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Norris And Norman: Love That Lasted Against Odds

Apr 10, 2010 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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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.

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.

"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."

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