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Norris Church Mailer (born Barbara Jean Davis; January 31, 1949 in Atkins, Arkansas – November 21, 2010 in Brooklyn Heights, New York City, New York)[1] was an American novelist, actress, artist, and model. Norris published three novels, but is best known for her nearly thirty year marriage to Norman Mailer and memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, which offers readers her views of the marraige.

Early Life

Norris was the only child born to James Davis and Gaynell Phillips. She grew up in a religious setting in Arkansas being a member of Freewill Baptist Church. She later added the name Church to her name due to attending Freewill so often. [2] Norris grew up in Atkins, Arkansas, where her mother owned the local beauty shop and her grandparents were sharecroppers.[3] As a child, she was severely affected by her mother's bouts of depression and was hospitalized and given electroshock treatments.[4] Norris and her family were simple country people who attended church faithfully.[5] When she was twenty years old, she married her high school sweetheart, Larry Norris, and together they had one son, Matthew.[6] By 1975, Norris, at just 25 years old, had divorced her first husband and had worked several jobs including working in a pickle factory and as a bookkeeper.[7] Shortly after her divorce from Norris, she claimed to have "had a fling" with future U.S. President Bill Clinton.[7] Norris and her young son moved to Russellville, Arkansas and explored her love of the arts by working as a high school art teacher; everything changed when she met Norman Mailer.[5]

Novel and Memoir

Norris was interested in writing and wrote about a hundred pages of a novel loosely based on herself as a young girl growing up in Arkansas.[8] Still in the early days of their relationship, Norris showed her rough draft to Mailer for his opinion to which he callously responded, "It's not as bad as I thought it would be", causing Norris to put her work aside for the next several decades.[7] Years later, amidst a successful career as a Wilhelmina model and accomplished artist, Norris reshaped her rough draft into her first novel, Windchill Summer, which was published in 2000.[9] Windchill Summer illustrates the challenges of a young girl struggling to grow up in Arkansas during the Vietnam War era.[7] In 2007, Norris followed with the sequel, Cheap Diamonds, a story about a young woman leaving her small town home and moving to New York to become a model in the tumultuous 1970s.[7] Church's last novel was her own memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, published in 2010, explaining that the title described her life with Mailer, his seven children by his other wives, and her own two children: "Well, I bought a ticket to the circus. I don't know why I was surprised to see elephants".[9]Norris’s confident personality allowed her ventures down memory lane to paint a great and vivid picture of the life she led. She was not ashamed to tell of her embarrassing moments and really liked the fact that her husband “Mailer” found her life entertaining. She embraced her adventure filled life with grace and acceptance.[10]

Model, Actress, and Artist

After moving to New York, Barbara changed her first name to Norris, taking her ex-husband's last name, and her middle name to Church as suggested by Mailer, who decided the name suitable because of her faithfully attending church while growing up.[5] Norris began a successful career as a Wilhelmina model but soon turned to acting because of her love of the arts. Norris appeared in several films including: Jet Lag (1981), Ragtime (1981), The Executioner’s Song (1982), Exposed (1983) and Chinese Coffee (2000). In 2010, Norris portrays herself in the documentary, Norman Mailer: The American. Norris also played in the daytime soap All My Children.[5] Not satisfied with modelling and acting, Norris returned to her love of painting and held several very successful one woman shows.[3]

Life with Norman Mailer

Norris, then a single mother living in Russellville, Arkansas and teaching high-school art, met her soon-to-be second husband, famed American author, Norman Mailer, at a book signing event.[7] Although Norris was married when she met Mailer, Norris packed her bags and she and her son moved to New York to continue her relationship with Mailer.[5] Even after Mailer divorced and remarried, Norris still maintained her relationship with Mailer.[5] Norris gave birth to Mailer's son, John Buffalo Mailer, in 1978 and eventually married Mailer in 1980 becoming Mailer's sixth and final wife.[11] Upon marrying Mailer, Norris became stepmother to two stepsons and five stepdaughters.[7] Norris spent the next three decades juggling successful careers as an artist/actress/writer, managing her home life, and her husband's career demands.[3] When Norris met Norman she knew he led a very eventful life and realized the only thing they had in common were their shared birthday of January 31 and sexual escapades. [12]

Norris described Norman Mailer as "the Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle."[7] Norris often defended Norman Mailer against critics who claimed Mailer was a misogynist; she also asked for his feedback on drafts of her novels, though his response was sometimes negative, including his remark that one of her works in progress was "not as bad as I thought it would be."[7] Church said she decided to leave Mailer in the early 1990s because of his many affairs, but he dissuaded her (Needs source). Mailer died in 2007.

Although Norris dedicated much of her time during the 1980s to caring for her extended family, she had a keen interest in the arts and held several successful one-woman showings of her art and worked as an actress in several films and television.[3] Norris' work as an actress includes five films: Jet Lag (1981), Ragtime (1981), The Executioner’s Song (1982), Exposed (1983) and Chinese Coffee (2000). In 2010, Norris portrayed herself in the documentary, Norman Mailer: The American. Norris also acted in the daytime soap All My Children.[1]

Health Issues and Death

In 2000, Norris was diagnosed with a malignant gastrointestinal stromal tumor and was told she would probably only live for two more years.[9] Norris beat the odds and over the next years 11 had six major operations to fight the cancer, while taking care of her ailing husband. Norris lost her long battle with cancer and died on 21 November 2010, aged 61, at her home in Brooklyn Heights in New York City.[13]

Legacy

On June 26, 2004, Wilkes University,[14] a private university in Pennsylvania, established the Norris Mailer Church Fellowship in Creative Writing.[15] This is a summer workshop program to honor Norris Church Mailer as a writer and a board member.[16] This is an annual opportunity for creative writing students in the program to receive funding if nominated by faculty.

Citations

  1. 1.0 1.1 Norris Church Mailer 2014.
  2. "2010 Belle Lettres".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Mansfield 2008.
  4. Harris 2019, p. 22.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Harris 2010, p. 22.
  6. Klemesrud 2019, p. 3H.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 Berger 2019, p. B11.
  8. Klemesrud 2019.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Witchell 2010.
  10. "2010 Belle Lettres".
  11. Klemsrud 2019.
  12. "2010 Belle Lettres".
  13. Berger 2019.
  14. https://www.wilkes.edu/
  15. https://www.wilkes.edu/academics/graduate-programs/masters-programs/creative-writing-ma-mfa/admissions-requirements/financial-aid.aspx
  16. https://www.wilkes.edu/academics/graduate-programs/masters-programs/creative-writing-ma-mfa/admissions-requirements/financial-aid.aspx

Works Cited

  • Berger, Joseph (November 21, 2010). "Church Mailer, Artist and Ally, Dies". New York Times. Books. Retrieved 27 Mar 2019.
  • Harris, Ellen F. (2010). "The Norman Conquest, or The Last Wife of Norman Mailer". Belles Letters.
  • Klemesrud, Judy (April 22, 1979). "Mailer's Latest Love Story". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. p. 3H.
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Mansfield, Stephanie (January 26, 1986). "Norris Mailer Out of Arkansas, The Author's Sixth Wife, Her Art and Her Roots". Washington Post. pp. D1, D6.
  • "Norris Church Mailer". NNDB. Retrieved 31 March 2019.
  • "Norris Mailer, 6th Wife of Norman Mailer, Dies". Tulsa World. Tulsa, OK. November 26, 2010. Retrieved 30 Mar 2018.
  • Witchel, Alex (March 29, 2010). "Norris Church Mailer: The Last Wife". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 26 Mar 2018.

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