Loving a Lion

by Norris Church Mailer
Photograph: Photo: Robert Belott

For 33 years, I was married to Norman Mailer. I was his sixth wife, and maddeningly, the question I got most was “Which wife are you?” I would give flip answers, like “the only one,” but the reality is that I was the wife with whom he stayed. Together, we raised nine great kids (seven his, one mine, Matthew, and one ours). Any long marriage is going to have joy and heartbreak, and in A Ticket to the Circus, I don’t pull any punches. The following excerpt is about how we survived the lowest point.

Late in the summer of 1991, Norman took a trip to California. He had to lecture quite a bit in those years to earn extra money (six of the kids were in private school or college, plus there were alimonies, a summer house in Provincetown and two studios). I had pretty much stopped going with him on speaking engagements, as I always had so much to do in New York, and frankly, after 16 years, it was no longer exciting to trail around after him. I’d been bumped too many times by photographers and shoved out of the way by adoring fans. But on this trip, things were a little strange. He called me at two am once, and when I questioned him about where he had been, he was vague and defensive. He also told me not to call him back, that he was going to be staying with old friends Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and he didn’t want me to bother them.

It was most peculiar. Every night, I had dreams in which he left me for another woman, and the woman was always rather plain. When he got back to Provincetown, I asked some pointed questions. He didn’t want to answer and got so angry that I had to let it go. Then the credit card bill came, and I noticed charges in Chicago. A lot of them. From the restaurant tabs, he was obviously paying for two.

“Sweetie, there were several charges in Chicago this month. I thought you went to Los Angeles.”

“Oh, I did, but I stopped in Chicago to see Saul Bellow.” He tried to make up a story on the spot, but it became more and more outlandish. When he saw I wasn’t buying it, he said, “OK, I’ll confess. I stopped off to see an old
girlfriend.” She had written to him, he said, out of a clear blue sky, and he was curious. He swore it was the first time he had ever done anything like that, it would never happen again, and on and on. I was crushed.

He kept talking, but nothing made sense; his story kept changing. First he said he couldn’t perform in bed with her, then he said he could but it was terrible, then he said he could and it was better than he thought it would be,
so he felt guilty. The more I questioned him, the angrier he got.

I became obsessed with finding out the truth. I started going over phone bills and found a lot of calls to Chicago, going back months. There were calls to California too, and to Washington and Florida. He continued to maintain that he’d cheated only once and it would never happen again, but I didn’t believe him. Now I remembered all the trips he’d made to California without me, the time he went to Telluride for a film festival and said we couldn’t afford my ticket, the time he went to Paris and didn’t want me to go. I had been a complete and total fool. For years.

We fought for the next two weeks, me crying and getting so upset that I physically attacked him a time or two, hitting him with my fists like a child, him promising again and again that he’d had only a onetime fling.

Summer was ending, and I had to return to Brooklyn to put our son John, who was 13, back in school; Matt was starting at New York University. Norman said he needed some time alone, so the plan was for the kids and me to go back, and he would stay in Provincetown for a couple of weeks. I saw that as ominous.

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