Norman Mailer, 84, a literary colossus whose life as a celebrity author echoed in its lusty scope the grand sweep of his books, died yesterday of acute kidney failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Mr. Mailer's first book,

The Naked and the Dead

, which drew upon his life as a World War II infantryman, was published in 1948 when he was just 25 and instantly joined the ranks of great war novels.

His 1968 book

The Armies of the Night

, drawn from his experiences protesting the Vietnam War, won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Mr. Mailer's 1979 novel

The Executioner's Song

, based on the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, also won a Pulitzer.

His interests were many, and he was outspoken, sometimes abrasively so, on any subject that crossed his mind, evoking admiration and provoking anger.

"If one thinks of America as a charged field, Mailer is one of its tallest lightning rods," Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison said in 2005 as she presented Mr. Mailer the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

His death "is a huge loss," John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, said in a telephone interview last night.

"No one invented as many forms as he did, from new journalism . . . to a certain kind of war novel which, in some ways, didn't exist before he wrote it and changed the way people would write about war in fiction," Freeman said.

Mr. Mailer did nothing small.

He married six times, fathered eight children and was stepfather to a ninth, wrote more than 30 books over a period of 60 years, helped found the Village Voice, feuded with feminists and fought with Gore Vidal, drank and politicked and, along the way, established himself as one of the greatest writers of our time. In 1969, he ran for mayor of New York City on a ticket with newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. Mr. Mailer finished fourth in a field of five.

He was a public intellectual, with emphasis on


. And he loved being a celebrity, holding forth at cocktail parties and on talk shows, wherever he could find anyone to listen.

Short in stature - about 5-foot-5 - and built like a tank, Mr. Mailer could be bellicose. He famously traded barbs with Vidal and Dick Cavett on

The Dick Cavett Show

in 1971 after Vidal gave Mr. Mailer's essay "The Prisoner of Sex" a nasty review. He also socked the taller Vidal in the mouth at a dinner party in Manhattan in 1977.

He jousted verbally with feminist Germaine Greer in 1971, and he earned a reputation as a male chauvinist. In "The Prisoner of Sex," he wrote: "The prime responsibility of a woman is to be on earth long enough to find the best mate for herself and conceive children who will improve the species."

He could also be utterly charming.

Carina Sayles, a partner with Sayles & Winnikoff Communications in New York, recalled meeting Mr. Mailer in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

"He told a lot of jokes, but sometimes you couldn't tell if he was kidding or not," she said. "He liked talking to people who were in their 20s. It wasn't like talking to a professor or your dad, it was like talking to somebody who was genuinely interested in you."

Mr. Mailer's sense of self was prodigious, but in some ways his outsize ego served him well as a writer, Freeman said.

"Everybody liked to talk about his narcissism, but in some ways, he had the hubris, like [Pulitzer Prize-winning poet] Robert Lowell, to believe that what happened to him happened to the country as as well," Freeman said.

"Mailer lived through and thought about and fought with history in a way that really was titanic, which isn't to say that he didn't sometimes get it wrong or overshoot."

One of the ways he got it wrong, according to many, was in his attitude toward women.

"I have to say I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race . . . which I have to say even he admits to," Morrison said as she presented him the National Book Foundation Medal.

And Mr. Mailer was able to concede that he was not always right.

"What's so neat about Mailer in older age was that he was able to take the ribbing and say, 'I was actually wrong about that,' " Freeman said.

Mr. Mailer was born in Long Branch, N.J., on Jan. 31, 1923, the son of Isaac Mailer, an accountant born in South Africa, and Fanny Mailer, who operated a housekeeping and nursing agency.

The family moved to Brooklyn, where Mr. Mailer grew up. He graduated from Harvard University in 1943 with a degree in aeronautical engineering before being drafted and shipped out to the Philippines.

He saw enough there to give him the inspiration for

The Naked and the Dead

, which was published to universal acclaim.

Author William T. Vollmann, whose work, like Mr. Mailer's, ranges over an array of genres from novels to essays to journalism, praised Mr. Mailer for the realism of

The Naked and the Dead

. "It really captures the way that Pacific war was," Vollmann said in a phone interview last night. "It was a very moving but realistic, beautifully written, sad novel."

The trouble with writing a great first book is that it sets the standard very high.

Mr. Mailer's novels

Barbary Shore

(1951) and

Deer Park

(1955) fared badly with critics and readers. But the omnivorous Mr. Mailer was trying outlets for his writing talents.

He covered the 1960 Democratic Party convention for Esquire and claimed his coverage had helped John F. Kennedy eke out a win over Richard Nixon.

He melded novelistic and journalistic techniques in

The Armies of the Night

, whose subtitle explained what he was up to:

History as a Novel, the Novel as History


Mr. Mailer had a domestic life that could be described as chaotic. He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife in 1960, but she declined to press charges. Mr. Mailer's other wives were Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens and Norris Church.

He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.

Among his other notable works were:

Cannibals and Christians


Why Are We in Vietnam?

(1967), and

Miami and the Siege of Chicago


The Executioner's Song

(1979) recounted in novel form the life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore, who asked to be executed.

Mr. Mailer lived for decades in a Brooklyn Heights townhouse and kept a home in Provincetown, Mass. Heart surgery, hearing loss and arthritic knees slowed him in recent years but did not dim his zest for writing.

Early this year, he published

The Castle in the Forest

, a strange novel about Hitler's early years.

On God: An Uncommon Conversation

, a meditation on the divine, came out in the fall.

Mailer's literary executor, J. Michael Lennon, said arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends would be announced next week, and a memorial service would be held in New York in the coming months.