A Ticket to the Circus by Norris Church Mailer
Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D
A Ticket to the Circus
By Norris Church Mailer
432 pages; Random House

Just how irresistible was Norman Mailer? Gloria Steinem said that anybody who would marry him couldn't be "healthy, well-adjusted, conscious, or aware"—but she was friends with him. Ditto the feminist Germaine Greer, close to him around the time Mailer was quoted as saying, "A little bit of rape is good for a man's soul." And then there was New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, who, when she first met Norris, his sixth wife, offered her home phone number in case Norris ever needed to get away from him. Yet Abzug had wholeheartedly supported Mailer in his quixotic bid for New York City mayor in 1969. Go figure.

These are just a few of the revelations in A Ticket to the Circus, Norris Church Mailer's funny, generous, shockingly forthright memoir about life with the lion of literature—a notorious philanderer until age and infirmity declawed him. Ticket is at once a glimpse into New York's social and literary whirl, a love story, and an attempt to explain the unexplainable: why any woman would choose to live with Mailer's innumerable cruelties—as large as his compulsive womanizing and as small as his habit of walking up to Norris at a party if she was having too good a time and whispering in her ear, "You're losing your looks."

Seeking to understand why such a gorgeous, funny woman would put up with this nonsense, I'm meeting with her in the living room of the wood-paneled Brooklyn Heights apartment she and Mailer shared for most of their marriage. Photographs and paintings of his nine children and assorted extended family are everywhere. There is a ravishing series of photos of the couple: A pregnant Norris, draped languidly over her husband, wears a diaphanous gown; Mailer, an expression of lordly possession. The sexual chemistry is palpable. "When you have that," Norris says with a sly smile, "you can forgive a lot."

The woman raised as Barbara Jean Davis in Russellville, Arkansas, was blessed with a russet beauty. Crowned Little Miss Little Rock at the age of 3, she later caught the eye of an up-and-coming Arkansas politician whom she saw throughout 1974. "Dating" doesn't exactly describe Norris's time with Bill Clinton, but the term booty call had not yet been invented. "He would drop by my house at 2 a.m.," she says. "We weren't really talking about public policy."

In 1975 Barbara Jean met Mailer when he was speaking at a local college. He was still married to one wife and living with someone else, but these entanglements did not impede the epic affair that followed. "We bounce into each other like sunlight," he wrote to her after their first night together. "The time in Little Rock keeps reflecting back into the room for me so that no matter the hour or the place there we are swimming in that red gold light and there you are smelling like cinnamon. God, you're attractive."

Like all mash letters not intended for publication, Mailer's are, well, a little cringeworthy. So why did Norris decide to publish them? "I gave a lot of thought to it," she says. "I guess...so much happened later, and he was such a cheat later on, I just wanted this aspect of our relationship to be known. That he was crazy about me. That it was real."

An unsettling discovery—and why she didn't leave

Curiously, given his history, Norris claims it never occurred to her—even after she'd moved to New York and borne his son—that there may have been other women. And perhaps for a number of years there weren't. Then came the fateful day when, after 11 years of marriage, she stepped foot in her husband's office. He had given her the key, so "he must have wanted me to find everything." Bursting out of his desk drawer were photos and letters from innumerable liaisons. In his typical fashion, Mailer confessed—and kept on confessing, in lurid detail, for months. Here, in his wife's rather hilarious recounting, Mailer becomes a small man—the comical, mealy-mouthed husband. With a straight face, Mailer told his wife that his cheating was part of his research for Harlot's Ghost: To understand CIA operatives, he had to live a double life, he said.

He was complex; that's for sure. "Part of him was this wonderful, sweet, intelligent, terrific, funny guy that I was madly in love with. And another part, I just couldn't stand," Norris says now. Still, she did not leave; instead she made the decision to "take a step away from [him] in my heart...it was better to be a little bit less in love." Mailer noticed the withdrawal and would have liked to win her back, she says, but he was incorrigible. On his deathbed in 2007, he awoke from a coma long enough to sip his favorite drink—rum and orange juice—and kiss a family friend on the mouth.

Remembering that day, Norris is surprised it wasn't she in the hospital; diagnosed with a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer ten years ago, she was not expected to last more than a year or two. But she's still here at age 61, fragile although stunning as ever. She remains determined to tell her truth. "I needed to exorcise some parts of my life," she says, "and maybe I wanted my own bit of immortality, too."


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