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Norris And Norman: Love That Lasted Against Odds

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Norris And Norman: Love That Lasted Against Odds

Author Interviews

Norris And Norman: Love That Lasted Against Odds

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Norris Church Mailer has written the book she used to tell her late husband, Norman, that she never would - a book that talks about him, but a whole lot else too.

The former Barbara Davis of small-town Arkansas tells her story. The granddaughter of a mule skinner who became Little Miss Little Rock, a military wife, a mother, teacher, a model, a painter, a contemporary novelist; now a grandmother who - her grandchildren may one day be fascinated to learn - once dated Bill Clinton and played footsie with Teddy Kennedy and Oleg Cassini simultaneously.

Norris Church Mailer's memoir is called "A Ticket to the Circus." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. NORRIS CHURCH MAILER (Author): Well, thank you, Scott. Actually, I didn't play footsie with Teddy and Oleg; they played footsie with each other.

SIMON: Yes, tell that story. Thank you, yes.

Ms. MAILER: And they thought it was me. We were at a dinner party having - we were laughing and having a great time. 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 were tucked under my chair and they had been playing footsie with each other thinking it was me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, tell us how you met Normal Mailer.

Ms. MAILER: It was one of these coincidences where 10 things have to line up perfectly for this incident to happen, but they all did. The first thing that had to happen is I had to forget to send off the card to the Book-of-the-Month Club saying I don't want this expensive book called "Marilyn."

SIMON: This is Norman Mailer's book about Marilyn Monroe.

Ms. MAILER: Norman Mailer's book about Marilyn. And the book arrived at my house. And I was like, oh, god, it's $20; I can't really afford it. But I started looking at it and the pictures were so beautiful. And then I started reading it. And Norman came through Russellville, Arkansas to visit a friend, Francis Gwaltney, that he was in the war with.

Francis taught at Arkansas Tech and I was a friend of his. And Francis was giving a cocktail party, and I thought, ah, perfect, I'll go to the cocktail party, I'll get my book signed and that'll be great. And wound up seeing him that night and going out to dinner. And that's kind of when everything started.

SIMON: So I have to ask, here he was separated from his fourth wife, living with a woman with whom he had a child, at the same time was having an affair with yet another woman.

Ms. MAILER: Right.

SIMON: This didn't have winner written all over it.

Ms. MAILER: No, it didn't, did it?

SIMON: So what swept you off your feet?

Ms. MAILER: Well, he did. 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.

SIMON: Norman Mailer had written, well, several great books, but one I'm thinking of in particular, "The Executioner's Song," which brought him into contact with a man he kind of became an advocate for, Jack Henry Abbott.

Ms. MAILER: Oh, yeah.

SIMON: A career violent criminal. His letters to Norman Mailer became the basis of a pretty famous book, "In the Belly of the Beast."

Ms. MAILER: Yeah.

SIMON: The night he got out of prison he turned up on your doorstep.

Ms. MAILER: He sure did. 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. And I said, Where are you going? And he said, I'm going to the airport to pick up Jack. And I was like, What? Because I had really been against this whole thing. But Norman did say that he would give him a job as a research assistant and that he would help him. I agreed to have Jack over for dinner. He said have him for dinner one night, then you'll never have to see him again.

And so Jack came for dinner that night and actually was kind of moving. And I guess I liked him more than I thought I would and I got very involved, and of course it all ended badly.

SIMON: And, in fact, what was it, the night the Sunday Times came out with the rave review of�"In the Belly of the Beast," Jack Henry�Abbott killed an innocent man.

Ms. MAILER: He sure did.

SIMON: What do you think Norman Mailer was trying to do?

Ms. MAILER: He just thought, I think, with the force of his personality he could make this man into a writer. And once he's a writer, then he's going to be okay. I mean, he, you know, you can't give up on people. You can't say nothing's ever going to save anybody so we shouldn't even try.

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

SIMON: For someone who wrote so many true and good lines, the unfortunate quote that I guess he really did utter around the time was: Culture is worth a little risk.

Ms. MAILER: Yeah. That was an unfortunate quote. Norman tended to - when he was under pressure, like with people screaming at him and, you know - he would just kind of throw something out there. And 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 kind of, you need to weigh it a little more carefully, I think, before you act.

SIMON: You were living what you recognized as, and what sounds like a blessed, almost blissful life. And you took care of family finances and you were going over his credit card receipts. And is it fair to say - let me put it this way -that the old bull had not changed his ways?

Ms. MAILER: The old bull had not changed his ways. 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. But I, you know, when I'd say 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's absolutely true.

I mean, I wasn't looking for problems. And the thing that really made it so believable is 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 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. And then you get lulled into just thinking this is going to go on forever. And as we know, it didn't go on forever.

SIMON: You wrote a long, extraordinary letter to him, which I'll tell our listeners you have to pay for the book to read.

Ms. MAILER: Well, yeah.

SIMON: Why did you stay?

Ms. MAILER: Oh, Scott, you know, you don't - there's times you leave somebody for something like this, but it's not so easy to just - you don't leave a person, you leave your whole life. You leave a family. You leave thousands of little habits. You leave - you know, we had nine children. We'd been together -at that point - we wound up being together almost 33 years and we were at that point together about 16 years. I was these kids' mother. I had, you know, we had a son of our own who was 14 at the time. To leave an entire life to go to what? I mean, to go to nothing, to start all over again, to rent a little apartment and start dating again at this point?

I mean, and I didn't want to leave him. I loved him. I was, of course I was upset about what he did. But he made it very clear that he wanted to change, that he was sorry and that he wasn't going to keep doing it.

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. But he made it very clear that he wanted to go back and did want to be true and he was tired of the philandering and wanted, you know, wanted me to forgive him. And he was so sincere that I did.

SIMON: Norris, you've just been wonderful to talk to. Thank you.

Ms. MAILER: Oh, well, thanks, Scott, so much.

SIMON: Norris Church Mailer. Her new book, "A Ticket to the Circus."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can read Norris Church Mailer's description of the moment that she met Norman Mailer in an excerpt from her book "A Ticket to the Circus" at our Web site,

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