Norris And Norman: Love That Lasted Against Odds

Norris Mailer, John Mailer, Norman Mailer

Norris Church Mailer and Norman Mailer at a beach in Provincetown, Mass., with their son, John Buffalo Mailer. Joel Meyerowitz hide caption

itoggle caption Joel Meyerowitz
A Ticket To The Circus
A Ticket To The Circus
By Norris Church Mailer
Hardcover, 432 pages
Random House
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

Norris Church Mailer has written the book she used to tell her husband, Norman Mailer, she would never write — the book about him. But A Ticket to the Circus tells Norris Mailer's story, too. The former Barbara Davis of small-town Arkansas was the granddaughter of a mule skinner; she later became Little Miss Little Rock, a military wife, a mother, a teacher, a model, a painter, a novelist and a grandmother who — her grandchildren may one day be fascinated to learn — once dated Bill Clinton and played footsie with both Teddy Kennedy and fashion designer Oleg Cassini simultaneously.

Although that last bit, Mailer points out, isn't exactly correct.

"Actually, I didn't play footsie with Teddy and Oleg, they played footsie with each other," Mailer says with a laugh. "They thought it was me. ... Teddy was on one side and Oleg was on the other, so at a certain point I excused myself to go to the ladies' room. And they stopped and kind of looked at each other with this funny look on their faces, and then I saw both of them lean down and start fumbling with their shoes. My feet had been tucked under my chair and they had been playing footsie with each other thinking it was me."

Mailer tells NPR's Scott Simon that her first meeting with Norman Mailer, who died in 2007, was "one of these coincidences where 10 things have to line up perfectly for this incident to happen, but they all did."

Mailer belonged to a book-of-the-month club, and she says the first of these many coincidences arrived when she forgot to decline the delivery of a new book called Marilyn. That book, of course, was Norman Mailer's controversial 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.

Norris Church Mailer

Norris Church Mailer was born Barbara Jean Davis. She is the author of the novels Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds Christina Pabst hide caption

itoggle caption Christina Pabst

The book was too expensive for her to justify keeping, she says, but she began reading it anyway, and then discovered that Norman Mailer would be visiting a mutual friend named Francis Gwaltney.

"Francis was giving a cocktail party, and I thought, 'Oh, perfect. I'll go to the cocktail party, I'll get my book signed and that'll be great,'" Norris Mailer says. The cocktail party led to dinner with her future husband.

"That's kind of when everything started," she says.

At the time, the stars were not exactly aligned. Norman Mailer was separated from his fourth wife, living with a woman with whom he had a child, and having an affair with another woman. But Norris Mailer says he swept her off her feet.

"He was just the most interesting person I've ever met. And you really can't pick who you're attracted to, you just are. And somehow it worked out, and I knew it was going to work out."

Violence Intrudes

Married life was complicated by more than her husband's romantic appetites. After he wrote The Executioner's Song, about a convicted murderer on death row, Gary Gilmore, Norman Mailer became an advocate for another violent criminal named Jack Henry Abbott. Abbott's letters to him from prison became the basis for a book called In the Belly of the Beast, and Mailer used his celebrity to push for Abbott's parole. Abbott was on the Mailers' doorstep the night he was released.

"I didn't know he was getting out of prison until my husband had his coat on walking out the door to pick him up," Norris Mailer says. Her husband said that he would give Abbott a job as a research assistant, and he promised that if they had him over for dinner, she would never have to see Abbott again.

"So Jack came for dinner that night and actually was kind of moving," she says. "I got very involved, and of course it all ended badly."

The night before The New York Times published a rave review of In the Belly of the Beast Abbott stabbed a man to death. It was just six weeks after his release from prison.

Mailer says she thinks her husband believed helping Abbott to become a writer could change his life.

"But you can't expect someone who has been in prison his whole entire life to turn around and become a sweet guy who writes books and walks his dog and has a normal life," she says. "It's just not going to happen that way."

In the aftermath of the murder, Norman Mailer courted controversy when he was quoted as saying, "Culture is worth a little risk."

