But later she learns a hard lesson. "Life's largest truth may be that everyone faces tragedy," she writes. "Learning to accept those tragedies, learning to accept that life is riddled with events large and small, events that you may cause or that may happen to you, events that you can never control, is perhaps the hardest lesson of all.

"In that wrenching fact," she concludes, "I have faith that no one is ever alone."


My friend Robyn McKay, a psychologist who works as a counselor at ASU, is writing a book about creative women, or, as she calls them, "Smart Girls." And in her Smart Girls research, Robyn came across a revealing study about women and "eminence."

As you might guess from that charmingly old-fashioned word, the study in question, a doctoral dissertation, was written nearly 100 years ago. Its author, an otherwise obscure woman named Cora Sutton Castle, combed six different encyclopedias in 1913, searching for women who'd gotten entries. Then she analyzed how they'd made the grade.

Castle hoped to find 1,000 women eminent enough to merit encyclopedia entries, Robyn tells me, but she could find only 868. And even those, Castle noted, weren't always included for their own accomplishments: Many were married to famous men, and their glory was "reflected from their husbands."

Other than marrying an eminent man, a woman had only three real options to get her own encyclopedia entry, Robyn says, summarizing Castle's findings: "rocking the boat, writing a book, or ruling a monarchy."

To a modern woman, the idea of marrying into eminence seems like a cheat. And yet after spending a few days immersed in the world of Norris Church Mailer and a week in that of Laura Bush, I have new appreciation for the merits of marrying well. Certainly, reading Laura's book, I suspect that George Bush would never have become president if not for his wife's intelligent, steely presence.

She writes about how, after a long weekend watching him get soused with their friends, she confronts him: "Maybe it's funny when other people's husbands have too much to drink at a party, but I didn't think it was funny when mine did. And I told him so." After that weekend, George W. Bush quit drinking — a decision that likely changed the course of history.

As for Norman Mailer, he'd already written a number of critically acclaimed books before meeting Norris. But I don't think it's a coincidence that his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Executioner's Song, came after she moved into his life.

That's not to say she was responsible for the book. He was the genius. She was just a housewife, albeit a gorgeous one who painted and modeled on the side.

But plenty of geniuses genuinely need a housewife. Having someone around to take care of the practical things allows them to be, well, the genius.

Norris writes about how Norman had five wives before her, and left them all. "I should have been worried that I, too, would be next in line for heartbreak, but I wasn't," she writes. "As naive as I was, as farfetched as it seems looking back now, I was right. He never left me, in spite of some heartache along the way. Whatever qualities I had, they were something he needed . . .

"Some have said that I have a calm centered quality that appealed to and balanced his fiery personality," she notes. "I do know that I ran his life like a tidy ship" — and then, she details all the things she did, from shopping and cooking to bookkeeping and home repair. "He was always grateful and said that I allowed him to write and not have to deal with life," she writes, "and that's certainly true."

That kind of labor, I realize, might not ordinarily merit an encyclopedia entry. But after reading these two books, I'm convinced that it could help your brilliant husband win a Pulitzer. Or even get your not-so-brilliant husband elected president of the greatest country in the world.

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2 comments
ByteRider
ByteRider

Sarah—as usual, your writing is impeccable. You were able to take the world’s most “bo-ring” book and turn it into a “bo-ring” book report. That’s okay, though, it was refreshing to see a print copy of New Times that wasn’t based on the old, tired recipe of “Hate Arizona, Hate Joe Arapio, Embrace Debauchery”.

 
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