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.