"Norman tended to — when he was under pressure, like with people screaming at him — he would just sort of throw something out there," Norris Mailer says. "I knew what he was saying. You can't not ever try to save somebody. You can't not ever try to help somebody. But you need to weigh it a little more carefully before you act."

The Old Bull

Despite the intrusion of violence into their lives, the couple lived a happy, almost blissful life with their son and eight children from their earlier marriages (seven of them Norman's). Until, that is, Norris Mailer, who took care of the family finances, discovered some surprising credit card charges. It is fair to say, she assents, that the old bull had not changed his ways.

Norris Church Mailer, Norman Mailer i i

Norris and Norman Mailer share a birthday: Jan. 31. When they met, she was 26 and he was 52. Robert Belott/Mailer Estate hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Belott/Mailer Estate
Norris Church Mailer, Norman Mailer

Norris and Norman Mailer share a birthday: Jan. 31. When they met, she was 26 and he was 52.

Robert Belott/Mailer Estate

"I know people think I'm totally stupid. I mean, I was wife number six, and he had all these girlfriends and was famous for being a philanderer," Mailer says. "But when I said to him, 'Why didn't I know?' He said, 'It's not hard to fool somebody who loves you and trusts you' — which is a really kind of devastating thing to say, but it was absolutely true."

"The thing that really made it so believable was that he really did change for a number of years. He wanted to change. He wanted to try monogamy. He'd never done that; he'd always been a philanderer. And he wanted to try living without guilt. He wanted to try living with just one woman to see how deep one could get into a relationship with just one person if you didn't have others, if you weren't lying and cheating. And for a number of years, he was really true to me," she says. "And then you get lulled into thinking, 'This is going to go on forever.' And as we know, it didn't go on forever."

Why did she stay?

"There's times you leave somebody for something like this, but it's not so easy. You don't leave a person, you leave your whole life. You leave a family. You leave thousands of little habits," Mailer says. "We had nine children. ... We wound up being together almost 33 years and we were, at that point, together about 16 years. I was these kids' mother. We had a son of our own who was 14 at the time. To leave an entire life to go to what?"

Norman said he was sorry, she says, made it clear that he wanted to change, and that made the difference.

"If he had said to me, 'You know, sweetheart, I love you but I can't be true to you because I'm just the way I am and you'll have to accept it,' I think I would have left. I couldn't have lived that way," Mailer says. "But he made it very clear that he wanted to go back and wanted to be true and was tired of the philandering and wanted me to forgive him. And he was so sincere that I did."

Excerpt: 'A Ticket To The Circus'

A Ticket To The Circus
A Ticket To The Circus
By Norris Church Mailer
Hardcover, 432 pages
Random House
List price: $26

It has been said that there are no coincidences in life, and I might just believe that. It was April 1975, and I had been divorced for more than a year. Frankly, dating a lot of different guys had begun to lose its charm, but I had no interest in getting serious about anyone. I liked having my own house and doing as I pleased. No man to clutter up my closets, no man to clean up after (except my big boy, Matt, of course). No man to tell me what to do, how to spend my money, what to cook. I was close to my parents, who adored Matthew and were thrilled to babysit for me while I worked. My life was pretty great.

Then I got a call from my friend Van Tyson, another teacher at Tech, who was having a film animation artist come speak to his class. He wondered if I wanted to bring my senior class over to the college to sit in. I was always up for something new to do with the kids, so we went, and it was interesting. But the most interesting bit of information I got that day was that Norman Mailer was next door in Francis's class, and Francis and Ecey were giving him a cocktail party after school. To which I had not been invited.

Although I've always loved literature, books were a luxury I treated myself to sparingly, but I had been a member of the Book- of- the-Month Club for several years, getting things such as Joseph Heller's Catch- 22, or James Jones's The Merry Month of May. But for some reason, even though Fig knew him, I had never read one of Norman Mailer's books. Occasionally, I would forget to send in the Book- of-the-Month response card saying I didn't want the selection that month. One such time was when Norman's Marilyn was offered. It was twenty dollars, more than I could afford, but there it was in my mail, and I couldn't resist opening it. After looking at the pictures and reading a few pages, I was hooked. 'She was our angel, the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin . . .' Oh, my. This didn't sound like a rowdy war novelist at all. It sounded like a man who was sensitive and understood women, and who could write like the angels themselves. I read some of the sentences over several times, just to feel the words.

