Once upon a time, there were lions of literature who drank, threw fists, and stabbed their wives. Flashbulbs lit up their arrivals to fêtes, balls, and boxing matches. They skirmished with each other on television, alighted from jets in exotic locales, and mingled with heads of state. In the spaces between, they wrote books. Memoir, it’s often pointed out, is the French word for memory. And these days, when famous writers are generally only front-page news when they die, memory is more necessary than ever to conjure them again.
Norris Church Mailer, née Barbara Jean Davis, was the sixth wife and 32-year companion to one such celebrity scribbler: the pint-sized pugilist novelist Norman Mailer. In her memoir, A Ticket To The Circus, she touches on a bit of that enviable heyday of literati globetrotting, but it only frames the story of a genial Southern Baptist girl who by mixture of charm, luck, beauty, and casual ambition ended up in New York City and became willingly absorbed by her husband’s outsized persona.
Circus contains sketches aimed at pleasing fans of Norman Mailer: He holds court in a sweaty back room with Muhammad Ali as the fighter engages in an endless soliloquy about the human heart the night before the famed Thrilla In Manila. There’s Norman celebrating the Bicentennial with a house party, assembling gigantic portions of his famous coleslaw, barking orders about cabbage—“You have to slice it thin!” Or Norman visiting Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba, searching the shelves for copies of his own books. Norris Mailer’s perspective is particularly useful during Norman’s mentorship of Jack Henry Abbott (a prisoner he befriended during research for The Executioner’s Song), as she tries to create a semblance of domesticity in a household containing children and a visiting murderer.
But her memoir is neither a full betrayal of her husband’s privacy nor a satisfying confessional of her own. It’s a story of how a woman with Biblical patience managed not to tame the self-centered, boisterous “teddy bear” Mailer, but to endure him. At one point, she laments that she was “the one who was always taking care of people, the one everyone turned to in a crisis.” In one of the most telling toss-away lines, as she’s recovering from cancer surgery, she writes how “Norman tried to help by making his own breakfast and lunch…” With A Ticket To The Circus, she tells us how she managed to live with such a difficult man for so long, but a more interesting book might have told us why.