Saturday 10 December 2016

Norris Church Mailer

Norman Mailer's 'last' wife was a long-suffering one who eventually decided that she could 'do without' men

Published 28/11/2010 | 05:00

Norris Church Mailer, who died last Sunday aged 61, was principally known for being hardy -- or foolish -- enough to put up with Norman Mailer for the three decades that she was his wife.

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A teacher and single mother, she had just emerged from a brief relationship with a young Arkansas politician named Bill Clinton when, in 1975, she met the pugnacious, philandering Pulitzer prize-winning author. At 52, he was precisely twice her age and still married to his fourth wife.

But that did not stop them embarking on a relationship that would see her become the sixth Mrs Mailer in 1980 (by then he had managed to squeeze in a fifth marriage).

Remarkably, she remained Mailer's wife until his death in 2007, and took some pride in the fact that she outlasted all challengers to his affections. When asked: "Which wife are you?" she would reply: "The last one."

Even so, she was not able wholly to stamp out the flames of Mailer's wandering lust, and in 1991 came across notes and letters between her husband and those mistresses with whom he had cheated on her. One of them, Carole Mallory, said Mailer had assured her that his wife was happy living in an "open marriage".

Outraged, Mrs Mailer issued her (by then nearly septuagenarian) husband with an ultimatum. The marriage survived, and in later years she was able to take satisfaction from the fact that she had brought a sense of order to the writer's life, running his world "like a tidy ship".

But the cheating had taken its toll, and she found herself hedging her emotional exposure to him. Having been enthralled at the outset by the literary titan, she found herself asking later on: "Why had I been so consumed by this old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo?"

She was born Barbara Jean Davis on January 31, 1949 into a poor Baptist family in Arkansas. Her grandfather had been a pioneer and muleskinner and her father was a labourer who built roads. She was an attractive child and was named Miss Little Rock when she was three. After high school she attended Arkansas Polytechnic College.

By the time she was 20 she had married a childhood sweetheart, Larry Norris, with whom she had a son in 1971.

But after service in Vietnam, she said, he became something of a loner, and they divorced in 1974.

It was after her separation that she met Clinton, though it was clear that he was more interested in a plainer, but whip-smart, blonde called Hillary Rodham. "We frankly never talked much," Mrs Mailer later wrote.

In 1975 she heard that Mailer was coming to Arkansas for one night only and managed to get an invitation to the event, ostensibly to secure his autograph.

The attraction was instant, and later that night the pair were sharing apple wine back at her home. When, after he returned to New York, she sent him a love poem, she soon got a taste of the abrasive, self-obsessed Mailer style: he returned the poem with corrections appended, then sent her a box of his own books.

Unabashed, she decided to move to New York, where Mailer -- still married to his fourth wife, but living with the mother of his seventh child -- invited her to join the party. Despite the fact that he had stabbed his second wife and spent the previous few years being as obnoxious to feminists as he could manage, her answer, she said, was: "Don't mind if I do."

Mailer adopted her son and the couple had a child of their own, John Buffalo. Once settled in New York she painted, modelled and embarked on an acting career, changing her name, at his suggestion, to Church.

Eventually Mrs Mailer decided to try writing, plucking up the courage to show a first draft to her husband. Though he dismissed it, the gently autobiographical Windchill Summer was published in 2000. A follow-up, Cheap Diamonds, came out in 2007.

Earlier this year Ms Mailer published an autobiography, A Ticket to the Circus, and concluded that she could "do without" men. "I've had a wonderful life, but it was Norman's life," she said shortly before her death from cancer. "You don't realise how much of yourself you have sublimated until you are alone."

Her sons survive her.

Sunday Independent

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