Now Norman Mailer was in Russellville! I called Francis and asked if I could stop by the party, just for a few minutes to get my book signed, and he said no, that he didn't want to bother Norman with that fan crap. Fig never minced words. One always knew exactly what he thought.

'Oh, come on, Francis,' I said. 'Don't be like that. I'll leave it in the car and won't bring it in if it doesn't seem right. I just want to meet him.'

I had heard over and over from Francis what a genius Norman was and I figured I'd never have another opportunity to meet a famous writer. I had aspirations to write myself. Maybe he could give me some tips or something. So, reluctantly, Francis said I could come. Since they had all been in the war, I knew Norman was as old as my father (in fact, he was one year older), just as Francis was, not to mention that Norman had been married a bunch of times and had a lot of kids. The last thing on my mind was romance, I swear. I was just going to stay for a minute to see if he minded signing the book, and maybe have a teensy little conversation with him. I didn't even bother to change. I was wearing bell- bottom hip-hugger jeans and a soft cotton voile shirt tied at the waist, showing a bit of my belly button. I was also wearing huge platform shoes called Bare Traps that made me about six feet one. (I'm five feet ten in stocking feet.)

I was a little nervous when I walked in, realizing that everyone else was dressed up, and I wished I had gone home and changed. And then I saw Norman. He was sitting in front of the window, his curly, silvershot hair lit by the sun as though he had a halo. (Saint Norman!) Amazingly, he was also wearing jeans, the most patched jeans I had ever seen in my life. There were patches on top of the patches. In fact, they were nothing but patches. His clear blue eyes lit up when he saw me. He had broad shoulders, a rather large head (presumably to hold all those brains) with ears that stuck out like Clark Gable 's, and he was chesty, but not fat, like a sturdy small horse. (I once drew him as a centaur, which delighted him.) He didn't look old at all. Nor the least bit fatherly.

He stood straightaway, came over to me, and to his surprise had to look up into my face. He always said he was five eight, but I personally think he was a hair under that, and I towered over him in my platform shoes. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and then he turned on his heel and walked out of the room. I was a little taken aback, but I figured he must have had a thing about tall women, so I just sighed and decided not to go out to the car and get my book.

I knew everyone there — all the English faculty, the men dressed in coats and ties, the women in little dresses or suits with tidy bows on their blouses and sensible low heels. Someone handed me a glass of white wine, and I started talking to Van. Then Francis came over and said, 'Stay after the party and go out to Van and Ginnie's for dinner with us.'

'Ginnie's making pizza,' Van said. 'Why don't you come?'

'Thanks, guys, but I think that's a bad idea,' I said. 'I don't think Mr. Mailer liked me much.'

'Liked you?' Francis said in his gravelly voice, full of displeasure.

'Hell, he's the one who wants you to go, not me!'

I didn't know why he was being so grumpy to me. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought he was jealous over Norman, that Francis was angry that Norman liked me and didn't want to share him or something. Anyhow, I didn't care. The fact that Norman wanted me to go out with them was a nice surprise.

The women teachers were all atwitter because Norman had brought along another pair of jeans just like the ones he was wearing, or even worse, which needed another patch, and they were all taking turns sewing on them, so pleased with themselves to be able to say 'I sewed Norman Mailer's pants!'

But there was no sign of the great man. I guessed he was still in the kitchen, for whatever reason. I couldn't believe he was that shy. I went and sat on a low couch by myself, and finally Norman appeared. We looked at each other and I smiled. I patted the seat beside me, and he came and sat down while the other women gave me the evil eye, looking at me as though I was the hussy I was.

