those words
onto paper by means of a manual typewriter before having
Susemiehl enter them into a computer.
does not use a computer. He has no website. No email.
Twitter is out of the question. He does not text.
he does write and by this stage he has a pile that
contains some 25 plays, including "Sexual
Perversity in Chicago," "American
Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross" (winner
of a Pulitzer Prize in 1984) and "Race";
nearly 50 films such as "The Verdict,"
"Wag the Dog" and "Hannibal," 20 or
so which he has also directed (among them "House of
Games," "Homicide," and "The Spanish
Prisoner"); a few TV shows and more than 20 books
ó collections of essays, nonfiction and novels.
has never been anything but fun, except when itís a
pain in the ass," he says. "It is easy for me
to write scenes. The problem with this novel was to take
those scenes and craft them into a book, to cobble them
he finishing "cobbling" "Chicago,"
he was pleased. But it says a great deal about the
screwy state of the book publishing business that Mamet
had difficulty finding an agent who would handle his
novel. Eventually he did find David Vigliano, who
suggested some minor revisions and then quickly sold the
book to Custom House, a division of William Morrow. The
vice president and editorial director of Custom House is
Geoff Shandler, long a fan of Mametís movie and
theater work. He calls this a novel "rich with
drama, violence, sleight of hand, and interrogation, and
scarce with innocence and innocents."
the book Mamet thanks Vigliano, "without whom the
book would not have been published."
also thanks Susemiehl, writing, "this book would
not have been written without (her) enthusiasm and
book, set to be released Tuesday, is a great novel, sure
to draw favorable comparisons to the work of Elmore
Leonard or George V. Higgins. It will also put some in
mind of Mametís work on "The Untouchables,"
the 1987 movie for which he wrote these memorable words
for actor Sean Connery, who won the Academy Award as
best supporting actor in the film: "You want to get
Capone? Hereís how you get him. He pulls a knife, you
pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you
send one of his to the morgue! Thatís the Chicago
hope people like it," he says. "But I am not
anxious or nervous. I stopped reading reviews of my work
a long time ago." That is probably a wise thing,
for in recent years reviewers have not been kind to his
last couple of plays ("China Doll," a 2015
Broadway production starring Al Pacino, and 2017ís
"The Penitent," also in New York) or to some
other writings (2011ís book "The Secret
Knowledge," which a few critics deemed his drift
into right-wing politics).
he writes and writes. "Plays, movies, novels. Ö
They really have nothing to do with one another, though
some of the skills are transferable," he says.
"A play is actually a poem, a poem written in
different voices. A movie is like a comic book, an
exhibition of pictures. In a novel it is the challenge
to match the content with the form."
conversation Mamet is thoughtful, smart and funny,
filled with stories about all the people he has known
ó from boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini to mob
hit men, Studs Terkel and the late John Mahoney, who
began his acting career in a Mamet play and about whom
Mamet says, "A lovely guy. But he never did master
that Chicago accent."
laughs easily, eats lunch nearly every day at a nearby
Italian restaurant where he is greeted warmly by the
owner and the busboy, and at the end of every office day
he goes home to his wife. She is the British-American
actress-singer Rebecca Pidgeon. They were married in
1991 at a place called Stillington Hall, overlooking
Gloucester Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in Massachusetts.
The two have worked together often, Pidgeon appearing in
such Mamet films as "The Spanish Prisoner,"
"The Winslow Boy" and "Heist." Her
marvelous 2012 album, "Slingshot," has a song
co-written with Mamet called "Baby Please Come Home
Again." Her latest release, "Bad Poetry,"
came out in 2014 and she is working on a new one.
coupleís two children are Clara, who is 23 and a
musician and actress, and Noah, recently off to college
in Utah. The parents are empty nesters now, if you donít
include the relatively new pair of standard poodles that
gambol around their spacious house and large yard a
couple of Santa Monica miles away from the office
donít go out much. "We see friends, once, twice,
three times a year. Maybe music once in a while,"
Mamet says. "We really love just hanging out
children with his first wife, actress Lindsay Crouse, to
whom he was married from 1977 to 1990, are 36-year-old
Willa, a photographer and singer, who has long performed
with Paul Miller and lives in Oakland, and Zosia, the
30-year-old actress most would know from her work on the
HBO series "Girls."
he talks of his kids he does so with palpable pride and
affection, his sentences peppered with such words as
"great kid," "doing amazing things"
has not always been so joyful. He and his younger sister
Lynn, a writer/producer with whom he is currently
estranged, were born and raised in the Hyde Park and
South Shore neighborhoods, the children of labor
attorney Bernie Mamet and his wife Lenore (Lee). It was
a rocky childhood for both ó "not a bundle of
laughs," Mamet has said, though he rarely likes to
detail his early years ó and the couple divorced in
eventually moved in with his dad and new wife, Judy, on
the North Side, where he spent his last few high school
years at Francis Parker. "I was a terrible student,
always cutting class and going down to the main library
to read books all day, going to the Clark Theater to
watch movies. There was a freedom to explore the city
when I grew up."
went off to college and then came home for a few years
to launch his theatrical career. After the success of
"American Buffalo" in New York in 1977 he was
gone for keeps, since living in many places, including
Vermont, Boston, New York and California.
is where he celebrated at his home his 70th birthday on
Nov. 30 with such old friends as actors Joe Mantegna,
Bill Macy, J.J. Johnston and Jack Wallace, and his wife
was a great time. Lots of laughter," he says.
"Sometimes I feel old. Sometimes I donít."
doesnít look old. He looks California healthy. He
walks. He does yoga. Heís a black belt in jiu-jitsu.
He still makes waves, as in his recent threat to slap a
$25,000 fine on any theater that holds post-performance
discussions of his plays.
will be back in his hometown later this week for a
couple of book-related events: a March 1 luncheon
conversation with me at the Union League Club, followed
that evening by a similar Humanities Festival
presentation with my colleague, theater critic Chris
Jones. Friday itís all family, with a dinner at the
high-rise apartment of Mametís stepmom Judy.
talk to Judy all the time," Mamet says, adding that
he keeps in touch with the three children that she and
his dad had; his step-siblings Julie, a health care
professional in San Francisco; Bob, a jazz recording
artist and performer based in Chicago, and Tony, and
singer/songwriter in Los Angeles.
the menu will be chicken and beef. Some bourbon will be
served. A piano might be played.
is always a pleasant jolt for me when I go home,"
is sitting at the piano now ó he started lessons when
he was 4 in the Fine Arts Building and has kept at it
ever since, so capably that he is never reluctant to
perform in public as he did when he played with Woody
Allenís band in New York ó as the afternoon drifts
is only music in the room for a while as he watches his
fingers move across the keys. Then Mamet speaks:
"Whenever I get back home I say to myself, ĎWhy
did I ever leave?í"