News and Articles
We Went to War to Boost the White Male Ego · 2003-04-25
[The London Times]
With their dominance in sport, at work and at home eroded, Bush thought white American men needed to know they were still good at something. That's where Iraq came in...
Exeunt: lightning and thunder, shock and awe. Dust, ash, fog, fire, smoke, sand, blood, and a good deal of waste now moves to the wings. The stage, however, remains occupied. The question posed at curtain-rise has not been answered. Why did we go to war? If no real weapons of mass destruction are found, the question will keen in pitch.
Or, if more likely, such weapons are uncovered in Iraq — not a tenth, not a hundredth of what we possess — but, yes, if such weapons are there, it is also likely that even more have been moved to new hiding places beyond Iraq. If that is so, horrific events could ensue. Should they take place, we can count on a predictable response: “Good, honest, innocent Americans died today because of evil al-Qaeda terrorists.” Yes, we will hear the President’s voice speaking before he even utters such words. (For those of us who do not like George Bush, we may as well recognise that putting up with him in the Oval Office is like being married to a mate who always says exactly what you know in advance he or she is going to say, which also helps to account for why the other half of America loves him.)
The key question remains — why did we go to war? It is not yet answered. In the end, it is likely that a host of responses will produce a cognitive stew, which does, at least, open the way to offering one’s own notion. We went to war, I could say, because we very much needed a war. The US economy was sinking, the market was gloomy and down, and some classic bastions of the erstwhile American faith (corporate integrity, the FBI, and the Catholic Church, to cite but three) had each suffered a separate and grievous loss of face. Since our Administration was probably not ready to solve any one of the serious problems before it, it was natural to feel the impulse to move into larger ventures, thrusts into the empyrean-war!
Be it said that the Administration knew something a good many of us did not — it knew that we had a very good, perhaps even an extraordinarily good, if essentially untested, group of Armed Forces, a skilled, disciplined, well-motivated military, career-focused and run by a field-rank and general staff who were intelligent, articulate, and considerably less corrupt than any other power group in America.
In such a pass, how could the White House not use them? They could prove quintessential as morale-builders to one group in US life, perhaps the key group: the white American male. If once this aggregate came near to 50 per cent of the population, it was down to . . . was it now 30 per cent? Still, it remained key to the President’s political footing. And it had taken a real beating. As a matter of collective ego, the good white American male had had very little to nourish his morale since the job market had gone bad, unless he happened to be in the Armed Forces. There, it was certainly different. The Armed Forces had become the paradigmatic equal of a great young athlete looking to test his true size. Could it be that there was a bozo out in the boondocks who was made to order, and his name was Iraq? Iraq had a tough rep, but he was old and a blowhard. A choice opponent. A desert war with no caves in sight is designed for an air force whose state-of-the-art is comparable in perfection to a top-flight fashion model on a runway.
So Iraq was chosen. Our good people on high would rush to claim that our putative foe possessed a nuclear threat. Along the way, they presented President Saddam Hussein as the closet architect of 9/11. Then they declared that he ran a nest of terrorists. None of that held up on close examination but it did not have to. We were ready to go to war anyway. After 9/11, and the absence of Osama bin Laden’s body in Afghanistan or anywhere else, why not choose Saddam as the evil force behind the fall of the twin towers? We would liberate the Iraqis. Wantonly, shamelessly, proudly, exuberantly, one half of our prodigiously divided America could hardly wait for the new war. We understood that our television was going to be terrific. And it was. Sanitised but terrific — which is, after all, exactly what network and good cable television are supposed to be.
There were, however, even better reasons for using our military skills, but these reasons return us to the ongoing malaise of the white American male. He had been taking a daily drubbing over the past 30 years. For better or worse, the women’s movement had had its breakthrough successes and the old, easy white male ego had withered in the glare. Even the mighty consolations of rooting for your team on TV had been skewed. There was now less reward in watching sports than there used to be, a clear and declarable loss. The great white stars of yesteryear were for the most part gone, gone in football, in basketball, in boxing, and half-gone in baseball. Black genius now prevailed in all these sports (and the Hispanics were coming up fast; even the Asians were beginning to make their mark). We white men were now left with half of tennis (at least its male half), and might also point to ice-hockey, skiing, soccer, golf, (with the notable exception of the Tiger) as well as lacrosse, swimming, and the World-Wide Wrestling Federation — remnants and orts of a once-great and glorious centrality.
On the other hand, the good white American male still had the Armed Forces. If blacks and Hispanics were numerous there, still they were not a majority, and the officer corps, (if the TV was a reliable witness), suggested that the percentage of white men increased as one rose in rank to the higher officers. Moreover, we had knock-out tank echelons, Super-Marines, and-one magical ace in the hole — the best air force that ever existed. If we cannot find our machismo anywhere else, we can certainly settle in on the interface between combat and technology. Let me then advance the offensive suggestion that this may have been one of the cardinal reasons we went looking for war. We knew we were likely to be good at it. In the course, however, of all the quick events of the past few weeks, our military went through a transmogrification. Indeed, it was one hellion of a morph. We went from a potentially great athlete into a master surgeon capable of operating at high speed on an awfully sick patient. Now, even as the patient is being stitched up, a new and troubling question arises: have any fresh medicines been developed to deal with what seem to be teeming infections? Do we really know how to treat livid suppurations we were not quite prepared for? Or would it be better to ignore the consequences? Mightn’t we keep trusting our great American luck, our faith in our divinely protected can-do luck? We are, by custom, gung-ho. If these suppurations prove to be unmanageable, or just too time-consuming, may we not leave them behind? We could move on to the next venue. Syria, we might declare in our best John Wayne voice: You can run, but you can’t hide. Saudi Arabia, you over-rated tank of blubber, are you out of gas? And Iran, watch it, we have eyes for you. You could be our next real meal. Because when we are feeling this good, we are ready to go, and go again. We must. We have had a real taste. Why, there’s a basket-full of billions to be made in the Middle East just so long as we stay ahead of the trillions of debt that are coming after us.