I don't remember the conversation we had on that couch — something trivial, I'm sure — but I do remember the intensity of his blue eyes, and his charisma— not unlike Bill Clinton's. He concentrated on me, that's for sure, and he radiated energy like a little steam heater. He couldn't sit still. Then, too soon, Francis came and got him so he could talk to the others, fearing I had trapped him long enough.

After a while, people started to go, but I stayed put. Another teacher had just polished off her fourth glass of wine and was determined to wait me out. We chitchatted until everyone else had gone, and then, in an awkward silence, knowing she had to go, she grabbed me by the arm and started pulling me toward the door.

'Come on!' she said. 'They need us to leave so they can go to dinner!'

'I'm going with them,' I said.

'Oh, no, you're not!' she countered, pulling harder.

Thank goodness I was bigger, because she was determined to haul me out of there. Ecey, bless her, stepped in and explained that I had been invited, so all the poor thing could do was sadly turn and leave on her own, weaving a little as she walked down the driveway. Norman and I piled into the backseat of the car with Francis and Ecey and headed to Van and Ginnie's house in the woods.

As we drove, we were chatting, getting to know each other, and

Norman asked me when my birthday was.

'January thirty- first,' I said, '1949,' which made me twenty- six.

He got all excited and started pounding on Fig's arm.

'Fig! Fig! When's my birthday?'

'Well, Norman, don't you know?' Fig drawled in a voice that indicated he thought Norman might have had one drink too many.

'It's January thirty- first! We have the same birthday!' He was beside himself. It turned out that we 'd also been born within one minute of each other, he at 7:04 and me at 7:05 a.m. I later checked it with his mother. A mother always remembers exactly when her child was born. He was also fifty- two, precisely twice my age, the only time that phenomenon would occur in our lifetimes. It seemed like some big portent had just been swooped in and dropped onto us by twittering birds.

Van and Ginnie's house was built over a brook, and as soon as we got there, Norman and I went out onto the porch to take a look. The woods, with the brook gurgling underneath our feet, were magical. It was so beautiful and peaceful. The air was sweet and fresh with the smell of pines, and dragonflies flitted under the little stone waterfalls in the brook like fairies.

We were at first shy with each other, and I still had those monster shoes on, but it didn't seem to matter to Norman. He rather liked it that I was tall, and years later he would make me put on high heels if I tried to go out in flats.

'Put on your big shoes. I'm not going to have people towering over you!' he would say.

The rest of the lucky dinner guests were milling around in the kitchen, which had a beautiful stone fireplace, watching us through the window, waiting for him to come in and talk to them. But Norman was in no hurry, and neither was I. I had wanted an intellectual man who would talk to me, and I finally got one. Norman could go on for hours on almost any subject, and this time it was one of my favorites — me. He rhapsodized about my eyes, my hair, my skin, my nose. Finally it got to be a touch too much, even for me. I had to cut him off.

'Well, you really know how to deliver a good line, Mr. Mailer,' I said with an exaggerated Southern accent. 'But that's all right. I've always bought a good line, well presented.'

He roared with laughter, hugged me, and told me how marvelous I was. I had the passing thought that with that one remark, I had, perhaps, made a not necessarily small impression on him.

I did have to bring up the marriage thing, though. I wasn't going to get tangled up with a married man. (Little did I know just what a tangle I would find myself in.) He presented himself as separated from his wife, which was technically true, and it was only later in the evening that I learned he was separated from his fourth wife, Beverly, but not quite separated from his present companion, Carol, and they had a daughter, Maggie, who had just turned four, six months older than Matthew. Since I thought I would never see him again anyhow, separated from a legal wife was good enough for a flirt, especially such an enjoyable one.

Finally, someone tentatively came to the door and asked us if we wanted any pizza. There were only a couple of leathery cold pieces left by that time, so we went in and ate them, and he talked to the rest of the patient group. It got to be nine-thirty, and I told Van I had to leave to go pick up Matthew, who was at his father's house, by ten. My plan was for Van to drive me to Francis and Ecey's. I would get my car, pick up Matthew, and go home. I'm sure by this time everyone wished me gone. I'd monopolized the guest of honor much too long for their taste, especially Francis's. But Norman had other ideas. His plan was for him to drive me to Larry's, pick up Matthew, and come back to the party.

