"There are a lot of Depression stories and World War II stories from my father," Norris Church Mailer writes. "Every one of these people lived a life full of adventure and pain and love and drama and dull hard work. Any one of them is worthy of a book, but this is my story, my little link in the chain, my page in the great American novel. It starts in Washington state where I was born, and ends, as far as it goes, in New York City with Norman Mailer, who, Lord knows, had his own story. I was his sixth wife and mother of his eighth and ninth children." When asked which of Mailer's wives she was, Norris would answer, "The last one."
Norris Church was a young and popular teacher in an Arkansas college when the renowned literary lion rolled through town on a book tour. More or less by fluke, she went to a party on campus in his honor -- she had not been invited. One thing led to another.
Who can say how (or why) a genial one-night stand sometimes turns into a genuine romance, or sometimes even a marriage? Norris was no silly teenager. She'd been married and divorced and had a kid already; she had taken a couple of giant steps away from the life of dull hard work and severe Christian values that might have awaited her. She was having a good time as a single mom/bachelor girl who had already had a bit of a fling with the personable young man who became governor of her state and then president of our country. She seems, by this account, to have been an intelligent bombshell (although she never speaks directly of her striking beauty).
She knew who Mailer was, of course, but didn't know his books well. For his part, he was a man who had already racked up four wives, had a long-term relationship with a mistress, had finished most of his important writing and was the father of seven children. Norris was Southern, amiable, young but not dumb, gorgeous. She must have seemed refreshing to him in every possible way. He was certainly her ticket to the "circus" of the larger world, and she was his way into an unconventional, imaginative version of family life.
Norris did a fair amount of modeling in her New York life with Norman Mailer; she also wrote a couple of charming and winsome novels, one of them opening in a pickle factory (she had worked in one during her giddy youth). Full disclosure: I once wrote in a review that I'd rather read one of her novels than another tome by her husband. A year or so after that, I met her at a writers conference. We laughed our heads off for an hour or so, and that's all I know of her, except from her books.
It's true that books can sometimes lie. But the tone of "A Ticket to the Circus" is light, intelligent, often ironic. And it isn't the story of Norman Mailer. Norman doesn't even show up until page 83. This is the story of a girl on her own who took a big chance and assumed one of those iconic roles you see every once in a while in overextended families marked by plenty of divorces; she seems to have made the effort to befriend Mailer's other wives as much as possible and then do everything she could to forge relationships with those first seven children, so that the "Mailers" would morph into an actual functioning family. The literary lion, though not necessarily the best husband in the world during his first five tries, was given the opportunity to live out the last part of his life as a good enough father.
Norris is, or seems to have been, the perfect combination of sex symbol and gangly good friend. She was wild enough to have had her picture taken in the nude draped in a fancy fur coat, and when she felt she had nothing suitable to wear to a formal dinner party, she showed up in a slinky nightgown. She must have been single-handedly responsible for a 30-year spike in the American mascara market: In the pictures here, she really did look alarmingly like a raccoon.
Probably like every other "other woman," she dreamed she would be the last in Mailer's line, somehow converting her previously philandering genius to marital fidelity. He supposedly gave that a try for a few years but soon began fooling around again. She was heartbroken and frankly bewildered: A lot of his other women were "his age if not older"; one of them "wore a gray wig, was about five feet tall, and must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds or more." When Norris asked how he could do this, he answered that "sometimes he needed to be the good-looking one." Irate, but not quite bitter, she reflected: "Why had I been so consumed by this old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo?" She was furious, but she stayed with him.
Again, this isn't primarily about Norman Mailer and not very much about American literature. (He didn't have writers for friends.) It's about American celebrity culture -- Norris and Norman managed to get around -- and overextended family life. Carole Mallory, one of his old girlfriends, has just published a perhaps more serious version of Mailer-events in "Loving Mailer." But if you want to be both edified and amused, you really can't do better than "A Ticket to the Circus." The title is apt.