Be it said: the motives that lead to a nation’s major historical acts can probably rise no higher than the spiritual understanding of its leadership. While George W. may not know as much as he believes he knows about the dispositions of God’s blessing, he is driving us at high speed all the same. He is more of a white male by at least an order of magnitude than any other boyo in America, yes, we have this man at the wheel whose most legitimate boast might be that he knew how to parlay the part-ownership of a major-league baseball team into a gubernatorial win in Texas. And — shall we ever forget? — was catapulted, thereafter, into a mighty hymn: All Hail to the Chief!
Summer reading: Carolyn Kellogg on Norman Mailer · 2010-09-03
Carolyn Kellogg [Los Angeles Times]
Although the phrase "beach reads" evokes fluffy page turners, we had conversations around the office this spring that led us to think that people might have used the summer break-from-routine to sink into books that were meaningful, or lasting. What better way to find out than to ask?
In the responses we got from authors and booksellers, we discovered that people's favorite summer reads were as broad as at any other time of year, not proscribed by anything but their enthusiasms. To close out our summer reads, here's mine -- I'm Carolyn Kellogg, and I write about books and publishing here at the L.A. Times -- it's a doorstopper.
Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during the summer?
Carolyn Kellogg: Yes, most notably, "The Executioner's Song" by Norman Mailer.
JC: How old were you, and where were you?
CK: I was 16 or 17, at my parents' house in Wakefield, R.I., where I didn't spend as much time as you might expect. I'd gone away for high school and worked part of the summers as a nanny, so my intervals at home were short. Not that they felt that way -- it was a small town, and because I'd picked up and left of my own accord, my adolescent friendships had shriveled. I didn't have a car. Being at my parents' house was like being sent into isolation.
The house was at the town's furthest reaches, on the wrong side of a hard-to-traverse highway. Our property was one of several large-ish lots along a dirt road, all of which were slowly being settled. We had about 5 acres, full of scrubby underbrush and thick briars only the rabbits could get through. The house was designed by an architect friend of my dad's and had a small suburban yard out front -- planting beds, a patio, green turf grass. It was there, on a beach blanket, slathered with baby oil in a fruitless and unhealthy effort to get a tan, that I read "The Executioner's Song."
JC: Why was the book significant to you then?
CK: First, because it was so big -- more than 1,000 pages. I knew that it would last me for a good stretch of my time at home. This was way before the Internet, and I'd read everything in the house -- including my parents' college books, significant portions of a horticultural encyclopedia and my dad's Chronicles of Higher Education and Scientific Americans when they arrived.
Second, because it was great. It was great in scope, it was great in its difficult moral reckonings, it was great in its ambitions to portray Gary Gilmore's life up close, closer than any straightforward journalist could have. It was a great read. It was powerful and moving yet almost entirely free of sentimentality.
If you haven't read it, "The Executioner's Song" is Norman Mailer's detailed telling of the story of Gary Gilmore, a high school dropout with a high IQ who became a small-time hood, was in and out of prison and eventually committed murder, twice, messily. When he was caught and tried, he was sentenced to death; Gilmore refused to appeal, meaning he'd be the first American executed by the justice system after a five-year suspension of capital punishment. The book looks as closely at Gilmore's troubled early life as it does at those fighting for and against the death penalty, who saw Gilmore as a symbol; Mailer's take was that he was a man trying to face the consequences of his actions. Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad in Utah in 1977; for "The Executioner's Song," Norman Mailer won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize.
Mailer won his Pulitzer for fiction -- "The Executioner's Song" was considered a novel, then, although today its heavy reliance on firsthand interviews and courthouse reporting would likely categorize it as nonfiction. There was some uncertainty where to put the true but vividly embroidered New Journalism -- which I'd already encountered, surprisingly, at my staid, two-centuries-old boarding school. On the sly, between Shakespeares, my English class had read Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," thrilling in its subjectivity and self-indulgence and madcap storytelling. "The Executioner's Song" had some of that -- including the strong voice and presence of the narrator, Mailer -- but it aspired to something more. Now I can see that Norman Mailer was doing his own version of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," finding his own killer and trying to get inside his mind, and he was wrestling with his big testosterone-y questions. What does it take to be a man? What unmakes him? Is society at war with manhood?
Although smarter women than I have balked at these particularly manly, Mailerly obsessions, "The Executioner's Song" and his presence within the narrative are still, to me, magnificent and full of possibility.
JC: Have you re-read the book?
CK: No, but I've read a lot of other Norman Mailer, including the 1,300-page "Harlot's Ghost." I'd trade that for a re-reading of "The Executioner's Song."
JC: Have you returned to that place?
CK: The fall after I turned 18, my parents dug up most of that green yard and the one grand tree on our property, a dogwood, to put in a pool. The place where I read was gone once, then erased a second time by the family my parents sold the house to a few years ago; they razed everything and built their own new home there, with their own suburban yard.
JC: Do you have plans to read any specific book before the summer is over?