He drove, and I sat across the bench seat next to the door, not too close to him. We pulled into Larry's yard, and I went to the door to get Matthew, who was sound asleep. I carried him to the car, and Norman got out and took him, holding him while I drove, since he didn't know his way around those country roads in the dark. Watching him hold my sleeping boy touched me.

We went back to Van and Ginnie's, and I put Matthew to bed in the guest room. I don't remember how it came up, but someone there knew how to do tai chi, so we all did it. I was my usual clumsy self, which Norman thought was endearing. That night, it seemed I could do no wrong.

Finally we left, Matt still completely snozzed out, and Norman asked Fig and Ecey if he could drop them off, borrow their car, and follow me home. I think at this point they were both beginning to worry a bit, about whom I'm not quite sure, but they had to say yes.

I'd never before had a man over while Matthew was in the house. I put Matt to bed and then we went into the living room, where I offered Norman a glass of Boone's Farm's finest apple wine (I think it was a bottle, but it might have been a box), which I'm sure appalled him, but I didn't know that then. We talked for another hour or more, about my desire to write, my marriage, and my divorce, and then he began to tell me about his life, his five wives and seven children. (He referred to Carol, his present companion, as his wife. They had been living together for five years, and had a child, after all.)

He told me how he hadn't lied to me when he'd said he was separated, but he was in a place where he was being pulled in a lot of different directions. He then told me about another woman — I'll call her Annette — with whom he had been having a serious affair for several years and who was pressuring him to leave Carol for her. He didn't want to live with Annette, and in fact really wanted to break it off with her, but he didn't want to hurt her, so he had suggested that they not see each other for six months while he had time to think things through. He felt he was already half separated from Carol, living two weeks in New York in an apartment in Brooklyn, which he used as a writing studio, seeing Annette and various other 'other' women, and then spending two weeks with Carol and Maggie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He'd been continuously married or living with five women in succession, each waiting in the wings to take over from her predecessor, since he was twenty years old — something else we had in common, our marriages at twenty.

It was all rather overwhelming, but I appreciated his honesty. I told him that the last thing on my mind was getting married again, after being with the same man since I was sixteen years old, and so we understood each other. At least I thought we did. That this was just a pleasant evening, an interlude in his lecture tour, was the unspoken meaning of it all. He said I was the nicest woman he had ever met, which I thought was just more of the line, but he might have meant it, at least a little; he said it a lot over the years, sometimes behind my back.

Then he leaned over and kissed me, at first just a casual, exploratory kiss; but the kiss ignited, and I knew I was going to make love with him. He was leaving the next day, I would never see him again, and I at least wanted to be able to say I'd done that, even if I hadn't been able to ask him to sign my book (which was still in the car). But I didn't want to go to the bedroom; too close to Matthew. I didn't want Matt to wake up and be scared by voices or strange sounds. So we did it on the living room floor. (Why did I always seem to wind up on the floor?) It was a bit of a comedy, actually. I was jumpy and nervous trying not to make noise, listening for Matthew to wake up, and it was awkward and uncomfortable. I wouldn't fully undress or allow him to, as Matthew might walk in, and I was getting rug burns on my back.

Finally, it wasn't that great. How could it have been? But then there are few great ones on the first try. Most guys never get near to great under any circumstance. Afterward, I was sorry we had done it, and I think he was, too. It was a slight downer to a magical evening for both of us, but he held me sweetly, and I felt close to him. As he was getting ready to leave, I thought once more about asking him if he would sign my Marilyn book, but after what had just happened, I couldn't. It would have been tacky. I'm glad I waited. It wasn't until the next February, when I was living with him in New York, that he finally signed it. The inscription read:

To Barbara

Because I knew when I wrote this book that someone I had not yet met would read it and be with me. Hey, Baby, do you know how I love Barbara Davis and Norris Church?

Norman, Feb '76

From A Ticket To The Circus by Norris Church Mailer. Copyright 2010 by Norris Church Mailer. Reprinted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.

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