11/26/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
As he lay in Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital, Norman Mailer knew he didn't have long to live. And when his time came, in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, he awoke, gave his son Stephen "a euphoric smile," Stephen says, and slipped away. "Norman," adds Mailer's wife, Norris, "saw death as just another adventure."
He had plenty of those before kidney failure ended his life at 84. The Brooklynite won two Pulitzer Prizes, directed films, ran for mayor of New York City, wed six times and had nine children. Famously pugnacious, he feuded with fellow writers and feminists. "He presented himself as a tough guy; that was a front," says author Gay Talese. "He had a big heart." Still, Mailer did get into scrapes. Worst was a 1960 party when he stabbed second wife Adele with a penknife. "He never apologized," says Adele, 82. Mailer settled in Provincetown, Mass., with Norris, a painter and "a stable, loving force," says friend Doris Kearns Goodwin, adding, "People were captivated by the bigger than life personality. But it's his words that will live on."