CK: I'm reading James Ellroy's "The Hilliker Curse," because I'm interviewing him on stage at Largo on Tuesday. And I also will go back to John Waters' "Role Models," because I'm interviewing him on stage in Brooklyn on Friday. And I have a long, long row of books to read for the National Book Critics Circle that will carry me well into fall.
Norman Mailer's "Moonfire" Celebrated With New Coffeetable Book · 2010-05-24
Alex Vadukul [Huffington Post]
Norman Mailer, a writer once known for his towering ego, enjoyed the release of an equally over-sized book last Friday. Fans of Mailer gathered in the sleek reading room of the Taschen bookstore in Soho to commemorate the posthumous release, "Moonfire: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11," a massive coffee table book based on his extensive coverage of the Moon landing for Life Magazine in 1969. Mailer's last wife, Norris Mailer; the director of the Norman Mailer Writer's Colony, Lawrence Schiller; and a fellow writer, Colum McCann, discussed and read from the book that could barely fit on the lectern.
The Life piece was a defining piece of long form journalism. At 115,000 words long it spanned three issues, and was the longest piece of nonfiction the magazine ever published. Mailer took readers into life at NASA, told intimate stories of the astronaut's lives, and revealed the grueling preparations behind the Apollo launch. The piece is reprinted in most of its entirety along with hundreds of rich photos of the launch and landing. There are 1969 copies in print.
Schiller, a long time friend and collaborator of Mailer's, lifted the hefty tome from the lectern and posed the question, "How does this come about?" Towards the end of his life, Schiller explained, Mailer often wondered what his legacy would be. He wanted his words to be kept relevant, and they used to talk about ways to keep future releases of his work fresh and interesting.
"When a writer passes on, his books can just sit or stay in a library," Schiller said, "or they can be introduced to a new generation."
The book's large size and stress on visual presentation certainly reinvent the original work. Schiller attributes the book's success to the publishing house behind it, Taschen Books, who specialize in large art books. They will continue to republish Mailer, releasing a new version of his 1973 work, "Marilyn" next year.
One of Mailer's requests regarding a book of his Apollo piece was that it should have an introduction penned by a writer who had been too young to witness the actual launch, as to create perspective. The writer chosen for the task was Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award. He read his lengthy introduction to the audience, and in it, described Mailer's reporting process:
"He shouldered his way in amongst the scientists, the bureaucrats, and the astronauts themselves. He went looking for the story. Used his Harvard background in engineering to understand the mechanical dynamics. Hoisted his way into the heads of the computer geeks. Laid a hang on the bedspreads of the NASA wives. Listened to the evasions of the corporate clowns. Probed the little dusty corners for details that nobody else would find."
Mailer's last wife, Norris, had little to add, explaining that she met Mailer after he'd written the original piece. She read the ending to, "Of a Fire on the Moon," the book he would later write about the moon landing. After the event, when asked whether Mailer would have kept a copy of "Moonfire" on his coffee table she said, "that's where I keep my copy now."
Life with Norman Mailer -- and without him · 2010-04-10
Susan Salter Reynolds [Los Angeles Times]
In her memoir 'A Ticket to the Circus,' Norris Church Mailer recalls her Arkansas origins, her search for self-definition and the challenge of sharing a literary life with her husband.
The voice explains a lot. You think, how could any woman live with the famously moody writer Norman Mailer for 33 years, and then you hear Norris Church Mailer's soft, authoritative, Marilyn Monroe-ish voice, with its 61-year-old Arkansas twang still intact, and you have a revelation about men and women.
It is important to remember that "A Ticket to the Circus" (Random House: 432 pp., $26) is Norris' own memoir, not Norman's -- not even Mrs. Mailer's. It is the story of a girl, born in Arkansas in 1949, who came of age in the 1960s and struggled to find her way of contributing to the world, which was still a man's world. She was very tall and, by all accounts, beautiful -- that made life both harder and easier (probably in equal measure).
Norris dated a few men and, at age 20, married a man who went off to Vietnam and came back distant and detached. They divorced, and she dated a few more men, including Bill Clinton. She started teaching high school and loved it. Then, she met Norman Mailer at a party in April 1975. (She had not read any of his books, but she knew, like everyone else who followed the news, that he had stabbed his first wife in the stomach.)
Norris became his sixth wife, and when they met she was one of three women firmly fixed in his life. She had to wait for him to sculpt it to one.
Norris and Mailer were together until his death in 2007. She has two sons, two stepsons, five stepdaughters, two grandchildren and, she says, "either 10 or 11" step-grandchildren. "A Ticket to the Circus" is her third book -- the first two, "Windchill Summer" (2000) and "Cheap Diamonds" (2007), feature a young female character coming of age in Arkansas during the 1960s.
Reviews of the first two books tell you a lot about Norris' life. Both are mostly about her marriage to Mailer, again a thing that must have had its pros and cons for a budding writer (and this was probably not in equal measure). In a 2005 interview with me, Mailer was furious at the suggested possibility that his wife might become a more successful novelist.
"Impossible!" he had said. "If she were a new shoemaker, could she be a better shoemaker than someone who had been doing it for 50 years?"
"Norman was competitive with everyone," Norris now says. "He had to be the best writer in the world. I didn't see it as a contest."
