Famed author Peter Manso died Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in his Longnook Road home in Truro, MA. His wife Anna Avellar said he most likely had a heart attack.
Manso, age 80, was known for sprawling, extensively researched biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, and for a book recounting the murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington in Truro in 2002 and the subsequent trial of Christopher McCowen, who was found guilty of her murder.
“He was funny, he was jaded, he was hilarious,” said friend Eugene Fedorko. “He was a supernova among the rest of us fireflies.”
Avellar said Manso first came to Provincetown at age 10 with his parents: Leo, a well-known artist, and Blanche, a collector and expert in Indian art.
He graduated from Antioch College in 1962, Johns Hopkins University, and received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He taught at Berkeley and Rutgers University.
Manso lived for many years in Provincetown where he was part of the literary and arts scene, once sharing a home with Mailer.
He and Avellar were married in 2003.
“Peter and I sold our houses in Provincetown because it was too noisy for his writing and bought a house in Truro on 2½ acres,” Avellar recalled. She said Manso was working on a documentary with godson Michael Mailer.
“He loved his work,” said Avellar.
Manso often referred to himself as a journalist rather than a writer and wrote for many national publications including The New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and Politico. His writing style was a combination of exhaustive research and interviews (he reportedly taped over 200 interviews for his Mailer biography and 750 interviews for the Brando biography), and outright gossip and speculation.
He could be opinionated, difficult, and hard to get along with, Fedorko said. He once questioned Manso about why he liked Roy Cohn, the attack-dog lawyer behind the 1950’s-era anti-Communist McCarthy hearings. Manso himself described Cohn as an “anti-Semite, a homophobe, a woman-hater” in a 2016 piece in Politico.
“Peter said there are only two kinds of people, interesting people and boring people and Roy Cohn was (expletive) interesting,” Fedorko recalled.
Manso was interesting, quotable, unafraid. In one interview with the Times, he cited writers Dashiell Hammett, George Orwell and Jimmy Breslin as influences. He said he liked to burn shoe leather when researching a story or a book.
In writing the story, Manso occasionally became the story, and he seemed OK with that. His research in reporting on McCowen’s murder trial and appeal ended up being used by his defense attorney, with allegations of racial bias by at least one juror.
“As a writer, I’m a troublemaker,” he told one Cape Cod Times reporter. His 1977 Oui magazine interview with then-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger containing details about his sex life and drug use resurfaced in 2003, threatening to derail Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial campaign.
Schwarzenegger never denied any of it.
Manso alleged that his arrest in 2007 for possessing illegal firearms was payback for his criticism of the Cape and Islands District Attorney Office’s handling of McCowen’s prosecution. Those charges were dismissed in 2010.
Besides his wife, Manso is survived by his brother, Victor; two stepsons, Chad and Anson Avellar; and his grandchildren, Kupala and Aaron Avellar.