"I always said I wasn’t going to write about Norman because no one would believe it," Norris Church Mailer has said. "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 seems lately that much of America is fixated on marriages—either the state (or non-state) of their own or the breakdown of everyone else's. But set aside the typical tabloid fodder and consider, instead, the marital history of Norman Mailer. Before he died in 2007, aged 84, he had run through six wives. He apparently cheated on all of them, stabbed one (Adele, #2), and was eventually divorced from most of them.
The exception was Norris Church Mailer, his wife for his last 33 years. Their marriage endured, despite his legion affairs and a couple on her end. It survived health crises, lawsuits and scandals. Now it lives on in “A Ticket to the Circus”, a funny, moving new memoir from this final Mrs Mailer. Her husband, it’s clear, was hardly her whole life. She was also a teacher, painter, model, actor, writer and mother. But Norman was, in the end, both her ticket and her circus—part ringleader, part lion, part clown.
Born Barbara Jean Davis, Norris Church Mailer grew up in the tiny town of Atkins, Arkansas. It was a modest life. Indoor plumbing was a cold-water pump in the kitchen. Clothes came from flour sacks. When Barbara was a toddler, she smashed her fingers with a manhole cover; her doctor never set the injury, arguing that baby fingers are made of gristle. (Her fingers still look funny, she says, but are functional.) Her parents were devout Baptists. The preachers snarled about cloven hooves and lakes of fire, and parishioners kept mental lists of their sins. Barbara never went for all of this. In her youth she experimented with dancing and vegetarianism. But determined to avoid the hellfire, she married her high-school sweetheart. At 23 she was a trapped housewife; at 26 she was a divorced mother with a young son and a job teaching art at the high school.
In 1974 she met a charismatic young man who was running for Congress. She had an affair with this nascent politician, named Bill Clinton. Barbara knew he had other girlfriends, and soon met "the girlfriend", a young Hillary in those Coke-bottle glasses, working the phones on his campaign in Fayetteville. Hillary and Bill clearly had a rare intellectual rapport, and Barbara was stung at the time. But it all worked out in the end: "He and Hillary had dinner with Norman and me in a Chinese restaurant and they invited us to one of his inaugurations. (Norman wrote a speech for him, but he never used any of it. I was sorry; it was really pretty good.)"
Barbara met Norman Mailer the next year. He was passing through Arkansas, and she wrangled an invitation to a cocktail party held in his honour. Norman was, at 52, twice her age. He was also married to one woman, living with another, having a serious affair with a third, and leaving the next morning. "So we did it on the living room floor," she writes. Within a year, Barbara moved to New York. She signed with a modelling agency and changed her name to Norris Church—a combination of her first husband's last name and a nod to the Baptists.
It's not hard to understand why Norris went with Norman. She was happy in Arkansas, but also perhaps bored, and Mailer was not boring. Two months after they met, Barbara took her first plane ride, from Little Rock to Chicago. (Though frightened, she felt it was wrong to pray for safety on her way to committing adultery.) Six months after they met, he took her on a date to the Thrilla in Manila, to see Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier.
But the lows were low. Norman was casually, cruelly thoughtless. When he did something "particularly egregious", she writes, he would turn the scolding on her: "Rise above it!" Once she spent all day scouring their Brooklyn apartment, a bachelor lair full of fish heads and filing cabinets, and greeted him after work, "waiting for my doggie bone of appreciation and love." He snarled because she hadn't hung up his suit. And then there were the other women. "I'm not going to talk about the numerous girlfriends," she writes, "...but you know who you are, and there are more of you than you think."
Luckily for her, or unluckily, she loved the guy. Even in their lows, the sex was good and Norman was interesting. (If you've read Tiger's texts, you'll agree that one of the worst ways to insult your wife is to bore her.) Norman, for his part, loved Norris's common sense. Along those lines, the book is full of home truths. Some are obvious (take pin-up pictures of yourself while you're young, especially if you're hot.) Others are practical and out of vogue. Norris suggests self-denial buoys a relationship; she seems to believe it is better to keep frustrations quiet rather than rock the boat. She accepted her husband’s baggage, entertained his ex-wives, and spent years letting him think she was calmer, more trusting and physically braver than she ever was. When he ultimately confessed his affairs, she understands it partly as a sign of weakness and old age: "He could no longer keep up the pace and he wanted Mommy to end it all for him."
Is marital honesty overrated? Mrs Mailer makes a good case. People used to rudely ask her which wife she was. "The last one," she would say. "As naive as it was," she writes, "as farfetched as it seems looking back now, I was right."

"A Ticket to the Circus" (Random House) by Norris Church Mailer is out now


(Erica Grieder is the Southwest correspondent for The Economist.)

Picture credit: © Robert Belott, Christina Pabst