Ticket to the Circus · 2010-04-08
Jennifer Senior [The New York Times]
If, during your long life of letters, you happen to run for mayor of New York, act in a film by Milos Forman, consort with a convicted killer, insult Bella Abzug, head-butt Gore Vidal, sink your teeth into Rip Torn’s ear and stab one of your spouses with a penknife, odds are that there will be little left to say about you by the time your sixth wife comes along and writes her memoir. Yet Norris Church Mailer’s reminiscence, “A Ticket to the Circus,” still manages to add a fat new sheaf to the public dossier on her late husband, Norman Mailer, and tells an involving coming-of-age story to boot. It’s not so much that she gives readers unexpected insights into one of the literary giants of his day — the book does little to dispel the image of Mailer as a narcissistic hothead with redeeming streaks of cuddliness and charm — but rather that, in her own indirect way, she shows exactly what type of woman could tolerate and at least partly subdue such a king-size corkscrew of a man. The book will be of interest to anyone who works in a university marriage lab. It also shows that Norman wasn’t the only talented raconteur in the family.
Norris Church Mailer starts with her own story. Her voice, wobbly at first, is without a doubt her best ally — easy and unpretentious, uncomplaining and warm. It enables readers to overlook the occasional moments of awful writing (“It seemed like some big portent had just been swooped in and dropped onto us by twittering birds”). It also inoculates her from any possible charges of name-dropping (and man, do those names come raining down, like so much rice on a bride). On Page 75, we read that before she married Mailer, she slept with Bill Clinton, who at that time was campaigning for both a Congressional seat in Arkansas and the hand of a woman named Hillary Rodham. The author, a legendary beauty in her day, was oblivious of this latter goal until she first glimpsed Hillary on election night and immediately discerned, with “a pang of jealousy,” that this young lawyer in thick glasses shared an intellectual bond with the candidate. The same could not be said of Norris’s relationship with Bill, who, she remembers, would call her at 2 in the morning and ask if he could swing by. “I would have so liked to be able to talk to him about world affairs and politics,” she writes. “But we frankly never talked much.”
And yet it turns out that Norris Church Mailer has more in common with Hillary Rodham Clinton than one might think. Both were part of that interstitial generation of women caught between making a bold mark in the workplace and retreating into the domestic snuggeries of their mothers. Choosing the larger world meant inventing oneself without guideposts, and Norris Church Mailer, née Barbara Jean Davis, attempted to do so in ways that had a specifically Southern Baptist twist. She grew up poor and religious in Atkins, Ark., and married the first man with whom she had sex. They had a son, but divorced shortly thereafter, and it was only when she moved back to Russellville, Ark., the town of her college alma mater, that she found her true bohemian self. It was there, in 1975, that she met Mailer, 26 years her senior, at a party given by a friend. Their connection was animal and instantaneous. “Through the years,” she writes, “no matter the circumstances of our passions and rages, our boredoms, angers and betrayals large and small, sex was the cord that bound us together.” She treats us to his early love letters, an entertaining blend of smut, astute emotional observations and bad hippie poesy (“It’s as if orange and red and fine rose-red waves come off your heart”).
Pairing off with this man was a small triumph of engineering. At the time, Norman Mailer was still married to one woman, was living with another, had been having “a serious affair for several years” with a third and was enjoying various dalliances with a series of others in lazy-susan rotation. She inherited seven stepchildren in the deal, had another child with Mailer and brought her son from her previous marriage into the mix. But oh, the life he offered: parties studded with cameos by Jackie O. and Woody Allen, trips to Moscow for a book about Lee Harvey Oswald and to Rome to work with Sergio Leone. She was gorgeous and witty, smart enough to keep up with the Vonneguts and the Schlesingers and game enough to fly to Manila for the third Ali-Frazier fight. (This trip, incidentally, is very funny in her retelling — Norman flirted with Imelda Marcos.) She cooked bacon and eggs for a hung-over Hunter Thompson. Oleg Cassini and Teddy Kennedy were so smitten with her they wound up playing footsie with each other under the dinner table, each thinking it was she who was playing footsie back.
Norman, she writes, “had a great time playing Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle.”
But there’s a fine line between self-education and self-annihilation, and by the end it’s clear how many of her own needs the author needed to suppress. She pretended to be strong for her husband when she felt weak — “tears . . . were repugnant to him” — and an athletic Amazon when it simply wasn’t her style. He tested her limits in borderline sadistic ways (demanding she cook dinner for an ex-girlfriend even though she was running a fever, for instance) and snapped at her when she interrupted his work (“When I’m writing, pretend I have gone to South America”). And he had a slew of affairs, about which he came clean only after she discovered inexplicable charges on a credit card bill. “Once he began,” she writes, “it was like he was vomiting up a bad meal and had to get it all out.”
Norris Church Mailer speculates a good deal about why her husband never left her. He often told her she was the nicest person he’d ever met; he appreciated her calm. But the most persuasive reason is her unwavering tendency toward domesticity. “I ran his life like a tidy ship — I took care of the kids, the bookkeeping and bill paying, and got the insurance we needed,” she writes. “I shopped and cooked and saw that he always had clean clothes in his closet and a car full of gas.” She was, in other words, a consummate writer’s wife, someone who could handle an artist’s flights of mood and subordinate her own ambitions to his. For a time, she worked as a Wilhelmina model, and she spent many years as a painter, doing commissioned portraits for clients as various as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Roy Cohn. But neither painting nor modeling became a career for her. She harbored aspirations to write, too, and eventually turned out two sudsy novels, but didn’t resume work on her first until 20 years after she’d shown her husband a partial draft. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” he told her. “But you’re nowhere near ready to show this to anyone.”
Yet to many readers, why she stayed with him is a more mysterious question, especially as the book draws to a close. Ten years ago, Norris Church Mailer was told she had a rare cancer, which at one point required a gruesome form of chemotherapy in which drugs were administered directly into her abdominal cavity through a port. When she returned home from the hospital, her husband’s response was to move into a bedroom down the hall. “Until I was able to come back downstairs and function,” she writes, “he pretty much left me to myself.”
