What to say about the late Norman Mailer? That he was married six times? That he stabbed his second wife? That he once said, "A little bit of rape is good for a man's soul?" Certainly.
Norman Mailer's sixth and last wife, Norris Church, has written a memoir. And, given the subject, it's generating a lot of buzz - much of it of the "what were you doing with this guy?" variety. Church is not the first of Mailer's wives to commit their marriage to print: his second spouse, Adele Morales (she of the stabbing) wrote the scathing The Last Party in 1997, which many have used for fodder in arguments that Mailer's written-word misogyny was no mere literary conceit. Church, a former model and artist and Clinton flame whose life is fascinating on its own terms, paints an equally complex portrait in the tellingly titled A Ticket to the Circus: While she's frank about the numerous infidelities of the "old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo," as well as his his violent temper, his generally impossible ego, the fact that, if he was feeling insecure, he'd whisper "You're losing your looks," at parties, she simply can't get over his charm and his talent. She also describes him (besides the cheating thing, that is) as a devoted husband and loving father to his numerous children. And yes, there are sex scenes: If you don't want to picture Mailer "making love" on the floor, well — sorry, now it's probably unavoidable. Here's how the Observer summarizes the whole cheating thing:
Phone bills showed her he had placed calls to mysterious numbers all over the country. When Mr. Mailer gave her the keys to his writing studio, "I went straight to his desk and opened the drawer," Mrs. Mailer writes. "It was crammed full of letters and pictures and notes from other women. … He had obviously been cheating on me for a very long time with a small army of women."
So Mrs. Mailer issued her husband an ultimatum: stop seeing anyone else, or she would leave him. Mr. Mailer offered a novel excuse: He had been faithful for years, until he started research on Harlot's Ghost, his epic 1991 novel about the C.I.A. "I suppose it could even be true," Mrs. Mailer writes.
"All the clandestine talking on pay phones, making secret plans, hiding and sneaking around, were perfect spy maneuvers. He said he needed to live that kind of double life, to know what his characters were going through."
Gloria Steinem, a Mailer friend, declared after his death that the author "just didn't get it." And if you think Church is far more forbearing than you'd be under the circumstances, well, welcome to life with Mailer, who comes off, despite his wife's obvious affection, as a relic of one of the most misogynistic eras in American literature who was regarded as something of a macho ass even during that time, crossed with a Henry VIII complex. While the early years of their marriage (which overlapped with a few others) were, to put it mildly, tinged with notoriety and Vidal-feuding, the later years, in which Vidal was plagued with illness, fell into more of a "Catherine Parr" mold: Church apparently acted as a devoted nurse and Mailer's temperament was much subdued. She also defends him against charges of misogyny, saying, "To me the humor and irony was inherent, but you can't transfer the twinkle in the eye to the page." Well, actually, a writer can. If he wants to.
In the end, these charges seem to plague the author, who seems torn between setting the record straight and some vindication of her choice to stay with a man others couldn't tolerate. "I wouldn't trade with anyone else in the world," she concludes. Which is fine. People love who they love. But if she's looking to avoid judgment, she told some of the wrong anecdotes; it read, to me, more like cautionary tale than love story. Think about the title: circuses are themselves kind of relics of another era, tinged as they are with fear, cruelty and terrifyingly unpredictable clowns. All very well when it was the only entertainment in town, but nowadays, with other options, few people's first choice.
People, Nov. 6, 1972 [Time]
Enter The 'Circus' That Was Her Marriage To Norman Mailer [USA Today]
The Sixth Wife [Observer]
Gloria Steinem Remembers Norman Mailer [New York]