Tough Guys Don’t Dance: Norman Mailer's Encounter With Frank Costello

Tough Guys Don't Dance, Norman Mailer's 1984 homage to the hard-boiled artwork of authors like Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, gets its title from an anecdote about mob boss Frank Costello that someone once told the legendary American author.

Norman Mailer novel

One of our favorites, the novel also is one of the more accessible works by Mailer, which doesn't necessarily mean it's easy reading. Tough Guys Don't Dance is a brilliant, stunning, hypnotic work that gets deeply inside your head. It grows even more astonishing when you learn how quickly Mailer banged the novel out, and for what reasons.

Mailer, who died in 2007, supposedly wrote the book because "economic problems were pressing." He needed to either come up with a book for his publisher in sixty days, or he'd need to repay a huge amount of money that he didn't have.

Set in Provincetown on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Tough Guys Don't Dance tells the story of Timothy Madden, a frustrated writer/convict who wakes up one morning with the worst hangover of his life, a tattoo, and large gaps in his memories of the previous evening. But when he finds a significant quantity of blood in his car and a woman’s severed head in his marijuana stash in the woods near his house, he realizes that amnesia is not an option: he must find out who put him in the frame for murder.

In the introduction to Tough Guys Don't Dance, Mailer thanks Roger Donoghue, the prizefighter who went to Hollywood to tutor the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, for telling him the anecdote that resulted in the title, but Mailer never revealed the anecdote itself. It's a joke, actually.

In 1961, Donoghue visited Mailer in Provincetown. (Mailer was something of a boxer himself; much later in life, he was paid $100,000 by Ron Howard for serving as a consultant on Cinderella Man, the film with Russel Crowe. Mailer, who was widely panned as a misogynist in the 1970s, wore many hats.) But getting back to 1961, sometime during that trip, Mailer introduced Donoghue to the woman who became his wife and Donoghue told Mailer the following joke:

One evening Frank Costello, the mob boss, and a very beautiful woman went to the Stork Club where they met three champion boxers. Costello requested (he wouldn’t have had to demand) that each, in turn, dance with the woman he'd walked in with. Of course, each man nervously complied.

Then the last champ, Willy Pep, suggested that Mr. Costello dance.

Costello's reply is the name of the book....