One imagines that Norris Church stayed with Norman Mailer partly for the same reasons that Hillary Rodham stayed with her own ill-tempered, narcissistic, brilliant and seductive mate: what woman who dreamed big could resist someone who promised so colorful a life? The difference is that Norris Church dreamed big but still retained the passive habits of a traditional Southern girl. But like Hillary, she found herself contending with anger and frustration. She tells a story about how she once spent an entire day making a neglected bedroom in her husband’s apartment suitable for habitation, only to have him come home and scold her for forgetting to hang up his suit. Her response was to slug him in the jaw.
For Norman Mailer haters, this moment will doubtless stand out as a sublime example of wish fulfillment. But for those who’ve grown fond of Norris Church Mailer over the course of her memoir, the only kind of fulfillment they’ll be wishing for is her own — which with any luck she’ll find in the years ahead.
Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine.
Norris Church Mailer: The Last Wife · 2010-03-31
Alex Witchel [New York Times Magaine]
Imagine this: It is 1975, and you are a 26-year-old high-school art teacher, the divorced mother of a 3-year-old boy, living in Russellville, Ark. You hear that a world-famous novelist is in town for one night, so you wangle an invitation to the party in his honor, hoping he’ll autograph your book. You find yourself smitten with this 52-year-old man — as he is with you — and at the end of the evening you go home together. After he leaves, you pour out your heart in a love poem and mail it to him. He mails it back — copy-edited, in red pencil. Do you:
a) Hop a plane to New York and strangle him with your bare hands?
b) Quit your job, move to New York with your son and become the guy’s sixth wife?
Reader, she married him. Not only that, she became stepmother to the seven children he fathered with his five other wives and had another son with him. Still with me? That makes nine children and Norman Mailer for a husband. As she has said herself: “Well, I bought a ticket to the circus. I don’t know why I was surprised to see elephants.”
How Barbara Jean Davis, a former pickle-factory worker and the only child of Free Will Baptists, with legs so long an old beau called her High Pockets, became Norris Church Mailer, a Wilhelmina model, a novelist, a painter, an actress and a ringmaster extraordinaire, is the subject of her new memoir, titled, aptly enough, “A Ticket to the Circus.” That she managed to stay with Mailer — self-obsessed, self-aggrandizing, perennially womanizing to the point of even his own humiliation — for almost 33 years until his death in 2007 was a feat most women would not have attempted. When people asked, “Which wife are you?” her answer was, “The last one.”
Once she appeared out of nowhere (defined by New Yorkers as anywhere not New York), it was unsurprising that she incited scorn and jealousy in equal measure: Mailer was playing Pygmalion; she was fortune-hunting, social climbing or both. Meeting her for the first time, Ethel Kennedy asked, “Would you be with him if he weren’t Norman Mailer?” But underestimating Norris is a mistake made by only amateurs and outsiders. It was easy enough to dismiss the way she united Mailer’s brood of far-flung children and provided safe harbor for her notoriously turbulent husband. She was the wife. Then as now, a four-letter word.
It was 10 years ago, when she was 51, that Norris faced her biggest challenge: a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. She was given two years to live. Since then she has published two novels and written her memoir while undergoing six major operations and nursing her failing husband. She has had 40 percent of her small intestine removed because of radiation damage and has had to wear both a colostomy bag and a nephrostomy bag. Three times, she was told by doctors there was nothing more they could do. Amateurs and outsiders take note: on the day of her first cancer operation at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, she writes, every single one of the nine children, all of their spouses and their children, along with Mailer, his sister and her family, arrived at Norris’s bedside at 5 a.m. to accompany her to the operating room. When she and I met at her home last month, the same Brooklyn Heights apartment she first came to with Mailer in 1975, and I mentioned that morning, she wept.
At 61, Norris is as emaciated as she is beautiful, with auburn hair the same shade as her eyes. Heavily made up and festooned with layers of copper-colored clothing and an assortment of necklaces in the Gypsyish manner she favors, she admitted that she puts on makeup even when she’s alone. “If I walk by a mirror, it’s just too dispiriting,” she said. The apartment is colorful and cozy, jammed with books and paintings by her and other family members. She poured coffee and set out a plate of Milano cookies and Mallomars. She struggles to keep up her weight.
“I always said I wasn’t going to write about Norman because no one would believe it,” she began good-naturedly. “But when you go to bed after you’ve lost your husband, you start thinking about the life together, and it just poured out. It felt good because I got to relive all the happy early stuff and I got to wade through all the bad stuff and sort it out in my head. I didn’t want to make anybody a villain. I just wanted to tell my story.”
That story started with a bang when she won the title of Little Miss Little Rock at 3. At 20, she married Larry Norris, a high-school sweetheart, divorced at 25 and relished her single life in Arkansas, painting, throwing pots, dabbling in writing. She even had a fling with an unmarried Bill Clinton (who did not respond to a request for comment). “I had married the first boy I ever slept with, so I was ready to burn some rubber,” she said. “I wanted to find out what life was all about, and he was just adorable. I still like him.”
As was the fashion at the time, Norris belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club and fell in love with Mailer’s “Marilyn.” When he came to town, she was intent on getting him to sign her copy. “He was sexy and fascinating and cute,” she said. “He adored me, obviously, and when somebody adores you, that’s hard to ignore.”
When she moved to New York, four months later, and signed with Wilhelmina, she decided to use Norris as a first name. Mailer suggested Church as a surname because, growing up, she attended one three times a week. After his last divorce was finalized and they married in 1980, she added Mailer.
