On the first page of the index to A Ticket to the Circus—the new memoir by Norris Church Mailer, sixth wife and widow to Norman Mailer—the eye is drawn to the name Saul Bellow. Did the two titans slug it out in some literary feud? Turn to page 315 and you find a quarrel of another sort.
It was late summer, 1991. Mrs. Mailer had noticed credit-card charges made in Chicago while Mr. Mailer was supposedly in California, lecturing and staying at Warren Beatty’s house. “I had to make a stop in Chicago,” Mr. Mailer told his wife, “to see Saul Bellow about a project we might do.” She probed further. “O.K., I’ll confess.” Mr. Mailer said. “I stopped off to see an old girlfriend.”
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.”
A bigger surprise for the tall, gorgeous, then–42-year-old Mrs. Mailer was that many of the other women “were older than I was, some were older than he was.” (A few were also short and overweight.) As Mr. Mailer explained to her, “sometimes he needed to be the good-looking one.” (Mrs. Mailer also admits to infidelities of her own: one before and one after her husband’s confession.)
“Why had I been so consumed by this old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo?” Mrs. Mailer asks. The rest of her book answers that question. In Mrs. Mailer’s clear and graceful storytelling, Mr. Mailer’s immense personal charisma acts as a controlling force.
Mrs. Mailer was born Barbara Davis in Jan. 31, 1949 (also her future husband’s 26th birthday—a few months after he published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead). She grew up in rural Arkansas, a good Baptist girl, married the boy who took her virginity and bore him a son. When he came back from Vietnam shell-shocked, they divorced. In the early ’70s, she worked as a high-school art teacher, as glamorous a single mom and swinging gal as you could find 60 miles outside Little Rock.
Enter 27-year-old Congressional candidate Bill Clinton. The pair met on the campaign trail, and she volunteered to help. “Then one night,” Mrs. Mailer writes, “late and unannounced, the doorbell rang. It was him. … He was pretty hard to resist, I must say. So I didn’t. … [I] had no illusion I would become anything more than a friendly warm place for him to go from time to time.” The booty calls stopped after election night (he lost), when she met “the girlfriend,” Hillary Rodham, in “enormous thick glasses, no makeup, and rather ugly colorless baggy clothing.” Years later, the Clintons and Mailers went on double dates. Mr. Mailer even penned Mr. Clinton a speech, never used.
In the spring of 1975, Mr. Mailer came to Arkansas for a lecture, and an academic, with whom he served in World War II, threw him a party. Mrs. Mailer heard a famous author was in town and decided to crash the party. The night would end on the floor of her living room. He promised to write; she suffered rug burns.
Mr. Mailer did write, but he was still living with Carol Stevens. After he brought his Arkansan pen pal to watch Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier in Manila, he broke things off with Ms. Stevens. On the way back from the Philippines, authorities in Hawaii found an old roach in Mr. Mailer’s briefcase, and the couple were detained, though not arrested.
Mrs. Mailer then moved to Brooklyn, and they played practical jokes on his city friends, introducing her as an aspiring pornographic actress named Cinnamon Brown. “Tits, what are tits?” went her end of the routine. “I have a great pussy.” (She was in fact pursuing modeling at the time, under the name Norris Church.)
In the late ’70s, the couple were famous for their parties. They hosted a wedding reception for Doris Kearns and Richard Goodwin attended by Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Kurt Vonnegut and Ali MacGraw. Hunter Thompson, among the last to leave, came back and rang the doorbell at 6 a.m., asking for bacon and eggs, which Mrs. Mailer duly served up. Mr. Thompson crashed in a hammock in the Mailer living room, flipping out of it at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon. “Thanks for a great party, Norris,” he said on his way out.
The ’80s brought scandals: Mr. Mailer’s advocacy for the murderer Jack Henry Abbott; his struggles with the I.R.S.; the protracted divorce from fourth wife Beverly Bentley, followed by a 24-hour marriage to Ms. Stevens (to legitimize their daughter), followed by the last to Mrs. Mailer. These earned him the tabloid headline “TRIGAMIST!”
Mrs. Mailer also recounts her husband’s feud with Gore Vidal, which began in 1971 when Mr. Vidal, in an essay in The New York Review of Books, infuriated Mr. Mailer by naming him among a trio of misogynists (along with Henry Miller and Charles Manson) dubbed collectively “M3.” The feud continued on Dick Cavett’s talk show (see YouTube) and at a 1978 party at the home of Lally Weymouth, daughter of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, where Mr. Mailer walked up to Mr. Vidal, threw a drink in his face and then beaned him with the empty glass. Mr. Mailer and Mr.Vidal later reconciled, though the Mailers were invited to no more of Ms. Weymouth’s parties.
Their last years together were calm but marred by medical ailments. By the mid-’90s Mr. Mailer was walking with two canes, with bad knees and hips. Mrs. Mailer had scares of her own: A prolapsed uterus required a hysterectomy, then recurring cancers left her bald and emaciated. Mr. Mailer kept writing throughout, and Mrs. Mailer produced two novels of her own.
The couple’s spirits were never diminished. On his deathbed, Mr. Mailer made up a routine about the afterlife and reincarnation. “I don’t care what poor circumstances I’d be born into,” he would tell the angels, “and I don’t care which sport, I just want to be a successful black athlete, like Muhammad Ali.” The angel replies that said category is oversubscribed; he’ll be returning to life on earth as a cockroach. “But don’t worry,” says the angel. “I can guarantee you’ll be the fastest cockroach on the block!”