Norris Church Mailer: Model, writer and actress who became Norman Mailer's sixth and last wife

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The Independent Online

Norris Church Mailer, a woman bred in the rural poverty of Arkansas, was principally known as the wife of the renowned American author Norman Mailer, but she was also a respected author in her own right. She was a woman, who, in spite of his relentless philandering, stood by her man, managing both his career and family life over three decades.

Norris Church, born Barbara Davis – actress, author, model, painter and teacher – first set eyes on Norman Mailer in Russellville, Arkansas in 1975 when he was on tour promoting his book-length reflections on Marilyn Monroe. A book-of-the-month club member, the 26-year-old art teacher and former pickle-factory worker was there to get her copy of Marilyn autographed. She later recalled: "He was easily the most interesting man I'd ever met. He was sexy and fascinating and cute... He adored me, obviously, and when somebody adores you, that's hard to ignore." Another reason for their attraction she added was sex, "a cord that bound us together."

Although the Brooklyn-bred, Harvard-educated Pulitzer Prize winner was twice her age, and by this point breaking up with his fourth wife and seeing the woman who would become his fifth, she knew the two would be together. Not knowing if she was stupid or naïve, she moved to New York four months later and signed with the Wilhelmina agency as a model, using Norris as a first name. Mailer suggested Church as a surname because, growing up, she had attended Free Will Baptist services three times a week. As she wrote in her memoir A Ticket to the Circus (2010), Mailer became "the Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle."

After his last divorce was finalised they married in 1980. A son, John Buffalo, had been born two years earlier. She spent much of her time focused on the family, and summers were spent with all nine children (seven from Mailer's previous marriages, plus her son from her first marriage) in Maine and later Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Through her husband she met the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Imelda Marcos, Fidel Castro and Woody Allen, and she organised Mailer's social and family life. She defended him against antagonists such as the feminists offended by his 1971 publication The Prisoner of Sex, wherein he famously commented that women should be kept in cages. She could not believe that people actually thought he was serious.

Initially, Mailer was faithful, but by the time their son was 14, she discovered he had been cheating on her with "a small army of women". At one point the two nearly split over the infidelities (one mistress, Carole Mallory, recently revealed her eight-year affair), but he pleaded with her to stay, and she did, wanting to hold the family together. She also confided in a recent interview that she could not think of a single person she would rather have been with.

However, it was not just infidelity that was an issue in the marriage. Over the years there were plenty of financial worries too, with alimonies, and private school and college tuition for nine children. Perhaps it was her Baptist upbringing that made her stay. Asked why she had, she replied, "It's just the good outweighed the bad, and we loved those kids. I didn't want to leave them, and I didn't want to leave him because he was so interesting. If I had, I would have always wondered what he was up to."

Norris Church Mailer was born Barbara Jean Davis in 1949, the only child of poor Baptist parents, and grew up in Atkins, Arkansas. An attractive child, Barbara was named Miss Little Rock when she was only three.

In 1969, aged 20, Mailer married her high-school sweetheart, Larry Norris, and two years later had a son, Matthew. The marriage ended in divorce in 1974, although the couple remained in contact and she later admitted to always having a soft spot for him.

Norris Mailer worked hard at making her own cultural mark. She had nine one-woman art shows and appeared in several plays. Diagnosed with a gastro-intestinal tumour in 1999, she was given two years to live. Thereafter, with determination and vigour, she published two novels and wrote her memoir while undergoing six major operations and nursing her ailing husband, who died in 2007.

Her first novel, Windchill Summer (2000), was a story about coming of age in Arkansas during the Vietnam War. In 2007 came a sequel, Cheap Diamonds, about an aspiring model from Arkansas arriving in New York in the 1970s. She was a member of the Actors Studio, appeared in the TV adaptation of Mailer's classic The Executioner's Song and had a brief part with her husband in the film version of Ragtime. Whatever her achieve-ments, friends said she seldom lost her open-hearted, down-to-earth sensibility.

Before she met Mailer, she claimed, she had had a fling with Bill Clinton, then a candidate for Congress. In her memoir she told the story with characteristic wit. A friend who was in politics remarked to her when Clinton was President, "I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you." "Sorry," she replied. "I'm afraid he got us all."

Martin Childs

Barbara Jean Davis (Norris Church), actress, artist and writer: born Atkins, Arkansas 31 January 1949; married 1969 Larry Norris (marriage dissolved; one son), 1980 Norman Mailer (died 2007; one son); died Brooklyn, New York 21 November 2010.