She gave birth to their son, John Buffalo, in 1978 and spent much of her time focused on the family. Each summer all nine children went with her and Mailer to Maine and later to Provincetown. During the year, some of them lived in Brooklyn; at one point seven people were squeezed into this oddly configured apartment; two makeshift bedrooms are accessible only by ladder. Still, Norris managed to work. She showed Mailer 100 pages of a novel she wrote before they met. His verdict: “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” She put it away for 20 years.
“It wasn’t that I was dying to be a writer,” she said evenly. “I modeled, and I really liked painting. I had nine one-woman shows during that period, and I was doing commissioned portraits. I acted at the Actors Studio and wrote plays there. But that novel did keep rattling around in my head. It was the grandma of ‘Windchill Summer.’ ” That would be her first novel, published in 2000; “Cheap Diamonds” was published in 2007. In them, as in her memoir, Norris is good company, an effective storyteller with a warm, easy voice and a matching sense of humor. When the aspiring model from Arkansas in “Cheap Diamonds” describes her first night out clubbing in New York, she says, “You would have thought I was a Karo nut pie out on a picnic table and the men were flies.” Indeed.
But one of the oldest stories out there is that beauty is no guarantee of a husband’s fidelity. Norris says that in their first eight years together, she believes he remained faithful — more or less. By the time John Buffalo was 14, she discovered that Mailer had been cheating on her with “a small army of women.”
“People wondered, Here you are, Wife No. 6, and you’re surprised that this philanderer is philandering on you?” she said. “But he really had been sincere about wanting to do this monogamy thing. He made a good case for being tired of cheating and lying.” When she told him she was leaving, in the early ’90s, he went into overdrive to persuade her to stay. “I’m glad I did,” she said, “so that the kids had a family. By the time I came along, they were shattered. He had broken up with each of their mothers before any child was older than 7.”
When Norris discovered the scope of Mailer’s infidelities, she was struck by how many of the women were either his age — he was near 70 then — or significantly overweight. “He made the remark, ‘Sometimes I want to be the attractive one.’ I think he felt if it wasn’t somebody young and beautiful, he wasn’t betraying me as much. He just couldn’t resist someone who told him what a great man he was and what a great writer he was. Every time he fell for it. After I found out, I kept saying to him, ‘Why didn’t I know?’ And he said, ‘It’s not hard to fool somebody who loves you and trusts you.’ ”
That’s rather devastating. She nodded. “You don’t ever love and trust them the same way again. But by that time, I had been around town long enough to know the guys who were available, and I thought: Is there somebody else I want to make a life with? Is there someone else I want to be the father of my children? I couldn’t think of one single person. If I had, maybe I would have taken that step.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, and her husband, the writer Richard Goodwin, were friends with Mailer before he and Norris met. “Norris was a force of nature in that relationship,” Kearns Goodwin told me. “She brought steadiness and happiness and a fulfillment he never had before, and she was extraordinary with those kids. Norman Mailer was an absolute pleasure, by the way. He was a terrific, loyal friend. He was a lot gentler than he appeared, honest, not mean. Theirs was an extraordinary friendship, a real love.”
It wasn’t just infidelity that was an issue in the marriage. Over the years there were plenty of financial worries too. Think about it: alimonies, plus private school and college tuition for nine children. And Mailer did things like befriend Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted murderer who he thought could be rehabilitated because he wrote well. Norris understandably didn’t want Abbott around the children, and she was right. Six weeks after his release, he was imprisoned again on murder charges. Less dangerous, though still heinous, were stunts like Mailer’s unexpectedly bringing home old girlfriends for dinner. Whenever Norris got angry at his behavior, his response was, “Rise above it.”
Maybe it was her Baptist upbringing that made her stay: always put others before yourself. “I did learn that lesson, didn’t I?” she said. “Why does somebody stay with somebody who’s not quite good enough? That’s a big question, and I don’t have a pat answer. It’s just the good outweighed the bad, and we loved those kids. I didn’t want to leave them, and I didn’t want to leave him because he was so interesting. If I had, I would have always wondered what he was up to.” She sighed. “At a certain point, I had turned into the wife, gone from fun girlfriend to being responsible. So I had changed, too. But when you lose trust in somebody, you never get it back. Which didn’t mean that we didn’t have another kind of relationship. The sex was always great. That was the glue that held all this mess together, or the honey.”
John Buffalo Mailer, 31, is a writer, an actor and a producer; he appears in the forthcoming film “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” “People are their best selves and worst selves intermittently,” he told me, “and the best marriages navigate that ride over the hurt, which I believe they did right to the end. They both had options, and at the end of the day the life they created together won out over infidelity, illness and hard times. She really held her own with my father. They were an amazing team.”
Norris says she believes in an afterlife. So she expects to see Mailer? “Hopefully not for a while,” she said quickly. “I need a break.” She grew teary. “I can go on like this for 20 more years, or it could be lights out next week, I don’t know. But I can’t dwell on it or I’ll go crazy. I went into one of my surgeries with them telling me that I had a 99 percent chance of not coming out. I thought, Well, if I don’t wake up, then it’s on to the next adventure. I do think we’ll see everybody again, and maybe Norman will be standing there with a bouquet of flowers, who knows? He was very sweet at the end of his life. He really understood what I had gone through, and he apologized to me.”
