Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Norris Church Mailer Dies at 61

Actor, model, painter, and author, Norris Church Mailer, the sixth and final wife of writer Norman Mailer, died Sunday after a lengthy battle with gastrointestinal cancer. She was 61.

The Mailers met in 1975 when Norman was 52 and Norris -- then Barbara Jean Davis -- was 26. According to a press release from the family, Norris was a high school art teacher and single mother when she managed to be at a party that had been arranged for the author in Arkansas, where Norris was then living:
Subsequently, they dated, had one son who they named John Buffalo in 1978, and were married in New York city in 1980. She took on as first name her former married name, “Norris,” and took Mailer’s suggestion of “Church,” evoking her intensive religious upbringing, as a surname. In later years she attended the Actors studio and became an actress and playwright. She soon became the artistic director of the Provincetown Repertory Theater, and she continued to develop into an accomplished painter with exhibitions throughout the United States. In recent years she sat on the board of the Norman Mailer Society and was the Co-Founder of the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony.
What the press release does not talk about are the rocky, testing years that Norris wrote about in her memoir, published earlier this year, A Ticket to the Circus (Random House). From the Los Angeles Times:
The tension became public by the early 1990s through gossip columns and in an ABC television interview, in which she told Sam Donaldson that “one day Norman is a lion, the next day he's a monkey. Occasionally he’s a lamb, and a large part of the time he's a jackass.”

They drifted, but eventually she stayed.

“I knew I was going to be with him for the rest of my life, and I think he felt the same way,” she wrote. When he died in 2007, she was at his side.
Booklist liked A Ticket to the Circus quite a bit. They felt it was “very much a love story, chronicling the ups and downs of the author’s stormy relationship with one of the twentieth-century’s gale-force literary personalities, another theme is the author’s complicated emotional emancipation from Norman, precipitated by discovery of his many extramarital dalliances but also perhaps by the simple passage of time. All of this happens amid circumstances that are consistently larger than life: parties with the New York literati, summers in Provincetown, and socializing with Imelda Marcos after a Mohammad Ali fight.”

When A Ticket to the Circus was published in April, Norris talked to Alex Witchel of The New York Times:
At 61, Norris is as emaciated as she is beautiful, with auburn hair the same shade as her eyes. Heavily made up and festooned with layers of copper-colored clothing and an assortment of necklaces in the Gypsyish manner she favors, she admitted that she puts on makeup even when she’s alone. “If I walk by a mirror, it’s just too dispiriting,” she said. The apartment is colorful and cozy, jammed with books and paintings by her and other family members. She poured coffee and set out a plate of Milano cookies and Mallomars. She struggles to keep up her weight.

“I always said I wasn’t going to write about Norman because no one would believe it,” she began good-naturedly. “But when you go to bed after you’ve lost your husband, you start thinking about the life together, and it just poured out. It felt good because I got to relive all the happy early stuff and I got to wade through all the bad stuff and sort it out in my head. I didn’t want to make anybody a villain. I just wanted to tell my story.”



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