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.