She wiped her eyes and reached for more cookies. “Let’s face it, I was attractive,” she said. “That’s a large part of where I got to. ‘Would you be with him if he wasn’t Norman Mailer?’ No. Would he be with me if I weighed 300 pounds? No. I used to have this conscious thought when I was younger and going to all these dinners and parties that one day I’ll just be able to stay at home and write and read and do what I want to do. It was a real conscious thought that when my looks leave, I can do other things. Isn’t that funny?”
The following day we met for lunch at the Heights Café, a local haunt of Norris’s, before dropping into Housing Works, the nearby thrift store where she shops weekly. After that she had a date with Mattie, her 4-year-old granddaughter, to put on makeup. Norris’s 90-year-old mother, who lives nearby in assisted living, had just broken her hip, and Norris needed to see her as well. She goes every weekend.
She ordered a quesadilla and an iced tea and fell into girl talk easily. “I’m not an intellectual,” she said. “I pick up People magazine instead of The New York Review of Books and read it first. That’s just a fact. I tried very hard to make myself more literate, and I’m not a stupid woman, but some things interest me and some things don’t. I remember once Norman and I were getting on an airplane, and I was carrying Mary Stewart’s ‘Crystal Cave,’ the fantasy novel. I couldn’t fit it in my bag, and he was like, ‘Get rid of that book; I don’t want anyone to see you carrying it.’ So I threw it away and said: ‘O.K., I’ll buy another copy later. It just cost you $25’ — or whatever it was then — ‘for that little conceit.’ ”
The grandiosity of Mailer’s generation of male writers makes them seem antediluvian now. The headline of his Times obituary read, “Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84.” Norris shook her head. “They all wanted to be ‘the best writer,’ and I don’t think there is such a thing. Hemingway wanted to be the best, Norman thought he was the best, and it’s not a contest. I used to really get annoyed at that.” She pushed away her quesadilla. “I forced myself to eat that third piece,” she said. “I have to avoid losing weight. That’s what I’m most scared of, fading away.”
At Housing Works, she was re-energized. “They had nothing last week,” she said, whipping through the first rack. “What a ratty fur. Is that possum?” She found a copper-colored double strand of beads with crystals for $8. “That’s going home with me.” But not a copper-colored scarf. “I have a bazillion of these,” she said. Was her Louis Vuitton bag real? “Yeah, you’ve got to have one or two good things so no one knows you’re wearing Housing Works.” She leaned over and picked up two skirts. “I hate it when people dump stuff on the floor,” she said, hanging them up.
Back at her brownstone, she struggled up the four flights of stairs, smiling all the way. Her son Matt was already there with Mattie, who shares her grandmother’s flair for color: magenta top, chartreuse skirt, striped tights. “Granny!” she called in greeting.
The two sat side by side on the settee at Norris’s makeup table. Mattie sprayed some perfume on Norris’s wrist. “Now me,” she said, spritzing it straight into her eye. Too big to cry, she let her granny dab at it. Once she recovered, it was time for blush. “Let me put some on you,” she said to Norris, leaving a big spot on her cheek.
“Rub it in really well,” Norris said. “Blending is the secret.”
Next was eye shadow. “I want to do you first,” Mattie said.
“You know how?” Norris asked.
“Yes.” She rubbed a clownish swath of brown onto Norris’s upper lid.
“Looks good,” Norris said, laughing.
From underneath the table, Mattie pulled a wooden back-scratcher. On one end were two rolling balls for massage. She applied the scratcher to Norris’s back. “That feels good,” she said. “When I was a little girl, my father used to scratch my back for me. O.K. Now the massage.” She leaned over farther, her knobby spine poking through her shirt. Mattie applied the roller vigorously.
“Gentle, be gentle,” Norris cautioned softly. Mattie looked at her granny, hunched over on the stool, grasping her knees, and caught herself, suddenly awash with tenderness. Her eyes were solemn as she rolled the balls as gently as she could. Norris sighed with appreciation. “Much nicer,” she murmured.
A Conversation with J. Michael Lennon, Author of 'Norman Mailer: A Double Life' · 2013-09-25
A conversation with J. Michael Lennon, author of
NORMAN MAILER: A DOUBLE LIFE
Q: What was your relationship with Norman Mailer, and how did you come to write a biography of him?
ML: We first met in 1972 when I was writing my doctoral thesis on his work, and got friendly. A couple of years later, I met Robert Lucid, his first archivist and authorized biographer. Eventually, I became Bob’s understudy, and when Bob died unexpectedly in 2006, I began writing my own version of the official, or authorized biography, with Mailer’s blessing. I was almost done editing Mailer’s letters at the time, but shelved that project for the bio.
Q: The subtitle of this biography is “A Double Life” – what do you mean by that?
ML: Mailer could see reality only as a series of oppositions. Everybody and everything, all phenomena, is twinned. All of his own identities—rifleman, novelist, filmmaker, political activist, family man, womanizer, journalist, and so on—had a double. Doubleness was his tool for understanding people, politics, nature, the universe even. What makes it more fascinating is that each twin has a minority within. Monsters have an enclave of virtue, and the converse is true for saints.
Q: There’s been a lot written about Norman Mailer over the years. Did you have new sources or materials to draw from when researching this biography?
ML: Yes, I had a good deal of new material. He wrote about 45,000 letters over 70 years, and many of them are revelatory. He was quite candid in his correspondence. It took me several years to read them all, and I guess I am the only one, besides him, to have done so. I also did a score of long interviews with him in his last decade, and during his final thirty months I visited him nearly every day. My wife and I lived nearby in the same town, Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. His family was helpful, very helpful, and I talked with them formally and informally for years. His sister Barbara was absolutely critical. She read everything I wrote and made numerous suggestions. I also interviewed his friends, editors, lovers—over 80 people. Larry Schiller, his most important collaborator, was also generous with his insights and access to his archive.
Q: Who are some of the people you interviewed from Mailer’s life?
ML: Besides his nine children, his nephew, his sister, his wife Norris Church and her living predecessors (he was married six times), I interviewed a number of writers who knew him: Don DeLillo, William Kennedy, Gay Talese, Barbara Probst Solomon, Dotson Rader, Dick and Doris Kearns Goodwin; several of his editors: Jason Epstein, David Ebershoff, Veronica Windholz, Tina Brown, Harry Evans, Walter Anderson; and quite a few of his close friends—Mickey Knox, Richard Stratton, Jim Toback, Bill Majeski, Ivan Fisher, Jeff Michelson, Sal Cetrano, many more. I was also fortunate enough to be able to interview two women with whom he had long affairs: Lois Mayfield Wilson and Eileen Fredrickson.
Q: Did Mailer share anything with you about his writing process?
ML: He talked about it all the time. It was one of his favorite subjects, and I devote quite a few pages to how it changed over the years. He had all sorts of routines and superstitions about the work process. I helped him put together a book on the topic, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing.
Q: How did real life experiences impact Mailer’s writing?
ML: Profoundly. He called experience “the church of one’s acquired knowledge.” For him, the most valuable kind of experience was that which was unexpected, experience that is thrust upon you—for example, his 25 months as a rifleman in the Philippine campaign during WWII. He kept a list of 161 soldiers he had served with, with notes on each. He was endlessly curious, right to the end.
Q: What would you say is the lasting legacy of Mailer’s work on American literature?
ML: Three things: 1) He was the key innovator in the New Journalism movement, the wave of participatory journalism that took place from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The Armies of the Night, his 1968 Pulitzer-Prize winning account of the anti-Vietnam War movement is one of the finest achievements of this movement; 2) Along with Gore Vidal and William Buckley, Mailer was the most important public intellectual in the American literary world for over 30 years. There is no one like him these days; 3) Mailer was to the latter half of the twentieth century what John Dos Passos was to the first half: the most important chronicler and commentator on major events and figures in American Life: Marilyn Monroe, Hemingway, JFK, Nixon, Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, many more. He also created some wonderful fictional characters, Elena in The Deer Park, and Rojack in An American Dream, for example.
Q: Mailer knew many of the most famous writers of his generation, from Joan Didion to Tom Wolfe. How did he fit in with the literary crowd of his times?
ML: In the 1950s, he was very close with William Styron, James Jones and James Baldwin. These friendships collapsed or waned, and he did not go around with writers as much afterwards, although he was friendly with Gay Talese, Robert Lowell, Joan Didion and William Buckley for decades. Later, he had warm relationships with Bill Kennedy and Don DeLillo, and a lot of younger writers. He never liked the idea of being out of touch with ordinary citizens, and had many close friends who were not literary.
Q: What was unique about Mailer’s contributions to journalism?
ML: He put the writer on the stage of the story, and was adept at using a variety of fictional techniques. But he also knew when to shroud himself, as he did in The Executioner’s Song. He won his second Pulitzer for it.
Q: Despite being married six times, Mailer was a devoted family man with nine children. You saw his family interactions yourself – what was he like at home, in private?
ML: Like the rest of us, he had a variety of moods, but he was usually quite lively, full of beans. He relished a good debate on the issues of the day, loved jokes, anecdotes, banter. And he was curious, as I have said. Sitting around his dinner table was never dull; everyone was required to get in the conversation, perform a bit. Always fun, lots of laughter. He generally had a twinkle in his eye.
Q: What else might readers be surprised to learn about Mailer’s personal life?
ML: His incredible work ethic. He turned out a new book, on average, every 18 months, over 60 years, and had at least one best seller in each decade from the 1940s to the 2000s. Another is his 60-year affair with Lois Wilson, who was an amazing person. One last thing: his ambition. Everyone knows he had a lot of it, but the fact that he measured himself not just by the achievements of Hemingway and Bellow, but also Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and did so beginning in his 20s, will surprise many people. His faith in his genius was unshakable, even during some dark days in the early 1950s.
Q: Mailer had close ties to many public figures – from politicians to Hollywood stars and pro athletes. Why do you think he was drawn to celebrities?
ML: He felt he understood them, had an insight into the two things at the root of their motivation: ambition and identity. Novelists, he believed, understood these matters better than anyone else.
Q: Did Mailer ever discuss his work as a filmmaker with you? What first got him interested in exploring that medium?
ML: He spent a lot of his youth in the movie palaces of the Depression, and got hooked. He believed that lively people acting without detailed scripts could deliver incredible performances. In a couple of his experimental films, they did. He also felt that film was challenging fiction for narrative supremacy in the 1960s, and wanted to play a role.
Q: Mailer is best known as a writer, but he was also a public intellectual and activist – what are some of the issues he was most passionate about?
ML: You name it. It would be easier to list issues he did not write about. Two of the issues he was most worried about were the encroachments of technology, and the fragility of democracy. He seems quite prescient these days.
Q: Why was it important to Mailer to get involved in the 1969 mayoral race in New York City?
ML: He wrote a piece about JFK’s 1960 campaign, “Superman Come to the Supermarket,” and believed that it helped get him elected. After that, he wanted, as he put it, to get his hand on the rump of history, gain political power and change the given. Running for mayor of New York seemed like a real possibility to him, and he did run a marvelous, quixotic campaign. But he fared poorly (4th out of five candidates in the primary), and went back to writing.